13 September 2022
The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, with its ornate clock tower, dominates the skyline of Aylesbury, the county town of Buckinghamshire.
There has been a church on the site since Saxon times, and the present church dates from ca 1200-1250, with additions and alterations in the 14th, 15th, 19th and 20th centuries.
This church is a fine example of an Early English church of spacious proportions found in many market towns. It was saved from certain ruin in the 1850s and 1860s by Sir George Gilbert Scott, one of the great architects of the Gothic Revival, who was born near Buckingham.
The Saxon church on this site may have been built ca 571, when Aylesbury was a Saxon settlement known as Aeglesburge, and may be the place here Saint Osgyth, a Mercian princess, abbess and martyr, was buried following her death in the year 700.
Her place of burial became a place of pilgrimage. But, following a papal decree in 1500, her bones were removed from the church and buried in secret.
The early church was a Prebend in Lincoln Cathedral, and the Prebendary of Aylesbury was attached to the See of Lincoln as early as 1092.
The Norman font at the west end of the church and other artefacts found in the 19th century point to the existence of the earlier church. The font, found in three fragments, has given its name to a style of fonts known as the ‘Aylesbury Fonts,’ normally dated to 1170-1190.
It is shaped like a chalice, with a wide fluted bowl, border with delicately-carved foliage, and supported on a square base with semi-circular cushions.
There are other Aylesbury Fonts are at: Bledlow, Buckland, Chearsley, Chenies, Great Kimble, Great Missenden, Haddenham, Little Missenden, Ludgershall, Monks Risborough, Saunderton and Weston Turville.
The church was built between 1200 and 1250 with a cruciform shape, including a chancel, nave, transepts and tower. It retains that basic shape to this day, although it has been altered and modified over time.
The effigy of a knight in the north transept is assumed to be that of James Butler (1359-1405), 3rd Earl of Ormonde, who in 1386 founded the house of Greyfriars, thought to have been on the site of Aylesbury Railway Station, and acquired Kilkenny Castle in 1391.
The Lady Chapel and the Sacristy (now called the Vestry) were built at the east end of the south and north transepts in the 14th or 15th century.
The Lady Chapel has a sedilia. The room above the sacristy is a priest’s chamber or priest’s hole.
The clerestory was were added in the 15th century. The east ends of the north and south chapels were probably extended about the same time, to form two larger chapels known today as the Chapel of Saint George and the Chapter House.
The Guild of Saint Mary was founded in Aylesbury by John Kemp, Archbishop of York, in 1450. The Guild was influential in the final outcome of the Wars of the Roses. Its premises at the Chantry in Church Street, Aylesbury, are the site of almshouses today.
John Stone of Aylesbury left a bequest in 1494 to maintain a clock and chimes in the church tower.
Henry VIII made Aylesbury the county town, replacing Buckingham, supposedly to with favour with Thomas Boleyn, a descendant of James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormonde, so that he could marry his daughter Anne Boleyn.
Later in the 16th century, the remaining sides of the south-west pier were encased in stonework. The same work was carried out on the north-west pier in 1599, and the arch abutting against it was walled up probably at the same time.
A statue of the Virgin Mary in a niche over the west door survived the worst excesses of the Reformation, and in 1970 it was re-placed on the north wall of the chancel for its preservation. Some mediaeval misericords survive among the stalls in the chancel.
The figures on each side of the south porch door, now the main entrance facing onto Church Street, represent the patrons of the daughter churches, Saint Peter of Quarrendon and Saint James of Bierton.
Two piscinas by the sacristy door in the north transept are among the five surviving mediaeval piscinas in Saint Mary’s Church. They indicate mediaeval altars and side altars and the daily celebration of the Eucharist in the church until the Reformation.
An alabaster monument in the north transept commemorates Lady Lee, who died in 1584, wife of Sir Henry Lee of Quarrendon, an Elizabethan courtier. Once, it was profusely decorated with gold and colouring. A bequest from Sir Henry Lee led to the foundation of Aylesbury Grammar School in 1598, which was first housed in the church.
Lady Lee looks surprisingly humble kneeling with her daughter and where there were images of her two children who died young and were buried in their swaddling clothes. An inscription laments the loss of her children, and asks for a red rose to be placed on her memorial – a request that is honoured to this day.
But her two infant boys, who have been part of the life of Aylesbury for four or five centuries, have been missing for almost a year. They seem to have been stolen from the monument last October.
Aylesbury Grammar School moved to what were then church buildings in 1611. The school remained here until 1907, and the buildings now house the County Museum.
