From the 7th century, the dominant Religious Focus in the area was Dorchester, successively the Site of an Episcopal Seat, a Collegiate Minster, and an Augustinian Abbey. A separate Minster at Pyrton, owned by the Bishopric of Worcester, had jurisdiction over Easington and (probably) Brightwell Baldwin and Cuxham by the 880s, and though hard evidence is lacking, a Church at Benson seems to have similarly assumed responsibility for Benson’s Royal Estate, its jurisdiction extending eastwards across the Chilterns. Vestiges of such an arrangement continued in the 13th century when Warborough, Nettlebed, & Henley were claimed as Chapelries, although Benson Church itself was given to Dorchester Abbey in the 1140s and its Status downgraded to that of Chapel.
The Parish structure was firmly established by c.1200, reflecting the widespread foundation of local Churches on newly created Estates in (probably) the 11th & 12th centuries. Resulting Parishes varied considerably in size, the smallest (Easington) comprising only 235a, while Great Haseley Church served a Multi-Township Parish of over 3,000 acres. Outlying Medieval Chapels, some of them short-lived and of uncertain status, existed at Rycote, Latchford, Little Haseley, Brookhampton, Berrick Prior, & Fifield, while another at Britwell Prior survived until 1865. Benson, Warborough, & Nettlebed remained Chapelries of Dorchester until the Reformation, subsequently becoming perpetual Curacies within the Peculiar of Dorchester, while Berrick Salome remained a Chapelry of Chalgrove, reflecting early Manorial connections. Newington Parish formed a Peculiar belonging to the Archbishop of Canterbury, similarly reflecting Canterbury Cathedral’s Lordship.
Church incomes in 1291 ranged from c.£4–£28, attracting very different sorts of Incumbent, while 5 Parishes were appropriated to Religious Houses, with Vicarages Endowed at Chalgrove & Nuffield. All 3 Upland Parishes were poorly endowed, though not exceptionally so, and their small Churches (like many in the Vale) attracted occasional investment from prominent Laymen. Some worshippers in more dispersed areas attended from outside the Parish, amongst them the English Family (from Newnham Murren) at Nuffield. Lights, side Chapels, & Chantries were noted even in some smaller Churches, and at Swyncombe the ‘offering place to St Botolph‘, apparently a freestanding Building, survived into the early 17th century.
The Reformation seems to have been outwardly accepted in many Parishes, although opposition by Gentry, Clergy, or Parishioners is evident in Brightwell Baldwin, Newington, the Haseleys, & Warborough, and was manifested in the 1549 Oxfordshire Uprising. Recusant Gentry families were resident in several Parishes during the 17th century, and at Britwell Prior the Simeons & Welds maintained a Catholic Mission and Chapel until 1796, accommodating a Community of Clare Nuns until 1813. Protestant Dissenters, notably Quakers & (later) Baptists, became firmly established from the 1660s, focused on Warborough, Benson, & Roke, while at Nettlebed the ejected Independent Minister Thomas Cole established a short-lived Academy in 1666. As with Catholicism, such activities formed part of a wider concentration in the South Oxfordshire & Chiltern area. Further Dissent developed from c.1800, with Wesleyans, Primitive Methodists, and Congregationalists established in several Vale and Chiltern Parishes, often into the 20th century. Sporadic Anglican neglect was mostly replaced in the 19th century by energetic Reforming Clergymen, but no new Anglican Churches were built despite some abortive plans, and Parochial organisation remained unaltered until the creation of some large Team Ministries in the later 20th century. No non-Christian groups became established.
St Mary the Virgin, Ewelme is an exceptional Church with a distinguished history. The present building has not changed greatly for almost 600 years, having been reordered in 1437. A place of worship with strong echoes stretching back over 100 years before the Reformation. It owes much of its present form to Thomas Chaucer, Governor of Wallingford Castle, 5 times Speaker of the House of Commons and the son of the Poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who lived in Ewelme, and to his daughter Alice, whose 3rd husband was William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk. It was their vision to adapt the alterations already made by her father and found a Chantry Chapel and Trust. The Ewelme Trust was set up in 1437 with Royal License from Henry VI and exists to this day. As part of the Almshouse Trust, the Duke and Duchess reordered the Chapel, which is dedicated to St John, as well as building Almshouses and a School. Because of the connection with the Dukes of Suffolk, the Architecture, the Tomb and the famous “Angel” Roof in the Chapel of St John the Baptist have more in common with East Anglian churches than nearer neighbours in Oxfordshire. The Church is modelled on the Church of Wingfield in Suffolk, part of the Duke’s Estates. Its Architecture is being of late Gothic.
