St Mary’s is a parish church of extraordinary beauty and quality, the product of hundreds of years of building since its humble beginning in the 12th century as a single-aisled thatched chapel. In an almost continual state of construction for its first four centuries, the final design we see today was settled in Tudor times: following the dramatic collapse of the tower in 1520, the church was rebuilt and restored over eleven years, giving St Mary’s its beautiful font, its famous Minstrels Pillar, and its stunning star-encrusted nave ceiling, adorned with hundreds of roof bosses. These captivating carvings – of mythical beasts, wrestlers, brewers, parables, Bible stories, kings, saints, musicians and angels – are currently being preserved and interpreted in the first phase of a major restoration programme for the 21st century.
The visual attraction of St Mary’s lies in what John Betjeman perceived as the perfection of its proportions and its lightness. St Mary’s astonishing quality of light comes from the clear glass clerestory windows added as the building was heightened during the middle ages. The light radiates outwards too: the parchment-coloured Magnesian Limestone makes the tower glisten above Beverley’s terracotta pan-tiled skyline and the west front glow in the early evening sun. That elevation of the building is one of St Mary’s loveliest features: a great west window, framed by twin pepperpot turrets – a style later adopted at the royal chapels of St George’s Windsor Castle and King’s College Cambridge. The west front was restored by the great 19th-century architect AWN Pugin, who shored up the south transept with gothic buttresses and whose last ever design – St Mary’s weathervane – sits atop the church.
St Mary’s is wedded to the town and its people, and has been for 900 years: they built it, extended it, and rebuilt it; they reshod their horses at the blacksmiths inside it and solemnised business deals in its porch; for generations they have married in it, been baptised in its ancient font, and buried their dead in its churchyard. It is this relationship and identity as ‘the town’s church’ which defines St Mary’s above anything else. Over the years the people of Beverley have given the church an exceptional heritage – in the 14th century adding St Michael’s Chapel, with its exquisite vaulting and tracery, and the hidden Priests’ Rooms (a treasure-trove of artifacts chronicling the history of the town); in the 15th century adding the magnificent Ceiling of Kings, unique in the country with 40 portraits of English kings; and in recent times augmenting its fine peel of bells that ring out across the town. Today, the church remains a focal point for the local community, welcoming people not only to Sunday services, but to craft groups, drawing classes, breakfasts, lunches, festivals, concerts, album launches, school events, Christmas services, the Butterfly service for those who have lost children in infancy, coffee mornings and more. The hallmarks of St Mary’s are the warmth of welcome which people receive, and the tangible feeling among the town’s population that St Mary’s is their church.