Continuing my memories of Shropshire in summer, here are two excellent churches we visited in Shrewsbury – St Alkmund’s and St Mary’s. There are many more but these are just two we happened upon.
In the 1790s the church wardens of St Alkmund’s commissioned Francis Eginton, then working in Birmingham, to paint an east window for their newly built church. Eginton had just received an engraving of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a painting created by Italian Baroque artist Guido Reni (1575-1642) for a church in Modena, but which was sold by the church when it went insolvent in 1661 and ended up in Germany. Anyway, Eginton’s window is based on this work and represents the pilgrim Christian and all his/her challenges. I am not sure if a painted window is cheaper than one made of many small pieces of stained glass, but I suspect it might be.
While St Alkmund’s is still an active church for worship, the other church I feature here is no longer used and has come into the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. St Mary’s is the biggest church in Shrewsbury and we came across it just when we needed to rest our feet after walking around looking at the shops.
The spire of St Mary’s is one of the tallest in England and the church is the only complete Medieval church remaining in Shrewsbury. It dates from Saxon times with later additions.
In 1739, showman Robert Cadman attempted to slide from it, head first, using a rope and a grooved breastplate. His engraved obituary stands outside the west door.
We sat on the stone perches along the inside of the church walls, being soothed by the great building but sad there was no music. Then we overheard a greeter talking with a visitor who was a parish church organist from Hillsborough in Northern Ireland. He was called David and was with his wife and a friend, going around churches asking if he could have a go on their organs. Here they were very welcoming. He was taken up to the organ console and made himself at home like a man in his shed. He began with Danny Boy, a strange one for a church organ but not for an Ulsterman! Then there was some Bach, including Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.
I can’t recall all David played, but he did a wonderful Elgar that I think was Nimrod, and something by Purcell, using the higher, smaller organ pipes. When he was about to give up, but didn’t really want to, the guide shouted up “What about the Trumpet Voluntary or Cwm Rhondda?” To our delight he played Cwm Rhondda, a great favourite for us Welsh rugby fans! Finally he did Ave Maria. But a wonderfully uplifting impromptu recital, lasting well over half an hour!
While he played, I wandered around looking at the glorious stained glass, for which the church is famous, although much of it was not originally made for this place of worship.
The huge, complex 14th-century “Jesse window” is filled with images of Old Testament kings and prophets. It is believed to have been made for the Franciscan church in Shrewsbury, then moved to St Chad’s Church after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, and then to St Mary’s in 1788, after St Chad’s collapsed. David and Charles Evans restored it in 1858 but much of the original glass, dated between 1327 and 1353, remains. The Evanses are also responsible for most of the church’s own 19th century windows.
Most of the glass was brought from elsewhere, much of it from Europe, and installed in St Mary’s during the 18th and 19th centuries. There is early 16th century glass from the Cistercian Altenberg Abbey, bought by vicar of St Mary’s the Rev William Rowland in 1845 at a cost of £425 (£40,000 in today’s money). There are also windows from Cologne, Trier and the Cistercian nunnery of Herchen. There is other continental glass from Belgium and the Netherlands.
Finally a bit of marble – in the north transept is a memorial to the controversial Admiral John Benbow, born in Shrewsbury in 1653, who had some adventurous years in the Royal Navy, fighting the French in the Nine Years War (1688–97), and died of his wounds in 1702.