Church history

Pictures 2   St Mary’s Church at Astbury, with its unique trapezoidal plan, has stood on this site, at the head of the village green, for many centuries. The 5-bay west front may also be unique in a church with only three main vessels (ie, nave and two aisles).
It has been described by Raymond Richards, FSA, as ‘one of the most beautiful churches in the county’. Its exterior, dominated by the detached tower and lofty spire visible from miles around, evokes the admiration of the beholder, and this is increased when the majesty of the interior is surveyed. F. H. Crossley, FSA, described the church as one of the glories of Cheshire; it ranks next to the Cathedral and Nantwich in size and possesses more complete ancient fittings than any other church of large scale in the county.
For Nikolaus Pevsner it is ‘one of the most exciting Cheshire churches’ with ‘thrilling’ roofs, ‘low-pitched with camber-beams, and with plenty of bosses and also some dainty openwork pendants’. When the length of most of his church notices can be numbered in lines, the two pages devoted to Astbury are significant.
The 2,000-year old yew tree north of the church and freshwater springs nearby testify that this has been a site of religious significance for as long as Man has been in the area. A fragment of the Saxon preaching cross on display in the church dates from AD 950, and the priest mentioned in the Domesday Book ministered probably from a timber church occupying the area of the present North aisle.
A stone doorway was inserted in about 1150 and a stone chancel, incorporating Saxon stones, added to the east about 1250. A tower to the west was also begun, but taken down and rebuilt to the north, separate from the church, shortly afterwards. A radically new plan was then adopted in the later 13th century, the date of the South wall, showing that the trapezoidal plan had been already adopted.
The West respond of the South aisle can be related to work at Chester Cathedral of c 1260-70, as can the sedile and piscina in the Lady Chapel. Complete internal rebuilding continued now for 150 years, suggesting a false start on the south arcade (E bays) and a rethinking for the North; the clerestory seems to belong to a last campaign in the mid 15th century.
The sanctuary is clearly incomplete and probably missing a never-built east bay. The reconstruction of the church in the Late Perpendicular style in the fifteenth century may be attributed to the growing importance and population of the parish, in particular the town of Congleton. The spire was struck by lightning and rebuilt in 1838, and the interior ‘restored’ by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1862 (‘the least harmful and “thorough” of his Cheshire restorations’, Richards 1947).