An abbey was founded at Pershore, now a small town towards the south edge of Worcestershire, sometime in the seventh century, and it endured various alterations, damages and other changes up until 1539, when the (Benedictine) monastery was closed by order of Henry VIII. All the outbuildings were soon completely demolished, together with the nave of the abbey, though the remainder was retained, purchased by the local population for use as a parish church. Several other significant modifications have been required subsequently, in part due to subsidence, yet the building today retains much of its original components, some dating from the early Norman period, others from the 13th and 14th centuries.
The exterior retains a few tantalising traces of the original, larger building, in common with other extant churches occupying part of ancient abbeys, such as Dore, Malmesbury and Margam. In the 1830s a residential mansion (Abbey House) was built near the site of the west cloister range but this was removed little more than a hundred years later, and now the parish church borders a large area of open parkland, with no sign of the earlier buildings. Foundations still exist below ground, however, as revealed by surveys in 1929. Only the north side of the church is more enclosed, as this adjoins the old graveyard, shielded by huge, ancient trees.
Pershore Abbey, or Church of the Holy Cross, lies just west of the old town centre along Broad Street, a quarter of a mile from the River Avon; shielded by the parkland from the modern development that now surrounds the site on all sides. There are several free parking places along the adjacent streets, while the main parking area is a paid enclosure to the west. Entry to the abbey is free, though donations are appreciated, and the place is open each day between 8 am and 5:30 pm.
Not too much is known about the earlier history of the monastery at Pershore, or of the layout of the original buildings, though one event of note is the destruction of the church by fire, around 1002. A replacement was in service two decades later, using funds provided by Anglo-Saxon nobleman Odda of Deerhurst, a wealthy benefactor. Following his death in 1056, management of the abbey was transferred to Westminster by Edward the Confessor, and a major expansion was begun at the end of the 11th century, soon after the Norman conquest, including building of a larger church, which had the usual cruciform layout, with a nave, crossing, two transepts, presbytery and choir. Surviving elements from this Norman building are the south transept and the lower walls of the tower above the crossing. Two other destructive fires, in 1223 and 1288, required more major rebuilding work, firstly of the choir and its roof, and then of the main ceiling and the upper part of the tower, after which for over 200 years the church survived without any other major incident. The nave and three chapels were demolished soon after the 1539 Dissolution, but the remainder of the structure is not much changed overall, apart from the addition of three buttresses to shore up the building - one on the north side, in place of the north transept which collapsed in 1686, and two to the west, built in 1913 after the tower had started to lean.
The usual approach to the church is from the paid car park to the west, on the site of Abbey House, which was demolished in 1949. The west front is dominated by the great lantern tower, about twice the height of the rest of the building. The four pinnacles on top were added in 1871, but the remainder is from the 14th century, or earlier. The frontage includes two short wall sections from the original nave, one containing an elegant, arched doorway, formerly leading to the cloisters; between these are the two flying buttresses, installed in 1913. Entry to the church is on the north side, next to the atmospheric graveyard, through a porch that was built when the north transept collapsed. The east end of the building, now formed by a semi-circular apse from 1846, originally extended to the lady chapel, but no trace remains of this, after it was removed following the Dissolution. A similar fate befell St Edburgha's chapel, on the east side of the south transept, though here there are some remnants from its interior, including four ornate blind arches along what is now the exterior wall. Other evidence of the former buildings includes grooves from a gabled roof that adjoined the south wall of the south transept, linking to the chapter house.
The north porch entrance leads to the crossing beneath the square lantern tower, considered one of the finest in England. High above are intricate, carved panels and columns, only fully revealed in 1860 after removal of the intervening floor of the belfry, which had formed a much lower ceiling. The area beneath the tower contains several historical objects including a 13th century knight's effigy, a Norman baptismal font, an organ, and a war memorial; seating for the church is further east, in the old presbytery. The west wall, built to fill the void after the nave was removed in the 16th century, contains two stained glass windows and is decorated by faded paintings and inscriptions; it has a rather austere appearance, in contrast to the elegant and refined architecture of the rest of the interior, most of which is representative of the Decorated Gothic style. Of particular note is the lierne vaulting of the roof, featuring slender ribs intersecting at elaborate bosses. Aisles either side of the presbytery lead to the small northeast and southeast transepts, the latter partly rebuilt in Victorian times.