There was a Saxon church at Heytesbury at least as early as 1086, as recorded in the Domesday book, when it was held by Alward the Priest, and the present Grade 1 listed building, begun in the late 12th century, was probably built on the same site as, or developed over time from, the earlier Saxon structure. The original Saxon church had been given to Salisbury Cathedral in c.1115 by Henry I to form part of an ecclesiastical living and its value was soon augmented by other gifts of property, including one from the Empress Maud, daughter of Henry I, who also endowed land to pay for two chaplains of Heytesbury to serve her chapel at Tytherington. In c.1165 the Church was established, by a charter of the Bishop of Sarum, as collegiate, with a dean and four canon prebendaries, together with lesser clergy, amounting at one time to a staff of up to eighteen. A collegiate church was effectively a 'mother church' with resident priests whose tasks may have been partly educational as well as having a missionary element, to encourage new 'daughter churches' in the area.
In the 13th century the holder of the deanery became the Dean of Salisbury, to whom the collegiate church at Heytesbury, together with its property, then belonged. Most parishes came under the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop, but because Heytesbury belonged to the Dean of Salisbury it was known as a ‘peculiar’. Its collegiate functions may not have continued much beyond the 13th century but it was known as such until the Cathedrals Act of 1840 dissolved the college nature of churches and abolished prebends. The Dean of Salisbury still sits in the Heytesbury stall in the Cathedral.
The church itself is described in Collins’ ‘Guide to English Parish Churches’, edited by Sir John Betjeman, as ‘A noble cruciform fabric with a central tower, formerly collegiate. It was restored by Butterfield, who was less drastic than usual.’ The external view is dominated by its massive, square and rather squat, central Norman tower, typical of Norman church design. Most of the church dates from the late 12th, 13th and early 15th centuries, but, according to Sir Richard Colt Hoare, it may have been largely rebuilt in about 1404.
In 1408, the Dean recorded that it had three chantries: one dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, probably where the organ now stands, was founded by Lucy Clyfton in 1305; St Katherine’s Chantry in the south transept, founded in about 1316 by William Mounte; and the Hungerford Chantry, in the north transept, probably dating from 1441 and endowed by Walter, Lord Hungerford, who fought at Agincourt and became Treasurer of England in 1428. It was also in his name that the Hospital of St John, Heytesbury was endowed. Only the screen remains from his chapel which must originally have had a remarkable fan-vaulted ceiling. He and several other Hungerford family members are buried in Salisbury Cathedral or at Farleigh Hungerford Castle, but the remains of a tomb, probably that of the later Sir Walter, a member of Henry VII’s council, who died in 1515, his wife and perhaps his son, can still be seen in the Hungerford Chapel. Another Walter Hungerford, an adherent of Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, was made 1st Baron Hungerford of Heytesbury, and resided in Heytesbury House. He fell from grace, however, with his patron Cromwell, was arrested at Heytesbury and, in 1541, beheaded, his lands, including those at Heytesbury, being forfeit to the Crown. Thus ended the illustrious Hungerford family’s connection with Heytesbury which had begun in the early 12th century. The estate then came into the hands of the Moore family and the alabaster effigies of Thomas Moore, High Sheriff of Wiltshire, who died in 1623, his wife, Rachel, and child, damaged by order of the Dean of Salisbury in 1673 for reasons unknown, can be seen, together with a plaque inscribed with a rather charming contemporary acrostic, in the north chancel aisle. In 1641, the Moores sold the Estate to the Ashes and, through them, the à Court family became Lords of the Manor of Heytesbury until 1933, when the estate was sold to the World War I poet, Siegfried Sassoon. The walls of the Hungerford Chapel are adorned with à Court family memorials.
By the mid-19th century congregations had dwindled, like many others at the time, and the church had fallen into a sad state of neglect. It was divided in half by a solid wooden screen extending from north to south, west of the crossing, leaving only the nave available for normal worship. Here, the box pews faced west and the high pulpit, with its adjoining clerk’s desk, lectern, prayer desks and stalls were all at the west end. A small door through the screen under the western arch of the crossing gave access to the vestry in the north transept, and to the Hungerford Chapel, although this was closed off and used for à Court family burials (the coffins were moved to a purpose-built mausoleum in the south-west corner of the churchyard during the 1865-67 restoration). A second door gave access to the chancel, with its ancient wooden stalls facing east and inwards, used only for occasional celebrations of Holy Communion. The chancel aisles, which may already have fallen into ruin, had been demolished, presumably to save money. In the nave, upper galleries provided seating for Lord Heytesbury and his family, together with, to one side, seats for the twelve men (dressed in their scarlet cloaks or, later, blue overcoats) and one woman of St John’s Hospital, and to the other, for the children of the school run by the Custos of the Hospital. The organ also stood at the west end of the upper gallery.
From this sorry state of neglect the Church was rescued, in 1865–67, by William Butterfield, the well-known Gothic revival architect and member of the influential Oxford movement, who by removing the dividing barrier between the chancel and the nave, opened up the interior. He also removed the upper galleries in the nave and the high pulpit. The west facing box pews were replaced by the present open, east facing pews and a new pulpit and font were provided. The arches of the blocked up chancel aisles were re-opened and the aisles themselves re-built. Extensive repairs were carried out to the rest of the church. The quality of Butterfield’s work is evident from the fact that the slated roof slopes, laid during his restoration, have lasted nearly 150 years, some 70 years longer than could normally have been expected. On the other hand, Butterfield managed to persuade the then Lord Heytesbury, the incumbent and churchwardens, to accept his signature geometric tile decorations which, contrary to his claims, have no relationship with medieval church interiors and are not to everyone’s taste!
The Warminster Journal devoted a whole page to the opening ceremony following the restoration, which took place on 10th September 1867. A service, led by the Bishop of Oxford, accompanied by the Bishop of Salisbury, was held in the church at 12.30 pm, followed, at 4.00 pm, a lunch for 350 people. Many of the guests attended a second, evening service, after which, at 7.00 pm, 400 of the working poor sat down to a supper provided by the church wardens.
In 1967, a restoration project marked the centenary of the earlier restoration. The wagon roof of the nave was coloured pale blue and the 80 carved bosses, one at the end of each beam and the rest on the horizontal beams at its base, were picked out in white, blue, scarlet, yellow and green. The walls were lime washed white and most of the tiles cleaned. In 1983 the church was re-wired and wrought-iron pendant lights, which had previously hung in Salisbury Cathedral, were installed.
In 1997 Heytesbury church became part of the Upper Wylye Valley Team Ministry which includes nine other churches. The parish registers from 1653, apart from those still in use in the church, can be seen at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham.