A brief history of St Mary’s
St. Mary the Virgin—the ancient parish church of Ware in Hertfordshire—is a beautiful and surprisingly large church for a small town. But then the building of the church embodies the rich history of the town.
This was not the first Christian church in the town. The Romans established a small settlement where Ermine Street crossed the River Lea (near what is now Ware Lock) and we know from burials found nearby that many of them were Christians. The first Christian martyr in Britain, St. Alban, was put to death in AD 209—he is commemorated in a window in the North Aisle.
The Saxons built their town farther east, on both sides of what is now Baldock Street. The Saxons certainly had a church for Domesday Book records a priest in Ware. Soon after the Norman Conquest in 1066, Ware was granted to Hugh de Grandmesnil. He and his brother had rebuilt and endowed a Benedictine abbey at St. Evroul in Normandy and one of Hugh’s first acts on becoming Lord of the Manor of Ware was to found a Priory to act as the daughter house of this monastery. He gave various properties to this priory, including “the church at Ware”.
The Priory had two functions—as a base for the Lord and his family and as the collecting point for the taxes and rents from the considerable number of English properties belonging to the Abbey of St. Evroul before they were sent to Normandy. Because it was French-owned this priory was known as ‘alien’ or foreign. This alien priory must not be confused with the building now known as Ware Priory, which was originally a Franciscan Friary.
The Priory also had an important religious role. It is thought that ‘Richard de Ware’ began his life as a Benedictine monk in Ware before moving to Westminster Abbey where he became Abbot in 1258. Benedictines were well known
for singing Gregorian chant and in 1410 the Prior of Ware was given permission to bring over a monk from St. Evroul to lead “divine singing”. St. Mary’s has always had a strong musical tradition.
The Alien Benedictine Priory at Ware was suppressed by King Henry V in 1414 and all the buildings except the church were demolished—and the stone probably reused in the Friary across the road. Other assets were transferred to a new priory at Sheen in Surrey and, later, at the Reformation to Trinity College, Cambridge.
Trinity College is still the patron of the living of Ware and maintains the upkeep of the chancel—the part of the church the monks used.
To mark the 900th anniversary of the founding of the Alien Benedictine Priory, in June 1978 a service of thanksgiving was held in St. Mary’s, attended by two archbishops, four bishops and Benedictine monks from the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions, as well as numerous clergy and friends (see the picture above).