St Nicholas Church

St. Nicholas Church, Idbury, is a Grade 1 listed building. The church was built in the twelfth century, and every generation since has made their contribution to its upkeep and development. It is the only public building in Idbury and is used for all kinds of community events, such as the Idbury Arts Festival, as well as for worship. This wider use of the church as community space as well as sacred space is very much in keeping with how the church would have been used in medieval times, when churches were used for social gatherings, and even business meetings, as well as for religious services. The following account of the building, church furniture and monuments is largely drawn from two sources: the entry in Pevsner’s Buildings of England, and a pamphlet published in 1914 by the then rector Idbury, the Rev. Gother E. Mann, entitled An Account of the Parish Church of St. Nicolas, Idbury, and of Its Proposed Restoration. These have been supplemented with information from Evelyn Goshawk’s Idbury History, and from a letter of 1963 from the Idbury churchwardens to the Secretary of the Historic Churches Preservation Trust. We have also benefited from the advice of the furniture expert Keith Hockin, and the expert on church architecture Philip Wilkinson.

The Building

Gother E. Mann writes, ‘Though small, the church is a prominent landmark. It is built of durable yellowish oolite and roofed with old grey stone slates, with the exception of the flat roof of the nave, once leaded but now covered with Welsh slates. The windows retain their old leaded glazing and iron stanchion bars, and, fortunately, there is no modern glass.’

Mary M. Dalston and Lancelot Spicer, the then Churchwardens of Idbury, wrote to the Secretary of the Historic Churches Preservation Trust in 1963 that, ‘Though not striking outside, apart from the blocked Norman doorway on the N. side, the interior, with its lovely clear glass windows, strikes all who see it as beautiful, in spite of the bad pews.’

The exterior of the church is plain and simple, the only extraneous decoration being two carved human heads as label stops on the westernmost clerestory window, and some gargoyles on the parapet, two used as waterspouts, the others purely decorative. There are also gargoyles on the parapet of the bell turret.

Jennifer Sherwood, who wrote the Oxfordshire section of Sherwood & Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Oxfordshire, writes that, ‘The only important survival from the Norman church is a fine doorway re-set in the north wall. Arch of three orders, with a small band of zigzag, a roll-moulding, and a large inner order of zigzag. Jamb shafts incised with chevron pattern. Scalloped capitals. Tympanum with a deeper pattern of small circles. A large arch has been cut into it.’
monument Idbury Church

This Norman doorway, which dates from around 1150, would have originally been the main door into the church. It appears to have been moved when the current door and porch were added in the late 14th century.

Norman Arch

At present the doorway is walled up, and can only be viewed from the exterior. At what point the arch was cut into the tympanum is unclear; it may be that the door was modified when it was moved, and that it was used for a while as a north entrance, before being blocked up.

It is true that this doorway is the only important visible survival from the original Norman church, but in fact the exterior walls of the nave and chancel – the main body of the church – are the original Norman walls. Unfortunately two ‘housekeeping’ errors in recent times have caused these walls to become sodden with damp, and both need rectifying as a matter of urgency. The first is that the west wall has been covered with an ugly render that does not allow moisture to escape. This is compounded by the second mistake, which is that the interior of the church has been painted with ordinary household emulsion rather than the traditional limewash, again trapping moisture within the walls.

The ground plan of the church drawn up by the Oxford architect F. E. Howard in 1914, and still on display in the church, dates the windows in the chancel to the thirteenth century; Jennifer Sherwood dates them slightly later.

Plans of Idbury Church

She writes that, ‘The chancel windows are early 14th-century trefoiled lancets, except for a three-light square-headed Perpendicular window on the southeast’. These probably did not replace original Norman windows; there is no indication of this. According to Gother E. Mann, ‘The typical Norman Cotswold church had no east window, and those in the side walls were mere slits’; in fact some Cotswold churches do have Norman east windows, and in others there is no way of knowing whether a later medieval east window was newly opened or simply replaced an earlier Norman one.

In the early 14th century, a north aisle was added, greatly extending the footprint of the church. There is a Decorated three-light east window, and two Perpendicular square-headed windows, with tracery in the form of quatrefoils, in the north wall. The north aisle is separated from the nave by a three-bay arcade with piers of quatrefoil section and arches with two orders of wave-moulding, which Sherwood says is typical of this date. Shortly afterwards, a tower was built in the northwest of the aisle; the tower is of three stages with a battlemented parapet.

