The Beginnings

Like many of our ancient churches, St.Swithun's has taken its present shape gradually, with a process of replacement and alteration extending over many years. The Borough of East Retford received its first charter in 1246, so must already have been a place of some importance and certainly had a church. The first record of a church here, however, comes from 1258, when endowments were made by Sewell, Archbishop of York.

The Present Building

The church today is a typical large town church, built on a cruciform plan with a central tower. The oldest part as it now stands is the North Transept which today is called the Lady Chapel and used for weekday or other small services. The central pillar and its two arches belong to the 14th century and still display their original painted decoration. Anciently there were two chantry chapels here known as Our Lady's Chantry and St Trinity Chantry. Their altars were against the East wall which may have been further to the East than it is now. The purpose of a chantry was to provide regular Masses for the souls of departed benefactors. A document of 1535 says that St Swithun's had four chantries and there may have been two more in the South Transept or elsewhere in the church. The neighbouring Chapelgate probably takes its name from the existence of the chantry chapels. The North Transept chapel is also a war memorial and it houses the banner of the Borough of East Retford.

The rest of the church is basically of the 15th century and is in the style often called perpendicular. Simply to say that it is 15th century is, however, only to tell part of the story. The central tower collapsed in a storm in 1651, destroying much of the Chancel and South transept. It was rebuilt in 1658 and from outside it clearly has a 17th century look to it. Inside, massive piers were built to carry its weight and these low, heavy crossing arches are a feature of the church today. Looking eastward from the nave, the columns of the earlier arches can be seen, much more slender and with a much higher springing. Under the tower, on the South side high above the vicar's stall, although not easily seen with the naked eye, is a stone bearing the inscription Ano Mundi 5226 Ano Christie 1582. It was moved to there from the chantry in 1873.

The fall of the tower, as we have said, caused other damage. The South Transept was repaired and re-roofed and one of its beams bears the words Bayliffs Henry Johnson, John Smeeton 1656. The Chancel was rebuilt much shorter than its original length and it was not until the 19th century that it was restored to its old size, using the earlier foundations as a guide. The change in the character of the stonework can be clearly seen both inside and outside the church.

There are many memorials in the church. The oldest one is a floor slab in the North-East corner of the North Transept chapel. It dates from 1496 and is in memory of Henry Smyth, but most of the memorials are of the 18th and 19th centuries. Over the South door, inside the church is the figure of a bishop. It is often said to represent St Swithun, the patron of the church, but in actual fact the statue was brought from a dissolved monastery in Portugal and the subject is unknown. Outside the South door, to the West of it (i.e. on the left as you face the porch) is a niche of the shape known as vesica pisces. In it is a figure placed there in 1855 to replace a much weathered medieval statue. It now shows a king said to be Henry III. Why the 19th century architect ever thought the statue represented Henry III, it is impossible to say, but he was certainly wrong. The only statues ever placed in niches of that shape were of either our Lord or the Virgin Mary. The medieval statue probably showed Christ enthroned and crowned, but by the 19th century was so worn as to be unrecognizable. As well as the war memorial in the Lady Chapel already mentioned, the church contains a war memorial corner in the South-East of the Nave, with a Book of Remembrance commemorating those who died in the Second World War and the laid up standard of the British Legion, replaced when 'Royal' was added to its title.

The Tower contains a ring of ten bells, famous throughout the district, and a clock which although it has no face, when it was in use, told the time by striking. The organ was originally in a gallery at the West End of the church. In 1841 a new organ was built and placed in a chamber on the South side of the Chancel. The instrument was enlarged in 1886 and has been overhauled several times since. In 1980 it was completely rebuilt by Cousans of Lincoln and a new, moveable console was made, which normally stands on the North side of the Chancel.

There is little medieval glass in the windows. A few fragments are incorporated into the West window of the Lady Chapel and into the West window of the South Transept. This latter is unusual in having two coins set into the glass and is known as the Penny Window. The rest of the glass in the church is 19th or 20th century. That in the East window is by two different artists: the centre light by O'Connor and the other lights by Clayton & Bell. The window on the North side of the Chancel does not give to the outside of the building but into the Lady Chapel. The South window of the South Transept is by Kempe and the corresponding window on the North side of the North Transept is by Kempe's pupil, Towers, as are the two East windows of that chapel.

The Future

St Swithun's parish, once well populated, was superceded by the Parish of Retford on 1st January 2002. The latter amalgamated the parishes of the three Anglican churches in the town - St Swithuns, St Michaels and St Saviours. Yet the church stands, as a vital feature of the town, as a constant visible reminder of the presence of God, and it serves the needs, not only of a regular worshipping congregation, but of those who look to it for Baptisms, Marriages or Funerals, and for great national or civic occasions. Today it is in need of extensive restoration work if it is to continue into the future. We hope that you will visit the church, and give as generously as you can to the needs of St Swithuns.

Finally, we hope that you will find this website worthwhile. St Swithun's Church embodies centuries of history but it is also a living place of worship. Please remember St Swithun's and its people in your prayers.