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Berry Craig: Louisville publisher, diplomat Bingham saved historic St. Mary’s Parish in England


By Berry Craig
KyForward columnist

(Note: Berry Craig is spending his summer touring historic sites in Europe. This is his first dispatch from his trip)

A Louisville publisher-turned-diplomat saved the historic old parish church of St. Mary’s in Wilton, England.

Robert Worth Bingham was U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom when he heard about the plight of the 15th-century house of worship and donated money to help save what was left of it.

His reasons were at least partly personal. He claimed to be descended from Robert de Bingham, a famous medieval English bishop who was consecrated at an earlier church that stood on the site of St. Mary’s.

St. Mary’s was abandoned, and all but the chancel had crumbled away by the 1930s. The churchyard was an eyesore overgrown with weeds. Bingham was owner and publisher of the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Bluegrass State’s largest newspaper, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him ambassador in 1933.

Bingham’s gift saved the remains of the church in Wilton, an ancient town three miles west of Salisbury, a famous cathedral city in Wiltshire in southwestern England (Photo from Wiltshire Council)

Bingham’s gift saved the remains of the church in Wilton, an ancient town three miles west of Salisbury, a famous cathedral city in Wiltshire in southwestern England (Photo from Wiltshire Council)

Bingham’s gift saved the remains of the church in Wilton, an ancient town three miles west of Salisbury, a famous cathedral city in Wiltshire in southwestern England.

Bingham died in 1937 before the restoration was complete.

Bishop Bingham is synonymous with the great Gothic Salisbury Cathedral, whose treasures include an original 1215 copy of the Magna Carta, a document considered the cornerstone of British liberty.

Bingham was named bishop of Salisbury before the massive stone church was completed in 1258. Though he was ordained in Wilton, Bingham was buried in Salisbury Cathedral, where he was based.

On Sept. 6, 1939, just after World War II started, Wilton celebrated the church’s restoration in a special ceremony. The bishop of Salisbury, the mayor of Wilton and other dignitaries led a procession through town.

St. Mary’s is not an active church. Declared redundant in 1972, it is cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust, a charity that protects historic churches.

A weathered bronze plaque by the front door explains the Kentucky connection and the Bingham endowment. The marker says Robert de Bingham was consecrated here on May 27, 1229, and that “Robert Bingham, Ambassador of the United States at the Court of St. James 1933-37 caused the chancel to be restored. The Ambassador who died 18th December 1937 left in this country an honoured memory and many friends.”

The plaque doesn’t say how much money Bingham gave. Evidently he didn’t want to publicize the amount of his endowment.

In the late fall of 1937, Bingham became ill in London, Britain’s capital, and returned to the U.S. for treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where he succumbed to a rare form of cancer, according to the Courier-Journal. He was 66.

Bingham was buried in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery.

He was succeeded as ambassador by Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., President John F. Kennedy’s father.

Near St. Mary’s church is the 16th–century Wilton House, which also has an important stateside link. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme allied commander in Europe in World War II, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met at the stately home to plan the D-Day landings in France.

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Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history from West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of five books on Kentucky history, including True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo and Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase. Reach him at bcraig8960@gmail.com


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