St Mary's

Windows to the World

Revitalising Richard III's beloved church in Barnard Castle

Discover the wonderful history of St Mary’s Parish Church, and help it become a much-loved heritage destination for town residents and tourists alike

Tucked away in the picturesque market town of Barnard Castle, St Mary’s is a little-known cultural treasure. Founded in 1130, it later became a favourite of Richard III. More recently, it has served as a fire station, parish hall, playhouse, meeting place, and town archive.

But at nearly 900 years old, the church building was in dire need of restoration. Thanks to a generous grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the fabric of the church has now been preserved.

This project isn’t just about repointing stonework and conserving stained-glass windows. During the recent restoration, lots of fascinating historical secrets have been rediscovered – from medieval carvings and ornamental works installed by Richard III, to the curious stories behind the beautifully restored stained glass windows.

Over the course of seven months, DigVentures will be helping the St Mary’s team breathe new life into this old building. We’ll be making St Mary’s the centre of an exciting programme of talks, performances, workshops and online events, to help it become a much-loved heritage destination for tourists and town residents alike.

Register for St Mary’s news and updates

With events, volunteering, and activities for local school and youth groups there are plenty of ways to discover St Mary’s history. With each email, we’ll also reveal one of the building’s hidden historical gems. However you want to be involved, it all starts with adding your name to the email list below.

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More about St Mary’s – Windows to the World

Why are we helping St Mary’s? And what are hoping to achieve? You can read more about our vision for the future of St Mary’s below.

1. Breathe new life into an old church

Founded only a couple of decades after the town’s iconic medieval castle in 1130, as a response to the growing congregation of the castle chapel, St Mary’s Parish Church had an eventful past.

Over the course of nearly 900 years, it has witnessed the ups, downs, lives, and deaths of generations of Barnard Castle’s inhabitants.

As well as a church, it has served as a fire station, parish hall, playhouse, meeting place for planning committees, and archive for official town documents.

But since the 19th century, when new public buildings were built and the renting of pews turned visiting a church into an elitist privilege, it has slowly receded from everyday town life.

In fact, a recent survey shows that although most inhabitants of Barnard Castle are aware of the church, many have not set foot in the building themselves, and say that they are intimidated by its religious appearance. They are not aware of its intriguing history, cultural importance, and wouldn’t even recommend a visit to tourists!

Windows to the World aims to radically change how the people of Barnard Castle view St Mary’s Church and its place within their town.

2. Become a much-loved heritage destination

From the outside, St Mary’s looks like a Victorian building. But once you cross the threshold, it’s like travelling back in time.

Inside, the church still retains significant parts of its medieval structure, including carvings and all manner of historic artefacts.

For fans of King Richard III, it’s a place to come and see the direct impact of his architectural overhaul. Extremely attached to the place, he invested big sums of money in making the building bigger, lighter and more ornamental. Today, you can see the crest of Richards boar, as well as stone carvings of the later king’s head, and that of his brother, King Edward IV.

For those interested in local history, it’s also home to important town records, a stunning collection of Victorian stained-glass windows, several war memorials, richly decorated grave stones, all the colours of the 4th Durham militia and so much more.

Although trained eyes can read the history of the building, there is so much that can be done to make its past much more visible and engaging.

Windows to the World aims to help St Mary’s Church become an inviting place for people to visit and locals to use.

3. Make the most of this cultural treasure

As well as being a church, filled with historic curiosities, St Mary’s is fundamentally also a public building.

It has served as a fire station, parish hall, playhouse, meeting place for planning committees, and archive for official town documents.

This project will uncover, rediscover and reinterpret the eventful history and cultural peculiarities of St Mary’s Parish, Barnard Castle, and the wider surroundings.

It will also explore centuries of the town’s colourful history, uncover hidden gems from its past, and share these discoveries with the world through talks, exhibitions, workshops, performances, a brand-new virtual museum, and so much more.

Through fun, interactive events that highlight the curious, warm, and wonderful history of St Mary’s church, Windows to the World will build up a community of people who are able to help the building, and all the hidden history it carries with it, step back into the centre of public life.

Along the way, residents and visitors will learn a lot about the church and the town that they didn’t know before. After all, 900 years is a long time!

Many thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund and to the many lottery players who are making ’Windows to the World’ possible, as well as to the Northern Dales Richard III Society and the Friends of St Mary’s.

Today, St Mary’s church is still an active church providing religious service to the people of Barnard Castle, but it is no longer at the centre of town life. Although its graveyard holds the remains of nearly all of Barnard Castle’s inhabitants up until the mid 18th century, people seem to have forgotten its colourful history and the role it played it during the past 900 years of the town’s existence.

With your help, Windows to the World will change this!

