The legend of St. Etheldreda
Many visitors ask how it is that such a large church is to be found in such a small village. Though Stow may have been rather larger than it is now, it was always a rural place. Yet it was also the centre of a large block of estates, belonging to the Saxon bishops of Dorchester on Thames. So, it was here that Bishop Aelfnoth, in about 975, built a church to serve, it seems, as head Minster (or mother church) for the Lincolnshire part of his large diocese. It was a sort of cathedral, because part of the bishop’s household of priests (which later became the cathedral chapter) lived at Stow and administered this part of the diocese. The memory of this period gave rise to the tradition that Stow was the Mother Church of Lincoln Cathedral. It is also at least possible that a Saxon church stood hereabouts even before Aelfnoth’s building. According to legend, St Etheldreda (c.630-679) rested at a place called ‘Stow’ while traveling from Northumberland to her eventual refuge at Ely. Her ash staff, planted in the ground, is said to have miraculously burst into leaf to provide her with shelter, whereafter the church of ‘St Etheldreda’s Stow’ (later renamed Stow St Mary) was built to commemorate the event. This legend is illustrated in a Victorian stained glass window high up the north wall of the chancel, to the left of the altar. The ‘Stow’ where the saint rested, however, may in fact have been a place of the same name near Threekingham in southern Lincolnshire.
Bishop Aelfnoth’s work can be seen in the lower parts of the transepts and of the crossing. His church was destroyed by fire, the debris of which, including molten lead, has been discovered under the floors. The church was rebuilt by Bishop Eadnoth II (1034-1050), and later enriched and endowed by Leofric, earl of Mercia and his well-known wife, Lady Godiva. A charter of 1054 survives describing what they did, and how they furnished the church with priests who were to sing the services in the way in which they were sung in St Paul’s cathedral. The endowment included Newark and Fledborough in Nottinghamshire and nearby Brampton and Marton, as well as the manor of Stow and the taxes of surrounding districts.
By the time of the Norman Conquest, twelve years later, it is likely that the transepts and the crossing, which we can see now, and a chancel that has since been rebuilt, had been finished. In 1067 Remigius became the first Norman bishop of Dorchester on Thames, and before he moved his see to Lincoln in 1073, he built the nave of his Head Minster at Stow. This is the nave that we see today, except that buttresses and doorways were added some 70 years later.
After Remigius had moved his cathedral to Lincoln, he decided to make Stow into a Benedictine monastery by transferring monks from Eynsham Abbey near Oxford. This was done the year before he died, but his successor quickly moved them back again, and Stow became a simple parish church.
In the second half of the twelfth century the Saxon chancel was replaced by a much larger one in the rich late Norman style. It is so unusually luxurious for a parish church that it needs explaining.
It is possible that building it was part of a plan to make Stow into a much more important centre, with four annual markets and a lot of development. In Saxon times there had been an annual market at Stow, and it looks as if the prosperity of this market depended upon the importance of the church as a Head Minster. However if this was not the motive for the new chancel, it was not enough to make Stow prosperous; the place failed to grow, the markets were removed to Marton, and the great chancel vault eventually fell down.
In the fifteenth century a new tower was built to replace the Saxon one, which was partly demolished, and the roofs were lowered. By the middle of the nineteenth century the condition of the church was deplorable, and it was even suggested that it should be demolished and a ‘convenient parish church’ built in its place. But the incumbent, the Revd. George Atkinson, raised money and the church was thoroughly restored by the architect, John Loughborough Pearson, who was later to design Truro Cathedral. He restored the roofs to their original pitch and rebuilt the vaulting in the choir.
It should be noted that the early history of the church is not as straightforward as it might appear from this account, and many historians and scholars might well disagree in parts.