The Norman Way at New Ross
St. Mary’s Church
St. Mary’s was originally built in the 13th century by the greatest Norman knight William Marshal and his wife Isabel. Not only is this church considered to be the largest parish church built in medieval Ireland, it also houses one of the largest collections of medieval funerary monuments found in the country.
Uncover the story of the church and of the forgotten Irish princess who sent her hear here. Explore the architecture and art of the medieval masons and hear the story of the cursed town of New Ross and of the medieval crypt below the church.
Layout of the Church
Large medieval churches, such as St. Mary’s, were generally cruciform in shape. They were constructed in the shape of a cross with the shorter part, or ‘chancel’, pointed toward the east. The short crossing arms pointing North and South are known as ‘transepts’. The longer base part of the cross is known as the ‘nave’ and is where the congregation sat for six centuries of church services. The place where the four elements of the impressive structure came together is known as ‘the crossing’, and this may have been surmounted by a tower in the later medieval period.
A Church within a Church
The Ancient and the Relatively New
Today, although the medieval church of St. Mary’s is largely intact and well preserved, it is almost completely unroofed. The roofed church which stands in the place of the medieval nave was constructed in the 19th century and is still in active use by the local Church of Ireland congregation. St. Mary’s was built in the 13th century as a place of Christian worship but its congregation was split by the 16th century Reformation.
The Reformation in Ireland had a divisive effect on the population with the majority of people remaining adherents of the unreformed Catholic Church and only a minority becoming members of the official Church of Ireland. By the late 18th century the medieval church was far too large for the local Church of Ireland congregation and a decision was made to construct a smaller, modern church resting on the foundations of the medieval nave. This church was finished in 1813 and its spire was finally completed in 1870.
The church has a spacious and acoustically pleasing interior which, in keeping with the doctrines of the reformed faith, has a more austere interior design than the original medieval church would have had.
The North Transept
Although the north transept is now closed off from the modern church, it originally opened into the medieval building underneath the crossing which linked the nave, chancel and transepts. The architecture of the northern transept is relatively austere. It does however feature some remnants of the original medieval plaster work.
Scratched into the plaster and now almost invisible is the outline of a small medieval ship. Perhaps the ship was scratched in as graffiti by a foreign visitor attending service here in St. Mary’s long ago.
Travel by ship was common but dangerous in the medieval period. William Marshal himself almost shipwrecked off the Wexford Coast on one of his many voyages from Wales in the 13th century. He was so grateful to make it to shore alive that he founded Tintern Abbey in South Co. Wexford as thanks to God for his salvation.
The medieval funerary monuments inside the north transept date from the 13th to the 17th centuries and include dedications to the Dormer, Archer, Doff, Roth, Knowles, Butler and Devereux families.
The Heart of the Church
The Chancel of St. Mary’s church was where the main altar stood facing east- toward Jerusalem and the rising sun- and where the consecration of the medieval services was carried out. The chancel windows here at St. Mary’s are amongst the finest examples of early Gothic architectural sculpture in Ireland. Gothic was an architectural style introduced by the Normans such as William Marshal when they came to Ireland in the late 12th Century.
The chancel also contains a number of fine medieval grave covers. The best known and perhaps most emotive of which is the carved stone slab depicting a swaddled child- a memorial to the unnamed ‘Ross Bambino’. Less well known and perhaps just as stirring is the stone reputed to have covered the last resting place of Isabel Marshal’s heart. Isabel died in 1220, just a year after her husband William.
Although her body was laid to rest in Wales, Isabel’s association with St. Mary’s was reputedly so strong that after her death her heart was shipped across the Irish Sea to be interred here. This strong association with New Ross and South-Eastern Ireland is not surprising.
Last Princess of Leinster?
Isabel was the granddaughter of Diarmait Mac Murrough, the Gaelic King of Leinster. It was Diarmait who enlisted the aid of Norman Knights, led by ‘Strongbow’ the Earl of Pembroke, to regain his lost kingdom of Leinster.
After the Normans landed in Wexford in 1169 and in 1170 Strongbow was married to Mac Murrough’s daughter Aoife as part of his agreement with her father. When Diarmait died in 1171, Strongbow effectively inherited his lordship of the south-eastern part of Ireland and the Norman conquest of the island had begun.
Isabel Marshal, the only surviving child of Strongbow and Aoife, was born in Wales but she could claim to be the last Princess of Leinster. The chancel also contains a fine decorated masonry tomb on the north wall along with a ‘piscina’, (where the holy vessels are washed) and ‘sedilia’ (the priests chair) on the south wall. The sedilia is now partially blocked up and contains funerary monuments.
May the soft sod of St. Mary’s rest gently on your shoulders
St. Mary’s church is surrounded by a large historic graveyard. The memorial artwork of the graveyard, like the medieval grave slabs within the church, contain a wealth of information on the folk art and social situation of local populations as they changed over time. Some of the earlier stones decorated with memento mori skull and crossbones which were intended to remind the passers-by of their own mortality.
