The History of St Peter & St Paul’s Church, Stokenchurch
Though there is no record of when the first Church was built on this site, we do know that as far back as 1086 there are records of a place called Stokenchurch – the church within the stockade. The Church and village at this time was owned by the Abbey of St Albans, and was administered from a branch house at Wallingford. Westminster Abbey also held land in the village.
Until the foundation of the Diocese of Oxford in 1537, Stokenchurch was in the Diocese of Lincoln. Some doubt remains as to its continued ecclesiastical overlord, as Thomas Delafield, who was Curate of the Parish and Tipping’s Schoolmaster at the time, reports that the tomb of the church’s founder, a Prior of Thame, stood in the Church until 1730 when it was removed to make room for more pews. With the suppression of the monastries at the Reformation , the church now had to look to the mother parish of Aston Rowant for provision of the services. It did not become a separate parish until 1844 and both church and village were part of the secular parish of Aston Rowant until the 19th century.
Two factors contributed to the social history of Stokenchurch – its industry and its place on a local transport route. Colliers Lane, in the valley to the north of Stokenchurch, had long been used as a drovers’ road, linking London and Oxford, however, the track was prone to flooding and so a new path over the hills through Stokenchurch developed.
This transport route, coupled with the abundance of local woods led to the development of Stokenchurch as a village. At first it spawned traditional industries such as selling faggots – bundles of twiggy wood for burning – to homes and businesses in London, and bodging – the art of turning green wood to make furniture, such as Windsor chairs.
By the middle of the 18th century,Stokenchurch had become a natural place to change the horses of stage coaches after the long haul up from High Wycombe and the much steeper pitch up Aston Hill. As a result Stokenchurch flourished as a place of hospitality – at one time there were seven hostelries in the village.
In 1824 the gradient of the road from Stokenchurch to Aston Rowant was reduced which meant, in addition to firewood, locally built furniture could now be shipped to London. Chair making, alongside lace making, quickly became the major local industry with as many as twenty-three chair makers and sawmills in the village.
By the time the M40 replaced the A40 in the 1970s much of the traditional industry in Stokenchurch had died out and three of the pubs had closed. By the turn of the 21st century Stokenchurch had grown from a population of 1,500 in 1901 to around 5,000 but none of the traditional industries remained. Stokenchurch is now a commuter village with people working in Wycombe, Oxford and London.
Despite its location on the main thoroughfare between London and Oxford Stokenchurch has a quiet history. The exception to this rule was during the English civil war as this region was the focus of many of the more noteworthy skirmishes with the battle of Chalgrove Field taking place just 7 miles to the west of the village.
At that time the inhabitants of Stokenchurch were largely “Parliament Men”, which is not altogether surprising given that the notorious Colonel Adrian Scrope, was a resident of Stokenchurch, and also a Churchwarden (1655). Whether it is due to Scrope, or as another story has it, to Cromwell’s chaplain John Owen who was also a resident of Stokenchurch, the church did not suffer desecration at the hands of the Roundheads. Scrope, himself was not so fortunate as he was executed for signing the Bloody Warrant, on October 17th, 1660.
By 1680, Stokenchurch had recovered its loyalty to the crown, and in the Churchwardens Accounts there occurs the entry “Paid to ye Ringers the sum of five shillings when His Majesty came by”. The King in question was Charles II who stopped in the village on the way to Oxford where he had summoned Parliament to meet. On which occasion we are told, “he did this little place the honour of stopping at it, and taking dinner at the George (re-christened The Kings Head in his honour, and now the Kings Hotel).
The memorials in and around the church also give testimony to some of the prominent people in the history of Stokenchurch.
The walls of the chancel arch display two Brasses of Knights in Armour of the early 15th century, commemorating the brothers Morley. The inscription in mediaeval French reads, “Out of the earth was I formed, and unto earth am I returned. Robert Morley, heretofore by name, may God have mercy on my soul”. To the North side of the Church, stands an old mansion called Mallards Court. In 1725 this was known as Morrel’s Court, and it is thought that this is in its turn a corruption of Morley’s Court, and thus the site of the original home of the knights commemorated.
Elsewhere in the Chancel is a fine monument of 17th century workmanship to Bartholomew Tipping, founder of the Free School in the village in 1680. Also on the same wall are brasses of some of his forebears, Bartholomew Tipping of Chequers dated 1632 and of Martha, his wife.