In the late fourteenth century a new doorway, porch, and new windows were added on the south wall, and the original Norman doorway was moved to its present position in the north wall. There are six large Perpendicular windows in the south wall, four of which are set high up, forming a clerestory, and making the church very light and airy. Gother E. Mann notes that, ‘This work must have been spread over a number of years for the windows vary in design and are not equally spaced.’ In Cotswold Churches (1976) David Verey describes the clerestory as ‘four quite large, rather flat, four-centred arched headed windows and grid tracery, with deep hollow casement moulding and hood-mould stops.’

The porch contains a stone carved with details of the Coal Fund for the Idbury Poor, which like all the Idbury Charities has now been dissolved. On the outside of the porch to the left is a mass dial, which by the use of a finger as a gnomon still gives the visitor an accurate time, and is the nearest to a church clock that St. Nicholas has ever possessed. Around the corner from this is a modern Ordnance Survey triangulation plaque, BM 11048.

At some time in the fourteenth century the chancel arch was re-cut from the original Norman arch. It was also around this time that the elaborate bell-turret for the sanctus bell was added over the eastern gable of the nave; this turret has crocketed pinnacles.

Also around this time a Perpendicular piscina (a stone basin for washing the communion vessels) was added in the chancel; the bowl of the piscina projects out from the wall. Two corbels on either side of the altar were probably originally used to hold figures of saints.

Sherwood also remarks on an ‘unusual Perpendicular sedilia formed by the sill of the south-eastern window from which spring three cinquefoils forming canopies’. A sedile is a seat for a priest, generally found in groups of three. The chief unusual feature of the one at St. Nicholas, Idbury, is that it does not exist, and never has; presumably Jennifer Sherwood at this point confused her notes on St. Nicholas with those on another Cotswold church.

The nave has a Perpendicular roof, supported on corbels carved with human heads. The main timbers of the roof may be original, but it has been restored over the years, most recently in the 1940s.

The practice of having box pews for the gentry at the front and bench pews for the yokels at the back was a way of incorporating the English class structure into the interior architecture of a church. The 19th-century philosophy of ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’ was well-served by such distinctions, which sit less comfortably with our 21st-century ideas of equality and inclusiveness.

There are further 19th-century pews in the north aisle, described by Gother E. Mann as ‘extraordinary backless benches with open-work ends’. These are probably rather later than the box pews, and have been made up from bits and pieces of wood; at some point since 1914 they have acquired backs. The ‘open-work ends’, which are in very poor condition because the central heating pipes run right alongside them, have carving on the bottom, which enabled Mr. Hockin to identify them as 17th-century work; he suggests that they were probably once an altar rail. Two further pews in the north aisle were installed in 1952.

The 1962 quinquennial inspection has not been seen, but according to the 1963 letter by the Idbury churchwardens the architect, K. A. Stevens F.R.I.B.A. recommended, ‘if possible, new pews’.

The pulpit was made up in 1906 from some of the medieval bench ends, as noted above. The lectern is ‘a poor deal affair’ according to the visitors’ guide, dating from the 19th century. Gother E. Mann really gets into his stride when describing the church fittings, writing: ‘The rest of the fittings are mid-Victorian; the stalls and reading desk in varnished deal, the altar rails and pulpit in oak. All are hideous.’

The altar in the chancel is not technically an altar at all. It is an early 17th-century communion table, evidence that the early Protestant rejection of all things that smacked of idolatry left its mark on St. Nicholas in more ways than simply the destruction of its stained glass. Mr. Hockin dates the table to 1620-1630, and notes that it is need of restoration, which would involve removing the Victorian top that has been placed on it to make it more altar-shaped, filling in the four holes drilled in the original top to secure pegs descending from the Victorian top, removing the added feet, and restoring some lost moulding on one side.

Interestingly, in 1914 the church had a second of these communion tables in the north aisle, said by Gother E. Mann to have originally come from Fifield. This is presumably the ‘small and unworthy Lady altar’ removed by Charles Edwin Goshawk in 1952; its whereabouts now are unknown.

