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Old Saint Marys Church Woburn

Old Saint Mary's May 2012
Old Saint Mary's May 2012

Woburn Abbey, a house of the Cistercian Order, was founded in 1145. Woburn's first parish church was actually at Birchmoor, with no church within the village itself. A market was established in Woburn in 1245. A chapel in the town is mentioned as early as a coroner’s roll of 1269. It is assumed that this chapel was on the site of Old Saint Mary’s.

The light blue shows the area highlighted as Birchmoor churchyard in 1649 [X1/33]
The light blue shows the area highlighted as Birchmoor churchyard in 1649 [X1/33]

The chapel was said to have been rebuilt by the last Abbot of Woburn Abbey, Robert Hobbes in the early 16th century, perhaps around 1535. At some point in the next hundred years the chapel in Woburn became the parish church and the tower is said to have been built in the early 17th century by Sir Francis Staunton of Birchmoor, using stone and other materials from the old church at Birchmoor, which was pulled down at that date. The parish clerk had his residence in the church or, more accurately, in a chamber supported by an arch which linked the main body of the church with the tower. This was pulled down in the late 18th century.

The old church from the east about 1850 [Z1086/14]
The old church from the east about 1850 [Z1086/14]

Most of the structural history of the church can be found in detail in Bedfordshire Historical Record Society Volume number 79 of 2000 Bedfordshire Churches in the Nineteenth Century: Part III: Parishes S to Y, put together by former County Archivist Chris Pickford from numerous sources some held by Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service and some held elsewhere or published.

The old church from the west about 1810 [Z251/486]
The old church from the west about 1810 [Z251/486]

When Sir Francis Staunton rebuilt the church tower he seems also to have enlarged the church itself and the structure eventually comprised a nave and chancel with north and south aisles. The tower had an open wooden lantern or cupola on top in which hung a single bell dated 1637 [P118/5/4]. The wooden steeple was slightly damaged by fire on 26th November 1645 during a fracas with Royalist troops in the town which resulted in a serious fire.

The interior looking east about 1860 [Z562/9]
The interior looking east about 1860 [Z562/9]

The furnishings of the church were listed on an inventory of 1651 and included fire hooks and buckets. There were also a Saint’s Bell and four other bells, three of which were broken; they were recast in 1664 and a fifth was added [R5/79/1]. Woburn historian Stephen Dodd reported in the early 19th century that “Rebels’ Arms” had hung in the church until replaced by the royal arms in 1662. Woburn was a stronghold of parliamentary sympathy during the civil wars and so to have had the arms of the Commonwealth [1649-1660] in the church would not have been surprising. The chancel was repaired in 1692-1693 [R5/79/4].

The old church from the east about 1864 [Z1086/15]
The old church from the east about 1864 [Z1006/15]

One of the bells was recast in 1724 and in 1748 a new clock was placed in the church tower [P118/1/4]. John, 4th Duke of Bedford paid for extensive improvements to the chancel in 1750. The ceiling was vaulted in plaster, the floor paved in stone and black marble, the windows to north and south altered and a new east window with “grand but incongruous” tracery installed. The main body of the church was paved in 1755 and 1756.

Stained glass in the west window of the nave of Old Saint Mary's May 2012
Stained glass in the west window of the nave of Old Saint Mary's May 2012

In 1800 and 1801 the floors were levelled, the church was re-seated (pew rents survive from 1802 [R4/830-832; R5/612-751; R5/591 and P118/28/2] and new galleries were erected [R5/916 and R4/608/34]. More improvements were undertaken in 1811 including a new altar, a painting by Carlo Maratti (1625-1713), an organ and a stove. A new barrel was purchased for the organ in 1813 [P118/5/4]. The galleries were enlarged in 1818 [R4/608/34] and a silver “Christianity bowl” purchased for baptisms in 1820 [P118/5/4].

The tower of Old Saint Marys May 2012
The tower of Old Saint Mary's May 2012

The tower, separated from the church, was not so tall as it is today and in 1818 there were thoughts of raising it and installing new bells. The architect Edward Blore drew up plans and the tower was duly raised in 1829 and 1830 [R3/2250-3200; P118/8/1 and P118/5/4]. Blore also added a passage between the church and the tower, beautified the chancel and designed a new east window which was filled with stained glass. Six new bells were supplied by Thomas Mears of Whitechapel [Middlesex] and a new clock was installed in 1830. The old church bells were taken to Park Farm from whence they were promptly stolen.

The belfry of Old Saint Mary's May 2012
The belfry of Old Saint Mary's May 2012

A new organ was provided in 1836 and in 1838 a marble font was donated by Sir Hugh Hoare of Wavendon [Buckinghamshire]. In 1841 and 1842 more improvements to the galleries were undertaken as well as to the seating [R3/4345-4549].

Gate piers in front of Old Saint Mary's May 2012
Gate piers in front of Old Saint Mary's May 2012

William, 8th Duke of Bedford determined to build a new church in Woburn. Accordingly the old church was demolished in 1864. A Bedford Estate report stated that it was the duke’s intention: “to erect at his own cost a new church in place of the present one” and provide increased accommodation “particularly for the poorer classes”. Unfortunately, once the church had been demolished it was found that the newly designed church could not be built on the site! The duke’s favourite architect, Henry Clutton, was, therefore, invited to prepare plans for a new church on another site and for a rebuilding of the old church on a smaller scale to serve as a mortuary chapel.

old St Marys church and Woburn Lower School Feb 2007
Old Saint Mary's February 2007

The rebuilding was completed in 1866 alongside the old tower, which had not been touched [P118/2/3]. Two more bells were added to the old tower in 1877 but in 1910 they were recast and all transferred to the new church. In 1981 the church was declared redundant and became the home of the Woburn Heritage Centre, a small museum run by the Woburn Heritage Trust.

Heritage Centre sign May 2012
Heritage Centre sign May 2012