Although Christian worship on this site dates back to the 8th century the oldest parts of the present building - the west wall of the nave and the piers supporting the tower arches - date from Norman times. Starting in the late 13th century the building was enlarged: north and south aisles were added, the chancel extended, the upper part of the tower modified and a spire added. It is believed the extension took place to enable people from the outlying parts of the area normally served by local chapels to come to take communion at St Mary's at religious festivals. In 1547 Edward VI's Chantry Commission reported that a grammar school was operating here in St Catherine's Chantry (probably the north aisle). This later moved into a purpose built school financed by Richard Pate, who attended the chantry school. In the 1850s the church underwent much needed renovation: the crypt was filled in, the 18th century galleries removed, oak pews installed, a sacristy and south porch added.
The tracery of the windows dates from the 13th and 14th centuries and represents a range of styles including early geometrical, late geometrical, curvilinear and perpendicular. The stained glass is Victorian and is the subject of a book published by the Friends of St Marys, Cheltenham.
There are a number of interesting memorial tablets around the church dating from the late sixteenth century onwards. The most notable is the lengthy epitaph to, Captain Skillicorne (next to the pulpit) who developed Cheltenham's first spa and so laid the foundations for Cheltenham's subsequent development. The visit of King George III and his family to Cheltenham is recorded on this tablet. The 20th century reredos depicting the Ascension behind the altar is in memory of a descendant, Alderman William Nash Skillicorne, Cheltenham's first Mayor, who died win a road accident in 1915.
Formerly the north porch, the baptistry has a room above it reached by a spiral staircase. It is believed the room was originally used to provide overnight accommodation for visiting clergy. (Until the Reformation the monks of Cirencester Abbey were responsible for the church). From 1729 to 1847 it housed the Old Cheltenham Charity, or Blue Coat, School originally established in the High Street in 1683 after George Townsend left £4 annually "for teaching poor children to read and write". The school eventually moved to Devonshire Street.
The tower boasts a peal of 12 bells which are rung on Sundays and Thursday evenings. Access to the tower is made from outside on the north side of the church. The octagonal spire rises 167 feet above the floor of the church. We provide more on the history of the bells on a separate page.
Edward held Chinteneham. There were eight hides and a half. One hide and a half belongs to the church. Reinbald holds it. In the demesne there are three plough teams, and twenty villeins and ten bordars and seven servi, with eighteen plough teams. The priest has two plough teams. There are two mills of eleven shillings and eightpence. To this Manor the King's steward added two bordars and lout villeins and three mills. Of these three mills two are the King's, the third is the steward's, and there is one plough team more. In the time of King Edward it (the Manor) paid £9 5s. and three thousand loaves for the dogs. Now it pays £20, and twenty cows and twenty hogs, and 16/- instead of the loaves.
In other parts of the Domesday Book the name of the town is spelt "Ciltenham" and "Chilteham."
Guide to St Mary's by Canon Geoffrey Hart is on sale in the Church or available from The Friends of St Mary's Church, Cheltenham. Price: £1. Please add £1 for postage and packing.
The Stained Glass Windows of the Parish Church of St Mary, Cheltenham: A Devotional Tour by Guy Fothergill and David Walker, ISBN 0-9539875-0-7. Published by the Friends of St Mary's Church, Cheltenham, Price £3.75.
Cheltenham Parish Church: Its Architecture and History, John Sawyer (Norman, Sawyer & Co, Cheltenham, 1903) is available in Gloucestershire public libraries.
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