The later artwork of the 19th century is focused less on the grim realities of death and more on scriptural images which remind the viewer of the heavenly consolation of the Christian faith.
The oldest date on a surviving memorial in the graveyard is 1569.
The River Barrow
The Lifeblood of the Town
St. Mary’s church was founded by William Marshal and his wife Isabel as the parish church of their new town of New Ross. The scale of this church is a reflection of their ambitions for the town which was sited here to take advantage of the mighty River Barrow. Ships came up the river from Marshal’s lighthouse on Hook Head to his new port town.
Trade was the lifeblood of the Norman colony in Ireland and wealthy knights like William Marshal farmed huge estates which exported grain, wool and hides to Britain and Europe. The imports which came in return included French wine and English pottery. At one time during the medieval period, New Ross was the busiest seaport in all of Ireland.
The river brought trade and wealth but also cultural exchange. In the medieval period, New Ross’ town walls enclosed a commercial and residential area of 100 acres, twice as much as that enclosed by the contemporary walls of Dublin City. The river front and town of New Ross must have felt like an exciting melting pot of cultural exchange. Standing proudly on a high point over the town, the very first thing a visiting sailor would see as they approached New Ross was the towering church of St. Mary’s.
What lies beneath?
The medieval crypt of St. Mary’s is located underneath the south transept of the church and is the only part of the medieval church which has a surviving roof.
The crypt has two chambers, both of which have elongated vaulted ceilings. These barrel-shaped vaults were constructed by erecting long tunnels of wicker work which were then plastered over and used to support the mortar and stonework of the building above. The twigs and saplings of the wicker work have long since decomposed but their twisted shapes can still be seen in the crypts ceiling.
During the medieval period it was a mark of social importance to be brought inside the walls of the church after death. The crypt was built to house the burials of important clerics and townsfolk and was in use for centuries after it was first constructed. The original entrance is a winding staircase from the church above. There are no medieval burial markers left inside but the front chamber contains 19th century burial monuments of the Nixon, Tyndall and Cherry families. In the 20th century the rear crypt was rather less impressively used as a coal bunker.
The South Transept
The Curse of New Ross
The south transept was the last part of the medieval church to be built in the 13th century. It was remodeled by the local bishop around the year 1400 at a time when his cathedral in the north Wexford town of Ferns was dangerously located in an area of warfare between the Normans and the native Irish.
The transept contains some especially fine medieval grave slabs which were moved here from elsewhere in the churchyard in the early 20th century, including a fine effigy of a 13th century male carved in imported Dundry Stone mounted on the north wall.
It was perhaps here in this elaborate part of the church that the once-famous ‘Curse of New Ross’ was lifted in 1436. The curse was imposed on the people of New Ross when some members of the Crutched Friars were killed in the town before the year 1300. These murders were a form of mob justice in retribution for the killing of a local man by one of the friars.
The news of the killing reached the ears of the Vatican and the entire town of New Ross was ecclesiastically reprimanded by the Pope.
The South Transept
Yet another Curse
The curse was taken so seriously that it was only lifted more than a century later by the local bishop attended by the Abbot of Dunbrody, acting at the instruction of Pope Eugenuis IV. The founder of St. Mary’s, William Marshal, was also the subject of a medieval curse said to have been issued by the Bishop of Ferns.
The curse was allegedly placed on Marshal’s children and stated that his sons would die without producing male heirs. Interestingly, this is exactly what happened. Each one of Marshal’s five sons inherited his lands and titles in succession, but as each one of these men died without sons, Marshal’s great wealth was eventually divided up between his daughters- thus ending the family name of this most famous knight.
Eight Centuries of Worship
Cèad Mìle Paidreacha
The congregation of the more modern 19th century church here at St. Mary’s continues the tradition of worship started by William and Isabel Marshal over 800 years ago.
The church’s altar stands inside the crossing which once linked the four parts of the cruciform medieval church. The medieval ancestry of the building is confirmed by the stone sarcophagus standing in the porch of the more modern church. As well as the fine gallery, stained glass windows and historic organ, this church also contains a series of memorials dedicated to the 19th and 20th century parishioners.
When this later church was built, Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Its memorials reflect the colonial and military service common at the time. Indeed the large size of the church may have been intended to accommodate the British soldiers stationed in New Ross in the 19th century.
A large plaque on the north wall of the church lists those members of the congregation who dies during the First World War. Colonial service is even more poignantly remembered in a smaller marble plaque to the left of the altar which remembers the wife and son of Captain R. A. Massey who died in 1861 during a cholera epidemic which swept through the Punjab region of India.
For more info on the Normans in Wexford check out our Blog on the Norman Way in south Wexford: The Norman Way in South Wexford