Dorchester Bishopric


Dorchester, which was the Seat of a Bishopric intermittently from the 7th until the 11thC, is now a Vicarage in Cuddesdon Deanery.  Since 1939 the Church has given its name to the Bishop of Dorchester, a Suffragan of the Bishop of Oxford.  The Ecclesiastical Parish includes the Hamlet of Overy and that of Burcot, which since 1869 has had its own Chapel.  From the early Middle Ages until the mid-19thC Dorchester was the head of a Peculiar Jurisdiction which consisted of 11 Parishes.


The History of the Church begins at the same time as the Ecclesiastical History of Oxfordshire.  When St Birinus began to convert Wessex in 634, he was given Dorchester by Cynegils, King of Wessex, and Oswald, King of Northumbria, as his Episcopal Seat. He built several Churches in the Diocese, including that of Dorchester, in which presumably Cynegils was Baptised in 635, and his son and grandson soon afterwards, and in which Birinus was buried.

In the late 7thC the West Saxon Bishopric was transferred to Winchester, but in the late 9thC Dorchester became the Seat of a Mercian Bishopric, and Dorchester Church for the next 200 years remained a Cathedral, Wulfwig, the last Anglo-Saxon Bishop, being buried in it in 1067.  His successor, Remigius, a Norman Monk, had ambitious plans for the Church, but he had only begun to carry these out when in 1070 it was decided to move the See to Lincoln.

Before the Norman Conquest the Cathedral was served by Secular Canons, whose Prebends were endowed with the Chapels of the surrounding Villages.  After the See was moved to Lincoln, Dorchester and its Chapels continued to be served by Secular Canons until about 1140 Bishop Alexander of Lincoln dissolved them and founded an Abbey of Augustinian Canons.  In 1146, when Eugenius III confirmed the Abbey’s Possessions, he included the Church of St Peter in Dorchester, with its Liberties, its Tithes, & its Chapels.  In 1163 there was a similar Papal Confirmation.

In 1146 6 Chapels were confirmed: the 5 which had formed part of the Ancient Endowment of the Cathedral and had been served by the Prebendaries (Chislehampton, Clifton Hampden, Drayton, & Stadhampton, in Dorchester Hundred, and Toot Baldon in Bullingdon Hundred), and Benson, which had recently been given by the Empress Maud to the Abbey.  By 1163 2 more had been added, Pishill & Marsh Baldon,  while Nettlebed & Warborough, which later were included among the 10 Dorchester Chapels, had originally been Chapels of Benson.

Except for Clifton Hampden, whose Parishioners were buried at Dorchester until 1819, these Chapels from the time their Records begin had Independent Ecclesiastical Status, that is to say, all the Sacraments could be performed in them.  Some at least, however, showed their Ancient Dependence on Dorchester by contributing towards the upkeep of its Church Building.  In 1625 the Wardens of Warborough, Drayton, & Clifton were Cited for refusing to pay Rates towards it.  The Wardens of Clifton answered that they had never been compelled to contribute, while the others failed to appear and were Excommunicated.  At the same Period, the Dorchester Wardens were trying to force the Wardens of Warborough & Drayton to keep up their portions of the Dorchester Churchyard Rails.  The Wardens of Warborough contributed toward those until the 19th century.  In the 18th but not in the 19thC the Wardens of Stadhampton made an annual payment of 6s 8d to Dorchester Church.


From the early Middle Ages Dorchester and its 10 Chapels (all of those belonging to the Abbey in 1146 and all except one of those the Abbey held in 1163) formed an Ecclesiastical Peculiar, which probably had its origin in the ‘Ancient Dignity of the Secular Minster which at the time of the Norman Conquest had contained the Bishop’s Stool‘.  The Confirmation of 1146 makes it clear that Remigius had allowed the Church to preserve some of its Liberties after the See had been transferred to Lincoln.

The Peculiar, which was in the Abbey’s Jurisdiction, was exempt from that of the Archdeacon, although not entirely free from that of the Bishop.  The Bishop did not visit the Peculiar but he instituted to Marsh Baldon, the only Endowed Living there, while Inductions were made by the Abbot of Dorchester.  The Peculiar survived the Abbey’s Dissolution in 1536, and Descended with the Abbey’s Manor and the Rectory to the Ashfield and then to the Fettiplace Families.  It is not mentioned in the Grant of 1544 to Edmund Ashfield, and at a later date, its Holders & Officials relied on long usage rather than on documentary proof of their Rights.  By 1581 it had its own Seal and its Records begin then.  From this time at least Jurisdiction was exercised by the Commissary or Official, always a Clerk, appointed by the Lay Rectors.  He took the place of both Bishop & Archdeacon (except that the Bishop continued to Institute to Marsh Baldon) and he held annual Visitations in Dorchester Church, which were attended by the Ministers & Churchwardens of the Parishes in the Peculiar.


