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Exploring our Pastby Janice Cliffe


1.Chronology of the building.

There is no mention of a church in the town called Nortone in the Domesday Survey and it is thought that this church was originally founded at some time in the 12th century and dedicated to St. Nicholas, but changed to St. Thomas a Becket after 1170. The present dedication to St. Mary the Virgin probably took place in the 13th century, which seems to be the date for the first stage of extension to the original church building.

(This link to the church floor plan is a useful reference to the text. Other floor plans, when clicked, lead back to this detailed plan)

West wall-

The internal wall of the tower at the west end of the Nave reveals signs of a 12th century arch, an indication of the earliest church, probably only consisting of a nave and small chancel, which was extended in the 13th century, with aisles being added in the early 14th century. The exterior of this building would have looked quite different to its present appearance due to the steeply pitched roofs over the nave and adjoining aisles.

The original Tower was built in the 14th century but became dangerous in the 19th century and was pulled down and re-built in 1823.

This church benefited from the considerable wealth of the local wool men, some of whose brasses remain with their merchant marks

The Nave was rebuilt in about 1450 with a higher roof incorporating the beautiful Perpendicular clerestory windows, an unusual example of Gothic curtain walling, similar in design to Canterbury Cathedral, and is attributed to the wealthy wool merchant John Ashfield of Heythrop, for whom there is a surviving willporch of 1506 (PCC. Adeane 6 ), in which he asks to be buried in the Church of Our Blessed Lady in Chipping Norton.

The Porch is a rare hexagonal structure, one of only three examples in the country, and was probably built as single storey initially in the 14th century .The chamber above may have been added before the porch was completed as the upper portion is of a slightly later date. Perhaps this could have been a Priest's Room required in connection with one of the Chantries.

The South Aisle has a wonderful 14th century window of Decorated style and has been reputed to have come from Bruerne Abbey after its dissolution. However, there are now other thoughts that it may be original to this church ; on the external gable to the side of this window can be seen the marks of the original steep roof pitch which would have allowed this window to sit quite comfortably in this wall.

A piscina also exists on the south wall of the south aisle, evidence that there was an altar here with, alongside, an arched recess which may have housed a tomb at one time.

The North Aisles were probably built in the late 14th century as the north door seems to be of this date. These aisles are separated by a 14th century arcade, but there are 13th century Early English details at the eastern end. There is strong evidence to suggest the west wall of these north aisles originally terminated in line with the inner tower wall and were extended at a later date. There is evidence that the floor level here was originally lower than at present, as there is a surviving stone seat around the last but one pillar.

Similarly the eastern end of the outer North aisle may also have been extended by one bay, possibly in the early 16th century, thus allowing the extant high level window to be on an external wall. Externally there is also clear evidence of the original steep roof pitches and lower eaves levels similar to that over the south aisle; this was obviously altered when the nave was highered in the 15th century, in order to allow for the positioning of the clerestory windows.

hagioscopeIn the area to the north of the Chancel is a lovely 15th century hagioscope to allow a view of the High Altar from this former chapel, and there is also a piscina incorporated in the sill of this squint window.

The present Vestry to the north of the Sanctuary appears to have contained an earlier vaulted crypt as there are the remains of arch springing below the present floor, (this may be the Charnel House mentioned in a diary of 1732).There are two more storeys above this crypt, shown by the positioning of the windows on the external wall, which may have been built in the 15th century as Priests' rooms, again in connection with Chantry Chapels.

The Chancel has east and south windows of late 14th century Decorated style and on the south wall there is a 15th century piscina and a sedilia. There are also two 13th century Early English piers surviving in the north wall of the chancel with a parclose screen between the Chancel and the north chapel which looks medieval but has clearly been cut through; it may have been repositioned at some time

The Font is of 14th century appearance, but may have had the top part replaced or restored in the 19th century restoration, as a visitation of 1520 mentions the chancel being in a ruinous state, the font broken and the graveyard violated by animals.

