St Mary in Arden

P1010811A short walk from the train station at Market Harborough, Leicestershire and you find an old ruined church surrounded by old headstones and trees.  St Mary’s in Arden has fascinated me from the first time I saw it. I have always liked churchyards and cemeteries so an abandoned church without a roof was always going to pique my interest.

The parish church for Market Harborough is St Dionysius which dates mostly from the 14th and 15th centuries and it is unusual for a medieval church as it has no churchyard and never has had one although there would have been plenty of room to create one when the church was built.  Most of the burials in Market Harborough took place in St Mary in Arden until the cemetery in Northampton Road opened in 1877, although there were a few burials in St Mary’s up until the early 20th century. St Mary’s, as a burial ground, is mentioned in Harborough wills back to the 16th century.  Richard Cade whose will is dated November 1517  requests his ‘body to be beryed in the Church yarde of Saint Marys’.; Thomas Foxton in July 1522 ‘my body to be buryed in the churchyard off oure lady In Atharne’ and Wyllyam Grene in 1526, ‘my body … yn ye churchyard of Sent Mary yn Alderne’.  Geoffrey le Scrope a former Rector of Great Bowden, who died in 1382, in his will left, ‘to the Church of the Blessed Mary in Little Bowden in the Fields my white vestment with all its belongings.

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Market Harborough was a ‘new’ town created in the 12th century so it is not in the Domesday Book but its neighbour Great Bowden is.  Bowden was a royal manor and it appears to have been so before 1066.  The Domesday Book has three entries for Bowden; one manor, listed under Northamptonshire, was held by the Count of Mortain (William’s half-brother) and was in what is now Little Bowden; the largest (the Royal Manor) was held by William the Conqueror and previously this had been held by King Edward.  The last manor was held by Judith, the Countess of Huntingdon, and it is thought that William granted it out of part of his royal manor.  In his book, Bowden to Harborough, J C Davies writes that it is this last manor which could be the village of Arden and it held lands North and South of the River Welland.

There is no Arden mentioned in the Domesday Book for this area but John Bland, in Bygone Days in Harborough, writes that St Mary’s was built in 1066. If William did grant Arden out of part of his royal manor perhaps St Marys was built not long afterwards at the request of the Countess Judith.  St Mary’s is often mentioned as a parish church in early documents with St Dionysius described as a dependent chapel.  It would appear that when the parish of Market Harborough parish was created in the 12th century, it took parts of the manors of the Count of Mortain (Little Bowden) and the Countess Judith (Arden).  This would perhaps explain the close association with Market Harborough and St Marys.

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The current building was erected around 1693 after the earlier church had been badly damaged when its steeple collapsed on to it.  There are surviving parts from the earlier church; the doorway which is thought to be in situ and was part of the south entrance dates from the 12th century with Norman beak ornament.  The porch is made from ironstone and is thought to date from the 14th century.  However, it is the surviving stone effigy which fascinates me most.  It was apparently one of three which were described as lying in the churchyard in 1740 (Nichols).  It looks to be of a woman but it is now so damaged and worn it is difficult to make out much detail.  Sadly, I don’t think we will ever know who she was.  The headstones from the graveyard have been moved and placed around the church and there are some fine examples elaborate carving.
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There were many clandestine marriages here as it was much cheaper than being married at St Dionysius. William Hubbard was a local gardener who died in 1786 and in his will he left a guinea a year to the singers of Harborough Church on the condition they sing a hymn over his grave every Easter.  The hymn is still sung every Easter.
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