On the walls of the nave are a number of tablets to commemorate some of the local families from the history of the village. These include Thomas Mason, of Mallards Court, who died in 1711, James Hitchcock, who died in 1817, and Sir Richard Jodrell, who died in 1861.
The north transept also has a stained glass window that was given in memory of Maurice Headeach in 1916. Maurice Headeach was the son of the Rev and Mrs Headeach, of Addlestone, Surrey and a scoutmaster at Harrow for five years. He served in the First World War as a Sergeant in York & Lancaster Regiment 12th Battalion, earning the Military Medal for his courage as a Corporal, and was killed in action in France in 1st July 1916 at the age of 42. He is buried at the Railway Hollow Cemetery, Hebuterne, Pas de Calais, France, but his wife, Charlotte, lived at Bangalore House in Stokenchurch.
The War memorial outside the library in Stokenchurch, and the remembrance panels in the north aisle and transept bear witness to 71 people associated with the village who gave their lives in the service of their country. These names include two local women who died in the Second World War. Mary Steptoe of the Auxiliary Territorial Service who died on 26th October 1942, at the age of 20, and Eleanor Slade (known as Susan) who was a Flight Captain with the Air Transport Auxiliary who died on 30th July 1944 aged 40.
The churchyard also contains the graves of many prominent local people, notable amongst these are Hannah Ball and Mary Towerton. Hannah Ball was born on 13th March 1734. In 1769, as a convinced Primitive Methodist she began a Sunday school class for children working at the inns of High Wycombe and she was encouraged in her work by John Wesley. She died on 16th August 1792 and is buried in Stokenchurch.
Mary Towerton came from a Stokenchurch chair making family and was a governor of several local schools for over 50 years. She introduced school milk, at her own expense, in the 1930s and had a long association with the Girl Guide movement in this area. Miss Towerton also helped develop St. Hugh’s Close, accommodation for senior citizens in Stokenchurch and served as a Justice of the Peace for many years. She died in 1976 and is buried in the churchyard in Stokenchurch.
The history of the church building
The earliest part of the present building is the chancel which dates from the 12th century, as does part of the nave. Both have been partly re-built: the chancel in 1330 and the nave sometime in the 15th century. The north transept was built in the 14th century and rebuilt in the early 16th century.
At this time, in the west wall of the north side of the chancel arch, a square window was cut that looks directly into the chancel. This was originally designed for the use of Penitents, who, whilst in a state of discipline were not allowed to take communion.
From the transept went the staircase to the gallery and rood-loft, the latter of which was taken down in 1729. The entrance to the rood-loft can still be seen high up in the corner of the north east wall. In the 17th century the south porch and the church bells were added and the nave was lengthened. The north aisle was added in 1895 at which time the gallery was removed from the transept.
The church has continued to develop over the last century. In 1937 the organ was relocated to the west gallery and a portion of the pews were removed to accommodate it. In 1943 six pews were removed from the west end of the north aisle to make a children’s corner and the transept was dedicated as a memorial Chapel for the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. Then, in 1946, the Lych gate was added to the church path in memory of the members of the Stokenchurch Choir who lost their lives in the Second World War.
In 1954 the organ was removed from the gallery in the west end of the church and in 1957 a crypt boiler was installed under the nave floor. In 1959 the remaining pews were removed from the gallery to make a small vestry, and in 1960, the bell turret was re-constructed and its height increased by 6ft to give better proportion. Later in the 1960s the remaining pews were removed from the north aisle and from the south west corner of the church as the pew platforms were rotten.
In 1990 a church room was attached to the north west corner of the church. This room contained a toilet, a serving area for tea and coffee and a single room for the church’s Sunday School class.
The church and church room were extensively re-ordered in 2014 and there is information about this on the Development page.
At this time the pews were removed and a stone floor was laid in the Nave. A modern kitchen was included under the tower and the west end of the church was reordered to include a teaching room for our older Sunday School group and a small balcony. In addition, an office vestry was added in the north-west corner of the church.
At the same time, the church room was extended (doubling it’s size) and two teaching rooms were created. The small servery was removed and replaced with two toilets and a large walk-in cupboard.
The contents of the Church
Most of the memorials in the church date from the 18th to the 20th century and represent many of the significant families of the village. As mentioned previously, on the walls of the chancel arch are two brasses which are memorials of Knights in Armour, dated 1410 and 1415. These brasses were put in their present position when the choir stalls were added in the mid 19th century. It is thought that the original tombs lie under the chancel floor, however, there is no record of their location, nor was any evidence found when the north chancel wall was underpinned.