2. The Pre- Reformation Church 1500 - 1530

annotated plan (56kb)

Apart from the Tower (the original 14th century but rebuilt in 19th century) the Church of St. Mary in 1530 would have looked just as it does today from the outside, but very different on the inside.

The Abbey of Gloucester was the rector and held the tithes , but leased them out to Richard Tanty, who became the farmer of the tithes. There are wills dated 1531 for Richard, and in 1538 his wife Isabelle requested to be buried by my husband in the chancell. Many bequests were made to the lights in church, for wax and for the bells and for the gilding of the george and money to the vicar, who was, at this time Master David Gryffithe. His curate was Sir Harry Davy and the Churchwardens were Robert Catesbie and John Kilmington who had been complaining that the clerics were not doing their proper duties.

The evidence from the wills that survive for this period clearly show that ordinary people are still living their lives in exactly the same way as they had always done, with no thought of any religious changes on the way. Most communities had great pride in their church and many gifts were bequested as is shown in the will of Joan Mitton who died in 1530 leaving an enormous amount of gold, silver, money, cattle to the vicar and curate, along with the usual money for lights, torches, bells and for ten obits, ( prayers to be said annually for her soul.) It appears, from some previously surviving brass, that a Jone Mitton had been married three times, to Thomas Kylby, Thomas Tanner and Griffyth Mitton, which may account for her wealth, (if this is the same lady)



The entrance to the church would have been, as now, on the south side through the Porch which has a groined ceiling containing bosses of grinning devils and green men. This was an important area of the building in medieval times and contains stone benches around the walls and would have been used for certain church rites and civil business such as

absolution for penitents
churching of women after childbirth
baptismal services
marriage banns
executors paying legacies
one of the Stations during church processions

The central Nave and Aisles created a large square space capable of accommodating a congregation of around 800, but would not have contained any furniture, possibly just wooden benches around the walls. Most people stood or knelt on the floor, which would have been paved with large stone slabs incorporating the gravestones and some brasses of prominent local people such as Richard Smyth who wished to be buried before the Crucifix (1502), John Younge a woolman and his wife (1451), Thomas Greene a merchant (1445), Robert Sellard a woolman (1400), William Acrylton a gentleman and his wife (1457), William Lyvryche, John Tanner, Thomas Benet and their wife Anne (1531), John Pargett an ironmonger and his wife (1483), and many more. Unfortunately many of these brasses are now missing or broken, the few remaining pieces are set on the north wall of the outer north aisle.

The Nave was separated from the Chancel by the Rood Screen surmounted by a Crucifix.

This screen would have contained images of saints, either carved or painted in bright colours before which candles were lit; these are the lights mentioned in the wills.

The Rood Loft, approached by the stone stairs still existing behind the pillar on the north side of the Chancel arch, was used by the Priest and his deacons to read the Gospels aloud to the congregation. There is a second set of steps up to a door which faces the altar, the purpose of this has not yet been discovered.

Nave & Chancel Arch (75Kb)Chancel door

Above the Chancel arch in this church there is a beautiful traceried window with canopied niches on either side; these would have contained statues of saints. Some churches had Doom paintings above the Chancel arch where there was wall space, which would have allowed the ordinary people to speculate on the state of purgatory while listening to the priests chanting in Latin.

There is a door in the south wall of the Chancel outside which Thomas Frydaye, in his will (ORO 179.147) wished to be buried before the image of St. Sunday under the Chancel door.

Crosses on altar (150kb)altar stoneThe High Altar, situated at the east end of the Chancel, beneath the East window, was a large stone slab on a stone base with five stone crosses carved on its top to mark the consecration points. At High Mass the priest would have stood in front of the altar, facing east, chanting in Latin with the sub-deacon to the left holding up a torch light and the deacon to the right swinging the incense.

Chantry Chapels were founded by prominent local benefactors and endowed with money and/or property to pay the salaries of priests to sing and pray for the souls of the dead.

There were four such chapels in this church (see Plan):

1.Chapel of St. Mary, founded before 1290 by Richard Wale who made William Wale the priest.A later priest was John Gresse on a salary of 6. 10s. p.a., and Edward Holden in 1547.

