The manor of Fairford was held by a succession of eminent Norman and Anglo-Norman families throughout the medieval period, including the de Clares, of whom the last male heir was killed at Bannockburn; the Despensers, whose fine chantry chapel is in Tewkesbury Abbey; and the Earls of Warwick. From 1478 the estate reverted to the Crown. But in 1479 part of the estate was leased to one John Twynyho and his son-in-law, John Tame, a Cirencester wool merchant. John Tame and his son Edmund were responsible for the construction of the church we see today, which, unusually, was almost completely rebuilt from the ground up on the site of a previous church. Each year, RAF Fairford hosts the world’s largest military air show the Royal International Air Tattoo.
St. Mary’s Church
Because it was built almost as new (with the exception of parts of the tower), St. Mary’s is a perfect Perpendicular structure. A vast churchyard (featuring the gravestone, beside the south entrance, of Tiddles the Cat, of this parish) surrounds the church, the exterior of which is decorated with a number of intricate adornments, including gargoyles, escutcheons of eminent families including the Tames, and instruments such as wool shears, that were the foundation of the towns medieval prosperity. The elegant Perpendicular style, with its emphasis on high, slender lines, permitted a much greater use of decorative glass, which is why churches of the period are so much lighter than their predecessors. Approaching the church it is evident that the coincidence of timely reconstruction with technical advances in building techniques found its most deliberate expression in the unusual amount of space allocated to the windows, which are St. Mary’s most striking architectural feature, even from the outside. There are in fact twenty-eight windows, all of outstanding quality, and probably the work of the royal glazier, Barnard Flower, who, like many of the great glaziers of the day, was of Flemish origin. What is striking is how reminiscent the work is of Renaissance paintings: rural scenes, landscapes, castles, and fabulous interiors all feature and together with the use of brilliant color and startling characterization create a remarkable illustrated narrative. In fact, the windows follow a sequence, that is in effect an exaltation of the Christian story. Many of the images seem to have been taken from illuminated scripts that were circulating in the 15th century. St. Mary’s, as a place of worship, has a welcoming aspect that emanates from its rather high-church atmosphere. In some respects, it seems almost untouched by the Reformation.
The sequence begins with the window in the north wall that is directly opposite the main south entrance, featuring left to right: The Fall, the Burning Bush, Gideon (who delivered Israel from the Midianites and represents total dependence on God, who ordered him to reduce his army from thirty-two thousand to three hundred. He asked God to prove his power by bringing dew to a fleece when all the land was dry) and the Queen of Sheba (who came from afar to meet Solomon, thus reinforcing his sagacity and international outlook). The sequence heads eastwards.
Next: St. Joachim (husband of St. Anne and the father of Mary, the mother of Jesus) and St. Anne (mother of Mary), St. Anne and St. Mary, Self-dedication of Mary, the Betrothal.
Next: The Annunciation, the Nativity, The Magi, the Presentation.
Next: Christ Among the Doctors (who were amazed at his youthful intelligence), Assumption (of Mary to Heaven at the end of her life), Flight into Egypt (to escape Herod’s threat to massacre children in order to be rid of the ‘King of the Jews’)
Next (main east window): the lower five windows show the entry into Jerusalem, Gethsemene, Pilate washing his hands to indicate his clean conscience, the scourging of Christ, and the road to Calvary. The upper windows: The Crucifixion: Pilate on horseback in the leftmost window and note the devil hovering above the unrepentant thief in the fourth.
Next: Descent from the cross, featuring Joseph of Arimathaea (the man who donated his own prepared tomb for the burial of Jesus after Jesus’ Crucifixion) holding Christ and Nicodemus (who accepted Christ, although a Pharisee) waiting below. The entombment, again with Joseph and Nicodemus. The Harrowing of Hell, in which Christ proclaims the good news to tormented souls (note the impenitent soul behind a roasting grill).
Next: Resurrection: Christ visits his mother. The Transfiguration (in which Jesus is transfigured and becomes radiant upon a mountain, presented as the point where human nature meets God). On the right, the holy women leaving the tomb – Mary Magdalene (one of Jesus’ most celebrated disciples, and the most important woman disciple in the movement of Jesus), Mary, Mother of Jesus (in blue), and a woman (nearest Christ) who is either the wife of John Tame or Princess Mary, daughter of Henry VII.
