A brief history of St Mary's
The church is built of hard chalk, known as 'clunch', which has been quarried at Totternhoe near Dunstable since Roman times. It is still possible to see the pitch of the old roof on the east face of the Tower. The church consisted of a Chancel, Nave and aisles. The tall impressive west arch of the Nave indicates an earlier Tower leading to the Nave. There was possibly a south porch.
In the fifteenth century a new Tower was built in the Perpendicular style. Constructed internally of Totternhoe stone it is faced externally by Northamptonshire ironstone. The north and south aisles were raised to their present height and the top of the Nave roof was lowered. The south porch also dates from the fifteenth century.
Bright with colour, the early Medieval church was quite splendid. Walls and pillars would have been painted with Biblical scenes and episodes from the lives of the Saints. Statues too were rich with colour. The Chancel and Nave would have been separated by a carved Rood Screen, on which stood a statue of Christ on the Cross, flanked by the Virgin Mary and the youngest disciple John. The Chancel was strictly for the Clergy, who spoke to God in Latin on behalf of the people, whose place was in the Nave.
By the early sixteenth century the Reformation had begun in Europe. Henry VIII began the break from Rome when he made himself Head of the English Church in place of the Pope and closed the monasteries. His successor, the boy King Edward VI, heavily influenced by his Protestant Lord Protectors, completed the break from Catholicism. Statues and stained glass were destroyed, wall paintings white-washed over; wooden tables replaced stone altars, the Rood Screen was removed and the Bible was now in English.
The Tower still contains its Medieval door which gives access to the stairs to the belfry and clockroom. Housed in the Tower are some of the oldest bells in Bedfordshire. The oldest is the seventh bell, cast c1440, and bearing a Latin inscription 'May John's bell sound for many years'.
In the Nave is a 14th century octagonal font supported by eight columns and decorated with contemporary Heraldic symbols. The oldest pews from the mid fifteenth century are positioned to the western end of the Nave. Cambered tie-beams which support the rafters have decorated bosses at the cross-sections. Here too can be seen interesting stone corbels which possibly date from the late fifteenth century. They include an angel supporting a shield, St Armel, and a Tudor Rose.
St Mary's, like all churches, would have experienced the Counter-Reformation when Mary I (sometimes called 'Bloody Mary' ) was queen and England returned briefly to the Roman Catholic faith. Some Maryan graffiti can still be seen on a pillar facing the south aisle.
Elizabeth I returned England to Protestantism at the end of the sixteenth century. The fourth and eighth bells date from c.1590. At this time change ringing came into place.
During the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, in the years after the English Civil War, St Mary's was to experience more changes. Any remaining stained glass was destroyed as illustrated by the plain glass windows. Some windows were bricked up as can be seen at the west end of the north aisle.
Victorian period was one of restoration for St Mary's. The Reverend
Spencer and his son were responsible for much work that was done in the
church. By now Harlington had the third of its organs. (Although the
organ was removed in July 2005 and has been
replaced by its big sister, a similarly Bedford-made Trustam, being
brought from Ecton, Northamptonshire).
The twentieth century has seen even more changes. New pews were made in the first half of the century. A lovely John Bunyan, (author of Pilgrim's Progress) Window was placed in the Chancel in 1929. Later an altar table and a display table made from the Oak Tree from which John Bunyan preached were added to the Chancel. Sadly the pulpit and most of the gravestones were removed in the 1960s. But there is a beautiful wooden carving of the Madonna and Child to be seen, and a striking icon of the Crucifixion from Taizé hangs where once the Rood Cross stood.
To discover more about Church of St Mary the Virgin read the guide book, which is available from the Vicarage Office, Church Road, HARLINGTON, LU5 6LE, Bedfordshire, UK, and is also available in the church. Please include Ł1.50 plus 50p postage (cheques made payable please to "St Mary's Harlington PCC").