St Mary’s Church in Thorpe is said to be the oldest surviving place of religious worship in Runneymede. The nave columns have been erected on Roman brick bases, and local legend has it that the church is built on the remains of a Roman temple, although this is unlikely. There is Roman Christian burial urn and an altar stone dating to c. 150 AD, although there origin is not well documented.
After the Norman invasion, the Saxon abbot of the church sought to appease the new Norman king by having stone shipped from the Norman quarry at Bec to erect a chancel arch in the centre of the church. The wall around the arch is thought to predate this and is most likely the initial wall of the abbot’s chapel. Under the floor at the outside of the wall seven Saxon lords are buried, and at the north pillar of the church the consecration cross also dates from around this time.
The nave columns are the original supports for the early church, although the arcades above them were replaced in the 1200s by sturdier gothic arches. Much of the stone in the construction was reused from other structures and some stones have the royal designs used by William the Conqueror and his son, William Rufus.
The church also functioned as the Chapel of the Abbots of Chertsey before the Reformation. The close links with the Chertsey Abbey can be seen in the tiles and stained glass found in the church. The original pattern of the columns in the nave show that the church used to be a house of the Benediction order of monks. There would have been twelve columns during this time, but only eight remain. A tower was erected on the church while Henry VII was in power using brickwork.
Unfortunately, the Puritans eradicated almost all of the décor and statuary in the church during the Commonwealth period (1653-1660), and part of the church also became a residence and stable during this time. One can still see the soot marks on the ceiling beams.
During the Victorian period, stained glass windows were added to the north and south transepts. The modern interior was restored beginning in 1988, when a more open plan was established and a marble floor was laid. Chairs were made from oak trees that were knocked down in Windsor Great Park during the storms in 1987. Much other artful handiwork was installed during this time, such as the altar frontals and paintings in the nave and by the east window.
The church is currently developing a counselling service and is creating an organisation dedicated to the youth and community. They are hoping to help revitalise the community and help restore some local facilities that have not been available lately.
The Parish Church of St Mary’s Church Thorpe, Eric A. Freeman, 1977
Chertsey Museum Research Room local history boxfiles