Next: Ascension and Pentecost (the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Twelve apostles and other followers of Jesus).
Next three windows: The Twelve Apostles: St. Peter (regarded as the first Pope), St. Andrew (who according to tradition founded the See of Byzantium), St. James (Patron Saint of Spain, and according to legend, his remains are held in Santiago de Compostela), St. John (exorcising the poisoned chalice, an allusion to his being put to the test by the high priest of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. The high priest said to him: “If you want me to believe in your god, I will give you some poison to drink and, if it does not harm you, it means that your god is the true God.”
Next: St. Thomas (‘Doubting’ Thomas), St. James the Less, St. Philip, St. Bartholomew (who introduced Christianity to Armenia but was said to have been skinned alive, hence the knife).
Next: St. Matthew, St. Simon, St. Judas Thaddeus (or Jude), St. Matthias
Next: Four Latin Doctors: St. Jerome (produced Vulgate version of the Bible), St. Gregory the Great (pope who sent St. Augustine to Kent), St. Ambrose (Bishop of Milan), St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (Latin philosopher and theologian from Roman Africa, whose writings were very influential in the development of Western Christianity).
Next: The West Wall – the Three Judgement Windows.
The first is the judgment hall of David.
Then (the Great West Window) the Day of Judgement.
Then, the judgment of King Solomon.
Next: The four evangelists: St. John, St. Luke, St. Mark, St. Matthew.
Next Three Windows: Twelve Prophets: Obadiah, Daniel, Malachi, Micah. Joe, Zephaniah, Amos, Hosea. Zechariah, Isaiah, David, Jeremiah.
Next Four Windows: Twelve Martyrs and Confessors of the Faith: St. Dorothy, St. Sebastian, St. Agnes. St. Catherine, Archbishop (probably St. Thomas of Canterbury), St. Margaret. Royal saint, (probably St. Edward, king and martyr), Emperor Saint (probably Henry of Bamberg), King with halo, probably Henry VI). Cardinal (probably St. Bonaventure), a Pope, a Cardinal (probably St. Peter Damian).
Next four windows: Twelve Persecutors of the Church: Annas offering money, Judas, Caiaphas. Maxentius, King of Huns, Herod. Herod Agrippa. Murderer of Saintly Bishop. Woman-slayer. Three armed figures, two of which have letters on belts that must have been of significance to medieval viewers.
Also….. Misericords – beneath the folding seats in the chancel, which probably came from Cirencester Abbey at the Dissolution (1530). Dating from about 1300, they depict entertainingly, domestic and rural scenes. A torch is provided for closer scrutiny.
The Lady Chapel (north of the chancel) – the Lygon Tomb, with stone effigies to Katherine, widow of John Tame’s grandson and her third husband Roger Lygon; and, opposite, the marble tomb of John Tame himself, the church founder.
Churchyard – Apart from the little memorial to Tiddles (1963-1980), there are other tombs of note. The oldest is a rare 15th-century anonymous tomb, which lies two rows west of Tiddles. Two rows east of Tiddles is the large tomb of the Keble family. John Keble, Fairford’s most famous son, was a poet (notably ‘The Christian Year’), and a leading light of the Oxford Movement, a movement of High Church Anglicans, whose members were mostly associated with the University of Oxford, arguing for the reinstatement of lost Christian traditions of faith and their inclusion into Anglican liturgy and theology. He gave his name to one of Oxford University’s colleges. Four rows west of Tiddles is the fine ‘bale’ (shaped like a bale of cloth) tomb to Valentine Strong, who owned quarries in Taynton and Little Barrington. His father was Timothy, who, it is surmised, designed the wonderful gatehouse at Stanway. Valentine’s sons were the principal stonemasons during the construction of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
From the church turn left and then left again to follow road down to cross the river and reach the old ox pens. You can enter these and on the other side follow a waymarked walk there. Or continue along the road for a few yards and then turn left over a style to walk over the meadows (with a grand view of the church to your left) to join the main village street. Turn left to recross the river by means of the medieval bridge and return to the heart of the village.