Also known as the Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne Abbey is now merely a parish church, but amongst the finest in the country, with a history spanning more than 1,400 years, initially as a Saxon cathedral and then a Benedictine monastery, up until the Reformation of 1539. As is usually the case, the building has been extensively modified at various times, and the majority of the structure dates only from the 14th and 15th centuries, though a few Norman and Saxon elements are still evident. The abbey shares features common to the great cathedrals of England including medieval tombs and effigies, elaborate monuments, chantry chapels, and ornate ceilings; especially remarkable is the fan-vaulted ceiling above the presbytery, both for the precise detail of its ribs and bosses, and for the original, multicoloured decoration, depicting shields and other heraldic emblems.
The abbey is built out of the local hamstone (a medium grained limestone), rich golden-brown in colour, and especially vivid around sunset. The setting is peaceful; right at the centre of Sherborne though set back from the main road, at the edge of a sizeable close lined by other historic houses. The monastery included the usual subsidiary buildings, arranged around the cloisters, which, somewhat unusually, were situated on the north side of the church rather than the south, a site which is now occupied by Kings School, founded by Edward VI in 1550 and incorporating some traces of the earlier structures. The school is not open to the public but at least an hour can be spent exploring the church, undoubtedly one of the finest in England.
A cathedral was built at Sherborne at the start of the eighth century, to serve the new diocese of West Wessex; Winchester continued at the centre of the eastern portion of the kingdom. The first of 27 bishops was St Aldhelm (died 709), and his successors managed the cathedral until 1075, when the diocese was transferred to Salisbury, after which the building was taken over by the Benedictine monks from an adjacent monastery, which was founded in 998 by the 20th Bishop, St Wulfsin. The abbey church was reconstructed at the start of the 12th century by Roger of Salisbury, then greatly changed again in the mid 1400s. Relics from the earlier buildings include a Saxon arch in the west wall of the north aisle of the nave, and Norman arches at the entrance to the south porch, though most of the structure seen today dates from the latter part of the monastic era, when the church was modified in the perpendicular Gothic style. Some changes were cosmetic, such as cladding of the earlier Norman pillars with narrow, decorative columns, while others were more substantial, including replacement of the ceiling of the presbytery (around 1425) and the nave (complete in 1490). Following the 1539 Dissolution of the Monasteries, the abbey was returned to the local population for use as a parish church, fulfilling a similar function as it had up until 1075. In the intervening centuries, a replacement parish church had been constructed (the Church of All Hallows), actually adjoining the abbey, on the west side, but after the Reformation this was quickly demolished, being no longer required. Its position is shown by residual columns and broken arches at either side of the current west front, and by a surviving portion of the north wall of the nave, which runs below one of the buildings of the Kings School. Only minor changes have occurred over the last few centuries, leaving the core of the building little changed from the late medieval times, although most of the windows are recent, installed in the mid 1800s.
The main entrance to Sherborne Abbey is through the south porch, at the southwest corner of the church, beneath a two level, semi-circular arch from the 12th century; the remainder of the porch is much altered from its original state. The doorway leads to the south aisle, which is separated from the nave by five columns. The space is illuminated by three low-level windows and five larger clerestory windows, mirrored by a matching set on the north side of the nave. The great west window is a late 20th century replacement, while most of the other stained glass along the nave is from the 1800s. A few remaining pieces of medieval coloured glass are installed in the 14th century St Katherine's chapel, at the east end of the south aisle - small figures and shields set at the centre of larger, plain panels. This chapel also contains an elaborate monument to local MP John Leweston (died 1584), and wife Joan. More memorials are found in the adjoining south transept, the largest from John Digby, 3rd Earl of Bristol, while the north transept is mostly occupied by the main organ (a smaller one is situated at the west end of the nave), the casing of which is from 1856 though the interior is much more recent.
The ceilings above the nave, the transepts and the crossing below the central tower are quite ornate, with slender, vaulted ribs intersecting at red- and blue-coloured bosses (115 of them), but this is overshadowed by the much more colourful and even more ornate roof above the presbytery. Again red and blue are the dominant colours of the decoration, plus gold and white. Some of the masonry in this section of the church has a distinct reddish tint, a consequence of a great fire in 1456, caused when the local townspeople fired a burning arrow in protest at the continued restrictions placed on their use of the abbey church - the fire ignited timbers of the roof, at that time undergoing renovations. The presbytery is centred on the choir, some of the seats of which incorporate late medieval misericords, and the high altar, backed by a tall stone reredos from 1884. The aisles continue along each side of the presbytery, and off here are two more chapels; Bishop Roger's to the north and St Sepulchre to the south. Near the east end of the north aisle are two Saxon tombs, thought to contain kings Ethelbert and Aethelbald of Wessex. The aisles are linked by another passage, the ambulatory, while beyond, forming the easternmost part of the church, is the lady chapel, with the vestry to the north and the Chapel of St Mary le Bow to the south, location of an alternative entrance to the church. The presbytery aisles also have fine ceiling vaulting, not coloured but still intricate.