The Cromwellian Commissioners and Visitors listed the Revd John Barton of Aylesbury a ‘scandalous minister’ in 1642 and voted to expel him. The House of Commons was told on 8 July 1642 that John Barton had spoken against the Parliament. He was arrested and was brought in custody before Parliament. He did not recant his words, was committed to the ‘Gatehouse,’ and was later driven from the Vicarage.
Nehemiah Wharton, a Parliamentarian soldier, and his supporters broke into the church in August, 1642, defaced historical monuments and windows, ‘and burned the holy rails.’ The Battle of Aylesbury on 1 November 1642 was a key event in the Civil War.
The small spire that crowns the church tower is believed to date from the reign of Charles II.
A surviving monument in the chancel recalls Sir Francis Barnard, the last Governor of Massachusetts in 1760.
A surveyor’s report in 1765 confirmed the building was in a very unsafe state and required re-erection.
By the early 19th century, only part of the church was used for public worship and it was partitioned off from the transepts. The south transept was said to resemble ‘a marine store,’ parts of the church was used to hold the equipment of the parish fire brigade, and during the Napoleonic Wars, local regiments stored their stocks of gunpowder in the church.
Extensive renovations were carried out after a report from 1842 on, beginning with the interior of the south transept. However, a surveyor from London reported that the Church might probably stand until he got to Watford, but that it would fall before he reached home.
The fastenings holding the chimes in place in the tower gave way during the Sunday service on 24 September 1848, and created panic in the church before the service resumed. A survey by Sir Gilbert Scott that year revealed considerable problems with the foundations, the walls and the roof.
Scott carried out extensive restoration work in the 1850s and 1860s while the church was closed and public worship held in the County Hall. Pews, galleries, partitions and other fixtures were removed and sold, the late Perpendicular east window was replaced, and Scott was criticised for destroying the mediaeval fabric of the church.
When the congregation returned to the church for public worship on Pentecost Day 1851, the restoration was far from complete. There were no seats and the restoration of the chancel had not yet started.
The restoration of the west end began in 1866, and the completion of the restoration work was celebrated on 28 September 1869, when Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of Oxford and Bishop Harold Browne of Ely preached.
The east window with three lancets was put in place during the Victorian restorations. The figures of Saint Peter with his keys and Saint Paul with his sword were carved in Oberammergau. The great triptych above the High Altar was designed by JL Pearson, the architect of Truro Cathedral, and was installed in 1891.
The colourful Victorian glass filling the 15th century perpendicular west window above the font depicts Biblical scenes from Creation to the Prophets.
Saint George’s Chapel has been restored by the Buckinghamshire Battalion of the county regiment as a memorial to those who died in two World Wars.
The church was considered perilously unstable once again in the 1970s, and at one time it appeared to be facing demolition. Following storm damage in 1976, the battlemented parapet was removed from at the top of the tower.
The church was closed in 1978 for further restoration work. A new internal layout, floor, lighting, and heating system were installed, and the work was completed within a year. A refectory was built in the old south porch and the main entrance was moved to the door in the south transept.
The churchyard may have been much larger in the late Saxon and mediaeval periods. Skeletons have been found at 12 Church Street in a water main trench and in the cellars of 14 Temple Square and 2 Saint Mary’s Square. The churchyard was closed to burials in 1857.
Music plays an important role in the life of Saint Mary’s Church and community life, particularly at formal worship, and other activities, including concerts and lunch-time recitals.
The original church organ was a gift of a Mrs Mary Pitches in 1782. The organ was built by Green of Lichfield and was improved in 1858. But little of the original instrument now remains.
To some visitors, Saint Mary’s Church may appear to have a superficial Victorian Gothic Revival appearance. But that would ignore its past and its historical significance, and it is a Grade I listed building.
Today, the church is a true community church , in the heart of the old town of Aylesbury and an oasis of calm in the midst of a busy and vibrant town.
• Saint Mary’s Church is in the modern Catholic tradition. Father Doug Zimmerman, who gave me a guided tour of the church during my visit, has been the Rector of Saint Mary’s since September 2014, having moved from Florida. The Sunday services are at 8 am (Said Eucharist, Book of Common Prayer), and 10 am (Sung Eucharist).
Today, the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship (13 September) commemorates Saint John Chrysostom (407), Bishop of Constantinople, Teacher of the Faith, with a Lesser Festival.
I was able to leave the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield, yesterday rather than this morning, following what is known as ‘gamma knife’ or stereotactic radiosurgery as a follow-up to my stroke (AVM) six months ago (18 March 2022).
