A large, Perpendicular Gothic church,
serving the Parish of Thirsk in the Diocese of York

The Benefice of Thirsk
Rector: Revd. Canon Richard Rowling
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St. Mary's Parish Church, Thirsk: History 

This magnificent medieval church, built in the architectural style known as  Perpendicular Gothic, is over 500 years old. Building began in about  1430 and was completed in 1480. It succeeded a Norman Church, traces of which remain in a block of stone at the bottom of the South Aisle and in the walls, and before that there was almost certainly a Saxon Minster. In 1145  Robert de Mowbray gave it to the Augustinian Canons at Newburgh Priory who  held the living and provided Vicars to serve the Church. Henry VIII in 1545 granted the living as a perpetual curacy in the gift of his grace, the Archbishop of York. In 1876 ,George Edmund Street, an architect who appreciated the artistic proportions of Gothic Architecture, carried out  extensive preservation and restoration.

Parish registers dating  back to 1556 are held in the National Records Office in Northallerton but two copies of the register for 1556 to 1721 are kept in church. There may have been earlier records which have not survived.


buttressed 80ft tower The 80 foot  tower houses the ringing chamber contaiming eight  bells.The oldest bell  bears the Latin inscription   "ANNO MILLENO QUATER CENTO QUOQUE DEN EST HEC CAMP ANA IESUS" - In the year 1410 was this JESUS bell made”- so it predates the church. Some reliable sources believe it came from Fountains Abbey at the Dissolution of the Monasteries(see below 'THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S'). On the West exterior wall of the tower  below the window of the ringing chamber are the slowly deteriorating  remains of a carving of the Virgin and Child. The 19th century historian, JB Jefferson, believes this to be older than the tower , probably coming from an earlier building.

THE PIERCED PARAPET  adds grace to the imposing outline.  The building  began  with the tower but it wasn't completed until the rest of the church was built. The Tower  and the nave  form a unit which is extended by the chancel..  Originally  the nave  was only half  its present height.The clerestory and chancel were added together later and then the tower and porch were completed.  Alterations to the  building can be seen in the internal stonework of the chancel and the tower.

THE PARVISE  i.e. the room above the porch- was originally accessible only by a ladder from  inside the church but now there is a stone spiral stairway leading up from the porch. Thomas Parkinson, an anchorite, or hermit,  lived  in the Parvise from 1513 for some years before going  to Mount  Grace,a Carthusian  Priory, where  he lived  until  its Dissolution.  He  spent years wandering  destitute until he married a tinker's widow.  

THE SOUTH DOOR ,one of the finest of its kind in the country, is the original door. The  wicket hinges are dated  1747 so was the wicket  constructed then  or were just the hinges  replaced?   

Nave and carved roofTHE NAVE is probably built around the former nave.  At the top of the South Aisle  is the  memorial of  Robert of Threske (Threske is an old name for Thirsk) who  may be regarded as the Founder of the present Church.  Robert of Threske  was  Henry IV's  King's Remembrancer in the Court of the Exchequer.   He died in 1419 leaving a fund to build a chantry chapel in the Parish Church which seems to have led to  the great rebuilding.   His brasses,  almost illegible in the floor, originally showed a priest vested and a rhyme.
The Nave's impressive, medieval  roof was  restored in 1953.
Between the Clerestory windows are  fading paintings of the Apostles believed to be 17th  century.Old Hatchments (armorial bearings)  of local families, especially the Bells, have been placed above the arches. Above  the curtained covered  North Door are   the Royal Arms of George III.

 An old print shows  the gilded Angel  presided over the organ at the West end 150 years ago but both have been relocated..  There are   fine screens to the Chantry Chapels. The Font is Victorian but the tall wooden cover with crocketted pinnacles is part 15th century. It  was in use until mid 2007 when the suspension cable snapped. Thanks to a generous donor a  new cable  fitted in February 2010 returned the Font and its cover to use. 

 PEW ENDS.Two 16th century pew ends carved with heraldic devices of families connected to the church are displayed in the North aisle but the present pews, some of which are poppy headed, are Victorian - although some incorporate much earlier woodwork.

medieval stained glass in south east cornerWINDOWS.

Saint Mary's has some beautiful windows.
 In the nineteen century  all the salvageable  mediaeval glass in the church was collected into the window at the East end of the South Aisle. A bomb blew it out  in 1940 and  after the war Dean Milner-White had it carefully restored - it depicts several heraldic shields of great  interest. (It is said that after  the restoration some fragments remained which were given to York  and later incorporated into the windows of the Minster.)

