15 October 2022

Saint Mary’s Church, a mediaeval
church in Shenley Church End

Saint Mary’s Church, Shenley Church End … now part of the Watling Valley Ecumenical Partnership in Milton Keynes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Saint Mary’s Church, Shenley Church End, earlier this week for a meeting involving clergy in the Milton Keynes area. Saint Mary’s is an ecumenical church in Shenley Church End, Milton Keynes, and the church is now part of the Watling Valley Ecumenical Partnership. I was shown around the church this week by the Revd Ruth Harley, the curate in Saint Mary’s.

The names of Shenley Church End and Shenley Brook End to the south indicate that the mediaeval village was in a forest clearing, and part of Shenley Wood survives to the west.

The village of Shenley Church End was absorbed in the development of Milton Keynes in the 1970s and 1980s. But it remains a pretty village curving streets and suburban houses on the south-west edge of the new city.

Inside Saint Mary’s Church, facing east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Shenley Church End retains much of its legacy, including Saint Mary’s Church, the Norman and Early English parish church, the 17th century Stafford Almshouses, a hawthorn bush said to have been grown from a cutting of the Glastonbury Thorn, and traces of the mediaeval motte, known as the Toot, south of the church.

Two manors in Shenley Church End (Senelai) were held by Burgheard, a housecarl of Edward the Confessor, before the Conquest. In 1086, both manors were held from the Earl of Chester, but in neither case was a church or a priest mentioned.

These two manors passed as a single estate to the Maunsell family. The first known Rectors of Saint Mary’s were presented by Thomas Maunsell in 1223 and 1229, but the church is much earlier than that.

Inside Saint Mary’s Church, facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The stonework in the church covers both Norman and Early English periods. The church is built of coursed rubble limestone, is of cruciform plan with battlemented parapets at the nave, a central tower and chancel with a north vestry, an aisled and clerestoried nave, transepts, plain parapets at the aisles and a south porch.

Parts of the nave date back to ca 1150, and parts of the chancel date back to ca 1180. Romanesque interest centres on the chancel, where a deliberate feature is that each window was made to a slightly different design. The chancel also has a 13th century sedilia and a curios double piscina from the same period.

The chancel and nave in Saint Mary’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The chancel has side lancets deeply recessed with roll mould on the inner arch, and slender shafts with plain caps supporting the toothed chevroned outer arch. On the outside, these windows have shafts supporting moulded arches with strings at the cap and cill level.

A plain window in the south transept suggests that there was an earlier 12th century cruciform church on the site, and a blocked plain 12th century lancet in the east wall of the south transept suggests the present chancel is not the original one.

When the aisles were added, between the start of the 13th century and the 14th century, the arcades must have fitted the available space.

The south arcade in Saint Mary’s Church dates from the 13th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The south arcade is crude work of ca 1200 or a few years later. The north arcade is later still. Both arcades are of four bays, and their east bays were cut back when heavy buttresses were inserted to support the crossing tower. The south arcade has round piers and plain caps and hoods with toothed moulding.

The aisle windows are 14th century, as are those of the clerestory. The clerestory has three windows on each side. These are more elaborate on the south side than the north side, as are the chancel windows.

The west wall and outer walls of the transept are 12th century, and the large west window is Perpendicular.

The tower was replaced with the present one at some time in the 15th century. The care taken to buttress the new tower, at the expense of the arcades, suggests that the old one fell down.

The octagonal font dates from the 15th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The octagonal font is from the 15th century. The tower was enlarged from its Norman dimensions in the late 15th century, the timber roof is 15th century, the north transept has a Perpendicular window and a 17th century altar, the south doorway is 15th century, but the south porch is l9th century.

The altar rails date from the 17th or 18th century. The octagonal pulpit was rebuilt in 1912 with some 17th century panels. The organ was built by Walker of London in 1870.

The 15th century East Window includes re-glazed stained glass (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Revd TH Garde initiated a major restoration of the church in 1888-1890. Many changes were made throughout the church, including the addition of the present woodwork in the nave.

The re-glazed stained glass in the 15th century East Window has the inscription: ‘Isabella Caroline Garde wife of TH Garde born 1847 died 1885 in loving memory by her mother Emily Cromie.’

The octagonal stair turret in the tower was external but was made internal with the addition of the north-east vestry in 1888. The south porch was also added that year.

The Lady Chapel was arranged in its present form in 1909 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

During the restoration work by the Revd JR Vincent in 1909, when the altar and the panelling in the sanctuary were installed, and the Lady Chapel was arranged in its present form.

This restoration in 1909 included the stencilled decorations in the chancel and the chancel and the south transept. The chancel walls have IHC and IHS stencils. The Lady Chapel altar was originally in the sanctuary, and was rebuilt at that time, with only the four Jacobean legs being original.

The window depicting Saint Hugh of Lincoln and Saint Frideswide of Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The figures on the rood screen were carved at the studio of Oscar Zwink of Oberammergau. Generation of the Zwink family were involved in the Oberammergau Passion Play.

Oscar Zwink also carved the triptych on the altar in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral, designed by Charles Earner Kempe (1837-1907).

The window beside the Lady Chapel depicts Saint Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln in 1189, holding a model of Lincoln Cathedral, and Saint Frideswide, the patron saint of the Diocese of Oxford.

The north aisle monument of Sir Thomas Stafford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The most striking monument in the church is that in the north aisle to Sir Thomas Stafford (1607), of Tattenhoe, the founder of the Almshouses in the village. This monument includes a recumbent effigy on a base with a central figure of his wife flanked by their four sons and three daughters, all carved in relief, and dramatically recalls that only one son and two daughters were still alive when he died.

Behind is an inscription panel flanked by side panels supporting a cornice with side scrolls and a coat of arms over.

This monument was originally on the east wall of the family mausoleum, now the Lady Chapel, and was moved to its present position in front of the old North Door during the restorations in 1909.

A panel over the south door with the royal arms of George III is dated 1772 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

An early Elizabethan monument on the north side of the chancel is to Sir Edmund Ashfyld, who died in 1577), and his wife Eleanor Stafford. It is a marble sarcophagus under a canopy in a recess, supported by three Corinthian columns on plinths with shafts, one of jasper, two of porphyry. Ashfyld was granted the Manors of Shenley by Queen Elizabeth I in 1563.

There are 18th century monuments to members of the Stafford family and to former rectors.

A panel over the south door with the royal arms of George III is dated 1772.

In recent works in the church, an accessible toilet was installed in the north transept in 2008, and kitchen facilities were installed in the north-west corner of the nave.

The stencilled decorations in the chancel date from 1909 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The parish now belongs to the Watling Valley Ecumenical Partnership, including Shenley Church End, Loughton, Tattenhoe, Two Mile Ash and Furzton. The church is Grade I listed, and is one of two churches in the partnership with an active bell tower. The six bells are rung by a team of bellringers for weddings and special events.

The Revd Sharon Grenham-Thompson is the Lead Minister at Saint Mary’s, the Revd Ruth Harley is the curate. Sunday Services are: 10 am Holy Communion, first and third Sundays; Morning Worship, second Sundays; All-Age service, fourth Sundays.

The features in the chancel include encaustic tiles, probably made by Minton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Further Reading:

Niklaus Pevsner, Buildings of England: Buckinghamshire (London, 1960).

Niklaus Pevsner and E Williamson, Buildings of England: Buckinghamshire (London 2nd ed, 1994).

The south porch in Saint Mary’s Church, Shenley Church End (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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