History of St Mary’s Church, Studley Royal

When the estates of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal were united in 1767, a celebrated medieval monastic ruin was incorporated into one of England’s finest 18th-century landscape gardens. The most significant later addition to this setting, now a World Heritage Site, is the Gothic revival Anglican church of St Mary. Created partly as a result of a tragic family death in 1870, St Mary’s Church was designed by William Burges in an eclectic Gothic style for the Marquess and Marchioness of Ripon in 1870 and completed in 1878. A masterpiece of an astonishingly inventive designer, it is rich in decorative detail and symbolism.

St Mary, Studley Royal, seen from the south-west, standing in its walled churchyard
The building of St Mary’s Church, seen here from the south-west, was sparked by a family death

Tragic Origins

In April 1870 a small group of aristocratic tourists on an expedition to Marathon in Greece was kidnapped by bandits and held to ransom. On 21 April Greek soldiers attempted to rescue them, but in the ensuing skirmish four of the hostages were killed. Among the victims of what became known as the Dilessi Massacre was Frederick Vyner, whose widowed mother, Lady Mary Vyner, lived at Newby Hall, Yorkshire. His sister, Henrietta, was married to George Robinson, Earl de Grey (from 1871 1st Marquess of Ripon), who owned the neighbouring estate of Studley Royal and Fountains Abbey.

Lady Mary Vyner and Lord and Lady Ripon put the money they had allocated for the ransom towards building two parish churches on their lands. The church at Newby, Christ the Consoler, completed in 1876, was dedicated to Frederick’s memory. Its sister church, St Mary’s, was built in the park at Studley Royal in 1870–78.


The Architect of St Mary’s Church

Both churches were designed by William Burges (1827–81). It is not known why Lady Mary and the Ripons chose him, but they had friends in common. The most significant was the 3rd Marquess of Bute, who had been an undergraduate at Oxford with Frederick Vyner – in 1867 Bute and Vyner had travelled to Iceland together. Bute commissioned the works by which Burges is now best remembered, the transformations of Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch in Glamorgan into visions of medieval Gothic splendour.

A leading figure in the Gothic revival, Burges combined scholarly understanding of the architecture of the Middle Ages with a highly individual inventiveness. He believed that Gothic architecture was capable of being developed into a contemporary style, equal to all modern needs.

Painting of Studley Royal House before the fire of 1946 that led to its demolition
Studley Royal House, the main country seat of the 1st Marquess of Ripon, who commissioned St Mary’s Church. The house, mainly built in the 18th century, was gutted by fire in 1946 and later demolished

The Patrons

The Marquess of Ripon (1827–1909) was a distinguished Liberal politician with radical tendencies. His career came to a climax in 1880, when Gladstone appointed him Viceroy of India, a post he held until 1884.

As a young man, Lord Ripon was influenced by Christian Socialism, which emphasised religion’s contemporary social mission. He combined this with a deep admiration for the religious life of the Middle Ages and for Gothic architecture. If he only had ‘half a million of tin’, he wrote to a friend in 1853, he would ‘turn that Fountains Abbey, restored and beautified into a Working-man’s University’.[1] This was partly a joke, although there is evidence that in 1873 he consulted Burges about a restoration of the abbey.[2]

When Lord Ripon added a chapel to the house at Studley Royal, he dedicated it to Our Lady of Fountains, suggesting that he intended in a modest way to revive the religious life of the site which had come to an end in the 1530s with the Suppression of the Monasteries. Such beliefs help to explain why he made St Mary’s such a prominent part of the landscape at Studley Royal.

In 1874 Lord Ripon converted to Roman Catholicism, much to the dismay of his family and political colleagues. His wife remained loyal to the Church of England, and so she assumed greater responsibility for the half-built church. An anecdote suggests that she had been closely involved from the start, however: St Mary’s, it was said, ‘was designed at a moment’s notice on the spot by Mr Burges, single-handed, the T square and drawing-board having been provided by Lady Ripon so that the design might be made, as she said, by her architect, and under her influence’.[3]

Despite his conversion, Lord Ripon was buried next to his wife (who had died in 1907) in the family vault at St Mary’s, underneath the Chapel of St George at the east end of the south aisle. They are commemorated by twin recumbent marble effigies.

Design and Building of the Church

Despite the story of St Mary’s being designed ‘on the spot’ it is a deeply considered building, to every detail of which Burges gave great attention. This care is evident in the choice of site. St Mary’s is placed at the western end of the avenue of lime trees that crosses the estate from south-west to north-east, and is aligned on the west front of Ripon Minster to the east. The church stands about 80 metres to the east of an obelisk erected in about 1805, which it supplants as a prominent accent in the landscape.