It is not lacking in dignity, and it has the look, of being well preserved rather than restored. It is for its Monuments that it is notable. The 1st of these is the Tomb of Thomas Chaucer, rich with Heraldic blazonry that it surprises us to find connected with the grandson of a Trader. The Armorial Bearings of Beaufort, Barghersh, Montacute, Mohun, and Plantagenet are here to be seen, though Chaucer’s connection with some of these houses was of a posthumous kind.
The condition of the Interior is exceptional, no small thanks to the doors having been locked to 17th century Reformatory Vandals. There are other fine sculptured details around the Church and a magnificent 15th century panelled ceiling to the South Chapel, carved with Angels. The East window here also contains a Medley of 15th century stained glass fragments collected from various windows. Another outstanding feature is the Font, also from 1475 which is dominated by it’s St Michael-capped spire-like wooden cover, over 10ft high and raised by a Counterpoise carved like a Tudor Rose.
“God have mercy on the Sowles of the noble Prince King Harry the Sext and of the Sowles of my Lord William sum time Duke of Suffolk and my Lady Alice Duchess of Suffolk his wyfe our first founders and of their fadyr and modyr sowles and all Cristen sowles.”
In the Church adjacent to the Font, there is a Brass Plate Memorial to the memory of 5 years old Edward Norreys who died in 1529. His father, Sir Henry Norreys had been appointed Keeper of the Hunting Park at Ewelme in 1520 and he also held high Offices at Court, including Groom of the Kings Stool and thereby was one of the closest of the King’s Courtiers. He was also a friend and supporter of Queen Anne Boleyn, and when Henry was moving to rid himself of his tempestuous wife, Thomas Cromwell falsely implicated Sir Henry (with 4 others) in a charge of Adultery with the Queen. Reluctant to see his favoured Courtier beheaded, the King promised Sir Henry his freedom if he would confess, but he went to the block on May 17th 1536 declaring he would die a 1,000 times rather than ruin an innocent person. (Ironically, the Norreys Family had also been instrumental in the downfall of the De la Pole Dynasty some 50 years earlier. Sir Henry’s grandfather, Sir William Norreys, commanded Henry VII’s Army at the Battle of Stoke in 1487 when John Earl of Lincoln was killed).
St Mary’s Church. Early 14thC West Tower, rest of c.1432, North Porch rebuilt 1832, South Porch repaired 1874. Mixed flint and limestone rubble; banded knapped flint and
ashlar limestone to Porch; red brick crenellated Parapets to Clerestory and Aisles; Aisled Nave, Chancel with Chapel to St John the Baptist to South, and West Tower. Perpendicular style. Porch to right with Tudor Archway, and paired trefoil Lancets to left and right returns. 15thC double-leaf door with Perpendicular tracery pattern, ribbing and studding to flattened 2-centre moulded Stone Arch with quatrefoil carving to spandrels and Hood-mould. Water-stoop to left of door. Ribbed wooden Roof to Porch. Three 3-light stone Perpendicular tracery windows to Aisle with diamond-leading and Hood moulds. Stepped Buttresses between Aisle windows. Seven 2-light trefoil-topped Stone mullion windows to Clerestory with Hood moulds. Moulded string-course to Clerestory Parapet with carved stone faces between windows. Tower to right has 2-light stone Y-tracery louvred opening to top with Hood mould, crenellated Stone Parapet. Left return: knapped flint and ashlar Limestone in Chequer pattern. 5-light Stone Perpendicular tracery window to Chancel. 4-light stone Perpendicular tracery window to chapel at left, 2-light stone mullioned window with triangular cusped tracery top to Vestry at right.