In the beginning was a castle

The town of Barnard Castle stands on a prominent position high over the River Tees, with roads both into Teesdale and into the uplands of the North Pennines, as well as former railway lines, important communications routes for almost 2000 years. The River Tees functioned as a political boundary since prehistoric times, its latest use being the boundary between Country Durham and Yorkshire until 1974, with its main crossing for centuries right at the bottom of the town at Barnard Castle Bridge. The earliest structural evidence is that of a Roman Road crossing the river and connecting Bowes and Binchester, and although there are no remains of buildings, several finds of Roman coins and pottery suggest a possible small settlement near Barnard Castle Bridge. The origin of Barnard Castle as it is today dates to the late 11th century, when Guy de Baliol built the castle as the centre of his estates given to him as reward for support for William II. The fortification promised protection from Scottish attacks, land was offered to settlers, a small chapel was built within the castle walls, and a village grew around the castle along the former Roman Road, later known as Gallow Gate (today Galgate). As the castle grew and underwent changes, the village changed with it and developed into a town. Much of this early medieval structure can still be seen in the street layout of Barnard Castle, including outline burgage plots and back lanes behind the houses at Horse Market where the town’s early industries were located.

Soon, the church was too small for Barnard Castle’s congregation and a new church dedicated to St Mary’s was founded in 1130 on an elevated position that was visible from the surrounding countryside. Located in a central location in the town at the crossing of two of its most important roads, in immediate vicinity to the market place and opposite the entrance to the castle, ensured that St Mary’s was one of the first main buildings visitors to the town would see. The building of St Mary’s church is likely to have triggered the development of Newgate, which is a slightly younger street than Horse Market and The Bank. Several houses were built, as well as a small hospital and alms houses in the 13th century that were connected to the church.

Patronage of Richard III

In the following centuries, the Barnard Castle was under constant threat from Scotland until into the late 13th century when John Balliol became King of Scotland. When he was taken prisoner by the English a few years later, the castle became the property of Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, after whose death it came into the possession of Richard Neville, the Kingmaker and one of the leaders in the War of the Roses. In 1475, Richard of Gloucester, who had in the meantime married Richard Neville’s daughter Anne, became Lord of Barnard Castle. He would later become King Richard III, but before he left the North, he spent a considerable amount of time in the Barnard Castle and ordered significant improvements to be made both in the castle and in St Mary’s church, one plan being to build an ecclesiastical college and a chantry.

However, with his early death in 1485, not many of his visions had been realised. Several boar carvings all around the town, some of which have since been lost, are a small reminder of what could have become of Barnard Castle if Richard III had survived the battle at Bosworth. Today, Richard’s white boar is depicted in the town’s coat of arms. He provided St Mary’s church with a grant of 40 marks and the building underwent significant improvements, structural as well as ornamental, most of which are still visible today and made the building bigger and lighter.

The castle loses its importance

The castle subsequently fell into disrepair but became an important location during the Rising of the North in 1569. Sir George Bowes, who supported Elizabeth I, withstood a ten-day siege before surrendering the castle. As a result, the Earl of Sussex had time to muster an army in support of the queen. Still loyal to Catholicism, the majority of the town was in support of the Rising. From 1630 onwards, the castle was in possession of Sir Henry Vane who gradually dismantled it to provide building material for improving the nearby Raby Castle.

Industrialisation, cholera and battling poverty

Barnard Castle continued to grow. During the 18th century, the towns textile industry increased significantly with several high buildings being built along Thorngate and Bridgegate that allowed for maximum light for the weavers in the upper stories. With the early industrial revolution, the weaving industry was expanded by several carpet, flax and woollen mills along the river Tees. As a result of the increase in industrialisation, the living conditions for the working class, especially at the bottom of the town, deteriorated dramatically. With the increase of the population, St Mary’s Church struggled to provide suitable space for burials. Throughout the 18th century people were still buried within the building with the pews being moved whenever a burial took place. Towards the end of the century, the pavement was broken, the floor had risen and was uneven, and it was not uncommon that during a service, people stood on freshly turned soil, with skeletal remains of earlier burials showing. Similarly, skeletal remains were becoming visible in the grave yard which was subsequently expanded in the early 19th century. The squalid conditions of the grave yard contributed to an outbreak of cholera in 1849. People living south of St. Mary’s church drank and cooked with water from wells that where contaminated with drainage water containing morbific matter from the grave yard. All 145 victims of the epidemic were buried in the grave yard, which was finally closed in the mid 19th century.

