The foundation date of St Mary’s is uncertain. The dedication to St Mary rather than a Welsh saint suggests a Norman establishment, even though nothing remains of that period. The large scale of the church is surprising for a small rural community - this is due to the patronage of the wealthy Carew family of Carew Castle which lasted until the mid-seventeenth century.
Structurally, the earliest surviving part of St Mary’s is the chancel and possibly also the north transept dating from c.1340. The nave and aisles were rebuilt around the middle of the fifteenth century ad the fine west tower added c.1500.
The dominating tower is unusually grand for Pembrokeshire and is more akin to those in the Bristol region. Trade between nearby Tenby and Bristol did lead to adoption of West Country ideas in some local churches such as St Mary’s, Tenby. Rich in Tudor detail as it is now, it was until the early nineteenth century topped with richly carved pinnacles. The west door was inserted in 1836 and an elborate Perpendicular west window replaced in 1857. There is little else of interest on the exterior, although the older chancel and north transept can easily be distinguished by their characteristic buttresses.
Inside, though monumental, the church presents a stark appearance after two centuries of over enthusiastic restoration. It is a rewarding exercise to stand at the rear of the church and imagine it in its original splendour. Across the chancel arch until the early nineteenth century was a fine Perpendicular oak screen which was probably highly coloured. Above was the rood-loft whose purpose was those the Crucifix. Further colour would have existed on the tombs, effigies and possibly the walls. Not one, but three altars once existed in St Mary’s - the present one, one in the south aisle and one in the north transept. Off the chancel in the present vestry was the Carew family chapel long since clear of its altar and tombs. Above all this was the crowning glory - a fine C.15th carved compass roff with coloured bosses and cornice. Vicar Lloyd compared it in 1844, six years after its removal, to that in the south aisle of Tenby church.
The present plaster ceiling was inserted by Richard Barrett, surveyor from Pembroke, who had in 1836 inserted the west door and built a timber gallery over it. This work cost £300 - a burden some sum for 1838. Vicar Hamilton wearily wrote in April 1844 of the parishioner’s opposition to the work who stated “What did for their forefathers will do for them”
By 1856, the church was in a deplorable state. Pews of various shapes, sizes and orientation lay shattered and rotten, the gallery was collapsing and the windows were broken, the latter by local schoolboys. The London architect, David Brandon, in 1856, set about restoring the church in accordance with new ecclesiological tenets. This basically meant re-establishing the importance of the altar which in Georgian times was ofter rivalled by the pulpit eighteenth century “preaching box” churches were unfashionable by the 1850’s. Brandon thus renewed the church and also installed five new windows including the west window, commemorating those called in the Crimean War. When the work was finished the church looked much as it does now. All the other windows were replaced between 1879-1912. In 1908-1910 the architect W.D Caroe restored the chancel, his work including the odd revelation of the window quoins from behind the stucco. Disaster struck in 1926 when the tower was hit by lightning, its partial collapse smashing pews and windows.
To gain a clear picture of the development of St Mary’s, it is best to begin a tour in the oldest surviving part - the chancel. This was apparently rebuilt c.1340 by Bishop Gower of St David’s. The flowing Decorated gothic tracery of the north and south windows, painstakingly reproduced in 1893, certainly attest to this date. Still intact is the triple arched seedily (priest’s seat) and the fine cusped piscina (basin for washing the Communion vessels) adjacent. Of a more mysterious date is the protruding carved head on the jamb of the north west window. Who, if anyone, it depicts is unknown.
The stained east window representing the Resurrection dates from 1879 and is by Alexander Gibbs & Co of London. The chancel furnishings are all relatively modern. The altar and reredos are both war memorials and were installed in 1923, being designed by the architect John Coates-Carter. The altar rail and choir stalls are modern, but suitable in style. Before the altar are laid an excellent mixture of medieval tiles mostly dating from the fifteenth century, some originating from Carew Castle.
The effigies on the north wall were placed there in 1834. The western most figure is thought to be Sir Nicholas Carew who died in 1311, while the other is an early C.14th priest. On the south side is a medieval effigy of a child, her head supported on angels with a hound at her feet.
The present vestry (locked) to the north was originally a chapel belonging to the Carew family and probably dates from the fourteenth century. Although long emptied, it retains a pointed stone vaulted roof, a piscina and a “squint” window allowing a view of the main altar from within.
It is uncertain as to how far Gower proceeded with his rebuilding. Certainly the south transeptal (organ) arch is coeval with Gower’s chancel arch. The great thickness of this transept arch with the existence of extra mouldings on its rear face suggests that a grand large church with a central tower and two transepts was planned. Perhaps through lack of money or onset of plague, the scheme was dropped. The north transept seems to have been built shortly after this decision, its arch being more sparse in detail than the other two and being thinner, no longer having to support an intended central tower. What detail survives inside and out still points to fourteenth century. The sole original feature in the transept is the cusped piscina hidden behind the end of a pew. The pallid east window of 1912 is by A.L.Moore and depicts Christ the Good Shepherd. The railed chest-tomb is of Sir John Carew (d.1637) whose wife outlived him and was buried else-where. On its far side can be seen their five daughters, all kneeling except the middle one who died in infancy and on the other side kneel their three sons.
The nave was rebuilt c.1450 along with the aisles. The detail admittedly is poor and sparse and why the south arcade slews so badly is uncertain, although a guess would be that it was the result of hacking back a tower arch pier and respond built and abandoned by Gower. The building of the west tower in c.1500 completed St Mary’s at last. Again the nave has been badly restored. It’s flat-headed Perpendicular gothic windows were taken out of the south aisle in 1857 by David Brandon and replaced by the highly unsuitable pointed Decorated gothic ones, so beloved of the mid-victorians. The north aisle windows followed suit in 1883. The west window is Brandon’s Perpendicular admission of 1857 although it replaced a much more ornate example. The font is a copy of the original dating from 1844. The monuments in the south aisle are all Victorian and two are worth notice - that of little George Llewellhin (d.1871) by J.Phillips of Pembroke Dock with its inset portrait roundel and the excellent monument to William and Hannah Bowen (1985) by J.Evan Thomas of London, a Welsh born sculptor whose prominent local work is the statue or Prince Albert on Castle Hill, Tenby. Also in the south aisle is the summary once used to hold sacred vessels.
This is situated alongside the path leading to the church from the main gate and was built in the fourteenth century as a repository for bones and with a chapel above. The bone holes are still visible, especially that on the south side. The online of the altar window is visible, being blocked in the seventeenth century and a chimney inserted. Inside survives a stoup, two altar niches with brackets and a piscina. Since at least 1625 the building was used as a schoolroom (until 18472 when a new school was built at the top of the village) and until 1840, the vault underneath provided shelter for paupers. Today, it is used as a Sunday Schoolroom.