The beautiful and historic Ottery St Mary’s Church


15:00 16 January 2022

One of Phyllis Baxter’s favorite photographic subjects was St Mary’s Church in Ottery, so much so that she abseiled down one of its towers and took some incredible photos from inside the church’s roof.

Phyllis Baxter rappelling down the front of Ottery St Mary’s Church
– Credit: Friends of Phyllis Baxter Action Group

Many times we have spoken of this beautiful church in the heart of the city which she called ‘the little sister who stood proudly next to the big sister in Exeter’. We assume that his statement was related to the fact that the current structure has been compared to a miniature version of Exeter Cathedral, nevertheless as beautiful and as popular as the large one.

Phyllis Baxter dressed in red sat at her desk with a pen, book and other office equipment

Phyllis Baxter dreamed of writing a book and starting a website about Ottery
– Credit: Phyllis Baxter

As is always the case when we write about this city and its hidden gems, our curiosity goes hand in hand with our admiration for the beauty enclosed within the walls of unique buildings such as our parish church; so we returned to our friend Grenville Gilbert who for many years was one of the churchwardens and soon satisfied our curiosity and transported us to the early days of St Mary’s Church with this interesting historical account.

“I have always loved the parish church of Ottery St Mary, 763 years of worship have passed within its walls. In Simon Jenkins’ book The thousand best churches in England, published in 1999, our church is considered one of the best in the country. Jenkins has awarded the highest merit, five stars, to only 18 churches and ours is one of them. According to a well-known national newspaper, it also has one of the best Lady Chapels in the country. The church once belonged to the secular canons of Rouen in France. It was Bishop Grandison, the 17th Bishop of Exeter, who purchased the church from the canons with a view to establishing a ‘sanctuary for piety and learning’. On 15 December 1337 Edward III granted a license for the foundation of a collegiate church in the town which was to be completed around 1342. Royal visitors included Henry VI (1452) and Henry VII (1497). The beautiful Dorset Aisle was built around 1520 thanks to the gift of Lady Cicely Bonville, Marchioness of Dorset and owner of Knightstone Manor. It remained a collegiate church for just over 200 years and was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1545, along with other colleges and monasteries. In 1760 the Reverend John Coleridge came to Ottery and took up the post of Master of the King’s School. Soon after, he was also appointed parish vicar, hence Ottery’s well-known connection to his youngest son, the famous poet, philosopher and theologian Samuel Taylor Coleridge.”

Grenville also recalled anecdotes that occurred in 2009 during the evening celebration of the 750th anniversary of the dedication of the parish church Ottery St Mary. “The Rt Revd Michael Langrish, the 70th Bishop of Exeter, banged the outside of the great west doors of the church with his crook so hard he smashed through one of the panels. Thereupon he went turned to me and said, “Grenville, I think you’ll need a faculty to fix this! (For those who don’t know, a faculty is a special authorization from the diocesan authority much like a permit to build classified – only worse!).

“The evening was an ecumenical event; I never forget that once the church was Roman Catholic. We even had a special beer brewed, aptly called ‘Bronescombe Ale’, and it was a very good beer indeed.

St Mary’s Church is a church worth a visit. Situated on a hill above the beautiful valley of the River Otter, the church today continues to serve as the spiritual center of the parish. It remains at the heart of the community and hosts a wide variety of activities from concerts to medieval banquets as well as the usual weekly services. It truly is ‘the people’s church’ – everyone is welcome to come in and participate!

Grenville still enjoys writing poems to celebrate special occasions and is often asked to do so. On the 750th anniversary of the dedication of Ottery St Mary’s Parish Church, he felt it was a fitting occasion for a poem. It is an inspiring poem that takes us back to the depths of the history of our parish church and can be read here.


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