There has been a church on the Market Square in Haverhill since at least the early 1300s, which eventually became the principle parish church for the town. It still stands at the heart of the town, overseeing the Friday and Saturday markets and the busy-ness of the High Street, and offering to everyone a place of welcome and hospitality, of sanctuary and prayer, of beauty and inspiration.
The mediaeval town first developed around Burton End, where there was an 11th-century parish church, dedicated to St Mary, called Bovetownchurch. In the 19th century this name was misrepresented to become St Botolph's. A second church also dedicated to St Mary, was established in the 13th century on the main highway, and was referred to as ‘the Chapel’ in the very early days. The first vicar of Haverhill is listed as Radulph, who began his ministry in 1146.
Both churches were for many years under the patronage of Castle Acre in Norfolk. In 1551, however, the people requested that St Botolph’s be abandoned, and now nothing remains of that church apart from in the name of a small terrace of houses known as Overchurch Close. The town centre and the market had shifted to its present position around the newer church, and the shape of the town has persisted ever since.
Although there was a church here before this time (and it could be that the blocked arch in the north chancel wall is a lancet window of the 1200s), the earliest dateable work is in the lower parts of the tower, from the early 1300s. At the level of the present clock chamber, the single windows replaced larger openings (see from inside), which were probably the original belfry windows before the tower was heightened by its present belfry stage in the 1400s.
This was a century of prolific church building and the fabric of St Mary’s received much of its character, including the aisles with their Perpendicular windows, the Lady Chapel and the upper parts of the tower. Internally, the building was adorned with colour, and carvings in wood, stone and glass presented an array of visual aids to teach the faith to ordinary people who could not read or understand the Latin of the services and scriptures.
In 1555, during the English reformation, Thomas Cobb, a butcher from Haverhill, was put on trial in Norwich alongside others who identified as Protestants, and condemned to death because he refused to affirm the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. He was burned at the stake in Thetford in September that year.
In the period after the English reformation, Suffolk attracted many clergymen who were sympathetic to the teaching of the Puritan movement. One such person was John Ward, a preacher in Haverhill, who died in 1598 and was buried in St Mary's churchyard, although the exact site of the grave is not known. There is a memorial to him in the chancel. He had three sons who were all notable clergymen and preachers themselves. The eldest, Samuel Ward, became a preacher in Ipswich and is buried at St Mary-le-Tower. He gave his name to one of the current secondary schools in the town, the Samuel Ward Academy, and there is a painting of him hanging next to his father's monument. The next son, Nathaniel Ward, was more strident in his Puritan views. He left England to be chaplain to the Eastland Trading Company at Elblag in Prussia, and then emigrated to New England where he was pastor at a church in Agawam (Ipswich), MA. His son, also John Ward, founded a church at Pentucket, MA, which later became known as Haverhill in honour of the Ward family's connection. Nathaniel wrote a constitution for the Massachusets Bay Company, which was influential in the formation of the US Constitution. He eventually returned to England and finished his ministry in Shenfield, Essex.
St Mary’s must have been sumptuously decorated in mediaeval times because, when William Dowsing came to inspect it for ‘superstitious images and inscriptions’ on 6th January 1643, he reported, “We brake down about 100 superstitious pictures, and seven fryars hugging a Nunn; a picture of God and Christ: and diverse others, very superstitious; and 200 had been broke down before I came. We took away two popish inscriptions with ‘Ora pro nobis’ [Pray for us] and we beat down a great stone cross on the top of the church”. Doubtless the 300 or so ‘pictures’ were stained glass and screen paintings, wall paintings, etc.
Stephen Scandaret was another preacher attached to St Mary's, who was silenced in 1662 for his views and banned from preaching through the Act of Uniformity. He later took a licence as a presbyterian preacher and joined a congregation who met in the home of Joseph Adders. This congregation became the Old Independent Church whose meeting house still stands on Hamlet Road. Scandaret returned to St Mary's and was able to take services in the church again, and is buried in the chancel.
In 1667, a year after the ‘Great Fire of London’, Haverhill was itself devastated by a terrible fire, reducing many of its houses, including the vicarage, to ashes and destroying everything combustible in the church, leaving only the walls, arcades and tower standing. Lord Allington of Horseheath Hall was so moved by a sermon preached in his church by Haverhill’s vicar, the Revd Benjamin Lathan, that he provided from his estate all the timber needed to repair the building which, with new roofs and furnishings, was soon back in use again.