Having stayed overnight in the patient accommodation beside the hospital, I hope to leave Sheffield later this morniong. But, before today begins, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music is celebrated throughout this year’s Proms season. In my prayer diary for these weeks I am reflecting in these ways:
1, One of the readings for the morning;
2, Reflecting on a hymn or another piece of music by Vaughan Williams, often drawing, admittedly, on previous postings on the composer;
3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’
Saint John Chrysostom was born in Antioch ca 347. He was a brilliant preacher which earned him in the sixth century the surname ‘Chrysostom’, literally ‘golden-mouthed’. He is honoured as one of the four Greek Doctors of the Church. Against his wish, he was made Patriarch of Constantinople in 398. He set about reforming the Church and exposing corruption amongst the clergy and in the imperial administration. ‘Mules bear fortunes and Christ dies of hunger at your gate,’ he is alleged to have cried out.
He fell foul of the Empress Eudoxia and, in spite of the support of Pope Innocent I of Rome, was sent into exile twice, finally dying of exhaustion and starvation in September 407, with the words ‘Glory be to God for everything’ on his lips.
Matthew 5: 13-19 (NRSVA):
[Jesus said:] 13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.’
‘Dona nobis pacem’ with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and Michaela Anthony, soprano
Today’s reflection: ‘Beat! beat! drums!’ (Whitman)
For my reflections and devotions each day these few weeks, I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).
For these six days this week, I am listening to Dona nobis pacem, a cantata for soprano and baritone soli, chorus and orchestra.
The oratorio falls into the six continuous sections or movements, and I am listening to these movements one-by-one in sequence each morning.
I am posting a full recording of the cantata each day, so each movement can be listened to in context, but each morning I am listening to the movements in sequence, listening to one movement after another over these six days of Holy Week.
The six sections or movements are:
1, Agnus Dei
2, Beat! beat! drums! (Whitman)
3, Reconciliation (Whitman)
4, Dirge for Two Veterans (Whitman)
5, The Angel of Death (John Bright)
6, Dona nobis pacem (the Books of Jeremiah, Daniel, Haggai, Micah, and Leviticus, the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah, and Saint Luke’s Gospel)
This morning [13 September 2022] I am listening to the second movement, ‘Beat! beat! drums!’
2, ‘Beat! beat! drums!’
The second movement is a violent depiction of war and a furious setting of Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Beat! beat! drums!’
The words this movement are based on a poem in Drum Taps written by the American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892). This poem was written after he had served as a volunteer nurse in the American Civil War. He was stunned by the death toll of over 600,000 in that war over the space of four years.
Whitman’s words describe the drums and bugles of war bursting through doors and windows. When war erupts, nothing and nobody is inviolate. Peaceful lives in schools and churches, of brides, farmers and sleepers, of old men and children are in turn swept aside by the warring sounds.
The setting of this movement is for choir, heralded by volleys of brass and rattling percussion. In the use of the bass drum and its key shifts by thirds, Vaughan Williams here recalls Verdi’s Dies irae.
The movement erupts with articulate fear, depicting a violence that destroys peaceful daily lives. In the examples – merchants and scholars disappearing while others pray, weep, and entreat – we sense the numbers of people being swept into war’s unremitting violence once again in the 1930s.
Beat! beat! drums!
Beat! beat! drums! – Blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows – through the doors – burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation;
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
Leave not the bridegroom quiet – no happiness must he have now with his bride;
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field, or gathering in his grain,
So fierce you whirr and pound, you drums – so shrill you bugles blow.
Beat! beat! drums! – Blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities – over the rumble of wheels in the streets:
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses?
No sleepers must sleep in those beds;
No bargainers bargains by day – [no brokers or speculators] – would they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?
[Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?]
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums – you bugles wilder blow.
Beat! beat! drums! – Blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley – stop for no expostulation;
Mind not the timid – mind not the weeper or prayer;
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man;
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums – so loud you bugles blow.
Today’s Prayer (Tuesday 13 September 2022):
God of truth and love,
who gave to your servant John Chrysostom
eloquence to declare your righteousness
in the great congregation
and courage to bear reproach for the honour of your name:
mercifully grant to those who minister your word
such excellence in preaching,
that all people may share with them
in the glory that shall be revealed;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
The Post Communion Prayer:
God of truth, whose Wisdom set her table
and invited us to eat the bread and drink the wine
of the kingdom:
help us to lay aside all foolishness
and to live and walk in the way of insight,
that we may come with your servant John Chrysostom
to the eternal feast of heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘Holy Cross Day,’ and was introduced on Sunday with a prayer written by Naw Kyi Win, a final year undergraduate student at Holy Cross Theological College in the Church of Province of Myanmar.
The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:
We pray for the Church of the Province of Myanmar. May they be protected and blessed by God in all they do.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org