Great Malvern Priory, Worcestershire


★★

East end of the church
St Anne's chapel

Large parish church, formerly part of a Benedictine monastery, with collections of medieval stained glass and wall tiles; begun in the 11th century and expanded in the 15th
Entry
Free; open to visitors from Monday to Saturday
Location
Along Church Street at the center of Great Malvern
Photo Tour (21 images)
The town of Great Malvern nestles below the eastern slopes of the Malvern Hills in southwest Worcestershire, close to the border with Herefordshire, and has at its centre a large parish church, which began as the church of a Benedictine monastery, established in Saxon times. The church building, known as Great Malvern Priory (officially the Parish Church of St Mary and St Michael) was begun shortly after the Norman conquest, in 1085, and some elements survive from this period including the pillars and arches of the nave, though most of the structure dates from the mid to late 15th century. The church is noted for its extensive medieval stained-glass, a fine array of misericords (wooden carvings beneath the seats of the choir), and for having the largest number of medieval floor and wall tiles in the country; it also features suitably impressive architecture, mostly representing the perpendicular Gothic style.

A few sections of the church were removed after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, including the south transept and the lady chapel, but the majority survives without modifications, after being purchased by the townspeople for use as their parish church, replacing the existing St Thomas Church (a few hundred feet north) that was in a poor state of repair. It is thought that the oldest of the bells currently in use in the priory, cast around 1350, was transferred from this earlier church. The other monastic buildings, including the cloisters, were also demolished soon after the Dissolution, with the exception of the gatehouse (now housing Malvern Museum), and there are not even any ruined fragments to be seen. The remainder of the former priory is now occupied by more recent buildings, including the early 17th century Abbey Hotel, and the church has generally busy surroundings, near the junction of Bellevue Terrace (the A449) and Church Street right at the centre of town, although the immediate setting is still peaceful, with a tree-lined graveyard on the north side and the hotel gardens to the south.



History


The earliest surviving elements of Great Malvern Priory are the columns and lower walls of the nave, and the walls of the south aisle, dating from the end of the 11th century, at which time the monastery was home to a relatively small group of 30 monks. The south aisle adjoined the cloisters, which had several lesser buildings along the other three sides. The priory was situated on land owned by Westminster Abbey and so was subservient to that institution, an arrangement which caused occasional disagreements with the Bishops of Worcester, who controlled most of the surrounding parish. The church was not significantly changed for nearly 250 years, until, following donations from the Crown, the building was greatly expanded, between 1440 and 1500, adding north and south transepts, replacing the tower, extending the nave to create a new presbytery (and the lady chapel), and increasing the width of the north aisle; the south aisle could not be changed as it bordered the cloisters. Several large stained-glass windows date from this period, together with the tiles and the misericords. Following the Dissolution, and removal of the monastic outbuildings, the church was not altered again until Victorian times, due in part to lack of funds for maintenance or improvements, and partly by its rather remote location, surrounded by hills and forests, which enabled it to escape damage during periods of unrest such as the Civil War. The 1800s saw various repairs and minor changes plus one larger modification, installation of a new wooden, square-panelled roof over the nave, in the style of the original from the Norman era.

Ribs and bosses
Ribs and bosses

Nave and Crossing


The nearest (paid) parking area to the church is along Grange Street, a short distance east. Entry is from the north, through the graveyard, into a porch at the northwest corner. The interior of the church is in general rather gloomy, since the ceilings are dark, the aged stained-glass windows filter some of the light, the clerestory windows above the nave are somewhat small, and the majority of the furnishings are of heavy, dark wood. In addition, the removal of the south transept in the 1540s has taken away some of the natural lighting. The nave is lined by six pairs of round pillars, and is illuminated by a fine west window, donated by Richard of Gloucester, later Richard III, in the 1480s. The wide north aisle, now housing a gift shop and bookstore, leads to the north transept, which also has an ancient stained-glass window, bestowed by Henry VII in 1501. In the middle of the church is the crossing, directly below the great square tower; the ceiling above is centred on a large, circular boss, surrounded by elaborate vaulting. The arch in the south wall of the crossing is hidden behind the pipe organ, built in 1879 and subsequently modified on several occasions. Behind here is the vestry, a narrow corridor occupying a small, surviving section of the south transept.



Presbytery and Chapels


Beyond the crossing are the presbytery and choir, terminating in a semi-circular wall, originally the apse of the smaller, Norman church. The altar is backed by the reredos, an attractive Victorian installation made of gilt and glass. The presbytery is also lined by aisles, both housing chapels; St Anne's chapel to the south, and the smaller North chapel. St Anne's chapel contains more medieval stained-glass, in the south-facing windows, and it also has a small, sunken chantry chapel holding several ancient relics including two coffin lids, one for Walcher of Lorraine (died 1135), the second prior. Above this, framing one side of the altar, is the elaborate, alabaster tomb of John Knottesford (died 1589), and wife Anne; the opposite side has an older effigy, of a 12th century knight. The medieval tiles are found mostly on the outer wall of the presbytery, and in the floor of its aisles. Some are dated, 1453, and in total there are over 90 designs. Above the altar is the east window, again containing medieval glass, though the arrangement is more recent. This said to be the largest such window of any English parish church.