27 March 2022
Saint Mary and Saint Giles:
the history of the parish
church in Stony Stratford
I have been in hospital in Milton Keynes since a stroke ten days ago, and there is talk about moving me within the next few days to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford for further investigations. I sorely missed being in church today and last Sunday (20 March 2022). This is the first time in half a century that I can recall not being in Church on two successive Sundays, one after another.
But Milton Keynes has a rich variety of churches, and while it is a new city there are many historic churches in the surrounding towns and villages that are part of Milton Keynes today.
The Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles, the parish church of Stony Stratford, is part of the rich tapestry of a pretty market town on the banks of the River Ouse that marks the boundary between Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. But visiting the church recently also brought me back on the Pugin trail.
Stony Stratford first developed along the Roman Watling Street, on the boundary between the ancient manors of Calverton and Wolverton. The de Veres, Earls of Oxford, held Calverton from 1244 until 1526, while on the Wolverton side the title was inherited by the de Wolvertons who held the land until the 14th century. Both manors provided chapels of ease from the 13th century, and so Stony Stratford became the first town in Buckinghamshire to have two churches. The church in the Calverton part of the town was dedicated to Saint Giles, while the other within the Manor of Wolverton was dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene, and fairs were held in the town on the festivals of both saints.
Saint Giles is said to have been born in Athens ca 645-650, the son of King Theodore and Queen Elizabeth. He is the patron of beggars and people with disabilities because, although he was disabled, he devoted his life and his personal wealth to helping people in their sufferings and afflictions. Most mediaeval churches dedicated to Saint Giles stand by roadsides, offering weary travellers a sign of rest and peace.
The two early chapels in Stony Stratford were extended or rebuilt and by the 15th century had become substantial buildings. In the mid-17th century, Saint Giles became a parish in its own right and ceased to be a chapel of ease of All Saints’ Church, Calverton.
The neighbouring Church of Saint Mary Magdalene burnt down in 1742. An appeal was launched to rebuild that church, but it was decided instead to rebuild and enlarge Saint Giles. Today, the surviving tower is all that stands of Saint Mary Magdalene on the north-east side of the High Street.
The chancel or east end of Saint Giles was so ruinous in 1757 that it was taken down, and Saint Giles was rebuilt in 1776-1777 to designs by the Warwick-based architect Francis Hiorne (1744-1789). He was the architect of the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in Tetbury, Gloucestershire, and may have used his church in Stony Stratford as a prototype for his much larger church.
At the same time, Arthur Chichester (1739-1799), 5th Earl of Donegall, commissioned Hiorne to design Saint Anne’s Church on Donegall Street, Belfast (1776), later replaced by Saint Anne’s Cathedral. Hiorne was also consulted on the design of Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church, Belfast (1783). Donegall was a large landowner in Co Wexford, Belfast, Co Doengal and Staffordshire, his properties once included Comberford Hall, and he gave his name to Donegal House in Lichfield.
When he was rebuilding Saint Giles, Hiorne retained the 15th century tower, and this is the only part of the original structure still standing. The 80 ft tower with embattlements is in the perpendicular style and has a clock and a peal of six bells.
Hoirne redesigned the church in ‘Strawberry Hill Gothic,’ a style marking the beginnings of the Gothic Revival in architecture. The church is a lofty building, with a nave, two side aisles, a chancel, and galleries on either side.
The nave has slender fluted columns and a vaulted ceiling with plaster ribbed groins, supported by eight clustered columns of iron, cased in wood. The columns and vaulting are said to suggest the forest in which Saint Giles rescued a hind from being shot with an arrow. The story is also alluded to in the statue outside above the west door and in the icon.
The window depicting the 12 Apostles was erected to the memory of the Revd WT Sankey, who died in 1875, by his widow and son. The six small stained windows under the galleries include two in memory of the late Revd J Spark, a former curate.
A Lady Chapel was created in the south-east corner of the nave in the late 19th century, stained-glass windows were installed, a Gothic chancel screen was installed, and the side galleries were added and decorated. A series of stained glass tableaux by NHJ Westlake was installed beneath the galleries in 1889-1897. Above the galleries, stained-glass lozenges depict saints and martyrs and scenes from Scripture.
