Stonor Chapel

Photograph of Stonor Park chapel in Stonor, Oxfordshire [c 1930s-1980s] by John Piper 1903-1992

The Chapel of the Holy Trinity at Stonor may date from c.1300, but it is 1st recorded in 1331.  The 13th-century walls are of local Flint and it is of interest that a massive boulder has been incorporated in the South-east corner, which appears to be one of a collection of similar stones now placed in a Circle a little to the East of the Chapel.  In 1349 Sir John Stonor obtained a Licence to establish a Dwelling for 6 Chaplains to celebrate in his Chapel, which was then apparently rebuilt or enlarged.  The existing Brick Tower was almost certainly added by the 1st Thomas Stonor: bricks (200,000) were obtained in 1416–17 from Michael Warwick of Crockernend and in the same year ‘Les Flamynges’ were paid over £13 for their work at Stonor.  It is presumed that they were responsible for building the Tower. This use of English Brick is one of the earliest examples so far recorded in the Thames Valley.  A Lead Roof was also made at this time by Thomas Plomer of Oxford.

There was a settlement of Flemish Brickmakers just across the Valley at Crocker End near Nettlebed, engaged in making what were said to be the 1st Bricks to have been made in England South of the Humber, since the departure of the Romans. So in 1416-17 we find Thomas purchasing 200,000 “brakes” (the 1st recorded use of the word) and employing the Flemings [Flemish people] to build the present Clock Tower beside the Chapel at Stonor

An inventory, perhaps made on the death of Sir Thomas in 1474, indicates how richly furnished with Vestments, Hangings, & Ornaments this Family Chapel was.  Its possessions included a Retable of Alabaster depicting the Story of the Passion, given by Jane Stonor who was the mother of Sir Thomas Stonor, an Alabaster Figure of the Trinity, Crucifixes, Silver Plate, 2 Mass books (of which one was at Pyrton), and a Psalter, which was stated to be in the possession of Jane Stonor.  Sir Thomas Stonor (d.1512) was buried in the Family Vault and a Marble Tomb was erected on which were the recumbent Effigies of Thomas & his wife. Figures of his 7 children were carved on the sides together with Shields of Arms with the Quarterings of Stonor, De Ros, Winnard, Kirby, Brecknock, and the 4 Quarterings to which the Brecknock Family was entitled. This Tomb ‘already very ill-used and mangled’ was seen and described by Rawlinson about 1718, but was probably destroyed at the restoration of the Chapel after 1796.  It is known only from a description by Rawlinson, who conjectured from the variety of pieces of wrought marble that the Chapel had once been ‘well adorned’.  The Chapel may have been put in order soon after, but there is no record of its restoration until the end of the century.  In 1790 the place of Worship of the Roman Catholics is described simply as Mr Stonor’s House.

AlterChapelBetween 1796 & 1800 Thomas (VII) Stonor completely remodelled the Interior of the chapel in the Gothic manner, in accordance with the Plan of James Thorp of Prince’s St., Leicester Square, London.  Thorp introduced a vaulted ceiling of plaster, executed by Samuel Kerrod of Friars Street.  An Altar of precious Marble of mingled Green, Purple, & Black was given by Henry Blundell of Ince, a collector of Marbles and the father-in-law of Thomas StonorAltar Rails and Stained Glass windows by Francis Eginton (1737–1805) were added. This Glass was also given by Henry Blundell, who had himself recommended Edginton.  The Salvator Mundi in the East window, signed and dated 1799, is after a painting by Carlo Dolci at Burghley House.  It was damaged by a German Bomb in 1941, but has since been repaired.  In the other windows were 4 Fathers of the Church, of which 3 remain, which were copied from pictures at Ince Blundell Hall.

In 1959–60 the Chapel was thoroughly restored. The Architects were Mr O S Chesterton & J A Hannay of Messrs Chesterton & Sons of London. The work was executed by Messrs A Brown & Sons of Nettlebed.  Part of the Fabric was rebuilt; a main Timber was replaced with Steel; a new concrete Floor, covered with imitation marble, was laid; and all the woodwork was removed from behind the plaster because of Dry Rot and replaced by Steel.  New central heating & electric wiring were installed. The plaster was renewed and the whole interior of the Chapel was redecorated. Considerable care was taken by the Hon Mrs Stonor, advised by John Piper & Osbert Lancaster, in this redecoration, which now reproduces as far as possible the original colours of the 18th-century Chapel. Repairs were carried out to the Altar, and the Pews, last restored in 1799, were repainted.  During the work the Floor of 1349 was uncovered and some Medieval Tiles were found still in position. The removal of the coved ceiling of 1799 revealed a rafter Roof of about 1500.  The cost of about £4,500 was raised by private subscription and by opening Stonor Park to the Public.

