This beautiful church was begun in 1085 and was built as part of the Benedictine monastery of Great Malvern Priory. The exterior of the Priory is a fine example of late medieval perpendicular gothic architecture, which gives no hint of the building’s early Norman origins. The tower is very similar to that of Gloucester Cathedral, built with a striking blend of differing coloured stone which was restored during the 20th century.
Founded by Aldwin, a monk from Worcester, the Priory was built to house 30 monks. They followed the Rule of St Benedict which called them to devote their lives to serving and worshipping God and to care for travellers and the poor.
The most obvious survivors from that first building are the sturdy Norman pillars and arches of the nave. They look very different from the rest of the church which was rebuilt on a grand scale in the 1400s in the perpendicular gothic style. That redevelopment saw the insertion of the remarkable fifteenth century stained glass windows which still illuminate the church today.
These wonderful windows all contain fifteenth century glass which depicts events from the book of Genesis. The window nearest the Communion table begins the narrative with Creation and the Garden of Eden.
Only a few decades after the rebuilding work was finished, Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries brought monastic life here to an end. The Priory church only survived the Dissolution at all because in 1541 the people of Malvern raised the sum of £20 to buy it; this had to be paid in two instalments of £10. Since then the Priory has been the parish church of Great Malvern. Although the English Civil War raged around Worcester in the mid 17th century, the Priory escaped being damaged. However, by the 1800s the church was in great need of repair. Malvern’s Water Cure brought money and people into the town and in 1860 a full restoration began under the direction of Sir George Gilbert-Scott.
The font is a combination of a 19th century pedestal and a simple bowl of the Norman age. The three pairs of tiny windows beneath the West Window are ‘squints’ through which the old or infirm might have followed the services from a passageway behind the west end.
The West Window (above) spans the wall above the font. It was given by Richard, Duke of Gloucester and his wife Ann Neville just before he became King Richard III in 1483. Nearly all the original glass has been lost over the centuries; however the glass you see today is still medieval and was moved here from other windows in the church. It displays a variety of bishops, saints and angels.
This beautiful expanse of glass is known as the Magnificat window. It was given in 1501/2 by King Henry VII and three of his courtiers. Figures of them and Henry’s eldest son, Arthur, appear along the base.The glass tells the story of the Incarnation – God becoming man in the person of Jesus. It is filled with scenes from the life of Jesus as witnessed by his mother Mary.
Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…” Luke 1 v. 46-47
The reredos mosaic behind the altar shows the adoration of the Shepherds and Magi at Jesus’ birth. Made of glass, it was created in 1884 by James Powell & Sons. The East window is the largest in any parish church in England. It is connected to the great early fifteenth century stained glass painter John Thornton of Coventry and was created in around 1430. In the eighteenth century it was damaged by a large tree of ivy and so some parts of it are now a kaleidoscope of medieval fragments. It originally displayed scenes from the Passion, death and resurrection of Jesus and some of those panels can still be seen in the middle left of the window.
This Elizabethan alabaster tomb is a memorial to John and Jane Knotsford who died in the 1580s. It was erected by their daughter Anne, who is shown kneeling at a prayer desk at their feet, slightly obscured by my poor photography – Verger Leslie, I need lessons.
John Knotsford was a wealthy man of Malvern who purchased most of the Priory’s lands and monastic buildings after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 and to whom all future generations are greatly indebted.
Each side of the chancel is lined with monks’ stalls known as misericords which date from the 14th and 15th centuries. Misericord comes from the Latin word ‘misericordia’ which means mercy. Monks could lean on the ledges of the upturned seats to give them ‘merciful relief’ from the long hours of standing during their eight daily services.
The chapel is dedicated to St Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. The East window is by Charles Kempe and was installed in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. It depicts the Crucifixion with particular reference to the landscape of Malvern and saints connected to the Priory’s history.
Decorating the rounded wall of the apse are many medieval tiles which were made in kilns just a few hundred yards from the Priory. They date from between 1450 and 1500 and once completely covered the floor and parts of the walls. The tiles now covering the floor of the church are Victorian copies which were made by the Minton Factory.