In the 13th century when a market became well established in Campden a new church was built in Berrington and dedicated to the Virgin Mary which predates the church now dedicated to St. James though the medieval porch of the earlier church and a great deal of the early fabric remains. In the first church, there were two chantries dedicated to St. Katherine for singing masses for the souls of the dead. Following the dissolution and Henry VII’s break from the church, the chapels both ceased.
Following these events, we know little of Campden’s Catholic history until early in the 18th century when those that kept the faith walked over the hill to Foxcote House that stands above Ilmington where the Canning family kept a priest to serve the chapel.
Catholicism had been outlawed since the reign of Elizabeth I and there were strict laws limiting the political and legal entitlements of Catholics until a relaxation of these restrictions was made in the 1827 Catholic Emancipation Act and by 1850 the Catholic hierarchy was re-established in this country.
While studying at Cambridge Charles, Viscount Campden had become deeply interested in the Oxford Movement and it was during his and his wife, Ida’s continental travels that they became drawn to Catholicism. They were received into the church in 1850, the year the Pope restored Catholic bishops and dioceses in England.
The following year Charles and Ida moved to ‘new’ Campden House wherein 1848 Charles had had a chapel built that was licenced for Anglican worship. Following their conversion to Catholicism the chapel of our Lady of the Annunciation was converted to Catholic worship. Campden House soon became a vivid centre of Catholic and intellectual life. Meanwhile, the Chaplain was serving a growing Catholic community and Charles who had succeeded his father as the second Earl of Gainsborough in 1866 commissioned the building of a school and chapel in Lower High Street and staffed by Sisters of Charity of St. Paul which opened in 1869. The school was extended in 1881 and favoured the whole community.
By 1881, the third Earl, Charles William Francis Noel had succeeded his father and the same year donated land at the junction of Cow Fair and Back Ends for the building of a church on the site of an old barn. Including a generous donation from the Earl and his wife, the cost of the church was met by community donations and fundraising that included a weekly lottery and penny readings in the Noel Arms.
The church is composed of local stone both inside and out and the opening ceremony was performed in September 1891. Described as a handsome edifice, the church is built in early Perpendicular style that prevailed in the reigns of Henry IV and V, and harmonising with other ancient buildings in the town was designed by the architect, W. Lunn of Malvern.
Dedicated with variant forms of spelling to St. Catharine, the church consists of a nave, and aisles, with chancel and transept, also a sacristy and outer sacristy, and a fine bell turret surmounting the south transept while the work of the High Altar was the work of A. N. Wall of Cheltenham. On the right-hand side of the chancel are three Sedalia let into the wall, and carved in stone.
The nave is sixty-five feet in length with a total height of forty feet from the floor. Between this and the north aisle is a beautiful arcade of four arches with eight windows in the clerestory above. The nave roof is composed entirely of red deal and is of very beautiful construction, the beams being ornamented with fine carvery and tracing. That of the chancery is of English oak, unpolished and arranged in panels and enhanced by some richly carved oak tracery covering the wall plate at the base. The pews (sitting approximately 250 people) are well and carefully constructed from deal.
Lunn favoured ornate tracery with every window having a slightly different pattern. The stained glass in the chancel and north chapel windows is by the London firm, Lavers and Westlake.
On the north side, there are four elegant windows beside the aisle leading to the Lady Chapel, which though small is good in detail, containing two richly carved windows that are dedicated to Lady Constance Bellingham, deceased daughter of Charles Noel, second Earl of Gainsborough.
The first window in the north aisle is of St. Patrick; the second is of an unknown saint, possibly St. Helena and is a memorial to Helen McCauley; the third is of the Annunciation, Presentation and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is in memory of Charles and Ida’s daughter who became Sister Catherine of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. (By Paul Woodroffe.)
The east window: Three small windows near the roof. The middle one in the form of a wheel symbolises St. Catharine’s martyrdom.
South transept window: Virgin and child in the centre. St. Charles Borromeo in Cardinal’s robes on the left. St. Ida richly dressed with a donkey on the right. The window is a memorial to Charles, second Earl of Gainsborough and to his first wife, Ida who died in childbirth and is by Paul Woodroofe.
South aisle: The first window is of S. Margaret of Scotland with a basket of loaves kneeling by a shield with saltire cross on blue ground and St. Agnes; the second one is of the Virgin and child; and below St. Thomas More; a strongly drawn Baptism of Christ by Paul Woodroffe 1909.
The bell turret is on the south side between aisle and transept with ladder access via a door behind the organ. The tower contains two bells, Sancta Maria and Sancta Catarina, both cast by John Taylor & Co. of Loughborough in 1913 and rehung by the same firm in 2001. (The Campden architect, artist and author, F. L. Griggs was received into the church in 1912, and the following year had persuaded his sister, Winifred Gillett and her husband to commemorate their joining the church by commissioning the bells. Griggs himself rang the first Angelus.)
A new organ built by J.W. Walker and sons, subscribed for the parishioners was formally dedicated in 1915.
The floor of the church is composed of wood blocks of yellow deal and set in a herringbone pattern. The roof outside is of old stone slates carefully selected from old buildings that had been demolished.
The West front consists of a moulded arched doorway, finely carved and showing on heraldic shields, the Papal arms on one side, and those of the Earl and Countess of Gainsborough on the other. Above the doorway is the handsome west window with fine tracery, and enriched with pinnacles and battlements, showing the beautiful lines peculiar to Perpendicular architecture. In the gable end above is a richly carved niche enclosing a small statue of St. Catharine, titular saint of the church.