St Mary on the Hill

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This structure is on the Millennium festival trail.

The church appears to have been commissioned around 1350 to serve the needs of the garrison and staff at Chester Castle, although there may have been an earlier Norman church on the site as there are references to it being granted to the abbey by Ranulph De Gernon, Earl of Chester 1128-53. The part of the parish inside the walls was very small, but outside there were extensive detached parts, comprising in the south Handbridge and the townships of Claverton and Marlston cum Lache, and in the north Upton by Chester and Little Mollington. It ceased to be a working church in 1972 is now an education and exhibition venue but formally remains consecrated. The south east chapel dates from around 1443 and was owned by the Earl of Shrewsbury, while the nave arcades, and clerestory date from around 1500. After the dissolution the church was seized from the dean and chapter by Sir Richard Cotton, who sold it to the Brereton family. Thence the patronage passed through the Wilbrahams and Hills to the Westminster family. It was badly damaged in the Civil War, suffering a major collapse in 1661 and having a rebuild in 1693. During the Jacobite uprising of 1745 the upper portion of the tower was removed, most likely to prevent it being used as a possible sniper position should Chester Castle be attacked. James Harrison remodeled much of the church in 1861-62, and it was further altered by John Pollard Seddon in 1890-92. During this later renovation the north porch was rebuilt in memory of Randle Holme III. The Reverend William Henry Massie (died 1856) was a founder member of the Chester Archaeological Society.

The roof is supposed to have come originally from Basingwerk Abbey, (Flint) after its dissolution in 1535, for in the churchwardens’ accounts under the date 1536, it is noted that:

  • "the quere was boght at basewerk and sette uppe with all costs and charges belongynge to the same."

The roof at St Mary’s Church, Cilcain is said to come from the same source. The Abbey, in its Church and other buildings, would have several roofs or ceilings suitable for removal to other Churches, so that the two statements are not necessarily contradictory. The Chester roof was not specially constructed for its present position, and was evidently once used for a longer building, as is shown by the fact that the principal beams at the east and the west are elaborately carved on the inner surface adjacent the chancel and tower arches.

A painting of Napier House, the Agricola Tower, the Prison and St Mary on the Hill from Louise Rayner.

Seacome (writing in 1828) describes it as follows:

  • "Anciently called Ecclesia Sanctae Maria de Castello and Ecclesia Sanctre Maria super Montem but now St Mary's on the Hill stands at the upper end of Castle street at the extreme verge of the liberties of the city being only separated from the county by the Castle ditch which forms the boundary of the churchyard. Although the precise date of the foundation of this church cannot now be ascertained, yet it is not improbable that it was one of those founded early in the 12th century by Lucy sister of Edwin Earl of Mercia and widow of Handle de Meschines Earl of Chester a lady remarkable as a benefactress to the "holy church" even in that church erecting and endowing age. At all events St Mary's was gifted to the Abbey of St Werburgh by Bundle Gernons Earl of Chester son of the above named lady in one of those fits of compunction which usually followed the acts of violence into which his turbulence and ambition frequently led him. Shortly after the dissolution the Dean and Chapter of St Verburgh obtained a grant from the Crown of the Rectory of St Mary's which was surrendered by Dean Cliffs in 1550 to Sir R Cotton in the manner described in a former part of this work, by whose agent it was sold for 100 to John Brereton Esq of Wettenhall, by whose heirs it was again sold to the Wilbrahams of Dorfold, from whom it passed by marriage to the Hills of Hough in Wybunbury, from whom it was purchased by Earl Grosvenor the present patron "

A later writer notes:

"Canting" Stained Glass fragment from St Mary on the Hill with a "briar" and a "tun" for Brereton.
  • St. Mary’s church, or St. Mary's-on-the-Hill, as it is more commonly called, stands on an eminence near the Castle; on the consecration of the new church of St. Mary-without-the-Walls, in 1887, the boundaries of the parish were altered, and the old church was included in the parish of St. Bridget with St. Martin, and in 1891, by a faculty decreed in the Consistory Court, it was constituted the parish church of these united parishes: the church is an ancient edifice of red sandstone in the Perpendicular style, consisting of chancel with north and south chapels, clerestoried nave of three bays, aisles and a tower with pinnacles containing 8 bells, restored and refitted, and augmented by the addition of 2 bells from the church of St. Bridget: the aisles are separated from the nave by low Tudor arches: in the north chapel are two altar tombs, one of which, commemorating Thomas Gamull, recorder of Chester in 1613, and Alice his wife, has recumbent effigies of both, and at the feet of the lady is a kneeling figure of their infant son, afterwards the loyal Sir Francis Gamull kt. (1664); there are also figures of three infant daughters holding skulls in their hands, and on the sides of the tomb are two shields of arms: the other altar tomb, to Philip Oldfield esq. of Bradwall, ob. 1616, bears a half-recumbent effigy in marble, with two daughters kneeling at the head, in the costume of the period; figures of his four sons, each bearing a shield of arms, support the upper slab, and on. the side of the tomb is a painted skeleton in a similar attitude to the effigy above: in the north aisle is a mural monument of considerable interest, ornamented with heraldic devices, to four members of the Holme family, local antiquaries and heralds of repute; the third, Randle, was the author of the heraldic work, “The Academy of Armory,” published 1688; of the numerous other mural monuments and tablets, some have been removed here from the church of St. Bridget: the stained east window in the north chapel was erected in 1860, by public subscription, to the 23rd Regiment (Royal Welsh Fusiliers), especially with reference to its share in the campaign of 1854—5; there are also seven other memorial windows: the church has been restored at different times, and in 1891 a sum of £4,300 was expended, of which one half was given by the Duke of Westminster, and the remainder contributed by public subscription, the work being carried out under the superintendence of Mr. J. P. Seddon, architect, of Westminster, and including the recasing of the north side, a new wood floor, the rebuilding of part of one arcade and the clerestory; the removal of the galleries, the restoration of the Troutbeck or Shrewsbury chapel, at the east end of the south aisle, and the construction of vestries at the west end of the same aisle: the porch was built at the cost of the Freemasons of the Provinces as a memorial to Randle Holme, at a cost of £225; the organ has also been rebuilt at a cost of £300: there are 561 sittings. The registers and plate belonging to the old church were transferred in 1887 to the new church of St. Mary’s-with-out-the-Walls, which became the parish church of the old parish of St. Mary-on-the-Hill. The registers of St. Bridget’s date from the year 1649, and those of St. Martin’s from 1680. The living, styled St. Bridget and St. Martin’s, is a consolidated rectory, average tithe rent-charge £21, net yearly value £216, with 34 acres of glebe, in the gift of the Bishop of Chester, and held since 1886 by the Ven. Edward Barber M.A. of Magdalen College, Oxford, archdeacon and canon residentiary of Chester. The charities of the united parishes amount to about £50 yearly, and in accordance with a new scheme, sanctioned in 1889, are applied to the relief of the deserving poor of both parishes.

The church is the subject of a detailed history by J. P. Earwaker. Earwaker's book was published postumously in 1898 and edited by Rupert Morris, who included many of Earwaker's jottings as footnotes in putting togther the final text. Consequently, this book may well contain some errors.

Sources and Links

Related pages

  • St Mary's Hill: the gradient is over 36 degrees, making it the steepest residential street in England and very close to a world record.