Newbury Branch meeting 13th May 2020, conducted on Zoom
Speaker: Catherine Sampson
Churches, as the social heart of communities, can carry marks of social history. Their location can speak of past population movement, which explains the midfield location of St Oswald’s, Widford. Around the church can be seen earthen lumps marking the site of the former village. St Oswald’s now belongs to the Churches’ Conservation Trust (CCT), which has removed the whitewash applied during the English Reformation to obscure a wall painting of St Christopher.
St Thomas’ in East Shefford can also only be reached down a farm track. Visitors are asked to use and replace a key kept by the gate.The beautiful interior of this typical early Downland church lacks a rood screen, which would have been taken down in Edward VI’s reign, but the rood screen staircase remains, as do the Fettiplace tombs and the sanctus bell, which would have alerted all, inside and outside, to the moment of consecration. Also in the hands of the CCT, this church still holds candlelit services for nearly 200 people at Christmas.
St Margaret’s, Catmore, is hidden from the road by trees, and can also only be reached by a path. It is open (the key having been lost in Tudor times), and still in use. Like St Thomas’ it has no electricity, so services are held by candlelight. The stone doorway still bears inscribed crusader crosses.
The village of Nuneham Courtenay was relocated, along with All Saints’ Church, in 1757 by the Harcourt family, who rebuilt cottages along the main road, together with a new church in the style of a classical temple. (A wooden board tells of a parishioner who declined to move, but was allowed to stay on condition that she dressed up as a shepherdess for visitors.) The new church, being two miles away from the new cottages, was abandoned in the 1870s in favour of a new, Victorian parish church, which in turn has been abandoned by worshippers, and is now also with the CCT.
St Frideswide’s in Frilsham sits in a circular graveyard, indicating an even earlier use of the site. St Frideswide, a Oxford-born Saxon resisted pressure to marry. Her nunnery was taken over by Cardinal Wolsey for his new Oxford college which, after his fall, was renamed Christ Church. St Frideswide’s convent chapel survives as its cathedral. The Frilsham church is the only one outside Oxford to commemorate her, and here there is a holy well around which a children’s ceremony is enacted each year.
St George’s, Hatford, celebrated a secret marriage in Tudor times, involving aristocrats marrying for love rather than dynastic advantage.
St Michael’s in Cumnor was the parish church of the ill-fated Amy Robsart, wife of Elizabeth I’s favourite, Robert Dudley. Her death in 1560 technically released Dudley for remarriage to the queen, but the ensuing scandal rendered that impossible. Historians still ponder on whether it was murder or suicide. Cumnor Place has been long since demolished, but her ghost has not left, apparently.
St John the Baptist in Burford, built by wealthy wool merchants, served as a prison for 340 Levellers during the Civil War. One of them left his name inscribed on the font. Three were executed after trial, and they are remembered in a ceremony each year.
St Mary’s, Langley, contains a pew with its own private library, presumably to help the worshippers endure long sermons. The original sixteenth-century volumes have been replaced by dummies.
St Swithin’s chapel in Wickham is famous for its elephants: eight papier mache models, three of which were brought from the Paris Exhibition of 1862. A further five were made to order.
St Mary’s, Aldworth, houses the tombs of seven apparent giants, fourteenth-century members of the De La Beche family. There is also a rare surviving memento mori from the days of the Black Death: a skeleton effigy on a tomb.
St Mary’s, Swinbrook, is the resting place of more of the ubiquitous Fettiplaces, these from the 1600s. In the churchyard lie most of the famous Mitford family, the fascists Lord and Lady Redesdale and all but two of their children.