The exact whereabouts of this chantry chapel is not certain; it is possible that it was sited in the former Lady Chapel to the north of the Chancel, as the name suggests. Richard Smith, dying in 1501 left 40s to the building of the Lady Chapel

east window (70kb)annotated plan (56kb)2.Chapel of St. James founded by William Reynolde and Richard Webbe. Sir John Raynolde was chantry priest here and when he died in 1544, he only bequeathed money for one torch light in his will (ORO 179.3), this reflected the growing influence of Protestantism towards the end of Henry VIII's reign. The last chantry priest was Robert Wheeler in 1547. When Joan Mitton wrote her will (ORO 178.26) in 1530 asking to be buried before the awter of seynt James, she left many bequests to the church and the priests in line with the Catholic times, not yet affected by Henry VIII's growing animosity towards the Pope and his final break with Rome. Again, it is speculation about the possible position of this chapel, but a likely site is in the south aisle beneath the great East window, where there remains the carving of the top of a reredos, and an adjoining piscina, thus indicating the presence of an altar.

3.Chapel of St. John Baptist founded by the wife of Thomas Gervyns, the daughter of John and Isabel Younge. William Benson was chantry priest here in 1547.

Pargetter shield

This chapel is almost certainly situated at the east end of the outer north aisle and would have had a floor level higher than at present , indicated by the height of the existing piscina, the altar positioned under the east window. There is a shield high up on the south wall of this chapel which may be the merchant mark of John and Agnes Pargettor with the flag of St. John if this can be positively identified and compared with the shields on either side of the exterior of the east window, it may determine the dedication and founder of this chapel.

Richard Croft's will dated 1502 (PCC Blamyr 14) requests that he be buried in the Chapel of St. John on the left side of the altar near where the cofer stands. His tomb now stands in the corner of what is thought to be the Lady Chapel ( see plan), but is is entirely possible that this tomb could have been moved from its original position. Indeed Wood and Rawlinson mention in their Parochial Collections that it is on the north wall in a Chapell dedicated to St. John Baptist, adjoyning to the north wall. There is an accompanying slab stating that railings were donated in the 18th century to surround this tomb, but they do not survive.

St Katherine altarannotated plan (56kb)4.Trinity Guild Chapel, founded about 1450 at the Altar of St. Katherine, by the vicar Nicholas Whitbyll and 4 wool merchants John Younge, John Stokes, John Huchyns, and Robert Reynold, who installed 2 chaplains.

In 1547 Sir William Bryan was the morrow mass priest and Sir Hamlet Malban was priest/schoolmaster each with a stipend of 6 per year.

The altar of St. Katherine is thought to be sited at the reredos which exists in front of the north pillar of the chancel arch. This includes three canopied niches which would have held images of saints. The chapel probably extended southwards as far as the next pillar and there would have been timber screens around three sides with a decorated canopy above.

Burford church

(There is an existing chapel in a similar position in Burford Church. ) The Guild of Holy Trinity was a primarily a religious foundation but probably also operated as a craft/trade guild for the merchants of the town, and the present Guild Hall in the Market Place may have been built for them as their meeting place.

Now that Henry VIII had broken with Rome and the Reformation was well underway, Master David Griffithe, who was vicar of the Parish Church from 1525 until his death in 1546, left a will which reveals the changing times in which he had lived. He did not bequeath money to all the usual lights etc. only to the Mother Church and the High Altar, and to be buried in the Chaunsell.

3. The Parish Church 1547 - 1550

After the dissolution of the monasteries and all the indecisions of Henry VIII concerning the religious and political implications of the Reformation came the accession of his son Edward VI in 1547. He had been brought up a Protestant and was determined to carry on with the Reformation. He ordered all images to be removed from churches, including statues, stained glass and paintings, and candles were only allowed to be used on the HIgh Altar. An Inquiry was then instigated into Chantries to ascertain their wealth and the surviving Certificates state the value of plate, ornaments and land holdings together with the salaries of the priests.

