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
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.