In the late 18thC, the Bishops of Oxford were trying to bring to an end all Peculiar Jurisdictions in their Diocese.  A Case concerning Marsh Baldon, which was heard in 1799 in the Peculiar Court, led to an Appeal.  This gave Bishop Randolph grounds for hope that the whole Jurisdiction might be dissolved.  The end of the Case has not been traced, but the Peculiar continued.  When in 1808 the Fettiplace Estate was split up, instead of following the Descent of the Advowson or the Rectory, it followed that of the Manor, being ‘appendant’ to one of the Lots, and was acquired by George White.  The Peculiar Acts continue until 1836,  but the next year the last Official, George Scobbell, died and no successor was appointed. By 1845 the Parish was said to be in an ‘extraordinary position’, forming a ‘sort of Ecclesiastical Oasis‘.  As it had been visited by the Bishop since 1834 the trouble arose from lack of the Archdeacon’s Jurisdiction.  The payment of yearly Visitation Fees, beginning in 1847, probably marks the complete end of the Peculiar.


It is evident that by 1146 the Parish’s Ecclesiastical Revenue belonged to the Abbey.  No Vicarage was Endowed, and the Abbey was responsible for seeing that the Church was served.  After the Reformation the Living was a Curacy, sometimes called a Donative and sometimes a Perpetual Curacy.  Appointments were made by the Lay Rectors.  From 1788 the Curates were Licensed by the Official of the Peculiar and from 1838 by the Bishop.  In 1868 the Living became a Titular Vicarage.


The Rectories of Dorchester (to which was attached the Serving of the Church) and of Overy remained with the Abbey until its Dissolution in 1536. Overy Rectory was Granted by the Crown in 1542 to the Dean & Chapter of Christ Church, who still held it in 1840.  In 1544 Dorchester Rectory, with the Right of Presentation, was sold with the Site of the Abbey and its Manor to Edmund Ashfield, and then Descended with the Manor to the Fettiplaces.  In the 17thC the Fettiplaces leased it to Sir Edward Clarke of Reading, and after his death in 1638 to his Widow and then to his son Edward, the ‘Mr Clerk‘ mentioned by Anthony Wood in 1657, who lived at Dorchester and who married a daughter of Thomas, Viscount Wenman, of Thame Park.

When the Fettiplace Estates were broken up in 1808 the Rectory and the Right of Presentation were separated.  In 1828 the latter was sold by Diana Frances Gorges, a relative of the Fettiplaces, for £480 to Henry Burrows, a London Lawyer.  Burrows, who died in 1829, made complicated Legal Provisions for it in his Will and during the 19th century, Presentations were made by his Trustees.  In 1883 his nephew, Henry William Burrows, Canon of Rochester, and the Rev John Burrows, the latter’s son, Granted the Presentation to the Bishop of Oxford.  The Bishop is still Patron.

In 1808 not only was the Advowson separated from the Rectory but the Rectory itself was split up.  The Tithes were sold in small portions; some (on about 800a), became merged with the Land, others continued to be paid until in 1847 they were commuted and a Rent-charge of £331 9s 2d was awarded to a number of Holders.  When the Rectory was divided, the Liabilities on it (the payment to the Minister and the upkeep of the Chancel) were attached to one small lot of 31 acres called The Hurst, formerly part of the Abbey Demesne, which was bought by William Davey.  From this time the Davey Family, although they were Roman Catholics,  were responsible for the Chancel, repairing it as late as 1860.  The Land later became part of Queensford Mill Farm, and when this was sold in the 1890s, in spite of the Vicar’s protests, the Liability for the Chancel was repudiated although payments to the Vicar continued.

No early valuations of Dorchester Rectory exist, for in 1254 & 1291 it was valued with its Chapels, 1st at £20 13s 4d and then at £41 6s 8d.  By 1535 this had risen to £134 0s 6d, of which Dorchester Rectory was worth £10 & Overy £3 6s 8d.  The latter consisted of all the Tithes of Overy, which were commuted in 1840, Christ Church and its Lessee, George Davey, being awarded a Rent-charge of £96.

