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A Brief History of St. Mary's Thorpe

Early Days and Saxon Period

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Early Days and Saxon Period
From the Normans to the Tudors
The Reformation and Beyond
The Nineteenth Century
The Twentieth Century and Today's Church
Notables and the Churchyard
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Graves cover the site of a Roman Basilica
A Roman site and Victorian Restroration and Extensions photos:

Beneath the grassy bank over the site of the Roman villa lies the grave, it is said, of WIlliam Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, Ranger of the Great Park, known as "Sweet William" or "Stinking Willy, the Butcher of Culloden" according to your taste or Jacobite leanings. See the section on "Notables and the Churchyard" for more about this astonishing figure in the history of the United Kingdom.

Early Days

The surroundings to Thorpe today suggest much of the essence of a country church. Ancient cottages, manor houses, and farmsteads line "Church Approach" (aptly named) and the roads which lead to it. There is a medieval tithe barn, and a magnificent country house adjacent with sweeping grounds leading down to a lake.

However, the most ancient parts lie buried, and. beneath St. Mary's we find archaeological evidence of activities which were commercial rather than rustic in those earliest days for which remains of buildings are still extant.

G.K. Chesterton commented "Nobody could explain the nature of Victorian England without going back at least to Roman Britain." (Essay on "Dickens and Thackeray", in J.D. Drinkwater "The Outline of Literature", revised and extended edition, h.b., George Newnes, London, 1942, p. 677).

Like most medieval churches in England, St. Mary's was heavily restored, repaired, and added to, by the Victorians. However, like much of the Victorian literature which Chesterton describes, to understand its history we must return to the Romans and before: the Phoenicians traded here, and the Romans worshipped here!


In Roman and medieval times Thorpe lay as a low mound of drier ground among the Thames marshes. Underneath the Nave of the parish church we find evidence of the Phoenicians trading here. The nave columns stand on Roman brick bases the remnant of a building whose purpose is uncertain. It may have a place of worship, pagan or Christian. It extends across the nave and beyond the north aisle of the church. The raised ground outside the north aisle covers these remains.

The chancel area is over the site of a Roman place of worship, a Mithraistic Temple. However the finding of a Roman altar stone with crosses indicating a date before AD 150 has given rise to the claim that St. Mary's is one the earliest places of Christian worship known in the British Isles. This conclusion is reinforced by the discovery of a Roman Christian funerary urn dated within the same period

Material survives from the Roman period in the walls of the chancel.


The chancel is the original building at St. Mary's of which the West wall is still apparent, now pierced by the Norman arch at the entrance from the Nave, and by squints either side of the arch from a post-Norman period. Other work from the seventh century is evident in the chancel walls.

During the Saxon period Thorpe belonged to the Abbey of Chertsey and was the place to which the Abbot came for retreats and rest periods. Outside its west wall, at the north-east end of the Nave are sited the graves of seven Saxon princes or lords.


In the middle ages Thorpe continued to be accessible from the Thames marshes. The quay used by the bargees and ferrymen may be seen at the end of the Vicarage garden next to the medieval raised causeway which led from Thorpe to Chertsey Abbey, a reminder of days long gone when the marshes and waterways of the locality were navigable by coast-going barges.

As already noted, before the Reformation, Thorpe Church was a Chapel of the Abbots of Chertsey. The local tradition regards it as having been the retreat-house for the abbot. Documents from the medieval period describe it as a "chapel" distinction from a parish church. However its undoubted use as a "chapel-of-ease" for the people of Thorpe led to its adoption as a parish church after the Reformation. Stained glass and tilework bear testimony to the link with Chertsey Abbey, and the configuration of the columns in the Nave mark this out as a house of the Benedictine Order of monks.

The column at the west end of the north aisle is a different shape to the rest. This is because it was the place at which offending members of the community were purged of their sins and misdemeanours through corporal punishment.

The arcades above the nave columns date from the 13th century, using pointed gothic arches which afford greater load-bearing capabilities and stability than their rounded Norman predecessors. The columns themselves, however, are the original, large, rounded columns which would have supported the earlier arcades. In places you can see the stone re-used from earlier, presumably failed, structures, including the royal motives of both William the Conqueror (1066 - 1087) and his son William Rufus (1087 - 1100).

The large Norman Chancel arch in the centre of the Church is built of stone from the Norman quarries at Bec. Shipped over at vast expense, this was the Saxon Abbot’s way of paying homage to the new conquering Norman king, and protecting his chapel from destruction by the invading army. The wall itself is much older, and is the original outside wall of the Abbot’s chapel. A consecration cross still survives etched into the North pillar. The Nave contained twelve Norman columns of which only eight are still extant. 

A Tudor Tower

The last major work in the period before the Reformation is the tower at the west end of the church. This has a pleasantly arched doorway in the Perpendicular style. Like many churches St. Mary's would be the subject of repairs and alterations throughout its history. It is probable that four Norman arches which formed the west end of the Nave became derelict or unsafe. In their place was built a tower in the reign of Henry VII (1485 - 1509). Curiously although using the new material of brick, the tower is constructed in a style more appropriate to stonework. This tower is a very early example of brickwork being used to construct a tower. There was a wooden spire atop the tower for a time which no lomnger survives.

The Tudor Tower
A view from the south east showing also the 19C work to the South Aisle photo: