A Short History
The earliest references to a church in Stafford are from the C10th which mention a wooden building on the site of St Bertelin's Chapel, the foundations of which are still to be seen at the west end of St Mary's today. This was replaced with a stone structure c.1000A.D. This building appears to have been largely rebuilt in the C13th and C14th with the addition of a clerestory and south aisle. There was access from this chapel to St Mary's via a doorway; the outline can still be seen on the interior west wall. St Bertelin's Chapel was latterly used as a council chamber and also housed the Free Grammar School for about 200 years until it was demolished in 1801 to provide more burial space.
Some stonework in the nave of St Mary's is said to be Norman in origin but the building as it stands today appears to be the result of a total rebuild in the early C13th and the cruciform layout with aisled nave and chancel is typical of this period. Work may have begun in the reign of King John (ruled 1199 - 1216).
Prior to the Reformation St Mary's had a college of thirteen canons (including a dean) and was in effect a cathedral without a bishop. Each of these canons was obligated to say mass daily and consequently there were another nine altars in side chapels around the church to accommodate this. St Mary's was also two churches under one roof. The nave was the parish church of Stafford and had an altar close to the site of the present nave altar, while the chancel was used by the dean and canons of the College of St Mary whose duty was to pray for living and departed members of the royal family. The screens which divided the church survived the dissolution of the college in 1548 and remained until 1841.
Until 1593 the octagonal tower was topped by a spire said to be one of the highest in England. A ferocious storm that year blew it down causing major damage to the south transept and the spire was never rebuilt.
St Mary's has had a colourful history. A pitched battle was fought within the church in 1258 when the Bishop of Lichfield (Roger de Meuland) entered it by force of arms, breaking open the doors at the head of an armed troop to exert his authority over the Royal Peculiar - sadly, blood was shed and some canons were wounded. A similar challenge was made in 1929 when the Rev. Lionel Lambert once again challenged the bishop's authority in the Chancery Court. The bishop triumphed once more. During the Civil War it is said that Prince Rupert who was residing briefly at the Ancient High House in 1642, took pot shots at the weathervane on St Mary's tower, apparently hitting the tail of the cockerel twice. When Stafford fell to the Parliamentary forces eight months later, the church became a barracks and stables.
By 1777 St Mary's was in such poor state of repair that it had to be closed. Some works were carried out on the tower, roof, parapets and windows to facilitate re-opening but by 1837 the church was once more in a dilapidated condition. The Archdeacon of the time insisted that the church-wardens have a full report made on the building and in 1840 George Gilbert Scott inspected St Mary's and recommended a restoration. By various means money was raised and work commenced in 1842 and was completed in 1844. A.W.N. Pugin pronounced the project to be "the best restoration ..... in modern times".
Further restorations took place in the 1870s and between 1947 and 1952. The nave altar was erected in 1963 and the west end choir stalls and organ were constructed in 1974.
Throughout its long history St Mary's has remained as a landmark, a fixed point. That it still stands today as witness to the faith of its founders is a testament to those who built it, maintained it and worshiped in it throughout the ages.