In the vestry is a 17th century chair, with the protruding ends of the arms cut off but otherwise in original condition.

St. Nicholas has three bells, recently restored to working order. The Treble bell is dated 1747, and bears the incription Peace and Good Neighbourhood, which is still Idbury’s village motto today. The Second and the Tenor bells date from the 15th century. The Second is inscribed Protege Virgo pia quos convoke Santa Maria (Holy Virgin St. Mary, protect those whom I summon); the Tenor is inscribed Jesus Nazarenus Rex Judeorum Fili Dei Vivi miserere nobis (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, Son of the Living God, have mercy upon us).

The two 15th-century bells would have been cast on site. They are made of bronze (about three quarters copper and a quarter tin), which would have been poured into a casting pit, to solidify between two moulds of brick and loam. They would have been left to cool for seven days, then broken free from the moulds and fine-tuned on a boring mill. The state of 15th-century roads and transport did not allow such heavy items to be manufactured off site.

The only other furniture of interest in the church is the old coffin cart, or bier, which was shared between the villages of Fifield and Idbury. Local children would wheel it between the churches as and when it was needed, taking the opportunity whenever possible to climb aboard and freewheel downhill.

Church Monuments

Monuments within the church include a brass inscription of 1644 in memory of Thomas Hawtin. This was originally attached to a slate slab on the floor, also commemorating members of the Hawtin family. It reads:

Here lieth the body of Thomas Havtin the sunn of Thomas Havtin yeoman who decesed the XX day of June anno domi 1643.

Be hould thyself by me such a on was I as thou
and thou in time shal be even dust as I am now

Many of the letters are reversed, and the brass is decorated with memento mori in images of a spade, a pickaxe, and a skull.

A large stone plaque in the north aisle is the monument of the Logan (or Loggan, or Loggin) family, who held Idbury from 1637 till the early 18th century. It was commissioned by John Logan, and is entirely in Latin; a translation is available in Evelyn Goshawk’s Idbury History.

There is also a calligraphed Roll of Honour listing the 7 Idbury men who gave their lives in the First World War, and an intricate wood-carved Lord’s Prayer donated to the church in the dark days of 1940.

In the churchyard are some notable tombs, seven of which are Grade II listed. These are a bale tomb and 4 chest tombs south and southeast of the church porch, and a pair of chest tombs south of the chancel. All of these tombs are currently completely overrun with ivy, a situation that should be remedied as soon as possible.

One of the chest tombs on the south side of the chancel is that of John Gaynsford. The Oxford antiquarian Anthony Wood notes in his diary, 1674, ‘In the churchyard is an altar-tomb of John Gaynsford, ornamented with coats-of-arms’. Evelyn Goshawk writes in 1961, ‘The heraldic shields attached to the flat slab can still be seen, five on either side, but much defaced, and none of the emblazoning remains.’ The Gaynsfords held Idbury from 1502 till around 1620.

The bale tomb is that of a member of the Woolliams (or Woollams) family. The inhabitants of the two chest tombs nearest the path are unrecorded. The outer left tomb is that of Ann Day, wife of Richard Day; the outer right tomb is that of Jane Loggin (Logan) and another 3 children of the Logan family.

To the east of these tombs are several gravestones of the Digger or Diggar family, including that of Rachell Digger, who died on the 23rd of May, 1720 (Goshawk reads 1722), at the age of 60. In good sunlight the elegant cursive inscription on this stone is still perfectly legible. Rachell Diggar lived through a turbulent period of English history. She was born in the reign of Charles I, lived through the Civil War, the Protectorate, and the reigns of Charles II, James II, William and Mary, and Anne, to die under George I, having bridged the gap between the Stuarts and the House of Hanover. The National Archives house at least three 17th-century wills of the Digger family, who seem also to have been known as Heires, Eyres, or Ayres.

Also in the churchyard is the elaborate tomb of the engineer Sir Benjamin Baker, the architect of the Forth Bridge and the Aswan Dam. The monument – presumably designed by Baker himself, who seems to have taken a suitably high-Victorian interest in his own funeral arrangements – is designed to commemorate four people. Designed as a massive granite Celtic cross supported by four flying buttresses, it is chided by David Verey in Cotswold Churches (1976) for ‘unsuitable design and material’; he compares it to ‘the corona of a church in Aberdeen’. The tomb contains Baker, his wife, and his sister, but the fourth spur is left empty.

