The Early History of the Church is confused. The 1st clear reference to it is in 1219, but the History of the Advowson suggests an 11th-century origin at the latest.
In 1219 the Right of Presentation was claimed in the King’s Court by Walter son of Robert de Wooburn, and Peter Talemasch, whose Family had been Lords of the Manor, was summoned to show why he had hindered the Presentation. A claim was also made by the Benedictine Abbey of Ivry in France: Walter’s right was recognised for one turn only and the Abbey retained any Rights it might have had. Walter Presented to the Church in 1219 and again in 1223. He is probably the Walter de Wooburn, Archdeacon of Richmond, who Presented to Stoke Talmage in 1237 or 1238.
Walter’s father, Robert de Wooburn, may be identified with Robert ‘le Glorius’, sometimes called ‘of Stokes‘, a Buckinghamshire and Stoke Talmage Landowner. He may have died soon after 1235, the year he was exempted from being put on Assizes and the like, for in 1242 a John ‘le Glorie’ or ‘de la Gloria‘, presumably his heir, held a small Manor in Wooburn (Bucks) known as Glory Manor or Glory Mills, and at about the same time a half hide in Stoke.
The claim of Ivry Abbey may have derived from a Grant by Roger d’Ivry, who founded it in 1076, and who was Lord of Stoke at the time. The Abbey’s claim to the presentation and to a Pension of 10s from the Demesne Tithes was admitted in 1218.
Later Ivry Abbey appears to have recovered its right to the Advowson and the Pension from the Wooburns and to have Granted them to the Benedictine Nunnery of Little Marlow (Bucks). Gunnora, the Prioress from 1265 to 1271, at all events gave both, together with the services of a Villein, to Thame Abbey, which made the 1st Presentation in 1294 and usually presented throughout the rest of the Middle Ages. An exception occurred in 1317, when the Patron Resigned its Right to the Papal Nuncio, who Presented to the Church; and in 1474, when Thame sold the Right of Presentation to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Although in 1398 Thame had Papal Permission to Appropriate the Church it never did so.
The Advowson was Granted with the Manor to the Bishopric of Oxford in 1542 and then followed the Descent of the Manor, going with it to the Barkers in 1623. This Family Presented throughout the 17th century, except in 1666, when there was a Collation by the Bishop. Frances, the Widow of William Barker, presented in 1688, but in the early 18th century the Advowson was divided and like the Manor was the subject of a confusing series of Transactions. The history of the Presentation, however, was simple: that of 1732 was sold for £270 to Francis Blandy, Gentleman and from after 1751 until 1928 the Earl of Macclesfield was Sole Patron. Since the Union of the Rectories of Stoke Talmage and Wheatfield in 1928 the Earl of Macclesfield and Lt-Col Vere Spencer have Presented in turn.
The Rectory was a poor one in the early Middle Ages: in 1254 it was valued at 5 marks (£3 6s 8d), and in 1291 at £5 6s 8d By 1535 its value had increased to £12 17s. No mention is made in 1535 of the Pension to Thame: it was originally 10s, but by 1291 it had been increased to 13s 4d, a sum which Thame was still receiving in 1428.
The Rector’s Right to Tithe from the Parish was limited by the exemption from Tithe of the Lands of the Cistercian Abbey of Thame. At least one Rector of Stoke disputed the Abbey’s claim to be Tithe-free: John Belgrave, a late-14th-century Rector, instituted proceedings in the Archbishop’s Court, but as the Abbey’s Proctor claimed that Thame as a Cistercian House was not subject to the Jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury‘s Court the result of the case is not known. It is of interest that the Rector was entitled to Tithe on 3 acres in Wheatfield next to Stoke.
By the late 17th century the living was worth £100, and a 100 years later about £140. At the Inclosure Award of 1813, when the Earl of Macclesfield’s Property was Inclosed, the Rector was awarded a Corn Rent charge of £194 3s 5d in place of the Tithes. In 1843 the Tithes on the rest of the Parish (mainly Stoke Grange Farm) were commuted for £57 15s In 1954 the United Benefice was worth £546.
