| Records relating to the history of Rushden are slender and incomplete, but they establish one far-away fact which matters today. It is that the village of Rissenden had a church in A.D. 1105.
Eight hundred and fifty years later that date seems worthy to be honoured by all who live within the sound of St. Mary’s bells, and celebrations are already in progress they come to their climax next Sunday.
The Domesday Book (1085) did not mention a church at Rushden, but twenty years later, when William Peveral, the Norman lord who figures so largely in local history, was endowing a new priory at Lenton in Nottinghamshire, the Rissenden church was one of the gifts.
To round off, he included some land and a labourer to look after it.
The Cluniac monks they came from Cluny, in France, and were notable for missionary work rode down from Nottingham to serve their village outpost, but by 1230, and probably earlier, St. Mary’s had its own rector Thomas of Northampton.
From that date the roll is complete; it runs to 51 names, and several of the medieval rectors after the sacking of Lenton Priory could claim royal appointment.
Though the early Norman church has for the main part disappeared, one of its foundation stones can still be identified; it is at the base of a pillar in the chancel.
In the late thirteenth century the church as we know it began to take shape. Loads of white stone from Ketton and Barnack were brought along the Nene on rafts to Higham Ferrers and from there on horseback to Rushden. Blended with the brown local ironstone, the “imported” material gave a mellow combination which has been admired through the centuries.
Builders whose names are unknown added the masterstroke about a hundred years later. It was the time when John of Gaunt was lord of the manor and hunted in Higham Park, and one may well imagine this famous Duke of Lancaster looking in approval as one of Northamptonshire’s wonderful spires rose towards the heavens.
If John of Gaunt had passed that way a couple of years ago he might have seen a surveyor with a theodolite and a workman with a length of string, both debunking the old tradition that the weathercock was 192 feet above the ground.
Blow to Local Pride
They made the height of tower and crocketed spire to be 164 feet. It was rather a blow to local pride, yet no cold set figures could warp the widely held opinion that Rushden’s spire is supreme in gracefulness among the rich Northamptonshire array.
Going back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the story takes in the beautiful interior “strainer” arch which corrects the thrust of the walls. This again is a feature that gives the church distinction, for only at Finedon and on a larger scale at Wells Cathedral do similar arches exist.
The people of later centuries have made their contributions in glass, wood, stone and other materials, but if one family had to be named for its associations with the church it would be the aristocratic Pembertons, who lived at Rushden Hall for 200 years, and left some interesting memorials in the sanctuary they loved.
If one rector had to be singled out it would be Canon J. T. Barker (1868-91), a man of great energy and culture. He saved the church from decay, planned education for the children at his own expense and coped boldly with social problems which arose inevitably as Rushden began its sudden expansion to the status of a busy industrial centre.
Subsequent rectors have enabled St. Mary’s to play its true part as a parish church. The pulse of Rushden has been felt there on all historic occasions, and denominational barriers have counted but little. The 700th anniversary of the first rector’s appointment was celebrated in 1930; the spire, bells and clock were restored and improved in the present Queen’s coronation year.
Now the Rev. I. E. Douglas-Jones, though comparatively new to the town, has taken up the theme with great enthusiasm. He has planned next Sunday as a day of thankful commemoration, and is preparing a new history booklet of the church he has so quickly learned to love.