Britain tends to shy away from highly decorated parish churches. The older ones were stripped out when they were nicked from the Catholics by Henry VIII’s men, and protestant zeal tends toward plainer decoration. There are, of course, exceptions; and the church of St Mary the Virgin at Studley Royal is a fine example.
Situated in Studley Royal Park, next to Fountains Abbey, St Mary’s is a relatively new church, consecrated in 1878. It is one of those Gothic revival Victorian things, designed by William Burges for the Marquess and Marchioness of Ripon, and has been described as ‘flamboyant’. I suggest a more colloquial term might be ‘slightly over the top’. It is a riot of carved stone, marble, stained glass and gilt. Or should that be ‘guilt’? George Robinson, the Marquess (1827-1909), was a distinguished Liberal politician who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1874, though the Marchioness remained Church of England. They are buried together in the church, in a vault beneath ornately carved marble effigies of themselves.
Experts will tell you that Burges’s inspiration was highly eclectic, and I’m in no position to argue with that – even if I wanted to. The exceptionally colourful chancel is like something out of the pages of a fairy-tale knightly romance, with a ceiling that depicts martyrs, apostles, angels and so forth. Spot the winged lion of Judah, which is meant to represent Christ; it looks Babylonian. The chancel contrasts with the relatively plain nave but, apparently, the whole place is rich in symbolism; Dan Brown would have a field day.
St Mary’s is undeniably an astonishing place, with much in it to admire. The workmanship is exquisite. And there’s a sad story to go with it. Twenty three year old Frederick Vyner, brother of the Marchioness, was one of a party of four tourists captured by bandits in Greece in 1870 and killed during an attempted rescue mounted by Greek soldiers. Part of the cost of building the church was met from money that had been set aside for his ransom, but which was never paid. His mother, Lady Mary Vyner, also commissioned Burges to build the church of Christ the Consoler at Skelton-cum-Newby in her son’s memory.