St Mary’s ,Tarrant Crawford: Part 1 – Save Our Stories: Wall Paintings Series

One summer when I was about fourteen or fifteen my family and some friends went on a walk through the Dorset countryside. At some point during this walk we stumbled upon an old church. This church was away from all main roads and, in fact, seemed to stand on its own, surrounded by fields and trees, in a place that appeared both inconvenient to potential parishioners and wildly inaccessible. We had come across St Mary’s, Tarrant Crawford, a twelfth-century church and one of the last surviving buildings of what was, formerly, one of the wealthiest Cistercian abbeys in England.

St Mary’s, Tarrant Crawford

I returned to St Mary’s last year. What stood out to me when I saw it again was the ‘greenness’ of its surroundings. Moreover, the church itself is built on a gentle slope, meaning it looks like the building is almost ‘leaning back’ slightly against its early sixteenth-century tower. St Mary’s was given to the Abbey by Ralph de Kahaines.[1] However, it was re-founded in the early thirteenth century by Bishop Richard Poore, a Bishop of Salisbury and an influential force behind the re-building of Salisbury Cathedral.[2] Bishop Poore later came to be buried in the cemetery. Other famous figures rumoured to be buried in St Mary’s cemetery include Queen Joan, sister of Henry III, who is said to be buried in a gold coffin.

The former wealth of the Abbey is evident from the rich decoration that covers the walls of the church. Despite the evident dampness of the interior, the walls of this church are still splashed with colour and illustration – from fourteenth-century depictions of the life of St. Margaret of Antioch to a series of images telling the story of three princes who go hawking and come across a few skeletons! It is, however, no surprise that the story of St. Margaret is so well emphasised. Jenny C. Bledsoe has discussed the popularity of the cult of St. Margaret in North Dorset and St. Margaret’s importance to anchoresses, female religious figures who retreated from the world.[3] Several anchoresses were probably resident at the Abbey, with Bledsoe suggesting that they were enclosed within a structure next to or joining onto St Mary’s.[4] ‘The Life of St. Margaret’ features prominently in the Katherine Group, a collection of five medieval saints’ lives.[5] ‘The Life of St. Margaret’ is also strongly linked to a medieval text called Ancrene Wisse, a ‘guide’ for anchorites, with Bledsoe noting that Ancrene Wisse directly encourages its readers to read and learn from ‘The Life of St. Margaret’.[6] Considering this, the wall paintings depicting the ‘Life of St. Margaret’ may have encouraged the devotional practices so central to the life of anchoresses, including confession and the avoidance of gluttony.[7] The art, in this sense, has devotional, aesthetic and instructive qualities and intention.

Another particularly striking feature of St Mary’s can be spotted close to the altar. A small plaque on the floor commemorates the passing of Rev. Francis Alfred Smith, who died before the altar on July 15th 1877. The inscription reads ‘blessed is that servant who his Lord when he cometh shall find watching’. The stillness of the church, with its natural lighting and secluded location, cannot help but encourage a sort of reflection, even if one does not intend to specifically pray. Standing in this spot, directly in front of the altar, and surrounded by medieval art, one cannot help but feel tied to the past, to the people like Rev. Smith, who knelt within this church, prayed, reflected. To quote Alan Bennett’s The History Boys – ‘it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours’.[8]

Although it is a shame that other parts of the Abbey no longer exist, having been demolished during the Reformation, St Mary’s truly is a jewel in a church-crawler’s crown. It draws together not only the artistry of the medieval period but also its religious literature and devotional practices. The church is now a mere reflection of the glory that once was, but it nevertheless remains, in my view, quite glorious.


British Heritage is currently fundraising to preserve some of the UK’s precious wall paintings, much like the ones found in St Mary’s. To donate please visit: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/support-us/our-appeals/wallpaintings/


Works Cited

Bennett, Alan, ‘Act 1’, The History Boys, Drama Online, London: Faber and Faber, (2004), doi:10.5040/9780571289325.00000008, Accessed: 11th January 2020.

Bledsoe, Jenny C., ‘The Cult of St. Margaret of Antioch at Tarrant Crawford: The Saint’s Didactic Body and Its Resonance for Medieval Women’, Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures, 39.2, (2013), pp.173-206, (p.173), https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/jmedirelicult.39.2.0173, Accessed: 11th January 2020.

Fisher, Jim, ‘Tarrant Crawford’, Dorset OPC, (2018), https://www.opcdorset.org/TarrantFiles/T.Crawford/TarrantCrawford.htm, Accessed: 11th January 2020.

Hoskin, Philippa, ‘Poor [Poore], Richard’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2004), https://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:3030/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-22525;jsessionid=B659E8C127128301C923CB6679579267, Accessed: 11th January 2020.

Huber, Emily Rebekah and Elizabeth Robertson, ‘The Life and Passion of Saint Margaret’, The Katherine Group (MS Bodley 34): Religious Writings for Women in Medieval England, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, (2016), pp.87-133.

Millet, Bella, Ancrene Wisse, Exeter: University of Exeter Press, (2009).



[1] Jim Fisher, ‘Tarrant Crawford’, Dorset OPC, (2018), https://www.opcdorset.org/TarrantFiles/T.Crawford/TarrantCrawford.htm, Accessed: 11th January 2020.

[2] Philippa Hoskin, ‘Poor [Poore], Richard’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2004), https://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:3030/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-22525;jsessionid=B659E8C127128301C923CB6679579267, Accessed: 11th January 2020.

[3] Jenny C. Bledsoe, ‘The Cult of St. Margaret of Antioch at Tarrant Crawford: The Saint’s Didactic Body and Its Resonance for Medieval Women’, Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures, 39.2, (2013), pp.173-206, (p.173), https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/jmedirelicult.39.2.0173, Accessed: 11th January 2020.

[4] Bledsoe, p.173.

[5] See Emily Rebekah Huber and Elizabeth Robertson, ‘The Life and Passion of Saint Margaret’, The Katherine Group (MS Bodley 34): Religious Writings for Women in Medieval England, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, (2016), pp.87-133.

[6] Bledsoe, p.177. For Ancrene Wisse see Bella Millet, Ancrene Wisse, Exeter: University of Exeter Press, (2009).

[7] Bledsoe, p.177.

[8] Alan Bennett, ‘Act 1’, The History Boys, Drama Online, London: Faber and Faber, (2004), doi:10.5040/9780571289325.00000008, Accessed: 11th January 2020.

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