Its predecessor was a splendid medieval church which had fallen into disrepair and had become dangerous. Part of the old church collapsed one Sunday morning in April 1790 with the tower adding itself to the rubble the following day. Financial constraints delayed the completion of the new church and the “pepper pot” tower was not completed until 1822.
As designed by the architect, Samuel Pepys Cockerill, the building was a perfect square with sides 90 feet long. It is thought to have been modelled on Sir Christopher Wren’s St. Stephen’s Church, Walbrook, which, like this building, has a dome supported by twelve classical columns. Originally the gallery ran round the four sides and the church was able to accommodate 3,000.
Extensive alterations were made in the mid-19th century under the influence of the Tractarian movement. In 1858 the eastern gallery was removed and in 1873 the whole east end was reconstructed to the design of Sir Arthur Blomfield, and richly coloured. Blomfield’s decorative scheme has now gone, apart from the figures in the chancel which are painted in imitation mosaic and a small detail by the door into the south stairwell.
The Chancel Paintings
Above the High Altar – in the dome of the apse, is depicted the Vision of the Throne of God from Revelation chapter 4: the rainbow, the four and twenty elders, the four living creatures, and the seven lamps symbolic of the Holy Spirit.
Behind the High Altar are the figures of the Twelve Apostles with appropriate symbols of their calling or martyrdom. From left to right they are 1) St James the Less, 2) St. James the Great, 3) St. Jude, 4) St. Simon, 5) St. Peter, 6) St. Philip, 7) St. John, 8) St Matthias, 9) St Bartholomew, 10) St. Thomas, 11) St. Andrew, 12) St. Matthew.
The stained glass is also of Blomfield’s time, the most striking windows being those at the eastern end of the nave above the galleries – by an unknown artist. The upper windows in the gaIlery represent scenes from the life of Jesus – 30 illustrations in all, while the lower windows illustrate 10 of his parables. The detailed background in all the windows well repays attention. In the second upper window on the north side is the well-known Arctic window in memory of the explorer Admiral Sir George Back, which contains sketches from his notebook – H.M.S. Terror caught in the ice, Eskimos, polar bears, seals, reindeer, walrus and a surround of snow flakes.
The chapel on the left perpetuates the name of the Resurrection Chapel from the mediaeval church. It contains several war memorials and a Lamp of Brotherhood brought from Monte Cassino in 1964, one of 84 throughout the world, and the first in this country.
Other Interesting Features
Bells The forces exerted on the tower by the bells made the ring unsafe by 1928. All eight bells were removed and recast into a lighter peal of ten bells. ln 1930 they were returned to be re-hung in a cast iron frame on steel girders lower down the tower. Two half-tones are also present as part of the Carillon. The inscription originally on the oldest bell, the tenor cast in 1667, has been retained on its replacement. Other original dates are retained.
Organ Built by Byfield, Wilcox and Knight in 1765 for the old church. Since then it has been heavily modified several times. It bears the name of Snetzler but there is no evidence for this attribution. It is not the only Byfield organ linked to the name of the famous organ builder.
Carillon Plays Victorian tunes at 9 a.m., 12 noon, 3 p.m., and 6 p.m.
Jonathan Swift hints in the preface to the 1726 edition of Gulliver’s Travels that he had taken the name of Gulliver from tombstones in the Churchyard at Banbury. Tombstones bearing this name have not survived from that period, but there are modern examples present.
In 2002 the chancel was extended forward to create a stage, facilities for those with disabilities were added, emergency lighting and toilets were added and the church was redecorated. St. Mary’s is now both a place of worship and a resource to the community for performing arts.
In 2016, major roof repairs were undertaken to the north vestry which was in danger of collapse, this cost £240,000. In 2018, thanks to the support of the players of the National Lottery, a conditional award of a similar amount was made to make further repairs to the fabric of the building, including the conservation of our famous wall paintings, and improve access by replacing the heavy glass doors with modern glass, with automated openers.