A masterpiece of Gothic grandeur: the Church of St Mary, Warwick

After being ravaged by fire, this Norman house of worship was rebuilt in a sumptuous array of styles by the wealthy earls of Warwick Castle. Emma J Wells praises a treasure trove of ecclesiastical eclecticism

St Mary's Church is revered as one of England's greatest architectural achievements. (Image by Alamy)

One can be forgiven for overlooking the magnificent jewel that is the Collegiate Church of St Mary when strolling through Warwick; after all, this is the heart of Shakespeare country. But just a few moments inside this treasure trove of eclecticism will reveal why it holds a reputation as one of England’s greatest architectural achievements and a symbol of medieval authority. Step into the world of the nation’s most powerful magnates.

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St Mary’s started life in 1123 thanks to the efforts of Roger de Beaumont, 2nd Earl of Warwick, though little remains of his original Norman construction beside the crypt. Observe its impressive Romanesque pillars, as well as the unexpected delight of one of England’s two remaining ducking stools.

In fact, the medieval spirit of this curious building is strong, with its sumptuous vaulted ceilings of intricate stone ribs and bosses – until you realise that it’s actually an odd Gothic-Renaissance concoction. Following London’s lead, Warwick was consumed by a great fire on 5 September 1694. The medieval west tower, nave and transepts were not spared, but Midlands architect Sir William Wilson came to the rescue, reconstructing the church in the interesting mixture of styles we see today. Look for the ‘dole shelves’ in the south nave, where bread was placed for the poor.

What has come down to us is a masterpiece of Gothic grandeur, basking in the shadow of nearby Warwick Castle, the earls’ principle residence. St Mary’s chief benefactors were the Beauchamp family. Much of the structure is the work of Thomas de Beau-champ, 11th Earl of Warwick (d1369), who ordered that his body, along with that of his wife, Katherine, should be buried within the chancel – thereby initiating its grand reconstruction as a family mausoleum. You can find their double alabaster memorial, hands entwined, in front of the high altar.

Richard’s tomb is overwhelming, complete with life-size effigy and griffin guarding its feet

Yet Thomas’s influence pales in comparison with that of his descendant, Richard, 13th Earl (1382–1439), who was Knight of the Garter, Governor of France and Normandy and Captain of Rouen at the time of Joan of Arc’s trial – no shoddy CV. Following his death, over two decades were spent constructing the spectacular jewel in the church’s crown to house the nobleman’s remains. The Beauchamp Chapel, to the south of the chancel, was one of the most expensive architectural commissions of its day, ringing in at more than £2,500 – fit for a king, never mind an earl. The sheer magnificence of Richard’s tomb is overwhelming, with its life-size bronze effigy, dressed as a paragon of chivalry in a suit of Milanese armour, complete with bear and griffin guarding its feet and unusual gilded cage or ‘hearse’. Note Richard’s posture: hands held apart in praise, he projects his gaze upward. Follow suit and you can admire the carved ceiling boss of the Virgin Mary, crowned as queen of Heaven.

Also, don’t miss the adjacent garish tombs of the Dudleys, inheritors of the Beauchamps’ legacy: Robert Dudley, Elizabeth I’s favourite and founder of Lord Leycester Hospital; his brother Ambrose; and Robert’s son, the “noble Impe”, who died aged three.

Without a doubt, this truly is the greatest ‘non-royal’ chapel in England.

Emma J Wells is an architectural historian at the University of York. Her book Heaven on Earth: The Lives and Legacies of the World’s Greatest Cathedrals is forthcoming from Head of Zeus. For more information, head over to stmaryswarwick.org.uk

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This article was first published in the October 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine