Welcome to Swanage’s ancient Parish Church! Built of the beautiful Purbeck stone for which our town and district are famous. St Mary’s has seen Swanage grow from a poor hamlet of fisherman and stone quarries to it’s present 10,000 inhabitants (rising to 30,000 in the summer season). Originally a Chapel of Ease of the neighbouring parish of Worth Matravers and served by the Vicar of Worth, Swanage became a parish with it’s own Rector in 1487.
The church has four times been rebuilt. Only the tower of the original church remains. This tower is the most fascinating feature of today’s spacious building. It is also something of a puzzle.
THE TOWER - Many feel that the tower was clearly built for defence rather than for decoration. It is sturdily built, with tiny arrow slit windows, and originally had no entry at ground level. Where now a flight of stone steps leads up to the first floor level on the northern side - no doubt originally entrance was effected by means of a ladder which could be drawn up into the tower.
The Danes in Saxon times attacked this part of Dorset, laying waste its settlements and terrorizing the inhabitants. Sea pirates became a constant fear in later years. This tower was probably built as a refuge for the whole Swanage community. Dating the tower is difficult. AD 1250 is one suggestion for the lower three storeys. Yet it could be of late Saxon origin (circa 1000 AD) for the slit windows and massive corner stones, alternately long and short, and many thin strips of stone are all characteristic of the Saxon builders. Inside the tower is a particularly interesting blocked up door or window on the east face of the first storey, with a triangular arched top which shows definite Saxon traces.
The top storey was added in 1620, and now houses a fine peal of 8 bells. The oldest bell dates from 1594, and bears the inscription “Thinke on God”. Inside the church, the small window high in the east wall of the tower should be noted. This was originally used for shooting sea pirates. Later it gave direct view of the High Altar to the bellringers during Mass. Present day use is limited to watching for the bride when ringing for weddings!
Church history - continued >>>>