Church life today in Whitchurch
Our church is within a thriving community. We enjoy using the facility, the Old Stables, for community events which include:
- Tuesday Coffee Mornings
- Saturday Art Cafe
- Craft Groups
- Bible Study
- Lent Study Group
To find out more about our daily life together, click here and look up the church page on our Whitchurch Village Website.
The serene setting and stately interior of our present House of Worship rather mask fabric from a more humble predecessor, founded by the early Christian Saxons of Hwitcurke in the 9th Century and, two centuries later, enlarged on what must have been a lavish scale for the period. It well served the Royal Manor and parish of Whitchurch, throughout the Middle Ages.
The medieval English Church was seized from the Pope by Henry VIII during the Reformation (the priests and their parishioners didn’t have a choice in the matter). Worship continued but the building was altered several times more. It was most extensively transformed in 1857/8, under Henry Woodyer of Guildford, and reordered in 1901.
Original 11th Century Walls
The flint and stone south wall (opposite the usual entrance) is part of the 11th Century structure, as probably are the east and west walls, though in each case the window openings are Victorian and there have been later alterations. It used to be said that if you moved into the connecting space between the north and south aisles (where the hymn books and prayer books are stacked) and look right up near the roof, you could see that the top of the west wall is brick on the inside. From the late 17th to the mid-19th Century, the church was decorated very plainly in a somewhat Calvinistic style; a flat ceiling was suspended beneath the roof beams, with a huge painting of the royal coat of arms on it and since the top part of the walls was in the ‘attic’, so to speak, there was no need to plaster them to fit in with the rest of the church. At that time, too, there were galleries along the back and north walls, to accommodate an orchestra (this was, of course, before the first organ was installed).
Medieval Roof Timbers
The fine medieval roof timbers over the main body of the church were revealed in 1857 and prove how very wide the old Church was. However, the timbers over the north aisle (nearest the main church door) were new; notice how comparatively regular they are. The space now occupied by the north aisle had once contained two chantry chapels and, later, the village school.
Monuments and Brasses
At Whitchurch on Thames, the Victorians took considerable care of the older stone monuments, some used to pave the aisles, others replaced on the walls. A rich display of village history is preserved, including the Lybbes of nearby Hardwick and the Whistlers who bought the Manor of Whitchurch from the Crown in 1605. The showpiece is of Richard Lybbe (d. 1599) and his wife, both kneeling, on the south wall of the chancel. You can also see medieval brasses of Thomas Walysch, royal wine taster (“trayer”) and his wife, Richard Gery, the first Rector of Whitchurch and Peter Winder, a later curate, figures across the centuries of royal patronage and dutiful worship on this spot.
The South Porch and Doorway
For the best glimpses of the old St Mary’, Whitchurch on look outside. The south doorway was originally the principal entrance. Its medieval outer porch almost conceals a gargoyle like face, dating from the Saxon period. Below it is a fine double Norman archway (with capitals decorated on one side only). Inside the church in a glass cabinet by the bookstall, is a medieval foliated cross (with leaves growing from it – a Christian version of the Scandinavian Tree of Life). Through the ages it greeted worshippers from above the entrance to the south porch. It has been replaced outside by a modern replica.
Early Stained Glass Window
The window to the right of the altar is medieval Flemish set between Victorial diamond panels. The saint/bishop is unidentifiable (and perhaps unidentifiable) and it is not thought to be original to this Church.
The Bell Tower
Five of the bells date from the early seventeenth century. You can see towards the back a hanging bell-rope, used to mark the consecretion of the wine and the host during communion services, and to remind villagers that Holy Communion is taking place. Let your eye follow the rope up to the ceiling. Above it is a hipped spire, built in 1857 to replace the much shorter spire that preceded it. It is a final touch to the timeless view of Whitchurch across the Mill Pool. However, the tower wasn’t strong enough to cope with the huge stresses caused by the swinging of the bells especially as a sixth was to be added (a swinging bell exerts 4 1/2 times its weight downwards, and 2 1/2 times its weight sideways) so the Rector turned to an unusual source for help. If you look at the four corners of the belfrey floor you will see that it rests on four massive iron pillars. These were manufactured for the church by the workshops of the Great Western Railway.
As seen in his new chancel arch, Woodyer was an imaginative original designer, but regarded as a “heavy handed” restorer. The arch he removed was of a type not uncommon in the Chilterns region, descibed in early editions of Kelly’s Directory as “fine and lofty in Norman style”. Hard to maintain, it must have been a much larger version of the door surround which can still be seen within our south porch. A yet bigger Woodyer change was the nicely detailed North Aisle in a standard gothic style. His reredos behind the altar was rediscovered in 1997, having been covered by panelling for almost a century. It is cast from reconstituted stone which may have been brought by the yard to fit the space (roses are chopped off on the four sides). Its pale colouring may give us a truer impression of Woodyer’s intention than do the later changes.
After Woodyer’s Transformation
It was a parish then which could afford the best. Woodyer’s work was followed by new “public” pews throughout to replace the former privately rented boxes and by richly colourful stained glass windows by Hardman (a disciple of Pugin). They are well regarded, particularly the fine example in the choir vestry, which may have been moved to make room for the later altar window by Kempe, but they reduce the natural light. The impressive but bulky Walker organ, to the north of the chancel, was built in 1901 and includes several stops from the original organ at the back of the church. Within its shadow came well executed “collegiate” style panelling for the choir, which along with the pulpit and, perhaps, the fine font, were features of the expensive re-ordering which completed the present appearance of the Church.
A Few Historical Figures
Numerous medieval monarchs must have worshipped here, including the future child king, Edward V, before his tragic death in the Tower. Their visits are evidence by the many Royal Charters issued from this Manor – twenty in the reign of Edward II alone. There is a register entry claimed for the architect Sir John Soane, though his baptismal date causes problems. Wall plaques can be seen to the missionary, Capitain Allen Gardiner, to Sir John Forbes, Physician to Queen Victoria’s Household and to his grandson Patrick, a founder of Zimbabwe. One to the famous diarist, Caroline Lybbe-Powys and her husband over the south door is too high up to read. The family shields of the Whistlers, paving the nave, are the same as that used by the distantly related American artist, J McN Whistler.
Church Contact Details:
Contact: please see the contact details for Revd James Leach
Church Address: St Mary’s Church, Whitchurch on Thames, Berkshire, RG8 7DG UK
The Rectory Address: St Mary’s House, Whitchurch-on-Thames, RG8 7DF
Whitchurch on Thames Contacts and Links
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.