St. Mary's Acton Burnell

Welcome to St. Mary’s Acton Burnell

 Historical Background


Robert Burnell


Robert was the son of the local landowner, and after becoming a priest he became secretary and chaplain to Prince Edward, son of Henry III.  When the Prince became King Edward I, Robert became Bishop of Bath and Wells and the new King’s Chancellor.


This made him a man of wealth and influence, and it is to him we owe our church and the castle next to it. The Burnell family does not feature in English history after Bishop Robert any more than it had before.


Unusually the church was unaltered from its completion in about 1282 until the addition of a new tower in the 1880s.  The Bishop probably used masons from the royal staff, thus ensuring quality workmanship and latest ideas in architectural style.  Apart from roof works in the 1580s and 1880s the structure has not been changed since 1282, the year before the first meeting of the House of Commons here (1283) to pass the Statute of Acton Burnell.


The “Quick” Tour


If you entered by the North porch (and it is hard to come in any other way!) you are now standing in the nave. (1)  If  you look west (towards the back of the church) you will see in the back corner to your left the baptismal font (2) in which countless children have been baptised over more than 700 years.  You will also see the tall pointed windows, a sign of the new, fashionable Early English building style that followed the rounded arches of the Normans.  Turning east - looking towards  the altar (3) you will see that our Church is cruciform (cross-shaped) with a transept on each side. In the nave the window recesses are simple and plain, but there is one very odd little window high up on your left which serves no logical purpose!

We suggest that you move up the church to the centre and turn right into the south transept (4). Note the stencilled rosette patterns on the walls, almost certainly dating from the 13th century.  Note too the empty recess in the south wall which may once have housed an effigy of some kind.


Leave the chancel and turn right past the pulpit — you will be in the north transept (8), which has three fascinating memorials. On the right is an impressive monument to Sir Richard Lee who died in 1591.  He is portrayed as a knight with his wife beside him, 3 sons at his head and feet, the eldest with his hand on the helmet, and his 9 daughters behind him.  Notice that no two of the girls are identical!  Beyond this in the north-east corner is the oldest monument in the church — a table tomb in memory of Sir Nicholas Burnell who died in 1382.  On this tomb is probably the finest mediaeval brass in Shropshire.

On the west wall is the monument to Sir Humphrey Lee who died in 1632.  The two  Lee monuments form an interesting contrast.  Sir Humphrey is shown at prayer facing his wife.  Their children too are shown kneeling, each of them being a miniature version of a parent.

Note also the memorials to members of the Smythe family, Catholic lords of the manor since 1660. 

If you return to the centre of the church and turn right (east) you will now enter the chancel (5) with choir stalls to left and right and a door on the right which would have allowed easy access from the castle.  Notice how much more elaborate the design of the recesses for the windows has become.  The work may have been done by different craftsmen, or the experience of finishing the nave and transepts may have encouraged the original workmen to be a bit more adventurous!  On your left is the organ, built into the base of the Victorian tower. (6)  A little further along you will come to another little puzzle — a small square window low down.  Such windows were not rare, but were found most often in places where lepers gathered in communities.  The window enabled them to see the blessing of the bread and wine at services they were not allowed to attend.


Further on you will see the only figurative glass in the Church. (7)  This is a memorial to the Rev’d William Serjeantson, Rector from 1862 to 1922. It shows St. Mary in the centre light, with King Edward I and Bishop Burnell on either side.