Until about 1900 part of the Rector’s income had been derived from his Glebe, and there is an unusual amount of information about its early history. In the 13th century it consisted of 14 acres of which about 10 acres had been given to the Church by Peter Talemasch. In 1220 the Rector claimed Warranty from Peter for this Land and said that he had Peter’s Charter for it. In 1222 Peter confirmed this Land to the Church, including a Messuage with a Croft which had belonged to Peter’s mother. In 1260 there occurred another Suit over 1½ acre which the Rector claimed from a Free Tenant, and William Talemasch was also summoned by the Rector to Confirm his father’s Grant. The Rector alleged that he had been distrained by the Bailiff of Wallingford to do Suit at Wallingford through William’s neglect to do the Suit, but this was denied. By 1685 the size of the Glebe had increased to 29 acres in the Common Fields. At the Inclosure Award of 1813, the Rector’s Open-field portion of the Glebe was exchanged for about 15 acres, consisting mostly of Church Furlong, a field near the Rectory, and a few small Closes. The Rector still owned his Glebe in 1870 but it has since been sold.
The 2 earliest Incumbents are known, those Presented by Walter de Wooburn, were Priests, but thereafter many Medieval ones were Clerks, Chaplains, or Acolytes; only occasionally before the 15th century were they Graduates.
In the 13th century, when the Rector’s house is mentioned, he may have been living in the Parish, but it seems unlikely that he was doing so in the later Middle Ages. At any rate, in the 2nd half of the 14th century the Living was frequently exchanged, always for Churches in other Counties, and by the 16th century, when the Living began to be held regularly by Graduates, the Rectors were certainly non-resident. Master Thomas Harrop (1488–1522), for instance, was rector of Great Haseley, where he lived. He was Presented in 1504 by the Pyrton Homage for cutting down trees in Queen Wood, and in his time Stoke Church was badly neglected. In 1520 the Chancel needed repair, the glass in the windows and the Sedilia were broken, the Walls of the Church were ruinous, and 3 people were in Debt to the Church, including one who owed 6s to supply a light before the Image of the Virgin, and another who had not paid a Legacy of 3s left by his Woman Servant. Harrop’s successor, Master Edward Chamber (1522–35), was serving the Church with a Curate in 1526, but he may have been contemplating Residence in 1530 when he began to repair the ruinous Rectory.
The most striking of the 17th-century Rectors was Nathaniel Barker (Rector c.1629–c. 1664), a younger son of Sir Anthony Barker of Sonning (Berks) and therefore the brother of the Patron and Lord of the Manor. His was an unquiet Ministry. Whether for Political or other reasons, his relations with his Parishioners were not always happy: one man complained in 1633 that he had brought his Servants to Church and there was no one to catechise them; another that his children refused to go to Church to be catechised; and the next year while going to fetch Hay the Rector was assaulted by a Parishioner and nearly throttled. Politically Barker was an ardent supporter of the King and after the Parliamentary Victory suffered at the hands of the Victors. In 1647 he was brought before the County Committee on the Charge of Enlisting in the Royal Army and living as a Soldier in Oxford. He was further accused of ordering Royalist Soldiers to Plunder some of his Parishioners who supported Parliament and of having them removed to Boarstall House until he had extracted £200 from them. He was also said to have vexed his Parishioners with Tithe Prosecutions; to have read out in Church a ‘Book of Curses against Parliament‘; to have read ‘Royal Proclamations clearly but Parliament’s unintelligibly‘; to have ‘frequently entertayned lewd roguish fellows from Wallingford Garrison‘. It was alleged that he had had ‘private consultations with them in the twylight‘ and had met them when in Ale-houses with his wife and daughter. As a result of these Charges he was Sequestered in 1647 for Scandal of Life, Superstition, and Delinquency. Later he was obliged to borrow £400 from his brother-in-law Bartholomew Price, Rector of Holton, and in 1652 Price Petitioned to be given Barker’s Estate as Security for the Debt. In 1655, however, the County Committee denied ever having had the Management of the Estate. The needs of Barker’s Parishioners in the meantime were attended to by John Richardson. At the Restoration Andrew Pauling, formerly Royalist Vicar of Benson, was installed, but by 1664 Barker was again in possession of the Living.
For the greater part of the 18th century the Living, though a small one, avoided the Evils of Plurality and enjoyed Resident Rectors. Samuel Thornby (1732–51), however, though he took an interest in his Parish, catechised the children, and offered to pay for a Teacher if a qualified person could be found, preferred to live, for reasons that he would not put in writing, in the neighbouring Village of Tetsworth. His successor, William Wilson (1751–63), built a new Parsonage House, but it was not used by William Wickham, Rector from 1763 to 1770, as he lived at Garsington where he was Lord of the Manor. Stoke Church was served by a Curate who rode out from Oxford. With the appointment of John Hyde (1770–1805), the Village once again had a Resident Parson. In 1771 it was reported that the children were regularly catechized, but by 1790 it was said that catechism had ceased on account of the ignorance of the children and this was in spite of the Bishop’s complaint in 1787 that as the Rector was Resident he should have made efforts to establish a Charity School.
