St Mary's Through the Ages

Explore 800 years of colourful history at St Mary's church, and the people of Barnard Castle

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St Mary’s – the historic heart of Barnard Castle

When Bernard Baliol built his stone castle here in 1130, St Mary’s Church was founded alongside it, right at the centre of the new town. Positioned at the crossing of the town’s most important roads, close to the marketplace and opposite the entrance to the castle, St Mary’s quickly grew in size and importance, gaining its stunning decorated South Door, chantry chapels and a spired tower with four ancient bells.

Across the centuries St Mary’s provided a place for all in the community, from cradle to grave, bearing witness to all the colourful life of the townspeople, their births, marriages and death, griefs and joys.

Richard III, Lord of Barnard Castle and St Mary’s Church

After Richard Duke of Gloucester became Lord of Barnard Castle in 1474, the castle and St Mary’s became of great importance to him. He planned a large religious college based at St Mary’s, with a Dean, twelve chaplains, and numerous clerks and choristers. With his large grants of money, St Mary’s grew in size and height, flooded with light from new windows. A fine new chancel arch boasted the sculpted heads of King Edward IV and Richard himself, whose families the College’s daily masses and prayers would remember.

Richard’s boar badge was set upon St Mary’s stonework, and accommodation for the College’s priests was created in the churchyard, close to the Market Cross (now Amen Corner). However, Richard’s untimely death at Bosworth Field in 1485, brought an end to the works. Nevertheless, his white boar still graces Barnard Castle’s coat of arms, and can be seen today at St Mary’s, as well as on other important buildings around the town.

St Mary’s – a place for all the townspeople

St Mary’s has long been the burial place of nobility – including Sir William Bowes, who fought at Verneuil, and Sir George Bowes who defended the castle for Elizabeth I during the Rising of the North in 1569 – but its churchyard has always embraced all the townspeople, rich and poor, the tanners and weavers as well as the factory owners of the 18th century, and the 143 victims of cholera in 1849.

With the ups and downs of industrialisation, slum living conditions in town, and later unemployment, St Mary’s church has always been at the heart of crucial social aid, whether distributing bread and charity monies, or setting up schools and soup kitchens, or food bank collections today. It helped form the town’s first Board of Health after the cholera epidemic and in 1883 established a Church Mission, providing reading rooms, Sunday-Schools and even a football team!

St Mary’s – a building for everyone!

St Mary’s Church was not just a place for public worship. Until the mid-19th century, it served as town hall, playhouse and fire station when Sir Henry Vane of Raby Castle gifted a fire engine to the town in 1748: it was stored in the church for over 100 years!

The Durham Militia, too, who had garrisoned in Barnard Castle since 1759, found a home at St Mary’s, laying up their Colours here, and gathering for commemorations right up to the present-day Remembrance Sunday parades.

Across the 19th century St Mary’s church remodelled itself both inside and out to serve a growing community, with new gas-lighting and flooring, new stained glass and seating, and a new clock tower. St Mary’s established a new Parish Hall in 1957, in which an overflow of children from the nearby primary school were educated, and which enabled a multitude of community activities, social, religious, charitable and educational, which are still offered today.

St Mary’s today

A 21st century re-ordering at St Mary’s has enabled new forms of worship, community spaces and activities, which incorporate music-making, drama and education, photography and heritage for townspeople and visitors alike. Whilst it continues to serve the community with baptisms, weddings and funerals, as well as in regular public worship, St Mary’s has also created one of the only indoor labyrinths in the country, offering a unique space for prayer and mindfulness.

Retaining its place at the heart of the busy local community it has served for nearly 900 years, St Mary’s provides a living home to unique monuments connected to Richard III, a stunning collection of Victorian stained-glass, war memorials, and Colours of the Durham Militia and Light Infantry from 1759. St Mary’s is open to visitors, tourists, and pilgrims every day of the week.

History Articles

Read more about some of the most curious historical gems that have been re-discovered at St Mary's Church

New Church Guide book published

New Church Guide book published

9th January 2023

A new church guide book is now available in church: cost £5.00 Read more

Windows to the World

Windows to the World

15th March 2022

Windows to the World Project completed Read more

Richard III Musical

18th February 2022

St Mary’s local C of E primary school are celebrating the Coronation of Richard III on Wednesday 6th July with a premiere performance in church of a brand-new musical ‘Lord of the North’ written by St Mary’s Musical Director Annette Lowson, and Kim Harding, chair of the local Northern Dales Richard III Group. Read more

How did Barnard Castle survive the Plague?

4th May 2021

In the 17th century, Britain was wracked by plague epidemics that devastated communities. When the plague arrived in Barnard Castle in 1653, the community needed to act fast to stop the disease from spreading. But how did they cope? Read more

Teesdale’s Hidden Art Gallery

15th April 2021

Just 5 minutes from St Mary's, on the outskirts of Barnard Castle stands the Bowes Museum. A center for the arts with a story full of love, tragedy and a powerful dream... Read more

The Fascinating Folklore of Teesdale and Weardale

17th March 2021

Delve into the secretive and magical world of County Durham's favourite creatures and monsters. What folklore tales does this beautiful part of the world have to share? Read more

What happened to Barnard Castle’s train station?

24th February 2021

Barnard Castle flourished in the 19th century when its new railway station brought visitors from far and wide to explore all it had to offer, but where is this station now? Read more

Stained glass restoration – Step 1

13th January 2021

On a crisp January morning, another one of St Mary's beautiful stained-glass windows was removed to be restored. Immerse yourself in the scenery and maybe even learn a little something about this wonderful craft... Read more

Saving St Mary’s Stained-Glass from Ruin

1st January 2021

Hear from Jonathan Cooke as he describes the challenges of restoring St Mary's beautiful stained-glass windows over the summer of 2020. Despite the difficulties of the year, he and his son, Tristram, have worked hard to save these historical treasures from the decay of time. Read more

What did archaeologists find at St Mary’s?

21st December 2020

One of DigVentures' own field archaeologists took part in an excavation at St Mary's over the summer, but what did they uncover in the graveyard? Read more

Stained glass window

How To Make Stained Glass Windows

20th December 2020

Stained glass window-making is an art form that has been around for over 1,000 years, so how's it done? Read more

Why are there so many boars in Barnard Castle?

15th December 2020

The historic market town of Barnard Castle is dotted with carved stone boars. Perched above windows, and embedded in walls, these mysterious carvings are the distinctive mark of one England's most famous kings - Richard III. Read more

Stained Glass windows St. Mary's Barnard Castle

What happened at St Mary’s during lockdown?

25th November 2020

Vicar Alec Harding discusses the recent changes undergone at St Mary's in the summer of 2020, and highlights the wealth of heritage the church has to offer. Read more

Church building works

Building works have started

16th March 2020

Repair works have started and the clock has been stopped. Read more

Stained Glass windows St. Mary's Barnard Castle

Windows to the World

11th June 2019

Church building repairs and heritage interpretation project secures £320,500 National Lottery support. Read more