At first glance, St Mary’s may look like a conventional medieval Gothic church. However, closer inspection reveals Burges’s originality at every turn. He greatly admired English and French Gothic of the first half of the 13th century, which was often described by architects of his time as ‘vigorous’, ‘masculine’ and ‘muscular’. It was a style that made great use of sculpture, which for Burges was an essential element in architecture. To this he added a love of coloured materials, including marble, mosaic, gilded metalwork and stained glass, as well as paintwork.


Many of the church’s most striking features, such as the double tracery of the chancel and sanctuary, are derived from 13th-century England, most notably the Angel Choir at Lincoln Cathedral. One of the ways that Burges sought to ‘develop’ Gothic, however, was by combining ideas derived from an eclectic range of medieval models, mixing different periods and countries. In his detailed analysis of Burges’s sources for St Mary’s, the architect’s biographer, J Mordaunt Crook, has identified influences from churches and cathedrals in Poitiers (the spiral staircase to the organ loft), Verona (the trefoil profile of the nave roof) and Padua (the sanctuary dome).[4]

Burges did not intend St Mary’s to be understood as either ‘English’, ‘foreign’, or even ‘medieval’, though. For him, and probably for his patrons as well, the church demonstrated that Gothic was a contemporary style. Certainly, nobody could mistake it for anything other than a Victorian building.

Painted angel sculpture in the sanctuary vault, St Marys Church
Painted decoration and sculpture in the sanctuary vault, executed by Burges’s team of expert craftsmen

Craftsmen at St Mary’s

The builder of St Mary’s was John Thompson, whose large firm was based in Peterborough; according to the 1871 census he employed 550 men. The foundation stone was laid on 25 March 1871. Burges provided a silver trowel for the occasion, and he described the ceremony in a letter to Lord Ripon.[5]

Day-to-day supervision on site was exercised by a clerk of works chosen by Burges, J Thomas from Cardiff. The contract does not survive, and the total cost of the building is unknown. One initial estimate was for £9,600, but it is likely that the eventual sum was considerably higher, thanks largely to the lavishness of the architectural sculpture and fittings.[6] There seems to have been a dispute with Thompson over costs, as Burges recorded in his diary that he had to go to arbitration in 1877, but the details do not survive.[7]

By the time St Mary’s was built, Burges had established a team of collaborators with whom he worked closely on many occasions. All the sculpture for the church was executed by Thomas Nicholls (1825–96), who ran a large workshop in Lambeth, south London. The stained glass is by the firm of Saunders & Co, set up with Burges’s encouragement in 1869 by his former pupil W Gualbert Saunders (1837–1923). Saunders employed Horatio Walter Lonsdale (1844–1919) and Fred Weekes (1833–93) as artists and draughtsmen, and the windows at St Mary’s are the result of close collaboration between the three.

Weekes also executed some of the painted decoration in the church. He was assisted by Campbell, Smith & Co, a firm of church decorators founded by Charles Campbell in 1873. In 1877 Campbell had gone into partnership with Frederick George Smith, who had previously worked for Saunders.

This was an exceptionally talented team, but nonetheless Burges expected them to work to his exacting specifications, which as always he would have embodied in highly detailed drawings.[8]

Later History of St Mary’s

St Mary’s was built as a parish church, and continued in use as such until 1969. On the death of the 2nd Marquess of Ripon in 1923, Studley Royal and Fountains were bought by the Vyner family. In 1966 the nucleus of the estate was sold to the county council of the West Riding of Yorkshire. The National Trust acquired the estate from the council’s successors, North Yorkshire County Council, in 1983.

In 1973, three years after the church had been declared redundant, it was taken into the guardianship of the Department of the Environment. Under a local management agreement drawn up in 2008, English Heritage is responsible for the conservation and maintenance of the church, and the National Trust for visitor access.

About the Author

Michael Hall is an architectural historian, former Editor of Apollo magazine and former Architectural Editor and Deputy Editor of Country Life. His books include The Victorian Country House, published in 2010.


1. Lucien Wolf, The Life of the First Marquess of Ripon, 2 vols (London, 1921), vol 1, 57.
2. Lord Ripon employed Burges’s assistant J Arthur Reeve to make a detailed survey of the ruins in 1873–6 and Burges restored the vault of the abbey’s cloisters: see J Mordaunt Crook, William Burges and the High Victorian Dream, 2nd edn (London, 2013), 381 (note 29).
3. The Building News, 60 (1881), 473–4, quoted in Mordaunt Crook, op cit, 209.
4. Ibid, 210.
5. Burges to Lord Ripon, 28 March 1871, quoted in Mordaunt Crook, op cit, 381 (note 43).
6. On the estimate, see Morduant Crook, op cit, p 381 (note 44).
7. Ibid, p 381 (note 44). The arbitrator was the architect Charles Barry Jr.
8. Burges’s drawings do not survive.