When William Cole visited the church in 1744, he noted that the internal walls were ‘curiously painted’, with festoons in black and white, also at the west end with the names of churchwardens, Daniel Aldous and John Rolles, and the date 1689, and over the south chapel door the arms of (another) Mr Cole, who caused the work to be done by a German artist – a Mr Rite – who was an old man still living in Cambridge when Mr Cole wrote. Beneath the chancel arch was a screen, painted with the Ten Commandments and the figure of Moses. David Elisha Davy, who visited the church in 1831, noted that above the communion table was a ‘heavy altarpiece’, inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed and adorned with woodwork, carved with leaves, flowers and festoons – clearly this and the screen were fine, late 17th-century pieces. In 1744, the pulpit stood against the second pillar from the east on the north side, with the font almost opposite, but by 1831 the pulpit had been moved to the south side of the chancel arch and the font to the south chapel.
In the great fire, the vicarage near to St Mary's had been destroyed, and subsequently the clergy had to find their own lodgings, until in 1801 when the Lord of the Manor, Sir George Howland Beaumont, gave the Manor House on Hamlet Road as the vicarage. The Revd Charles Hayward, vicar since 1794, moved in with his wife. They had married in 1797, and in 1798 had presented the church with a new organ erected in the gallery, which filled the west end of the nave. He also filled the east window with figures and ten coats of arms in old glass, which he had acquired from Hedingham, Dunmow, Clare and elsewhere. Vicars of Haverhill lived in the property until 1946, when the house was deemed to be too big and draughty and a smaller house was built in the grounds. The garden was still used for church events, and the Manor House left empty. In 1967 the old vicarage was put up for sale, and acquired the name Anne of Cleves House, although it was the original vicarage destroyed in the fire of 1667 which had been part of Henry VIII's divorce settlement with Anne, not the property on Hamlet Road.
Alterations were made to the pews in 1823 and a plan of around 1865 shows the entire nave filled with a single block of eastward-facing pews (without a central gangway). There were further blocks in the aisles. Large box-pews stood beneath the west gallery, also at the eastern ends of the aisles, facing the commodious pulpit and reading-desk, and four box-pews filled the north side of the chancel.
In 1866, the church was closed for over 12 months and was transformed at a cost of £2,300 by a thorough restoration to the designs of Edmund Elmslie and Frederick Franey of Parliament St, London. They were also the architects of Haverhill’s twin cemetery chapels, built in the same year. On the building committee was Daniel Gurteen, Haverhill’s principal factory owner and prominent non-conformist, who gave the town its town hall as well as the splendid tower and 120-foot spire of the United Reformed Church.
The fabric of St Mary’s (apart from the tower) was put in order: new floors were laid, new arcades built and new roofs constructed. The panelled nave ceiling and chancel roof were painted by Messrs Heaton, Butler & Bayne. The west gallery and pews were removed, the organ was replaced in the south chapel and the interior was furnished with new benches, stalls, pulpit, altar, font and alabaster reredos. The work was executed by Mr E M Green of Haverhill and Mr Edward Keogh of Sudbury (stonework) and Messrs Mason & Son of Haverhill (woodwork). At the re-opening service on Thursday, 14th November, 1867, the Bishop of Ely and Lord Arthur Hervey, Archdeacon of Sudbury, preached and the collection raised £72.17s. The 80-year-old vicar, the Revd Robert Roberts, celebrated the 52nd anniversary of his institution.
About 1887, a brick vestry was built to the east of the chapel. In 1897, this was replaced by a new one on the north side, to the design of J K Colling of London.
Much was done in this century to maintain and beautify the church. The tower was restored, two bells re-cast and a new bell added. The completed work was dedicated by the Bishop of Ely on 10th February 1904. In 1910, Colling’s vestry was replaced by a larger vestry and organ chamber to the designs of H Brown Thake of Haverhill. During the 1920s, the interior was beautified with chancel and Lady Chapel screens. The chapel screen was given as a memorial to 17 men who fell in the First World War from the Young Men's Bible Class, carved and set up by their comrades.
A major re-ordering took place in 1985, when the western part of the nave was converted to provide welcome and community areas, using wooden glazed bi-fold doors, under the direction of Mr Andrew Earl of Whitworth, Hall & Thomas of Bury St Edmunds. The floor was levelled to remove the steps down from the welcome area and up to the chancel.
The nave altar was given in memory of Ken Morgan and dedicated in October 1993. In the 2010s, the wooden pews were removed and replaced with fabric-covered chairs.