Dorchester Rectory consisted of all the Tithes of Dorchester as well as some Land. Litigation of 1665 shows that by then it was worth £200 a year above the ‘Reserved Rent’, although a Terrier of the same period estimates its value at £140.  It is impossible to estimate its value after its division in 1808 (see above).

Before the 19thC the Living, as opposed to the Rectory, had no settled Endowment, the Minister being paid by the Rectors.  In 1526 the Abbey paid him £5 6s 8d a year and in the 1540s he received £8.  By the 2nd half of the 17th century, he was receiving £26 a year from the Fettiplaces and by the mid-18th century £32.  This was still being paid in 1882.  From 1716 the Curate also received £10 a year from a Bequest left by Robert South, Canon of Christ Church. This £42 was increased by the Rent of the parsonage (£10) in the early 19th century.  In 1813 & 1814 Queen Anne’s Bounty augmented the Living by £1,200 and later augmentations were made in 1842 and in the 60s & 70s, but Dorchester remained a comparatively poor Living especially as the Minister was expected to help support the Schools & Local Charities.

There were once, according to Leland, 3 Parish Churches in Dorchester, 2 to the South of the Abbey and a 3rd to the South-West.  No other evidence has been found for these, but Burcot & Overy each had their own Rectories and were separately Tithed, and it is not unlikely that at one time they had their own Churches. They are not recorded, however, in the Papal Bull of 1146 which confirmed Dorchester’s Rights in its other Churches (capellae).  Whatever the History of Dorchester’s early Churches may have been, the Parish was using the Nave of the Abbey Church as its Parish Church in the late Middle Ages.

Note the Old Castle Pub at Bridge End

The Parish was closely associated with the Abbey in other ways: it was in its Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction (see above), and its Parish Priest was a Chaplain appointed by the Abbey or perhaps at times a Canon.  Nothing, not even their names, is known of the Clergy before the 16thC. The opening of the Tomb of St Birinus in 1225 and the alleged discovery of his bones must also have affected the life of the Parish.  The Abbey became an Official place of Pilgrimage and in the next Century a Shrine was built over the Saint’s Tomb.  The offerings at this Shrine brought the Abbey £5 a year in 1535, but by the 1540s these offerings were ‘in decay‘.

When the Abbey was visited by the Bishop in 1441 & 1445 conditions were far from satisfactory and it is unlikely that the Parish, which was not included in the Visitation, was unaffected. Among the complaints were that the Canons spent much of their time in the local Taverns and that Parishioners often walked through the Cloister on their way to Church.  At a Visitation in 1530 similar conditions were found.

One effect of the Abbey’s Dissolution in 1536 was that the Chancel, formerly reserved for the use of the Abbey, was acquired for the use of the Parishioners.  At that time the Parish Church was not served by Canons, for by 1526 Dorchester had its own Curate.  In the later 16thC, there is little doubt that there were resident Ministers, one in the 1580s is described as ‘no Preacher‘.  At times there appear to have been 2 Priests serving the Church.


The Peculiar Acts, beginning in 1581, tell something of Parochial Life: besides the usual Moral charges, Parishioners were accused of not going to Church, not receiving Communion, and working on Sundays.  The 1620s were a troubled time.  The Parish was a Recusant Centre; and both the Chancel and the Church were in a state of neglect, probably partly because the Church had become too large for the Parish to maintain.  Rates of 2s a Yardland in 1624 & 1s in 1625 were levied for its upkeep, and in 1629 a demand for a 3s Rate produced much opposition.  One of the 3 Wardens refused to take part in its collection, for he said he knew it would not be paid; another Warden, John Day, also showed himself unco-operative; while a Parishioner, when asked to pay the Rate, accused the Curate, William Winchester, of being responsible for it.  Religious differences may have been involved, for he considered as ‘baubles‘ the scripture phrases with which it was planned to adorn the walls.  The Wardens were ordered to demand publicly the payment of the Rate.  Troubles continued into the 1630s, Day again being accused of refusing to cooperate with the other Wardens and of irreverent behaviour in Church.


