Until archaeological excavations, undertaken in 1996, nothing at all was known about the appearance of the pre-Conquest Abbey church at Pershore. However, these recent investigations have now revealed the remains of a long apsidal Saxon church lying beneath the present structure. Its external walls ran along the line of the medieval columns flanking the extant choir, while its rounded eastern end crossed just in front of the present sanctuary. It was probably the building that records show was erected in the early 11th century.
Not long after the Conquest, around 1090, a Norman cruciform church was built at Pershore to replace what the invaders saw as an outmoded structure. Of this, there are remains in the south transept. The lower parts of this are distinctly early Norman work, the upper stages later. The Norman church had an aisled nave of ten bays, transepts with a chapel in each, central tower, aisled chancel or presbytery and eastern Lady Chapel, apsidal in form. This general plan subsisted to the end.
The monks' choir may have stood under the crossing. It is not known where the pulpitum and other screens in the nave stood; but, as usual, there was an altar of the Holy Cross before the rood-screen, to which the townspeople had access. Hence the whole church was sometimes called Holy Cross, though the true dedication seems to be to the Virgin, SS. Peter & Paul and St. Edburga.
About 1200, the east end of the presbytery and the eastern chapels of its aisles were rebuilt, and a new eastern Lady Chapel of three bays added. The eastern aisle chapels remain and the arch of the Lady Chapel. There was a great fire in 1223, as a result of which the main part of the presbytery was rebuilt, to the extent of five bays, with little eastern transepts to the aisles. This is the Early English work to be seen today, in everything but the main vaulting. It is very beautiful. Note particularly the union of the triforium and clerestory - the two upper stages - into one composition. This is the best example of a rare arrangement. St. David's Cathedral (nave) and Southwell Minster (choir) are other instances.
A second great fire befell the Abbey in 1288; but not till about 1330 was the damage permanently repaired. It was then that the main lierne vaulting with its lovely bosses was set up, and the decorated style lantern of the tower, which intimately resembles the tower (not the spire) of Salisbury Cathedral. In the same century the chapel of St. Edburga, in the south transept, was lengthened eastwards. It was destroyed in the sixteenth century but its arch and other traces are seen on the east wall of the transept outside. The entrance from the transept to this chapel was closed and another made from the south aisle. Also the vaulting of the east chapel in the south aisle was raised. The south transept was newly vaulted about 1420.
After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Lady Chapel was pulled down and the arch built up. The north transept fell down in the seventeenth century. In 1846, the Dean and Chapter of Westminster (Samuel Wilberforce was Dean, and recommended the step) built the rather dull little apsidal chapel which now ends the church. The whole was restored by Gilbert Scott in the early 1860s, when the lantern tower was opened up and the unique ringing platform constructed. Extensive repairs in more recent times, have included the 1913 shoring up of the tower with huge flying buttresses, on the west, where it had lost the support of the nave. The tasteful pinnacles of the tower date from 1871, while the vestry over of site of the old north transept was built in 1936.
Of ancient fittings and monuments not many are left. There is an interesting stone screen at the east of the south transept, in the nature of a reredos, in the blocked arch. There too, is a good thirteenth-century effigy of a knight holding a horn, his feet resting on a hare. He is well known to students of medieval armour for, beneath his right arm, is revealed the manner in which the breast and back plates were joined. Another effigy is of a fifteenth-century Abbot, probably Edmund Hert who died in 1479. There are also two interesting renaissance monuments to the Haselwood family, one with weepers including a child in the cradle. The font, regained last century from private hands, is a fine one of Norman date. Books from the medieval Abbey library are rather rare indeed.
The monastic buildings were on the south. The only relic of them is the thirteenth-century (eastern) door from nave into cloister. The want of similarity between the capitals on the two sides of the arch is remarkable. Taking it all round, Pershore occupies a very high place indeed among our churches.
Edited from M.R. James' "Abbeys" (1925).