The History and Architecture of St Mary the Virgin, North Stoke
Uniquely, this church is the only one anywhere on the entire length of the Ridgeway Long Distance Path where the path actually runs through the churchyard.
The story of Christian life in North Stoke begins with the arrival of St Birinus in England in 634. According to Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bishop Birinus was dispatched to Britain by Pope Honorius 1 to take Christianity where no teacher had been before. He settled in Dorchester, the centre of a spiritual and religious area since Neolithic times, and founded his cathedral church there in 635 on land gifted by Cynegils, King of the West Saxons, whose capital was at Bensington (Benson) after having baptised him and his court in the nearby River Thames. So began the 7th Century Christian life of this neighbourhood. By the time of Birinus’s death in 650, his diocese covered approximately half of southern and central England.
After a dark period of 400 years, during which the Danes poured over the land plundering and pillaging, William the Conqueror crossed the Thames at Wallingford, with the help of Wigod, the Saxon Lord. Wigod’s daughter married a Norman Baron and in 1084 their daughter married Milo Crispin, a Norman Baron who was Lord of Wallingford and whose property included North Stoke and Nuneham Murren. He was a very wealthy man and a son of Gilbert Crispin, Baron of Bec. The Crispins were a long established noble family and Barons of Bec in Normandy where they also founded the Abbey. So the marriage created a connection between North Stoke and Bec which lasted for 300 years.
Of the Saxon church of North Stoke we have a possible relic in three stones, which in their pattern and colouring suggest the shape of a pillar piscina. (They stand in a box by the pulpit). A Norman Church took its place, though nothing remains except the dedication to St Mary of Bec, the large stones incorporated in the flint walls, and the Mass dial representing the figure of Our Lord over the South door.
Henry III assigned the Honour of Wallingford to his brother, Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall. In 1236 he first presented Robert, a monk of St Albans, and then after only one year, Robert de Esthall who stayed for 37 years and for whom presumably the present church was built.
The Chancel was built in 1230-1240 under the patronage of the Abbey of Bec in Normandy. The north wall is faced with large rectangular knapped, coursed flints (above chest level) and stone dressing. The other walls, facing away from the original Rectory, are made of more random flint work.
The Chancel is Early English and has three lancet windows in the north and south walls and which are flanked by a pair of blue Purbeck marble columns with individual capitals and capped in blue slate. A narrow richly moulded Priest’s door is wedged between two of the windows facing the original Rectory. The East window is a later Decorated style with early 20th Century stained glass. The two low-sided square windows were probably used by lepers to view the priest from outside.
The floor consists of brick and some early glazed tiles and the Purbeck marble slab to the memory of Robert de Esthall, the first Rector of North Stoke from 1238 to 1274. This slab bears a Latin inscription which translates as, “Here lies the body of Robert de Esthall formerly Rector of the church. Pray for the Soul of that man.”
The Chest in the Sanctuary is possibly 13th Century and a Crusader one – Richard, Earl of Cornwall in fact went to Palestine 1240-42.
The Nave is a little later in date; building may have been interrupted by the Crusade and resumed after 1242. In 1392 the Patronage went from the Lords of Wallingford under the King to the Nuns of Bromhall. They got into difficulties and the Bishop of Lincoln eventually sequestrated their income until repairs were completed.
The 800mm thick walls of the 13th Century Nave are coursed with random-knapped flint work and stone dressings. There are three double Gothic windows with simple tracery on either side. The south doorway was blocked, probably in the 15th Century, and a new one was created on the North side with the 14th Century door complete with its original lock. The roof is supported by four oak trusses with purlins resting on a pair of queen posts, in the style of a barn as befitted a small farming hamlet.
The Font is Early English and the Pulpit is Jacobean. The Piscina in the nave suggests a second altar there, dedicated to St Lawrence. All the money, which was raised from the candles burnt before this altar, was given to the Vicar by the Nuns. There is also a piscina and aumbry in the Sanctuary.
The Wall Paintings in the Nave
There are tiers of 14th Century wall paintings depicting various biblical scenes. They were obviously painted with a more elaborate palette than that typical of the folk art of the time. They are:
On the East Wall
Chancel Arch: The Last Judgement. The painting above the arch is indistinct and difficult to interpret.
North Side: Three nude figures rising from a grave and received by a Bishop in vestments and a Deacon (either St Stephen or St
South Side: St Stephen or St Lawrence with a Bishop in vestments.
Beneath: figures forming part of the Resurrection.
Lower down: Small Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John.
On the South Wall: 3 tiers:
1. Last Supper.
2. a Betrayal, b Trial, c Flagellation.
3. a Resurrection, b Descent from the Cross? c Bearing the Cross?
Over South Door: Annunciation?
On the North Wall:
Over porch: Three Kings living – three Kings dead. The latter saying to the former, “What you are we were, what we are you will be.”
Between windows: 2 tiers
1. Martyrdom of St Catherine.
2. a Trial of St Stephen, b Stoning of St Stephen with angel above.
East Wall: (Left of pulpit)
Murder in 1170 of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Splay of Middle window of South wall: St John the Baptist with disc bearing Agnus Dei (Baptism of our Lord?)
Splay of West Window of South wall: A winged demon (Temptation of our Lord?)
The Tower and Vestry
The lower part of the Tower with buttresses is of similar age to the Nave. The tower ground floor is the Vestry and above that is an intermediate chamber with a Bell Chamber housing three bells above that. The top third collapsed in 1669, possibly caused by vibrations from the largest bell which was cast in Reading in 1662. It was rebuilt with random flint work and brick dressings with a castellated parapet wall, the work being completed in 1725 at a cost of £100. Three small Gothic windows light the Vestry which is connected to the Nave by a full width Gothic arch with stone dressed pillars. A modern oak and glass partition separates the Vestry from the Nave.
The 15th Century tiled Porch has a pleasing pair of curved oak timbers forming an arch at the entrance.
The churchyard is enclosed by a brick wall dating from 1743 with the site of the original Rectory to the north of the north side of this wall. Amongst the graves on the South side of the church is that of the world famous contralto, Dame Clara Butt (1872–1936). The handsome lychgate was built in 1923 with some of the oak timbers from the old Goring Bridge.
Church Contact Details:
Contact: The Revd John Blair
Church Address: St Mary’s Church, Church Lane, North Stoke, Oxfordshire, OX10 6BQ
The Rectory Address: The Vicarage, Crabtree Corner, Ipsden, Oxon OX10 6BN
Tel: 01491 681100
A full gallery of images for this church can be found at this link
You will find the individual contacts for the churches at this link.