After the break in the Peculiar Records in 1637 little is known of the History of the Church.  Winchester remained as Curate until his death in 1655.  His successor William Read probably had Parliamentary sympathies, for in 1657 the Trustees for the Maintenance of Ministers ordered an increase of £20 in his Stipend.  By 1662 he had been succeeded by David Thomas, ‘a good Loyalist‘,  who had come to the Parish in the 1650s as the Master of the new School and who, when he became Curate, began the custom of holding both Church & SchoolAnthony Wood, a former Pupil of his at Thame, visited him at Dorchester.

In the 2nd half of the 17th century, the difficulties of the 1st half were repeated. Recusancy continued and to it was added Dissent; the Church Rate, apparently 4s in 1666, was difficult to collect; and the Parish Clerk had difficulty in collecting his wages, a payment from each householder.  Later there was another financial dispute: from 1707 a number of people whose relatives were buried in the Churchyard refused to pay the 1s due claimed by the Minister, at this time a local man, Philip Keene (1690–1714), denying that it was the Custom of the Parish.  The decision, which was left to the Official of the Peculiar, is not known.  Churchwardens’ Accounts (1757–94) show that there were 3 Wardens, as there had been in the 1620s, who changed every year.  One was probably chosen by the Curate and the other by the Parishioners of Dorchester, while the 3rd may have been from Overy.  They also received the money collected from Burcot, although the Burcot Wardens evidently kept separate records. Most of the Wardens’ income came from a yearly rate on Dorchester & Burcot; by this time it was levied on the Pound instead of the Yardland, and usually ranged from between 1d & 3d, a penny rate producing £6 17s 9d in Dorchester and £1 7s 9d in Burcot.  Expenditure in the 1st part of the period usually varied between £8 & £15 although towards the end of the Century it often rose to over £20.  Almost all the money was spent on the Church Building.

This pattern continued into the 19thC except that from the 1820s there were only 2 Wardens.  The Church rate usually continued to vary from 1d to 3d, but by 1840 the same rate produced about 3 times what it did in the 18thC.  Expenses were usually between about £20 & £40. After the abolition of compulsory Church Rates in 1868 money was collected by an Offertory and the Church’s income somewhat increased.

In the middle of the 18thC the Curate ceased acting as Schoolmaster and in the 2nd part of the century, he stopped living in the Parish.  James Roe (1788–1838) never did so, being resident for many years at his Berkshire Rectory.  In his time the Parish was served by a succession of Assistant Curates, many of whom lived in Oxford, while the ‘very small’ Parsonage wasLet.   Roe paid his Curates £50, almost the whole income from the Living and 2 Services were held on Sundays.  In the 1820s the Assistant Curate began to live in the Parish, and after Roe’s Death, the ministers were again resident, although the Parsonage was no longer used.  By 1853 it was ‘in ruins‘.  In the 1830s Congregations of 250 in the morning and 350 in the afternoon were reported, with about 100 Communicants at Christmas & Easter, and a Sunday School had been started.  By the 1850s daily Services were held, with 3 on Sundays, and there were 2 Sunday Schools and a Night School for boys.  Nevertheless, dissent was strong and Congregations, numbering up to 400, were not considered large enough.


In the 2nd half of the 19thCDorchester had a devoted & generous Minister with a Private Fortune, W C Macfarlane (1856–85), who was interested in the Church’s History and who improved its Buildings and extended its activities.  He completed the restoration of the Church Building, which had been begun in 1845, both he and his Family contributing towards it.  In 1857 the new Parsonage was built; in 1869 the Chapel at Burcot was opened; and in 1878, largely through his efforts, the Missionary College was founded.  He continued holding frequent Services and began the practice of having weekly Communions. He placed great emphasis on Education, believing that neglect of Religion was largely owing to lack of it, and was a liberal supporter of the Parish Schools. He also built a Parish Room and a Reading Room.  He belonged to the High Church Party, and at once made Dorchester its local Headquarters,  thus arousing some opposition. The Congregation, for instance, had been used to singing the Psalms, which in 1861 began to be chanted by the Choir.  Great emphasis was laid on the Choir, which numbered over 100, and Choral Festivals were often held in the Church.

Macfarlane’s successor, N C S Poyntz (1886– 1920), who began giving daily Communion, also met with opposition because of his High Church sympathies, but his devotion to the Parish made him much loved.  He started the Parish magazine and it was probably he who founded the Mission in the North of the Village.  Dorchester has continued to have High Church Vicars and some religious differences have continued in the Parish.

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