Kempsford, St Mary's Church, Gloucestershire
History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS: John of Gaunt's tower and the Earl of Lancaster's horseshoe
- John of Gaunt's Perpendicular tower
- painted tower ceiling with heraldic shields
- 15th-century tomb niche and earlier effigy
- medieval memorial brass
The historic church of St Mary's, Kempsford, is a Grade I listed building, dating to the early 12th century. Perhaps the most famous feature of St Mary's is immediately visible as you enter the porch. There, nailed to the worn wooden door, is a horseshoe. What on earth is a horseshoe doing affixed to a church door? Ah, there lies a tale.
In the mid 14th century the heir to the earldom of Lancaster, a young boy named Henry, drowned in the river at Kempsford in a tragic accident. His father, the Earl, decided to soothe his grief by joining the war with France. As he rode away from Kempsford his horse cast a shoe. The villagers nailed the horseshoe to the church door, and there it has stayed for over 650 years.
The nave is Norman, dating to about 1120. There are good carvings around the north door, but the south doorway is marvellous, with a grotesque carving at the top of the arch. The most impressive feature of the church exterior is the tower (1390-1399), a gift of John of Gaunt. There is a niche which must have once held a statue of St Mary, but it is now empty. The local Cooling family has a long-standing tradition that an ancestor of theirs was brought to Kempsford from Oxford to complete the original statue.
The interior vaulting supporting the tower is decorated with heraldic shields showing the symbols of families associated with Kempsford, including Lancaster and Plantagenet. Within the north porch is an ogee niche, which may have been used for a reliquary. The ceiling is vividly painted, but that is the result of restoration in 1862, and the restorers added a pair of heraldic shields - the diocese of Bristol and Gloucester.
The aisleless nave is largely Norman, with a 14th-century wagon roofed chancel. Interior highlights include a very large tomb in the north wall of the chancel. This is in Perpendicular style, with an arched recess decorated with a scroll held by three angels. The canopy above the tomb reached 9 feet in height.
There is a 15th-century effigy of a tonsured priest in the tomb recess, but this almost certainly was added to the tomb and was not original; indeed it probably predates the recess by 50 years. The large west window was given by Henry Plantagenet, Earl of Lancaster, in memory of his grandson, also Henry, who tragically drowned in the ford.
The tomb of Lord Colerain once stood in the chancel. Colerain asked to be buried above ground, but when the south chapel was built his coffin was set into the floor, under the organ, level with the floor surface. Poet John Betjeman quipped that Kempsford was 'the only English church where an Irish peer is buried in the organ'.
The chapel was the work of GE Street, one of the most prolific and influential Victorian Gothic architects. Street was responsible for the painted marble pulpit, and the finely carved choir stalls.
There are lovely Victorian stained glass windows by the Kempe studio in the north window of the tower, and further 19th-century glass by the firm of Heaton Butler & Bayne, plus a vivid painting inscribed by churchwardens Thomas Pope and Thomas Packer. There is a finely carved parish chest, a medieval memorial brass, and a small, gilded royal coat of arms over the door.
Over the medieval period, some of the most famous names in English history worshipped at Kempsford church. Edward I and II came here, and Edward III may have been here as a boy. Henry IV, worshipped in St Mary's, as did Geoffrey Chaucer, and John of Gaunt's wife Constance, the daughter of the king of Spain. For more on the rich history of the area see our article on Kempsford village.
Address: Kempsford, Gloucestershire, England, GL7 4ET
Attraction Type: Historic Church
Location: Overlooking the Thames on the eastern edge of Kempsford village, just off the High Street
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
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Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest
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