History of St. Mary's Church

Tharston Church from front gateTharston church stands prominently on a hill-top, overlooking the Tas Valley, in countryside that was under cultivation long before the Romans came. There is strong evidence of a flourishing community in Anglo-Saxon times and Christian missionaries probably arrived early in the seventh century, perhaps followers of St. Fursey or St. Felix who came up the navigable river from their Suffolk monasteries. Hill-top sites like Tharston and Tasburgh would have been obvious places to build churches, challenging pagan burial mounds across the valley.

Viking raids on East Anglia would have dispersed Christian communities; but invaders become settlers and Tharston perhaps takes its name from a Viking incomer called "Therir". The old names for Picton Road (Upgate) and Low Tharston (Millgate) go back to Anglo-Scandinavian times, and "Westgate", the old name for The Street, suggests that the ancient village centre was on the hill-top where the present church stands. East Anglia became a nominally Christian kingdom under King Athelstan around A.D. 880, when it is likely that a timber church building first appeared in Tharston. More permanent flint buildings began to replace timber churches towards the end of the tenth century, but it was the arrival of the Normans in 1066 that sparked off a great wave of church-building in masonry. The Domesday Book (1086) tells us that Tharston had a church endowed with 40 acres of land, and the carved limestone mouldings now incorporated in its flint walls shows that the present building replaces a Norman predecessor.

Tharston Church from graveyardDespite its ancient origins the existing church is the result of a drastic Victorian restoration applied to a building that was largely reconstructed in the Middle Ages. The chancel dates from around 1280, the nave was rebuilt around 1450, and the fine tower and porch were probably added around 1500. We know that there was a painted and gilded roodscreen and can assume that the windows were filled with stained glass. However, any colour that survived the Protestant Reformation of the 1540s was an immediate target for the Puritan vicar, Thomas Trunch, a hundred years later. Years of whitewashing had obliterated any wall paintings and Trunch even had inscriptions invoking St Margaret and St Thomas filed off two of the bells! The mediaeval stone altar slab had already been removed during the reign of Edward VI and placed at the church door for all to walk over as a symbol of the break with the Roman Catholic church.

The eighteenth century saw increased industry in the village, and a succession of farming parsons whose curates lived at the vicarage. There were box-pews in the church for the better off and open benches for poorer residents. The Hall and the Vicarage alone had private pews. These arrangements were swept aside, together with rails that enclosed the altar table on three-sides, when the church was restored between 1859 and 1880. Recycled panelling from the pews survives in the present reading desk (and in houses in the village that belonged to churchwardens and to the Lay Rector) Three Victorian architects created the building we see today: Ewan Christian restored the chancel. Richard Phipson attacked the nave (1868), preserving only three carved pew-ends and some poppy-heads of note; the roof design is his, along with green-tinted glass in the windows to prevent the congregation being distracted from worship. E P Willins's restoration of the porch and tower (1880) is perhaps the most inspired and attractive Victorian work at Tharston.

Perhaps the best feature of Tharston Church is its beautiful and tranquil setting. Inside the church there are: three fifteenth-century bench-ends with carvings that perhaps represent: St Michael and the Devil - Christ as prophet, priest and king - and Our Lady Queen of Heaven (the dedication saint of Tharston Church); the marble altar slab just inside the north door, still retaining one of its five consecration crosses; an ancient communion table (c.1662); the belfry rails (1707); the north door (1717) with an older lock still in working order; some old and interesting wall monuments; and a high quality coloured glass window in the chancel, probably by King of Norwich. In the churchyard are: a stone coffin that once contained the bones of a thirteenth-century parish priest; the mausoleum (1852) of General Harvey, a veteran of the Peninsular Wars and Lord of the Manors of Tharston; cedar trees commemorating Queen Victoria's Jubilee (1897); and a yew tree commemorating the Millennium (2000). A new stone cross (2007) on the nave gable symbolises more than a thousand years of Christian worship on this site.

Visitors are welcome. The church is open on Saturday mornings, and otherwise details of keyholders are displayed in the church porch. If you are planning a visit on a Saturday morning, please phone a churchwarden to confirm church availability.

 

(With grateful thanks to Paul Cattermole for allowing the site to use his historical research)


 

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