The Chapel and the Core of the present House were probably built after 1280 when Sir Richard Stonor married Margaret Harnhull, a daughter of a Gloucestershire Knight.  It is likely that Sir John Stonor, Chief Justice & Royal Adviser, whose Tomb may still be seen in Dorchester Abbey, considerably enlarged the House and rebuilt the Chapel about 1349, when he obtained a Licence to build a Dwelling for 6 Chantry Priests.  A 2nd rebuilding & enlargement was undertaken, as Leland records, by Sir Walter Stonor, who recovered his ‘poore house‘ with the help of Cromwell in 1535 after a long Lawsuit.  Leland noted that it was built of Timber, Brick & Flint and though the Modern House appears, at 1st sight, to be of Brick, much of the old building still remains concealed behind the later Façade.  In the early 17th century Sir Francis Stonor, who had Conformed and was Sheriff of Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire in 1592 & 1622, remodelled the Medieval House in the style of the Period, introducing among other things a Central Porch with Allegorical Figures, large mullioned Windows, to lighten all the Rooms, and the beautiful room with a Barrel Ceiling that is now the Library.
Stonor Chapel Restoration Interview with Lord Camoy

Roman Catholicism
The History of the survival of Roman Catholicism in the Chiltern Area is centred around the Stonor Family, whose staunch adherence to the old faith made Stonor Park one of the chief centres of resistance to the reformed religion in the South of England. It has continued as a Catholic Centre until modern times. The 13th-century Chapel of the Holy Trinity, a Private Chapel attached to the House, is one of the few Medieval Chapels to have remained in Roman Catholic hands since its Foundation. The Stonor Family has produced since the 18th century a succession of priests and members of religious orders and the Alias ‘Mr Stonor‘ used by the Young Pretender indicates their influence in Catholic & Jacobite Circles in the early 18th century.

The Lords of Stonor were from the beginning opposed to Henry VIII’s Ecclesiastical Policy; Sir Adrian Fortescue, who had married the daughter of Sir William Stonor and had held the Manor and the House at Stonor since 1498, was Executed in 1539 for his part in the ‘Pole‘ Conspiracy and for denying the King’s supremacy over the English Church.  His relative Sir Walter Stonor (d.1550), who regained possession of the Manor in 1536 with the help of the King’s Minister Thomas Cromwell, managed to steer clear of any direct conflict on the religious issue.  His successor Sir Francis Stonor was Knighted by Queen Mary in 1553 and his marriage with Cecily a daughter of a co-religionist, Sir Leonard Chamberlain of Shirburn, strengthened the attachment of the Family to the Roman Catholic Church. He died in 1564 before the Elizabethan persecution of recusants, but his Widow, described by a contemporary as ‘generally noted for her rare devotion and marvellous abstinence’, later suffered imprisonment for her faith.  In 1574, Roman Catholicism was so strong in the neighbourhood that there were no resident Justices of the Peace in Pyrton hundred, because all the Gentry were papists, and in 1580 of 6 Gentlemen in Command of the Musters for the Chiltern Hundreds 3 were members of Roman Catholic families, one being Francis Stonor and another his relation, Robert Chamberlain of Shirburn.

