01 November 2022

Saint Mary’s Church, Bloxham,
with its spire and windows, is
‘one of the grandest’ in England

Saint Mary’s Church, Bloxham, and its 198 ft spire can be seen from miles around, a key landmark in Oxfordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Mary’s Church has been at the heart of Bloxham in Oxfordshire for almost 1,000 years, providing a focal point for Christian worship and prayer.

Saint Mary’s, which I visited last week, is a Grade I listed mediaeval church and it has been described by the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘one of the grandest in the country.’

Saint Mary’s Church stands on the hill dominating the village three or four miles south-east of Banbury in the north Oxfordshire countryside. The church has stood on the site for almost 1,000 years, and the 198 ft spire can be seen from miles around, a key landmark across the North Oxfordshire countryside.

The church also has an East Window is regarded as ‘one of the finest examples’ in Oxfordshire church of some of the best if not in Britain of Pre-Raphaelite stained glass by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.

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

The first documentary evidence of a church on this site is found in a charter in 1067 when William the Conqueror granted the church and the rectory estate to Westminster Abbey.

King Stephen built a chantry chapel there in the 12th century, when he gave two fields from his royal manor to pay a priest to say daily masses for the repose of the soul of his mother Adela, the daughter of King William I.

Henry II granted patronage of the church to Godstow Abbey near Oxford, causing Westminster Abbey to complain to the Pope. However, the Pope allowed Godstow Abbey to retain the church provided it made an annual payment to Westminster Abbey.

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

The church has some notable remaining fragments of Norman architecture, including fragments of 12th-century masonry, two doorways and the responds of the chancel arch. The re-set 12th century doorway in north wall has tympanum with a fish scale pattern.

The arcades date from the rebuilding of the original nave in the 13th century, but the present church was mainly built in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The chancel and aisles were rebuilt in the early 14th century, as were the north and south porches. At this time the church was ornamented with much fine stone sculpture, including tracery and ornate capitals, much of which survives. It may have been crafted by a school of masons who carried out similar work on the nearby churches of Adderbury, Alkerton and Hanwell.

The hammer-bream roof inside Saint Mary’s Church, Bloxham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The tower is thought to have been built between 1300 and 1340. The tower of five stages has angle buttresses, with niches, string courses to all stages and louvred lights to bell stage. At the fifth stage, the tower forms an octagon under the spire, and the broaches are marked by corner pinnacles. The octagon has a cornice of blind tracery, and the spire has canopied lucarnes.

Fragments of mediaeval wall paintings survive inside the church, including a Doom painting over the chancel arch and Saint Christopher over the north doorway. Remnants of 14th-century stained glass survive in some of the windows. The church’s elaborate rood screen dates from the 15th century, with fragmentary remains of painted figures.

Over the west door of the tower is a carving of the Last Judgment. The doorway itself is heavily carved, with depictions of animals, foliage, birds, beakheads, and traditional ballflower ornamentation. The hood-mould is carved with the 12 Apostles on thrones, with Christ with angels presiding over the whole scene.

The south chapel or Milcombe chapel was added in the 15th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The south chapel or Milcombe chapel was added in the Perpendicular Gothic style in the 15th century. The stonework is a fine example of the work of a renowned Banbury based group of stonemasons. Although the patron and the architect are unknown, it is likely that the new chapel was designed by Richard Winchcombe.

The 15th century baptismal font has a Jacobean cover.

With Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries at the Tudor Reformation in the 1530s, the advowson or patronage of Bloxham parish church passed to Crown, which granted it to Eton College in 1547.

The Milcombe chapel contains a number of 18th-century monuments to members of the Thornycroft family and the tomb of Sir John Thornycroft (1725). Other monuments to this family include Elizabeth, Lady Thornycroft (1704), John Thornycroft (1687) and his wife Dorothy (1718).

