Although there has been a church at Fairford since at least 1125, only fragments of this early building now remain, having been incorporated into the magnificent Late Perpendicular church of St Mary the Virgin that we see today (right). The rebuilding of the church was started by John Tame in the early 1490s after been given permission by the Bishop of Worcester to dismantle the existing church. As Tame's fortune was acquired through the wool and cloth industry, St Mary's can be counted as among a number of so-called 'wool' churches built in the Cotswolds in the medieval period. The new church at Fairford was consecrated in a ceremony presided over by the Bishop on 20 June 1497, an event marked by a painted Consecration Cross on the wall of the chancel near the vestry door. Although structurally complete, the church was still far from finished at this point and at the death of John Tame in 1500 his son Edmund Tame undertook to complete the work. At about this time work commenced on the production of 28 stained and painted glass windows that would make up a stunning visual account of the Bible story from Adam and Eve through to the Last Judgement and would provide instruction as well as illumination, in both senses of the word. The story that these windows tell also reveals the central role of the Virgin Mary to pre-Reformation English liturgy. Fairfords windows remain the most complete set of medieval church windows in the country and are therefore of national importance.
St Mary's church, as rebuilt by the Tames, consists of a central nave flanked by two aisles that each originally terminated in a side chapel. On the north side the Lady Chapel (left) contains the tomb of John Tame and his wife Alice. A monumental brass depicts the pair and the tomb is now surmounted by a beautifully carved wooden screen added in about 1520 which serves to separate the chapel from the chancel. Also in the Lady Chapel is the tomb with life-size stone effigies of Roger Lygon and his wife Katherine (lower left), widow of the grandson of John Tame. Beneath the floor of the chapel is a vault containing the remains of Sir Edmund Tame and his wives, Agnes and Elizabeth, all commemorated by a brass on the chapel's north wall. In the north wall, just outside the Lady Chapel, is a small door that may have been for the exclusive use of the Tames, whose house was close by the churchyard. The Corpus Christi Chapel on the south side of the church is of less interest but it does have a fine marble cartouche to Sarah Ready who died in 1731. The almost complete set of wooden screens in the choir are particularly fine and rare and date from around 1520. The wooden stalls are thought to date from around 1300 and may have come from Cirencester Abbey following its dismantling during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in about 1540. The choir also contains a set of 14 misericord seats that incorporate carvings showing various forms of sin or strife, obviously done with a moral intent. The almost perfect symmetry of the Church building plan was spoiled at a later date by the addition of a sacristy or vestry beyond the Lady Chapel, however this does little to mar the visual effect of what is one of the most beautiful churches in the Cotswolds.
Now situated in the middle of Tame's rebuilt church, the lower portion of the tower is the oldest part of the building. The later work to increase the height of the tower is obvious from the exterior where a change in the stonework and shape of the corner buttresses indicate the newer building. On the interior columns that form the base of the tower can still be seen traces of late medieval wall paintings including several figures (one of which may be St Christopher) and simple patterns. Otherwise the simple but elegant interior of the church is little cluttered by memorials or decoration with the exception of a total of 69 stone angels that adorn the corbels of the wooden roof beams.
However, the exterior of the building contains a wealth of decoration and sculpture of great interest. Some of the decoration reflects the patronage of Fairford's church and includes the gryphon and bear and ragged staff of the Earl of Warwick, an earlier lord of the manor. The coat of arms of John Tame consisting of a Wyvern and a lion can be seen above the door into the church from the porch. A series of curious figures adorn the stringcourse below the embattled parapet that runs all around the outside of the church. These sculptures include a dragon, a lion, a dog and, most charming of all, a boy in the act of climbing down from the parapet (right). In addition to these sculptures are figures of a more serious nature including the Christ of Pity at the west end of the church and four fierce guardians standing sentry at the four corners of the tower.
The graveyard of St Mary's contains some fine examples of Cotswold tombs including several that have Listed Building status as being of historical and architectural importance. There are several examples of large chest tombs, some of them surmounted by semi-circular spiralled slabs possibly thought to represent bales of wool. One of the earliest monuments in the graveyard is that of Valentine Strong who died in 1662 and was a well-know stonemason and architect who built Fairford Park and Lower Slaughter Manor among other buildings. There is a fine set of three listed tombs of the Morgan family situated outside the end of the Corpus Christi Chapel. Among the grand and ancient tombs in the churchyard is a delightful stone sculpture of 'Tiddles' a much-loved Church cat (below) who 'guarded' the church and its precincts from 1963 to 1980.
Although the magnificent building and the beautiful set of medieval windows have made Fairford's church a tourist attraction to thousands of visitors from all over the world, it should also be remembered that the Church of St Mary the Virgin has been a place of religious worship for over 500 years and, as such, has been the very focus of the town's community.
The buildings of England. Gloucestershire 1: The Cotswolds by David Verey and Alan Brooks. London: Yale University Press, 2002
Fairford Church and its stained glass windows by Oscar G Farmer. Fairford: privately published, second edition, 1928
Life, death and art: The medieval stained glass of Fairford parish church by Sarah Brown and Lindsay MacDonald. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1977
St Mary's Church, fourth edition revised by Geoff Hawkes and Kenneth Munn. Much Wenlock: RJL Smith, 2001
© 2013 Fairford History Society