When the Jesuit Mission was launched in 1580, it was Stonor Park, then empty, that was visited by both Father Edmund Campion & Father Robert Persons, and in April 1581, because of its secluded position, a Private Printing Press was moved there from London. It was at Stonor that Edmund Campion’s famous Pamphlet the Decem Rationes was printed. Persons & Campion left the House on 11th July 1581, a few days before Campion was arrested at Lyford in Berkshire.  Stonor Park was searched on 4th August and William Hartley, a priest afterwards hanged for his religious connections, was taken Prisoner together with John Stonor, Lady Cecily’s younger son, the Printers, Stephen Brinkley, a Gentleman, & 4 Servants. Lady Cecily, who was then living in the Village at Stonor’s Lodge, was allowed on account of her great age to remain in the custody of her elder son Francis, who had conformed and was living nearby at Blount’s Court.  In 1585 she was cited as a recusant and her Manors were forfeited to the Crown.  Later, Lady Cecily returned to Stonor and entertained a priest there between 1586 & 1590 who said Mass ‘many times’. Lady Cecily, in spite of her eldest son’s friendship with Sir Robert Cecil, was imprisoned in 1592, and although the Privy Council ordered a priest to be sent to persuade her to conform she remained unmoved.  Francis Stonor moved to Stonor and evidently returned to the old faith for he was fined as a recusant in 1592, but he remained a friend of Cecil and was Knighted in 1601.  The Stonor Family continued to suffer heavily from recusant fines throughout the 17th century and were obliged to let or sell much of their Land.  In 1612 Lady Martha Stonor, the wife of Sir Francis Stonor, his daughter & sister, and other women then living at Stonor refused to take the Oath of Allegiance and were arrested & imprisoned in Banbury Castle.  They still maintained the Chapel and a resident priest at Stonor, and records of the names of members of the Congregation and its numbers have survived. Between 1604 & 1626 2 Yeoman Farmers, Richard Clarke & John Higges, were fined as recusants, and in 1625 Elizabeth Stonor was fined and was later several times imprisoned.  William Stonor, described as a convicted recusant, was given Licence to Travel at the end of 1626, and he again appears as a recusant in 1641–2.  From 1663 to 1678 3 men and women of Yeoman families were regularly returned as recusants, and in 1676 2 papists in Pishill and 10 in Pyrton were listed in the Compton Census.  In 1680 a ‘Mr Simons‘ of Pyrton, evidently a member of the Symeon Family who leased the Manor, appears with Thomas Stonor in a list of papists in the County.  In 1700 an investigation was ordered into the allegation that in 1687 John Stonor, among other Oxfordshire Roman Catholics, had made over a part of his Estates to the Jesuits of Douai.

In the early 18th century the Stonors continued to head the lists of recusants: in 1706 Thomas, Winifred, & Anne Stonor with 10 servants and 2 members of the Kemble Family were fined.  In 1707 Thomas & Winifred Stonor with 4 Kembles and 3 other men were Presented at Quarter Sessions.  Ten years later Matthew Haskey, Stonor’s Steward, was listed and his son & grandson after him.  In 1738 the Vicar reported that there were 25 papists in Pyrton, and though his successor said in 1759 that there were few reputed papists in the Parish this seems improbable as 83 adults were returned in 1767 with 5 in Pishill.  Besides the Stonor Household the list included 3 farmers, a shopkeeper, & labourers.  It is of interest that at this time 3 papists from the Parish were members of the Britwell Congregation,  In 1790 & 1808 Stonor and about 50 others in Assendon were returned as Roman Catholics.  The comparative strength of Roman Catholicism in this area was clearly owing to the economic influence of the Stonor Family in the district as well as to its pious example. Bishop Potter of Oxford went so far as to accuse the young Thomas Stonor in 1731 of bestowing Charity in order to ‘gain Proselytes to the Church of Rome’, a charge which Stonor denied and declared himself determined to continue with his Charities.

During the 1st half of the century, Stonor acquired a special importance in the History of Roman Catholicism in England, since it was the normal Headquarters of Dr John Talbot Stonor (1678–1756), who was consecrated Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District in 1716. During a Period when his co-religionists were strongly Jacobite and many lived in exile he preached Loyalty to the Civil Government. His force of character and his unceasing labours helped to bring about a radical change in Roman Catholic views regarding the Hanoverian succession.  Talbot made Stonor Park his Headquarters, although he probably often visited Watlington Park, another Stonor House, and he died at Stonor in 1756.  In 1752 he had consecrated Dr Hornyold as his coadjutor Bishop in Stonor Chapel: this was the only consecration of a Catholic Bishop to take place in England under the Penal Laws.  In his lifetime and since Stonor never seems to have been without a Chaplain. From 1758 until 1790 Dr Joseph Strickland, another relative of the Family and a secular priest held the Office and in 1795 Father John Baptist Mortoire, an émigré French priest. The latter’s lack of English made him a poor Parish priest and may have contributed to the decline in the number of Roman Catholics in the District.  The confirmation figures give some idea of the varying size of the Catholic Community during this Period: in 1770 there were 32 confirmations & 52 in 1786 & 20 in 1810.