During the 19th century, as in the 18th century, the Rectors, who were men of Private Property, largely took the place in the Parish of the non-Resident Lords of the Manor. Cranley Lancelot Kerby (1820–57) who enlarged the Rectory was a cousin of the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Howley. His long Incumbency was disastrous. Francis Pigou, later Dean of Bristol, who came to Stoke as a Curate in 1855 gives a graphic account of the state of the Parish. Bishop Wilberforce told him that the Hamlet had been for years ‘sadly neglected‘, that the Rector had long been incapacitated by old age – he was in fact 92 years old – that Services had been conducted by a non-Resident ‘hack‘, and that Religion had been kept alive by a local Methodist Preacher. Pigou found that except for one or 2 Farmers all his Parishioners, about 100 in number, were Poor and that scarcely any of the older ones could read or write. No one had visited them Ministerially for about 30 years. The Church was shamefully neglected and fowls roosted in the Pulpit during the week. He held 2 Services and a Sunday School on Sunday. He does not say how well these were attended, but even under the ‘hack‘ Curate there had been an attendance of about 50. As for the Choir, he was forced to admit that although it was ‘awful‘ to a Musical Ear, it practised enthusiastically at the Village Inn and even instructed other Choirs. It consisted of a Violin, a Flageolet, and French Horn. His attempt to substitute a Harmonium was a failure: the Choir agreed to perform in the morning only and allow the Harmonium to be used in the afternoon, with the result that no one came to the 2nd Service. The Rector was chiefly noted for the excellence of his Port Wine, and was finally prevented from taking part in the Service after an occasion when he read a Prayer 4 times over.
The account given by Pigou of his own life as a young Curate is also of some interest. His Stipend was £100 a year, and he took 2 rooms in a Farmhouse, but found the lack of Intellectual Society and Companionship of his own age in so isolated a Parish difficult. His Social Life consisted of occasional visits to his neighbours, Vere Spencer and Charles Conybeare at Wheatfield and Pyrton, and the Patron and his wife, Lord and Lady Macclesfield, at Shirburn. The 2 last, Pigou says, did what they could to help the Parish by building a School and by general kindliness.
Kerby was followed by the Rev the Hon William Byron (Rector 1857–74), the Restorer of the Church and a cousin of Lord Byron the Poet. At the end of the Century Charles Prescott de Coetlogon was Rector for nearly 30 years. He planted the Yew trees in the Churchyard and beautified the Church.
After 1775 there was one Churchwarden instead of 2 and Robert Webb, the Principal Farmer in the Parish, served as Warden for 30 years.
According to an Ancient Custom, the Parish Clerk claimed some rights of Common in the Common Pasture. Probably during the 18th century this Right was exchanged for a yearly sum of money, and in 1813 by the inclosure award the clerk was awarded £1 a year.
The Church of St Mary Magdalen is a small Stone Building comprising a Chancel, Nave, North Aisle, South Porch, Vestry, and low Western Tower with a Pyramidal Roof. The Medieval Church was largely rebuilt in the 18th and 19th centuries; the Tower is mainly 18th-century work, but the Belfry windows may be older.
A few records of the Medieval Church have survived. In 1520 the Chancel needed repair, and the Walls of the Church were Dilapidated, in 1637 the Chancel was again out of Repair, and finally in 1758 an appeal was made for help in rebuilding the whole Church. The brief of 1758 stated that this very Ancient Structure was greatly decayed ‘in the Foundation Walls and Roof‘; that despite repairs it was so ruinous that it needed to be rebuilt; the estimated cost was £1,069. There is a View by Buckler of the Restored Church in 1823: it shows the Church as it now is except for a 3-light East window and no South Porch. The small Dormer window in the Roof was probably a comparatively recent addition, evidently to light a Gallery at the West end of the Nave. Francis Pigou (later Dean of Bristol), Curate from 1855 to 1856, describes the Church at that date. He says that it bore ‘every trace of neglect‘, had ‘square pews for the Farmers, more like loose-boxes‘, rough Benches for the Poor, a West-end Gallery for the Choir and Sunday School, and no Vestry. The Church was unlit and Pigou borrowed Lamps from the Dissenting Chapel for his Winter Services. Without getting a Faculty Pigou ordered the Village Carpenter to cut down the High Pews to a lower Level.