On the north wall of the chancel is a monument dated early 17th century to Bartholomew Tipping who founded the free school that used to be in the village. Once again, the actual tombs are thought to be under the choir stalls.
The oldest stained glass window in the church is the small Trinity window at the West end of the church which is thought to date from the late 18th century. The majority of the other stained glass windows are from the late 19th and early 20th century. The most significant of these is the large window at the east end of the church, in the Sanctuary, which was made in 1895 and shows the birth, death and ascension of Jesus. Another window from the same period in the south wall of the nave depicts the church’s patron saints, Peter and Paul. This window was added in 1905.
The window in the north aisle, directly opposite the south porch, was made in 1946 to remember the people who died in the Second World War. There is also a stained glass window above the west end dated 1938. This was given by the congregation of the chapel in Beacons Bottom when it closed and was installed here in 2000. The window tells the story of St Francis and also has images of St Peter and St Paul.
The windows in the north transept belong to the 20th and 21st century. Of note here is a memorial window, dedicated to the memory of Maurice Headeach, dated 1916, and a children’s window, dated 1928. The most recent addition to the church windows came in the form of a modern stained glass window that was installed in the north transept in 2004.
There are three bells in the tower of the church. The Treble dates from 1640 and weighs 3¾ cwts. The second bell weighing 5 cwts. was re-cast in the 18th century and has an inscription “Fecit 1778”. The Tenor Bell, weighing 7 cwts. has the inscription “Henry Knight made me in the year 1618”. There is also a smaller bell for the chiming of the clock.
Furniture and Fitments
Until it was re-ordered in 2013 the church had a mixed seating arrangement with late Victorian pews in the centre of the nave and a mixture of chairs in the north Aisle and north transept. The church seating is now made up of purpose built chairs and benches made in English Oak by Bates and Lambourne of Chinnor.
The choir pews, located in the chancel, are early Victorian, made of light oak and sit adjacent to a modern Allen electric organ that was installed in 2000.
The pulpit and lectern, dating from the Victorian period, are made in oak and are in good condition. Both are plain in design, with the lectern in the shape of an eagle carrying the word of the Lord to the congregation. This lectern replaced a mediaeval one which was removed in the 18th century to make room for a pew for the Mason family (which was itself later removed from the church).
The font is much older, dating from the 13th Century, and is made of cut limestone. It was remodelled in the 15th Century and was lined with lead in the 19th Century. The Font has a 19th century wooden cover which originally bore a brass inscription, however, as the plate has been polished over time the inscription has become illegible. The Font has been moved at least once when the nave was extended in the 17th Century and until 2013 was located at the west end of the church. The Font is now opposite the south door, in front of the second world war memorial window.
A modern PA was installed in 2006 that incorporates a loop system. A new lighting scheme was introduced in 2009. As a result of water damage, caused by the theft of lead from the church roof, the old high level lights and associated wiring and fittings, had to be replaced. The new scheme allows for flexible lighting through the use of both zoned lighting and dimmable lights. The pelmet lights, installed in 1920, were also removed at this time as they were too delicate to be rewired.
In 2014 a screen and projector were installed in the Nave and Chancel of the church.
The churchyard in Stokenchurch has been a burial ground for many centuries, however, there are very few pre-Victorian graves remaining and the majority of the churchyard is made up of unmarked graves.
Records indicate that Stokenchurch churchyard was officially closed for new burials on 25th October 1881. At this time another burial ground was established elsewhere in the parish which was used until it was itself closed in the 1960s and for a short period there were some new burials in the churchyard adjacent to the wall that marked the north boundary.
In the early 1980s a churchyard extension was opened, beyond the north boundary wall that was managed jointly by the Parochial Church Council and the Parish Council. The Parish Council extended this burial ground in the 1980s and again in 2007. In April 2008 the Parochial Church Council applied to have the churchyard managed by the Parish Council, though the church continues to carry out some grounds maintenance.
In 2009 an ash tree and a section of laurels were removed from the south west corner of the churchyard and a quiet garden was established in memory of Joan and Sydney Ayles. Two further benches were also placed in the quiet garden in memory of Beryl Holmes and Gwen Olsen. The quiet garden is a very popular addition to the churchyard and is particularly well used throughout the summer.
Compiled February 2015