A Brief History of St Mary, Newmarket

The notes below give an introduction to the architecture and fittings of the church and are based on the chapter in “The Popular Guide to Suffolk Churches” by D. P. Mortlock (Acorn Editions, 1988). A more detailed history of St Mary’s church from its beginnings to the present time but concentrating on the earlier periods may be found here.

The town of Newmarket was part of the parish of Exning until the sixteenth century but there has been a chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary on this site from the thirteenth century. The present building was rebuilt and extended on the south side in the fifteenth century but most of what we see now is the result of a series of major reconstructions carried out in 1857, 1867 and 1887.

In this Victorian period the north transept was converted into an aisle, the chancel was completely rebuilt and a new vestry was added alongside it. The tower is fifteenth century with a slim shingled spire set well back from the parapet and has a separate bellcote on one corner.

The doorway in the south porch dates from the fifteenth century and, although now damaged, has an angel with a shield set in the moulding at the centre of the arch.

The nave is tall, bright and spacious. Its fifteenth century arcade with quatrefoil piers and battlemented capitals was matched on the north side in the Victorian rebuilding.

The tracery of the west window is original and the glass of 1930 is by Christopher Webb, showing the Annunciation set in a clear backing with a backing of Renaisance architectural detail. There is more of his work in the north aisle in a series of different compositions in three windows showing the childhood of Christ. Again there are Renaissance cartouches and architectural frames set in clear glass.

The wrought iron tower screen has an interesting mixture of Gothic and Art Nouveau motifs. On either side of it are large benefaction boards, showing the practical details of a seventeenth century charity – cases of herrings, stones of beef, twopenny bread and warps of salt fish. The Rector continues to distribute the Bread and Beef funds each year though now in the form of cash not kind.

On the west wall of the north aisle is a large painting of “The Virgin and Child with Saint Elizabeth and Saint John the Baptist”. It is by Giovanni Battista Caracciolo, an early seventeenth century follower of Caravaggio. Also clamped to the wall in that corner is a section of lead from the old roof embossed with the names of eighteenth century churchwardens and the plumber. A small glass case on the wall at the east end of the north aisle contains a linen purse that was found when the high altar piscine was uncovered in 1857. It contained three early sixteenth century Nuremberg trade tokens. 

The nineteenth century stone pulpit has openwork tracery panels whilst the screen to the north aisle chapel beside it is a war memorial and the shafts on either side of the doorway carry small, well carved figures of Saint George and Saint Joan of Arc.

Th north chapel contains a large painting on the sanctuary north wall depicting Jesus’s Entry into Jerusalem and is by James Wood. A section of wood placed behind the altar carries a mediaeval inscription asking us to pray for the soul of Thomas Wydon who had benches made in 1494, possibly in conjunction with the first rebuilding. To the right is a decorated piscina with foliage in the spandrels.

In the chancel, the high altar is backed by an oak-panelled reredos and to the right is the thirteenth century angle piscina uncovered in the nineteenth century. It is groined within and one of the corbel heads is original.

The south aisle chapel of the Blessed Sacrament (which it is thought may originally have been dedicated to Saint Thomas) has two oil paintings, both unattributed. One is a “Descent from the Cross” and the other “The Blessed Virgin and Saint Elizabeth” in seventeenth century Italian style. Nearby is an interesting sidelight on the social attitudes of 1886 – a Masonic window with figures of Solomon and Saint Etheldreda (the name of the town lodge) and innumerable symbolic objects.

The south aisle of the church has a number of well lettered eighteenth century tablets which illustrate the move from Renaissance to classical detailing. A cinquefoil recess in the wall was probably a piscina, associated with an altar although there is no sign of a drain. Nearby a nineteenth century window by Kempe and Tower shows a very traditional rendering of Jesus’ saying: “Suffer the little children to come unto me”. This spreads across three lights, with angels above. There is also a nineteenth century coarsely cut epitaph in Latin to the unfortunate Robert Cook, a seventeenth century Rector, who died while preaching in the pulpit. As a very minor footnote to history, we can note that Cardinal Wolsey’s father, an Ipswich butcher, was born and buried here although nothing marks his grave.