Cheltenham parish church of St. Mary is the oldest building in Cheltenham, with the oldest parts of the church dating back to the Norman times. Christian worship in Cheltenham can be traced back to the 8th century, when there might have been a monastery on this site. The Domesday Book of 1086 mentions that the church at Cheltenham was held by Reinbald, Dean of the Canons of Cirencester Abbey. He was a great man of the time and had been Chancellor to Edward the Confessor. In 1133 Henry I formally granted the church to the Augustinians of Cirencester Abbey who enlarged the building. By 1190 Cheltenham church was important enough for the nearby churches of Charlton Kings and Leckhampton to be made subject to it by Bishop William de Vere of Hereford.
In the late 13th century the north and south aisles were added, the chancel extended, the upper part of the tower modified and a spire added, giving the church the look it has now. Today the tower, which rises 167 feet above the floor of the church, boasts a peal of 12 bells.
When the Monasteries were dissolved in 1539, all the Abbey's properties were confiscated by the Crown, who leased the church to laymen who then took the profits from its land. The most famous of these laymen was Francis Bacon (1561-1626), philosopher, statesman, and essayist, who is best known as a philosophical advocate and defender of the scientific revolution, to whom the Church, and the Chapel at Charlton Kings, were leased in 1598. In that year, Bacon's financial situation was very bad, but within the next few years his career accelerated and in 1603 he was knighted. He went on to become the favourite of the king James I and became the founder of an inductive methodology for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method or simply, the scientific method.
In the mid-15th century a grammar school was operating in what was then called St. Catherine's Chantry (probably the north aisle). The school later moved to a purpose-built school situated in the lower part of the High Street financed by Richard Pate. Today Richard Pate's Grammar School, together with Cheltenham College and Cheltenham Ladies' College, is one of Cheltenham's finest educational establishment.
In the years 1826-1856 the rector of St. Mary's was Sir Francis Close, later dean of Carlisle, an uncompromising champion of the Evangelical cause, as well as the founder of Cheltenham great tradition of education. He preached against the annual Cheltenham horse racing, against drama as he tried to prevent the reconstruction of Cheltenham's theatre after it was destroyed by fire in 1839 and among others against the evils of tobacco. But above all Francis Close had a deep interest in education. He was one of the founders of Cheltenham College and of St Paul's Training College, as well as President of the school's Council of Cheltenham Ladies' College.
Stained glass windows in St. Mary's Church
In the 1860s and 1870s the church underwent a large renovation, when the crypt was filled in, sacristy and south porch added, as well as the stained glass. The stained east window was erected in 1880 at the cost of the Freemasons of Cheltenham, there are also memorial windows to Daniel James Humphris, the Welch family of Arle, and several others. The three larger windows at the west end are of a most elaborate character, one being the gift of the parishioners, another the gift of the Baron de Ferrieres, the founder of Cheltenham Art Gallery, and the third that of W. H. Gwinnett esq. J.P. in memory of his parents. The tracery of the windows dates from the 13th and 14th centuries.
St. Mary's Church is known for a large number of plaques and memorials on the walls. The oldest one is a double-panelled plaque in the memory of John English, a curate of the church, situated just inside the south door between the entrance and the south-west corner and dates from the times of the English Civil War. Situated next to the pulpit is a large memorial to Captain Henry Skillicorne, who developed Cheltenham's first spa.