The East Window is regarded as ‘one of the finest examples’ in Oxfordshire church of Pre-Raphaelite stained-glass (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Saint Mary’s Church was restored in 1864-1866 and significant renovation was carried out under the direction of the Gothic Revival architect George Edmund Street (1824-1881), who also built the Royal Courts of Justice in London and rebuilt Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

As well as stabilising the spire, Street’s work includes one of his best-preserved chancels in existence, including the pulpit, choir stalls, reredos, flooring and other elements designed specifically for Saint Mary’s.

At the same time, the church was provided with three important Pre-Raphaelite stained-glass windows. William Morris, Sir Edward Burne-Jones and Philip Webb created the east window, filling the four-light west window that has unusual tracery with carved figures.

The East Window is regarded as ‘one of the finest examples’ in an Oxfordshire church of some of the best Victoria stained glass in Britain. Charles Sewter says it is ‘certainly one of the most beautiful windows of the firm’s first decade of activity.’

The four main lights show (with their attributions):

Top row (from left): Angels with censors (Burne-Jones), Michael and Raphael (Morris), Saint Peter and Saint James (Burne-Jones), Ezekiel and Saint John the Baptist (Burne-Jones);

Bottom row (from left): Saint Alban and Saint Stephen (Burne-Jones), King Alfred and King Louis (Burne-Jones), Saint James Bishop of Jerusalem (Burne-Jones) and Saint Augustine (Morris), and Saint Cecilia and Saint Catherine (Burne-Jones).

Burne-Jones also created the stained glass window of Saint Christopher in the chancel and the window depicting Saint Martin of Tours. Other windows are by Charles Eamer Kempe.

The 15th century baptismal font has a Jacobean cover (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Further alterations were made to the church in the 20th century, when the north aisle was dedicated as the War Memorial Chapel.

The high altar became used less frequently with the addition of a nave altar.

The Milcombe Chapel was screened off by a local craft worker, who was also commissioned to create the Millennium Screen at the west end of the central aisle.

The church has a large graveyard, which has been expanded to the east several times.

While the building is historic, the parish is developing a space to serve the community throughout the week, providing a space for community events, concerts and theatrical productions.

The parish was taken to a Church of England consistory court in 2018 for having removed seven Victorian pews from the church to create a children’s play area without applying to the Diocese of Oxford for the necessary faculty. The Victorian Society testified that the pews had been badly stored, causing them to deteriorate. The court granted retrospective permission for the removal of the pews, but ordered that four of them be returned to the church.

Christopher Rogers, deputy chancellor of the Diocese of Oxford, called the decision ‘highly unfortunate, to put it mildly.’ He found that the current vicar and leadership team were not in charge when the decision was taken and added that he had the ‘greatest sympathy’ in having to deal with the ‘mess’ left by their predecessors.

He said: ‘A degree of change and the removal of some pews was necessary in order to serve the wider community and to remain a sustainable place of worship.’ Retrospective permission for the removal was granted but four of the pews must be returned to the church.

Over the west door of the tower is a carving of the Last Judgment, while the doorway and the hood-mould are richly carved (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

A traditional local rhyme says:

Adderbury for length
Bloxham for strength
King’s Sutton for beauty

Nevertheless, Saint Mary’s Church, Bloxham, remains one of the real gems among Oxfordshire churches.

The benefice is now combined with those of Milcombe and South Newington, of which Our Lady of Bloxham is the main church. The Vicar is the Revd Dale Gingrich.

The Sunday services are: 8 am, Holy Communion, a traditional, spoken service using the 1662 Book of Common; 9:30 am, Holy Communion, with hymns, choir and a sermon; except on the fourth Sunday, when there is a café style family service without communion; 6 pm, Evening Prayer following the Book of Common Prayer, with Choral Evensong takes place on the fourth Sundays. Schools in Bloxham use the church for their annual Christmas services.

Saint Mary’s Church, Bloxham, remains one of the real gems among Oxfordshire churches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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