Rear: Open Timber frame Porch to left of centre of Aisle with 15thC ribbed and studded door. Three 3-light stone Perpendicular tracery windows with splayed reveals and Hood moulds. 15thC ribbed and studded door to left of Chapel, with quatrefoil carving to spandrels and Hood-mould. Two 3-light stone perpendicular tracery windows with splayed reveals and Hood moulds to Chapel. Seven 2-light trefoil-topped Stone mullion windows to Clerestory with Hood moulds. Moulded string course to Clerestory Parapet with carved Stone Faces between the windows. Tower to left has 2-light stone Y-tracery louvred opening to top with Hood-mould; crenellated Stone Parapet.
Interior: Moulded 2-centre arched arcades to Aisles with Piers of clustered Columns, and carved Angels bearing Shields to spandrels, except to South of Nave, which has blank shields to the spandrels. 15thC ribbed Roof, with feather-bodied Angels with out-spread wings to intersection of Beams to Chapel Roof. Octagonal bowl Font with quatrefoil carving with Shields to each side, on a base panelled with blind ogee Arches. The spectacular wood cover, presented by John, Duke of Suffolk, after the death of his mother in 1475, is of 4 tiers of cusped and crocketted Arches with Figure of St Michael at Apex; counterpoise is a carved Tudor Rose.
Chest tomb to Thomas Chaucer (d.1434), and his wife, Matilda Burghersh (d.1436) with fine Brasses to top and painted Coats of Arms to sides, in Chapel. Alabaster Chest Tomb to Alice, Duchess of Suffolk (d.1475), between Chapel and Chancel with decorated Arched Canopy; Effigy wearing Coronet, Robes and Order of the Garter; Angels under Canopies to sides; beneath in traceried base, a Stone Cadaver. 15thC Wood Screens, shortened in 1844, restored in 1925. Reredos and Altar to Chapel by Sir Ninian Comper, 1902.
History: Earlier church, dedicated to All Saints was rebuilt c.1432 at the expense of the Earl & Countess of Suffolk. The Countess (nee Alice Chaucer) was born in Ewelme in 1404, the daughter of Thomas Chaucer, the Lord of the Manor, and grand-daughter of Geoffrey, the Poet. She married William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk in 1430 (created Duke of Suffolk 1448). He “for love of his wife and the commodity of her lands felt much to dwell in Oxfordshire“. They rebuilt the Church, established the adjoining Almshouse and built the Grammar School. The use of Brick, in the Church Parapet and the other Buildings, is one of the earliest in the County.
In the Churchyard you’ll find the grave of Jerome Klapka Jerome (1859-1927) Author of the legendary ‘Three Men in a Boat’, which did so much to popularise Boating on the River Thames. (Inset) Jerome in about 1889
On 21 June 1888, Jerome married Georgina Elizabeth Henrietta Stanley Marris (“Ettie”), 9 days after she divorced her 1st husband. She had a daughter from her previous, 5-year marriage nicknamed Elsie (her actual name was also Georgina). The honeymoon took place on the Thames “in a little boat.” Jerome sat down to write Three Men in a Boat as soon as the couple returned from their trip to his flat at 104 Chelsea Gardens, Chelsea Bridge Road, London. In the novel, his Wife was replaced by his longtime friends George Wingrave and Carl Hentschel (Harris). This allowed him to create comic (and non-sentimental) situations which were nonetheless intertwined with the History of the Thames Region. The book, published in 1889, became an instant success and has never been out of print. Its popularity was such that the number of registered Thames Boats went up 50% in the year following its Publication, and it contributed significantly to the Thames becoming a Tourist Attraction. In its 1st 20 years alone, the Book sold over 1M copies Worldwide. It has been adapted to films, TV and Radio shows, stage plays, and a musical. Its writing style influenced many humorists and satirists in England and elsewhere. Jerome suffered a paralytic stroke and a cerebral haemorrhage in June 1927, on a Motoring Tour from Devon to London via Cheltenham and Northampton. He lay in Northampton General Hospital for 2 weeks before dying on 14 June. He was cremated at Golders Green and his ashes buried at St Mary’s Church. Elsie, Ettie, and his sister Blandina are buried beside him. His gravestone reads “For we are labourers together with God“