A second wave of industrial development took place in the 19th century and resulted in the creation of a second industrial area around Queen Street and Birch Road with industrial buildings and worker’s houses. A final boost in the town’s expansion and development took place in the mid 19th century with the arrival of the railway. In 1861, the railway station opened exactly 40 years after the world’s first passenger train had run from Stockton to Darlington. It facilitated not only the movements of soldiers to the new Barracks of the Durham Militia in Barnard Castle, but also turned the town into a popular destination for day tourists who also visited the Bowes Museum and the forest. The population grew from 2966 people in 1801 to 4478 inhabitants in 1861. But during late 19th and early 20th century, the local economy declined, many people lost their work and Thorngate and Bridgegate were considered slums. Throughout the centuries, St Mary’s church did its part in helping the poor. Collecting boxes for the poor were provided and the contents distributed, and from 1718 well into the 20th century, loaves of bread were given to people in need on Sunday mornings. To improve the living conditions of the poor, Reverend Dugard, who also oversaw every single one of the cholera burials, built schools, set up soup kitchens and bed and blanket stores. In 1901, St Mary’s Church Mission was set up at The Bank in response to the economic decline and high unemployment.

A building for everyone!?

By the 14th century, St Mary’s church was not only a place where people gathered for services. Late into the 19th century, the church was the only spacious and public building of the town and served as fire station, playhouse and parish hall. Religious plays and comedy were performed for the public, the priest was allowed to perform community duties and official town documents were kept in the church. After a severe fire in town in July 1748, Sir Henry Vane sent his fire engine from Raby Castle and gifted it to the town where it was stored in the church. Half a century later, Barnard Castle acquired a bigger engine partially financed from church rates and housed in a porch extending from the church’s South door. A planning committee formed in the first half of the 19th century to manage issues such as public hygiene and planning proposals met regularly in St. Mary’s church. But with the start of the 20th century, St Mary’s church became more and more isolated from everyday life and the common population of the town. Matters of local government were removed from the church to newly built public buildings. In addition, the practice of renting pews to individual families or reserving them for visitors of hotels made visiting a church service an elitist privilege excluding many of the poor people living in overcrowded and insanitary conditions at the bottom of the town.

During the 18th and 19th century, several non-conformist religions established in town and a number of chapels and meeting houses were built away from the main roads, only few of which survived until today. This was met by efforts of St Mary’s to make the Anglican church more attractive. Significant and expensive restoration and remodelling was undertaken with improvements both inside and outside the building. Examples are a taller clock tower that masked most of the Norman remains, as well as new Victorian stained glass windows. These works were partially funded by wealthy people from the town, but the effects didn’t last. Nevertheless, until 1927, St Mary’s was still an integral part of town life by ringing its rising bell for five minutes at 6am and the curfew bell at 8pm, probably instituted in England by William the Conqueror to remind people to damp down their fires. It later became a sign for children to come home.


There are three ways to get involved with St Mary’s, Windows to the World:

1. Events

Whether you want to learn something and listen to the experts, get actively involved in a workshop, or just take a seat and enjoy yourself – there’ll be something for everyone and every age. Sign up to our email list below.

2. Volunteering

If you want to learn more about how to run and organise history and heritage activities, you can join our fun and friendly ream of volunteers. Windows to the World may only be around for 2021, but we want to build a lasting legacy that keeps people interested and engaged with the building and its stories! Sign up to our email list below.

3. Schools and youth groups

We’re inviting schools and youth groups to get in on the action! If you’re a teacher or group leader, we can arrange guided tours, lively Miracles to Medicine games, and other tailored heritage experiences. Sign up to our email list, or contact directly for more info.

Whatever you’re interested in, it all starts with adding your name to the email list below

I want to hear about…

Events, activities and education sessions are taking place at St Mary’s church and online throughout 2021.

You can see all the events listed below. To book a place on an upcoming event, check DigVentures’ What’s On page. We’ll be adding new events throughout the year, so keep checking this page, or sign up to our email list to get alerts in your inbox.

Participation in any of the Windows to the World events, workshops and activities is FREE!

February 2021

03.02.2021 at 6pm
The colourful history of St Mary’s Parish church – an online talk (Youtube Premiere) with Peter Wise

March 2021

03.03.2021 at 6pm
Teesdale Tracks and Derailing Dukes – a Zoom talk by Chris Lloyd

April 2021

07.04.2021 at 6pm
Ancient folklore of Teesdale and Weardale – a Zoom presentation by Michael Lyons


May 2021

05.05.2021 at 6pm
Douglas Pittuck from every angle – a Zoom talk by Christine Hartas and Elizabeth Conran

June 2021

02.06.2021 at 6pm
Barnard Castle during the Cholera Epidemic of 1849 – a Zoom talk by Beverley Pilcher

July 2021

Event details coming soon

August 2021

Event details coming soon

September 2021

01.09.2021 at 6pm
The architecture of Richard III – a talk by James Wright

'It was a really hands-on session. The students were fascinated'
'I was rather pleased that I managed a good result'
'They learnt all about medieval remedies'
'The children loved the session and buzzed about it for the rest of the day':D
'It was a nice atmosphere. Everyone was really nice'
'I enjoyed the challenge of trying to make a 3D model'
'I grew up in town but I just found out how much I don't know about it'
'Wow! I learned so much today'

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