St Mary and St Martin


The Benedictine priory of the Blessed Virgin at Blyth (the combined dedication to St Martin was added during the 19th century) was founded in 1088 by Roger de Busli, one of the new Norman landowners in the region, as an alien priory in the care of Holy Trinity Priory of Rouen in Normandy. The nave and north aisle remain from this building, together with the massive arch into the crossing area although alterations have been made to the nave, including the addition of its vault in the 13th century. The east end of the building has been demolished, together with most of the transepts and the monastic buildings which were sited on the north side of the church.

An insight into lay piety in the second half of the 12th century is afforded by the gift of half a skep of ‘clean and pure’ corn to be used by the monks of the priory to make the wafers for the Mass, by Ralph II de Tilly. His daughter Phillipa continued the gift and added to it in the 13th century.

The monks had building works in progress in the 13th century for which there were Royal gifts of timber from Sherwood forest in 1246 when the prior was given four oak trees for building work, this may have been the same project to which Peter, son of William of Martin, gave timber during the early part of the reign of Henry III (1216-72), where it is described as for building lodgings at the priory. Further Royal gifts from Sherwood followed in 1278 when thirty oaks were given to assist with rebuilding the ‘houses’ of the priory burned in a fire.

The priory’s Cartulary refers to a light before the altar of St Mary, presumably the high altar, and one at the altar to St Catherine on her feast day in the early 13th century; these were supported by the donations of two lay people, a brother and sister from the family of Henry of Winchester. The altar to St Catherine had previously been given money for altar lights by 1157. There were chantries for the de Cressy, Bevercotes and Fitzwilliam families, active in the 13th century, but all had disappeared before 1547.

The monks seem always to have shared their church with the parish, with a barrier separating the two parts, but the areas, and relative amounts of space intended for the use of the monks and the laity varied over time. The most obvious example of this is the widening of the south aisle in 1300 when the south transept was also taken over for parish use, but there had previously been a separation of space in the nave itself, with a pulpitum built across between the third piers from the east. The south windows are all from the date of the widening, with their Y-shaped tracery, and the south porch, with its inner portal from the early 13th century, was retained and moved into its current position when the aisle was widened. It was later given a battlemented parapet. The scale of the outer portal arch is much greater than one usually found for a porch and it is possible that this is a replacement. The arch dates from the 13th century and it may have originally been used in one of the monastic buildings and re-used here after the Dissolution.

The Doom Painting (with some details)

At some stage in the medieval period, after the construction of the nave vault, and probably at the same time as the work on the aisle, a wall was built across the most easterly bay of the nave, and the pulpitum that had previously separated the monks' part of the church from that of the laity two bays further west, was taken down. A Doom painting from the second half of the 15th century was discovered on this wall in 1885 and conserved in 1987.

The west end of the church was remodelled in the 15th century when the tower was built. The tower is doubtless the work referred to in bequests of 1476 and 1481 (ad) ‘fabricae ecclesiae’; it received a bell in 1509 and that date probably represents its completion. The window at the west end of the south aisle was installed during the same campaign and is dated by a donation towards it in 1481. The church was restored in 1861 and in 1885, and the tower upper stage rebuilt in 1929-30. In 1841 the four bells in the tower were taken down and recast by Taylors of Loughborough. Two further bells were added at this time.

The position of the priory near the Great North Road meant that it received a large number of travellers seeking hospitality and it was granted funds by the archbishop of York to help towards the costs of this in the 13th century. The priory seems to have had a largely untroubled history, with only a few reports of problems in the medieval visitation records. There was, however, a long-running dispute between the priory and the parish priest over tithes that was finally resolved in 1287 and the extension of the south aisle is assumed to have followed soon after. The priory was dissolved in 1536 and the site passed into secular hands although the parish retained the part of the church that they had used for worship.

The first reference to building work on the site is in 1684 when Edward Mellish rebuilt an existing house on the cloister site which incorporated the undercroft of one range of the cloister. Celia Fiennes, visiting in 1697, was much taken with the house, which was then called Blyth Abbey, and described it as a square brick house with projecting corners embellished with stone quoins, noting particularly its use of sash windows which would have been novel at the time. The arch at the end of the church made a shady seat for the garden and provided the site for the family burials. This is a description of the eastern bay of the nave behind the wall with the Doom painting on it which had been left exposed to the elements once the transepts and east end had been demolished. A drawing by Samuel Hieronymous Grimm from 1773 shows the church with foliage covering the whole east end and a door at the base of the east wall which suggests that the crossing arch was filled in at that time. In the early 19th century it housed an aviary. The house on the cloister site, by then remodelled and called Blyth Hall, was demolished in 1972 and the remains of the undercroft exposed. The site is now covered by houses although the rusticated gatepiers and the wrought-iron gates to the drive remain. Consolidation work on the end of the nave and aisles has covered the medieval masonry in a mixture of render and brick, leaving only the masonry above the crossing arch visible.