When the old vestry in the basement of the west tower was inadequate by 1892, two new vestries for the clergy and choir were built beside the north side of the chancel. They were designed in the 13th century English Gothic style by the local architect, Edward Swinfen Harris (1841-1924).
Changes continued in the 20th century. The statue of Saint Giles and the hind above the west doors and a stained-glass window by Kempe & Co date from 1903. The apsidal sanctuary was replaced by a squared-off sanctuary in 1928. The Lychgate and Calvary in the south-east corner of the churchyard were built in 1931.
Meanwhile, the Parish of Wolverton, which included much of the east and south sides of Stony Stratford, established a daughter church in 1868. This Church of Saint Mary the Virgin was built on London Road and was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott.
Once again, Stony Stratford had two churches, and the new church became a parish in its own right. A vicarage opposite the church, two curates’ houses, now known as ‘Jesuan House,’ and a parish hall were built as well.
The priests of Saint Mary’s were supporters of the Tractarian Movement, some were persecuted for ‘ritual offences,’ and one was deprived of his living. However, as the years passed, the priests of both churches in Stony Stratford increasingly worked more closely together as the traditions of the parishes were similar.
A fire caused considerable damage to the interior of Saint Giles in 1964. The Diocese of Oxford questioned the need for two churches and parish priests in Stony Stratford. At first it was thought the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin should be extended and become the parish church. It was decided, however, to close Saint Mary the Virgin and to retain Saint Giles and to reorder the church.
Saint Mary the Virgin was closed, the two parishes were combined and Saint Giles Church was reconsecrated as the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles, on Palm Sunday, 7 April 1968.
The liturgical innovations of the 1960s influenced changes to the interior décor and order of Saint Mary and Saint Giles. The altar was moved from the east wall to the chancel arch so the priest faced the people; the choir stalls and chancel screen were removed; and the semi-circular pavement and altar rail were installed.
The font was moved to the south-east of the nave, bringing it nearer to the altar rather than in its traditional position at the entrance; and a 4.5 metre high cross with a resin figure of ‘Christ in Majesty’ by Anthony Weller was commissioned for the east end.
Recently the altar has been restored to the highest point in the sanctuary and the sanctuary seating placed on the lower level. The altar is from the church of Saint Mary the Virgin. The wooden pulpit designed by Pugin is on the north side of the nave and a choir lectern is on the south side. The Pugin pulpit, still showing the scorch marks from the fire in 1964, is also a memorial to the fallen men of the parish from World War I.
The Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the south-east corner is used for most weekday worship. The reredos by Sir Ninian Comper is unusual in showing Christ as beardless. Both the reredos and the image of the Virgin Mary came from the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in 1968. The altar is the previous High Altar from Saint Giles Lady Chapel and, like the lectern in this chapel and the pulpit, was designed by Pugin.
The Stations of the Cross on the north and south walls of the nave were donated in memory of John Dunstan (1924-1988).
With further restoration in 2009, the font was returned to the west of the nave, the image of Saint Michael the Archangel was placed in a traditional position near to the west door, and a new icon of Saint Giles and a new lectern were commissioned. This icon in the north aisle recess was written by the late Brother Leon Lidderment of the Russian Orthodox Brotherhood of Saint Seraphim in Walsingham, and is in memory of Derek Addington Savage, the church organist for 48 years, who died in 2003.
The first organ in the church is noted in 1812, when an instrument by Henry Lincoln was installed. It was modified by Stringer around 1890 and Kirkland in 1902. The present organ came from Saint George’s Church, Edinburgh, and was installed by Starmer Shaw of Northampton in 1967. This instrument is originally by ‘Father’ Henry Willis with additional pipe work and a new three manual console provided by Henry Willis III. It was restored in stages, and the restoration was completed in 2016.
The rear of the vestry wing of the church was demolished in 2010 and replaced with an extension that includes a new hall, toilets, office and storage space. This new building, completed in 2011, echoes the architectural style of Swinfen Harris.
The surrounding burial ground, where the gravestones include one chest tomb and one lower table tomb, closed in 1855.
The path along the south side of the church runs between the lychgate and the gate onto the Market Square at the west end of the church. This path is joined by a path from Church Street across the west end of the church.