The East window was designed locally in 1844, as a tablet on the chancel wall records and the  West windows are also Victorian.  The large window in memory of Sir Robert Lister  Bower, Chief Constable of the North Riding of Yorkshire 1898 to 1929,  was designed by Douglas Strachan in 1932, on the theme of “The Happy Warrior”and has fascinating pictorial references to his distinguished army career. 
 The Clerestory Windows were repaired and refurbished  in 2012.

Once there were two Chapels for worship. The South Chapel was originally a chantry of St. Anne but the North Chapel now contains the organ installed by Robert Postill of York in 1877, improved by William Denman in 1884, rebuilt by N P. Mander in 1964 and much repaired and improved in 2007 by Geoffrey Coffin of York. 

THE CHANCEL which was repaired in 1844, has its fine  original roof  but the heraldry is nineteenth century. The form of the window traceries shows that the chancel and the clerestory were later additions to the original building, which must have included a chancel at the end of the present nave. The Sedilia ( stone seats) are noted for their original carving, as is the Piscina ( mediaeval  basin). The Altar Table is intricately carved in Flemish style. The painting in the chancel is thought to be  a  copy by Annibale Carracci  of Caravaggio’s “Incredulity of St. Thomas”. The ancient door by the side of the choir organ leads down to the  barrel roofed Crypt which J.B. Jefferson's  1821 History of Thirsk states was then  in use as a Grammar School.  

The Chancel at St Mary's

THE PARISH CHEST in the North aisle  received contributions for the Church. It once belonged to Anthony Bell  "Arcanum 1620 Ant Bell" was the original inscription carved on one  end of the chest but someone has added  'e'  to Ant and 'um' to Bell so it now reads "Arcanum 1620 Ante Bellum"!
Visitors' contributions towards the upkeep of this magnificent but costly building are  always  welcome but  nowadays  they are placed  in the 'hole in the wall' by the door. 


The unseen, but no less familiar guardian of the hours, our heaviest bell celebrated the six hundredth anniversary of its casting in 2010.  This venerable artefact therefore pre-dates almost all the fabric of the present Church.  It is perhaps a little sobering to reflect that it was around before the bloodbath at Agincourt, witnessed the horrors of the War of the Roses, and survived the turmoil and iconoclasm of the Reformation, the Civil War and the Commonwealth, to say nothing of the aerial bombardment of World War II.

Tradition links the bell (in ringers’ parlance: the “tenor” signifying the heaviest of the ring) with Fountains Abbey.  There may be something in this but Cistercian rules forbade towers and  Abbot Huby’s monster campanile did not materialise until almost 100 years after the date of casting.  It was the handiwork of a well known York bellfounder named John Potter.  There seems no reason why the bell should not have come directly to Thirsk but perhaps what really matters is that we still have it – a precious survival of the heritage of our Parish.  And a lovely piece of work it is: tuned to the key of F, weighing in at 14 cwt 3 lbs (bellringers still use old money!) possessing a beautiful resonance.  The crown of the bell bears a Latin inscription  detailing the year of its casting and, lest anyone doubt its real purpose, the name “Iesus”.  Also  evident is the founder’s hallmark.


 The Bellringing fraternity’s house magazine ‘the Ringing World’ celebrated its centenary in March 2011.  St Mary’s tower featured in the peal records of the first edition and  the editor decided to invite all the towers which participated in 1911 to repeat the performance.  Thus it was that during the evening of Friday 11 March 2011  a centenary peal was rung at Thirsk.

 The ringers involved were:

 Treble                   Jennifer A. Town            (All Saints, Northallerton)

2                           David A Town                                     do

3                           Dot Salmon                                         do

4                           Martin J Kirk                                      do

5                           Gerry Parsons                 (SS Peter & Paul, Stokesley)

6                           John Limbach                  (St Oswald, Sowerby)

7                           Graham A Blackburn        (All Saints, Northallerton)

8                           Peter F Town                                      do

The peal was conducted by Jennifer Town and took 3 hours precisely.  For those of an anorak disposition the method (as in 1911) was Kent Treble Bob Major. This   involved 5056 changes in the order of the bells (out of a possible 40,320) so no wonder it took three hours! 


This magnificent old church has withstood the ravages of centuries and  witnessed  generations of faithful service to God.  The building is indeed one of the gems of North Yorkshire and often called the 'cathedral of North Yorkshire' because of its beautiful architecture and commanding presence. We hope this short history and description of many of the features of the church are of interest.If you have anything to add please contact the Media Officer who will be delighted to hear from you. However it is not possible for any Officer to undertake  research on your behalf.

St.Mary's is not a showpiece or museum  but a place of worship and prayer.  Those who worship here pray for the community of Thirsk,  Christian people everywhere,  the needs of all people  and  peace and justice  throughout the world.    May the peace of God be with you.