The foundations of St Mary Magdalene church were probably laid in the early eighth century when Ina, king of the West Saxons established Christianity in Taunton.
The church was first built in stone as part of the reorganisation of Taunton by Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, by 1180. St Mary’s became the town church in 1308 when Bishop Hazelshaw of Winchester changed its legal standing from a chapel of Taunton Priory to a church with its own ‘living’; the Revd Simon de Lyme became its first incumbent. This was achieved through a legal process known as the ‘Ordination of the vicarage’.
The church is mainly built of sandstone and has a painted interior, except for the ‘forest’ of pillars which line the four aisles – a rare feature in a parish church. Most of the statues and stained glass date from the Victorian restoration.
The main instigator of these ‘improvements’ was the Revd Dr James Cottle who, in the 1840s removed the high box pews, replacing them with the present ones. A later successor, the Revd Dr William Robinson Clark introduced more high church features such as the raised chancel floor.
Within the church there are a variety of memorials and tablets including War Memorials for soldiers from Somerset, including the Somerset Light Infantry.
The tower was built in the 15th and 16th centuries, financed by the prosperity created by the wool trade, and was rebuilt in 1858-62 (in replica) under the guidance of the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. It is considered to be one of the best examples of a Somerset tower and at 163 feet (50 m) tall is a local landmark. On completion of the re-build, the donkey who had hauled all the stone up the tower was himself hoisted to the top from whence to survey his handiwork! Nowadays a Peregrine Falcon resides up its dizzy heights from which precipitous lodging he flies to catch his prey.
The tower was described by Simon Jenkins, an acknowledged authority on English churches, as being “the noblest parish tower in England.” The tower itself has 12 bells and a clock mechanism (a carillon). These twelve bells are hung for ringing but there are three additional accidental (semitone) bells hung for chiming.
The church has suffered from the weather over the years and there have been various appeals for funding to repair the fabric of the building including one £25,000 in the 1950s and a more recent one for £135,000, in particular to repair the tower’s stonework after two pinnacles fell through the roof.
St Andrew’s Chapel
The side chapel which had been created in Corfield’s day in remembrance of Archdeacon Askwith (vicar of St Mary’s 1887-1911) was dedicated to St Andrew.
It was finally glazed in 2003 giving both quietness from the business of the church’s coffee and book shops, and also enabling the names of departed loved ones to be etched on the glass.
From the parish of St Mary’s, has been carved Holy Trinity church (1840s) and All Saints church, Halcon (1940s). The remaining parish consists of about 5,000 souls residing between the church and the motorway to the south. However, the burden of its mission lies within the town centre where it offers an open door together with a coffee and book shop.
The church has, since its mediaeval days, usually enjoyed a moderate evangelical and low church spirituality, though more recently has adopted a more Central position. She continues to proclaim the gospel of our Lord and seeks to create fellowship and to promote witness.
2008 was a very significant year for St Mary’s. In 1308 the church was made into the Parish Church of Taunton by the Bishop of Winchester. Its first Vicar was Simon de Lyme. Seven hundred years later we celebrated this auspicious event by having new glass doors constructed for the entrance of the church. The doors were designed and engraved by Tracey Sheppard FGE, with angels heralding the Good News on their trumpets. These power-assisted doors replaced the wood and latticed Edwardian doors, and thereby allowed people to see in and out, thus reducing the barrier between Church and People.
In 2004 St Mary’s had an interior face lift. All the walls were completely redecorated and the lighting system was replaced. Unfortunately 8 years later (2012) we have had to replace all the lighting of the Nave, and in 2013 the lighting of St Andrew’s Chapel
This new system is proving to be infinitely better and more discreet. It is far cheaper to run and more friendly to the environment. It was designed and fitted by Enlightened Lighting of Bath. The total cost was in the region of £90,000.
The lighting in St Andrew’s chapel had similar fitments for down-lighting, but the original fittings now point upwards thus illuminating the Victorian stencilling on the walls and the embellished ceiling above the chancel.