Near the Baker monument is a simpler one to Elspet Keith Robertson Scott, the wife of J. W. Robertson Scott. It is an ornamental bird bath, originally given to the school but moved to the churchyard when the school was closed, and remembers her as a ‘lover of children and birds’.

There is one stone plaque on the south wall (to the west of the porch), with a winged angel’s head and an inscription in memory of John Wilks; it dates from the 1770s.

In 1960 a fire broke out in the vestry which destroyed all the vestments. Four new sets of vestments were generously made by the Sisters of the Community of Jesus of Nazareth at neighbouring Church Westcote, who had for many years run a Sunday School in the parish.

The only church plate of note is a silver Elizabethan chalice of c.1571. It was made by a provincial silversmith. The bowl has been badly damaged and if there was ever a maker’s mark, it has been obliterated. The paten cover has disappeared.

Idbury Clergy

Idbury never seems to have had a resident parson. From 1147-1536 the church was owned by Bruern Abbey (hence the local tradition of a secret tunnel from Idbury Manor to Bruern). In 1536 Bruern Abbey was dissolved; at that time there were 12 priest-monks and 3 other monks at Bruern. Idbury church and land passed to the College of Sarum. Perhaps because of this monastic past, Idbury remained a strongly Catholic village after the Reformation; there are records of Catholic priests officiating in makeshift private chapels in both the Manor House and Idbury House Farm, and a number of Idbury residents were fined as Papist recusants. From the early 18th century, the situation in Idbury, with an absentee landlord and no resident parson, was poor. The church registers were not properly kept, and there was no school, but nevertheless a curate from Westcote, John Middleton, held a service every Sunday afternoon in St. Nicholas church. Up until 1814, this situation remained largely unchanged; the curates at Westcote also undertook duties at Idbury. In 1814 John Mastin, Vicar of Naseby, applied to be licensed to the curacy of Idbury, later nominating his brother Thomas Mastin to undertake the work of the parish. Thomas did not live in Idbury but at Swinbrook, where he was master of the free school; he served the churches of Swinbrook, Fifield, and Idbury. A huge change occurred in 1860 when, in the words of Evelyn Goshawk, ‘Sir Francis Fortescue Turville purchased from the Dean and Chapter of Sarum his estate previously only leased from them. In 1863 he surrendered the patronage and advowson to the Bishop of Oxford and a rector was then appointed.’ The following lists of clergy at Idbury are taken from Goshawk, up until 1961.

Officiating clergymen at Idbury

1526 Dom Rogerus Clymson, curate

1674 Will Clarkson

1677 Will Clarkson

1717 Will Harrison

1731 John Hayward

1738 John Middleton

1754 Thomas Williams

1757 Thomas Brookes

1768 John Tarn

1770-4 Thomas Brookes

1775 John Tarn

1776 Thomas Brookes

1776-7 John Tarn

1778 Miles Tarn

1779 John Tarn

1781 B. Morgan

1781 John Tarn

1784-90 Joseph Lothian

1791 Thomas Brookes

1792 J. Lothian, J. Tarn

1792 John James Lates of Westcote

1793 J. Tarn, T. Brookes

1796-7 Robert Breakspear

1792-1802 Miles Tarn

1809 T. R. J. Slatter

1812 T. Brookes

1814 W. W. Morgan of Westcote

1816-34 Thomas Mastin

Rectors of the United Benefice of Fifield and Idbury (resident at Fifield from 1864)

1864-83 John Mayo Talmadge

1883-1904 Samuel York

1904-11 A. J. Wilson

1911-18 Gother E. Mann

1918-34 E. A. McConnell

1935-39 J. S. D. Marshall

1939-45 W. B. Hine

1945-51 Francis W. Broome

1951-61 Charles Edwin Goshawk

The Bull Bequest

The church is fortunate in benefiting from a generous bequest from Squadron Leader Bull, who died in 1991, and whose ashes are buried in the family grave in the churchyard. The primary purpose of the bequest is to pay for the upkeep of the churchyard.

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