The St Mary’s Lily

On a rise above the River Marden in Calne stands the parish church of St Mary’s. Early parts of the building we see today were constructed in the 12th century on the site of a Saxon church. The name of Mary appears in 1312 when a memorial chapel invoking St Mary was founded within the church. It is known that by 1336 the main church carried the name of St Mary and may have done so from a much earlier date. When, 500 years later, the vicar of the parish, John Duncan, decided to open a church school for girls, St Mary’s School was the name he chose.

The symbol of the lily has been associated with the Madonna in church tradition and art for centuries and has become the image that represents the school. Within St Mary’s, many interpretations of the lily have been used over the years: sewn onto fabric; printed on paper; etched into glass and metal; carved into wood and stone; and embossed on leather book covers. Individual girls have reinvented the representation of the lily flower in their own ways. St Mary’s has many old chapel kneelers designed and produced by the pupils, decorated with images, often lilies. This rich reinterpretation of the design has rippled down the decades.

The lilies of St Mary’s have also been celebrated in words and traditions through the years. In 1911, the Headmistress, Rachael Donaldson, wrote a school hymn, Consider the Lilies, with the church organist, William Pullein, setting it to music. Sixth Form leavers were proud to be presented with an enamel lily badge to mark their school years. On leaving Calne and his role as Chairman of the Governors in 1926, Archdeacon Bodington associated the school so strongly with the lily that in a letter to the girls he addressed them affectionately as ‘Fleurs de Lys’.

From the 1920s, for many years, the girls had the choice of earning their ‘Lilies’, a demanding task of learning substantial passages from the bible and prayer book, including psalms. A pupil could be tested on them at any time in her school career, ‘when she is word perfect’. If successful, she was rewarded with a lily badge, at first hung from a ribbon and later an enamel one which she could wear on her tunic. And the uniform itself often displayed the lily badge. Felt berets and silk hat bands on boaters were typical of items from different periods that carried the lily badge. Many items of uniform today display the familiar image.

On a wall of the Oratory is a fine piece of embroidery of the St Mary’s shield with the lily emblem. This is what remains of a banner that stood beside the chapel altar. Made in 1919 by Miss Williams, the Domestic Science teacher, it was first used on Peace Day in July that year. It was carried by the head prefects at the front of a procession of St Mary’s pupils to the Green where they joined other school processions. The banner had many outings on subsequent civic and school occasions such as the church service commemorating St Mary’s jubilee in 1923.

As marketing became more important to the school, the lily shield came to represent the brand. It draws the origins of St Mary’s into the present and is a fitting addition to letter headings and the many publications, both digital and physical.

One part of St Mary’s Church in Calne has its own acknowledgement of the historically close association between the church and the school. In the early 1990s, when Delscey Burns was Headmistress of St Mary’s, the school community raised money to restore one of the church’s clerestory windows. Two windows have small decorations etched into the glass by a young local designer. On one she put a viola to honour her grandmother, and on an adjacent window she etched the St Mary’s lily. If you raise your eyes to a window high on the north wall, perhaps you will glimpse it.