At this time, only 540 houselynge (communicants) people were listed for the town.

The Chantry of Our Lady had land worth 9. 8s. 4d, with plate weighing 10 ounces, but no ornaments, and supported one priest, Edward Holden who received 6 pension when the chantries were abolished.

The Trinity Guild supported two priests at 6 per year each, the value of lands being 16. 15s. 10d.

Plate and jewels weighing 46 ounces, and ornaments worth 13s. 4d. showing that this was a fairly wealthy chantry. One priest, William Bryan was pensioned off with 6, the other remained as schoolmaster.

The Chantry of St. James held land valued at 7. 6s. 8d. and had plate weighing 10 ounces and ornaments worth 6s. 8d. and supported one priest, Robert Wheeler who received a 6 pension.

The Chantry of St. John supported one priest and held lands worth 7. 12s. 8d. and plate weighing 10 ounces and 4s. worth of ornaments. The priest, Milo Benson also had a 6 pension.

In 1548 the Chantries were ordered to close and the endowments were confiscated, valuables were sold off and the money went to the Crown, some being used to give pensions to the unemployed clergy.

It was ordered that the laity were to be allowed to receive Communion in bread and wine, (formerly wine was only drunk by the priests), and the clergy were to wear surplices only, no vestments.

The school in Chipping Norton was threatened with closure, but after a petition by the townspeople in 1549, Edward VI allowed it to remain with Sir Hamlet Malban continuing as schoolmaster, thus becoming one of the first Edward VI Grammar Schools.

Also in 1549 Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer was introduced in English. This was not popular with the laiety, they preferred the familiar Latin even if they could not understand it, but all Latin books had to be destroyed. The purchase of new books combined with the confiscation of all the church's assets, and the economic distress caused by the enclosure of lands and general inflation, put a tremendous financial burden on the parish. This resulted in an revolt led by the vicar , Henry Joyce, and three neighbouring incumbents which was rapidly put down by the local gentry. Henry Joyce, who had been instituted in 1546, was hanged from the tower of Chipping Norton church in 1549.

An order to destroy all stone altars came in 1550, these were to be replaced with wooden Communion tables, to be set up in the Chancel facing east west, and any remaining images were to be removed completely.

The stone altar from St. Mary's was supposedly buried in the churchyard, from where it may have been recovered for use during the Catholic reign of Mary 1553 1558, and then hidden again only to be discovered many years later, and understood to have been installed in the Vestry for use as a table. This was not acceptable to the Low Church faction in the 19th century and it was ordered to be put on its side , where it remained until 2000. At present it is in storage awaiting return to a suitable position.

4. The Parish Church 1553 1558

Mary Tudor was a radical Catholic and sought to undo everything her brother had achieved during his short reign. In 1553 she commenced by ordering all altars to be replaced and in 1554 the Mass was restored along with vestments and Latin services.

There is a surviving will from November 1553 of Gilbert Barton (ORO 180.191), a priest in Chipping Norton, which still reflects the Protestant religion of Edward VI.

There is no mention of bequests to lights and suchlike, probably due to the fact that he could not quite believe that Catholicism was back ,as this was only the beginning of the reign of Mary Tudor.

In 1555 Rood Lofts were ordered to be replaced, and in parishes where these had not been destroyed images were dug up and came out of hiding and were refurbished as well as the parishioners could afford. The financial situation was still dire as the church could not regain the holdings that had been sold off and therefore did not have the income to fulfill all these new orders.

In 1556 Mary ordered that images of main saints were to be replaced, thus coming full-circle and effectively restoring the church back to the pre-reformation era, but the chantry chapels had gone for good, their endowments lost forever.

The interior of the Church must have been similar to its appearance during the early 16th century apart from the fact that it was probably in a serious state of disrepair due to lack of finances. However, it is highly likely that everyone would have made every effort to restore as much as possible, thinking that the good old days were back.

As we all know, this was to be a very short respite for Catholicism as the national religion, it was to die a final death in 1558 along with Mary Tudor.