In 1860, on the initiative of the Rector, the Hon William Byron, Plans for building a new Church were made. The work done on the old one in the 1750’s was considered ‘poor‘; the windows had been restored in a ‘debased‘ style and there was insufficient Seating accommodation. The Architect, E Lamb, was Commissioned to make Plans. His estimate was for £1,000, and a Faculty for replacing the ‘dilapidated‘ old Church was obtained and an Application was made to the Diocesan Building Society for help. The Architect’s Plans were severely criticized by G E Street, the Diocesan Architect, who considered them ‘to be very objectionable . . . full of eccentricity, unlike any ancient building‘, and liable to be expensive. G G Scott was next consulted and submitted Plans for which the lowest Estimate obtainable was £1,400. As Byron was unable to raise more than £1,000 the Plan for a New Church was abandoned. As many of his Subscribers were prepared to allow their money to be used for a Restoration he proposed to make ‘our present building look more church-like by as thorough a restoration‘ as he had funds for. An extensive restoration was carried out by G. G. Scott and the interior was redecorated; coloured tiles were laid on the floor; the flat ceiling was removed, and a north aisle, vestry, porch, and buttresses were added. Subsequently, 2 Stained-glass windows by Hardman were inserted in the East window by the Hon William Byron and in 1906 the stained glass in a window in the South wall of the Nave, made by Morris & Sons of London, was dedicated to the memory of the Rector, C P de Coetlogon.
In 1907 a Faculty was obtained to rebuild the East window and move the 2 stained-glass Figures from the East window to a side window; to panel the East end in Oak, and erect a new Altar. The Architect was to be J E Coleridge of London. In fact, only one Figure was moved from the East window, and in 1909 4 Shields of Arms were added to it by George Byron as a memorial to his father, the Hon William Byron (d.1909). The Shields bore the Arms of Byron, Macclesfield, St. Mary Magdalen, and the Oxford Diocese.
There is a Victorian Font, and in the Vestry a finely carved Royal Arms. The Carving appears to be of 17th-century date, but the Royal Arms are Georgian.
There are Brasses of John Adeane (d.1504) and his wife Joan, and of John Pettie, Esq (great uncle to Anthony Wood), and of his wife Elizabeth (Snappe), with an inscription to their 10 children. Pettie (d.1589) is in Armour and beneath the inscription are 4 Shields with the Arms of Charnel, Williams, Pettie, and Snappe. The kneeling figures of the children are now missing.
There are only 2 Memorial Tablets, one to R T Winter (d.1835) and his wife, and another commemorating the 4 men of the Parish who died in WW1.
The Church still has 2 Medieval Bells: one was cast c.1350 by John Rufford and is inscribed XTE: Audi: Nos; the other was cast at the Wokingham Foundry c.1360 (located probably in Broad Street).
In 1552 the church owned two, possibly three, silver chalices and several vestments. A second return made in the following year mentioned only one chalice without a cover. In 1960 the church owned a silver chalice and paten cover (1612) and a Victorian tankard flagon of silver, given in 1857 in memory of the rector, Cranley Lancelot Kerby.
The registers date from 1754 for marriages and 1764 for baptisms and burials.
The yew tree and fir trees in the churchyard were planted by the rector, C. P. de Coetlogon (1877–1904).
In 1676 one Roman Catholic was recorded as resident in the parish. No Catholics were reported in 1738 and in 1767, but by 1787 there was a woman papist with four daughters and one son, and in 1802 four papists were recorded.
There is no evidence of any Protestant nonconformity until the mid-19th century, and according to the incumbent’s report no dissenting place of worship existed in 1854. In 1855 Bishop Wilberforce told the young curate, Francis Pigou, that religion in the parish had been ‘kept alive by the local Methodist preacher, a pork-butcher’, and advised him to live on good terms with this ‘bitter Dissenter’. Pigou relates that he ‘was not a little gratified to learn that he (the Methodist preacher) retailed my sermons, as he constantly attended the parish church’. The Methodist lent the lamps out of his ‘chapel’ for the afternoon service in winter time, and although he was annoyed by an evening service, which interfered with the attendance at his meeting, he was often seen ‘listening outside a window close to the pulpit’.