During the mid-19th century, there was a sharp rise in the number of Roman Catholics in the Pyrton & Pishill locality. In the Census of 1851 for Pyrton 120 adult Roman Catholics and 50 children were listed.  In 1853 it was the Protestant view that 90% of the Population of Assendon lived ‘perilously near the Park Palings of the Romanist Peer, Lord Camoys‘, who bestowed his Charities almost wholly on those who attended his Chapel.  Converts were consequently called locally ‘Kitchen Catholics‘.  As the only School in Assendon was a Roman Catholic one all the Protestant children were ‘being trained up as Romanists’ and it was stated that 60 out of a Population of 190 were papists, more than half having been converted in the last 10 years.  In 1878 the incumbent of Pishill reported to the same effect about Pishill, where 1/3rd of the population, about 200 people, were papists.  In the next 25 years numbers declined, very possibly because there were 9 changes of Chaplain at Stonor until there were no Roman Catholics left in the Village of Assendon or Stonor, as it had come to be called, except the Messengers.  Even families like the Heaths & Shurfields, who had remained faithful during the period of persecution and were still employed on the Stonor Estate, had ceased to belong to the Roman Church.  In 1931 Father André Seyres of the Priests of the Sacred Heart built the Priest’s House in the Village so as to be more accessible to his Parishioners, but in 1956 his successor moved to Watlington whence the Roman Catholic Parish is now administered.  The Congregation of the Stonor Chapel numbered about 45 in 1960 and was mainly drawn from Buckinghamshire Villages.

The Stonors were strong supporters of Roman Catholic Education in the 18th and 19th centuries and the 1st day-school in the Parish was founded before 1790 with their support by the Roman Catholics of Assendon.  By 1808 this School had 30 pupils, including some Protestant children that were allowed to be taught the Church Catechism, and some children from Pishill.  By this time there were 2 Church of England Schools in the Parish, one at Pyrton itself and one at Assendon; both were supported partly by Subscription and partly by Fees. In these Schools the children were taught the Church Catechism and the articles and to repeat by memory the collects & gospels. The Vicar said that there were about 50 children in each, but it is likely that he included the Sunday School attendance in this figure.

Before November 1420 Thomas Stonor (d.1421) had built an Almshouse at Assendon. By his Will, made in that month, he required his Executors to house 9 blind & feeble men in the house and to pay to each out of his Estate 1½d. a day during the Minority of his Heirs.  The fate of the building is unknown.

In 1620 Thomas’s descendant, Sir Francis Stonor, settled in Trust another Almshouse, also in Assendon, which he had built. There is no established connection between this building and its predecessor, but it may be imagined that the knowledge that the Village had once contained an Almshouse inspired the Benevolence of Francis. The 2nd house was to accommodate 4 poor men & 6 poor women, from the Parishes of Pyrton, Pishill, Pishill Napper, Bix, Rotherfield Peppard, Nettlebed, & Watlington. The beneficiaries were to be normally under 60 and should have no living Spouse, and were to be chosen by the Owners of the Capital Messuages of Stonor, Blount’s Court, Shirburn, North Stoke, Waterperry, Latchford (in Great Haseley), Harpsden, Shiplake, & Bolney (in Harpsden), and Stowell (Glos).  Prayers, chosen by the Owner of Stonor House, were to be read to them twice daily by an inmate who was to receive in return an additional 10s yearly.  The Almshouse consisted of 5 Tenements, each with a room upstairs and down and a small Garden, and was endowed with a rent of £61 19s 8d charged upon the Lands once belonging to Bisham Priory (Berks).  Out of this Rent the buildings were to be repaired, the inmates clothed, and a weekly dole of 2s a head paid to each inmate.  The Trust appears to have been observed with reasonable fidelity. In 1710 10 Alms-people, and a Reader as well, were being supported, 500 Bavins of Wood were being annually distributed, and enough cloth for 4 coats & gowns for one woman every 2nd year was being supplied.  The allowance to the Reader, however, seems to have lapsed.  In 1739 the Alms-people consisted of a Reader, 3 other men, & 6 women.  Of these, 2 men, including the Reader, & 2 women were non-resident. Prayers had not been read for the preceding 8 years. One man & 4 women were Roman Catholics. The Founder’s Dole was paid, Firewood was allowed at the 1710 rate, wheat distributed at Christmas, and cloth for men & women supplied in alternate years.  In 1788, when there were still 5 Roman Catholic Alms-people, the distributions in kind were much the same.  By 1768 the House was under the sole direction of the Stonor Family and so remained until 1955.  About 1837 each inmate still received the Founder’s weekly Dole, 5s each Christmas for a dinner, 6s. in alternate years for clothing, & 50 Bavins of Wood from Stonor’s Estate.  Although Stonor had himself repaired the building, expenses then exceeded income by £6 or £7 yearly.  In 1931 expenditure amounted to £35 and there was a balance in hand.  Under a Scheme of 1955 the building and the yearly Rent-charge of £61 19s 8d charged upon the Bisham Estate, were Vested in the Official Trustee of Charity Lands. Since 1947 the Almshouse has been empty and in a dilapidated condition. Schemes for its modernisation or Sale were still under discussion in 1961.



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