Strictly speaking, St. Mary’s Church is Hitchin Minster. Unfortunately, clerical errors have allowed this status to fall away denying Hitchin its importance as an ecclesiastical centre in Hertfordshire.
St. Mary’s is by a long way the largest church in the county (saving, of course, St. Alban’s Cathedral). It is also one of the oldest churches in the entire country. A Benedictine Monastery was founded here in 792 AD by King Offa (he of Dike fame). This church was destroyed by fire in 910 and the Monks moved to St. Albans Abbey.
However, the church in Hitchin was rebuilt only to be partly destroyed by the “Great Wind” of 1115 and then almost entirely taken down by an earthquake in 1298.
Work began immediately on rebuilding the church and most of what can be seen today was built between 1300 and 1450. An underground tunnel linked the church with Hitchin Priory across the other end of town and the basements of the shop properties in Churchyard and Sun Street contain remains of this tunnel – one of the few instances of these tunnels being authenticated.
This new church was dedicated to St. Andrew, but became St. Mary’s in the late 15th Century due to the influence of the Guild of Our Lady which was very powerful in Hitchin.
Sadly most of the stained glass fell victim to wind, fire and Henry VIII. Cromwell’s men used part of the church as a prison during the Civil Wars, but Hitchin was obviously a Royal town as there is a sundial on the tower above the door which was placed there to mark the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.
Things to look out for around the church are any heart-shaped things which were placed there when James Herte was vicar and also the Thompson mouse carved on the altar rail – the trademark of Robert Thompson the famous “Mouseman of Kilburn” – a master carpenter from the 19th Century.
All in all, St. Mary’s is one of the most satisfying parish churches to visit in the UK and Hitchin is a great, small market town – oh yes, and Andrew and Jacqui have their shop there – Something That Sparkles, 8 Churchyard – overlooking this very church!
Photo - Andrew J. Müller
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