History of the Church Building

A Historical Guide to St Mary’s Church Haddenham

We know from the Domesday records that a church existed here in Saxon times, probably on this site. Of that building nothing now remains save for a layer of stones in the south wall which are said to show Saxon tool marks. The church in its present shape was completed by the 14th century. The chancel and nave are late 12th and very early 13th century and the tower was completed last in around 1215. The aisles were added in the late 13th century and then enlarged at the start of the 14th century – but there have been additions and alterations in nearly every century since. A church has stood here for nearly a thousand years in a graveyard of just over an acre; rain from its great roof feeding the church pond, the largest in a village of many ponds! 

Go to the crossing at the centre of the church between the four blocks of pews... 

From this point in the centre of the nave one can see the chancel with its great east triple-lancet windows, rebuilt in the 19th century but with stained glass added in the 20th , designed by village resident Michael Farrar-Bell (of the Clayton & Bell workshops) and portraying the Virgin and Child with angels blowing trumpets on a background of lilies. Looking west the base of the tower was enclosed in the 1990s to form a kitchen, toilet and room above. Beyond lies a large but plain west door and above that an Early-English clear-glazed west window. The dark oak screen at the west end of the nave, together with that surrounding the side chapel, was originally part of a large 16th century rood screen in front of the chancel arch – removed sometime in the 18th century. In the north aisle a Royal coat of arms hangs above the door whilst a modern digital organ is installed in the south aisle. The pews are said to be a very fine example of the 'Coventry arrangement' and are a mixture of original mediaeval work and good Victorian copies. Some of the pew ends – well worn now – date from the 16th century. The nave ceiling which now hides the original rough-hewn 14th century roof timbers was added in the late 18th century. And above it; hidden from view high above the chancel arch, fragments of a 15th century wall painting remain. 



Move towards the main door and into the North aisle... 

The aisles were constructed after the nave in the late 13th century but rebuilt and widened in the 14th. The aisle windows include those from two distinct periods. The arched, 'Decorated Gothic' style is probably original to the first building of the aisles whilst the plainer 'Perpendicular' windows date from the later rebuilding. In the north-east corner of the aisle, a rood stair is built into the wall dating from when the side chapel was enlarged. This gave access to the rood screen and possibly even a musician's gallery above.
The tiles in the porch give a good example of how the church floor would have appeared before restoration in 1860. The marked staining of the pillar nearest the north door was caused by the positioning of a 'tortoise' stove there in the late 19
th century. 

The Norman font which pre-dates the existing building has occupied several positions in the church in its long life. The design around the bowl depicts two tortuous dragons with snapping jaws, representing the devil. Denied their prey, they are a symbolic representation of the saving grace of Christian baptism. 

The two small stained glass trefoil windows in the west end of each aisle were re-glazed in the 20th century again by Farrar-Bell as memorials to his wife and infant daughter. Some pews at the west end of the nave contain fragments of carpentry from the 16th century although these are mixed with Victorian work. There are one or two things to note outside, so if you wish, follow the path clockwise around the church... 

The outer door of the Porch carries its own date record, 1637, carved between two sets of initials: G.W. and J.G. those of the churchwardens in that year. Between the east end of the church and the wall of Church Farm House (the second oldest building in the village) is the Grade 2 listed 1816 chamber tomb of wealthy landowner Joseph Franklin, one-time High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire. Next to the south wall of the chancel is a very eroded 19th century tombstone since augmented by a flat stone marking the grave of William Rutter Dawes, a notable Victorian astronomer whose last years were spent in Haddenham.
The tower which was the last part of the building work to be completed in the 13
th century is particularly good and is said by many to be the finest Early- English tower in the county. When the chancel arch was rebuilt in the 14th century, the nave roof was lowered and the pitch altered, presumably to reduce stress on the walls. Mouldings on the east face of the tower reveal the original higher pitch of the roof which must have made the building an even more imposing edifice in its early years. In 1552 it is known that the tower held four bells but in 1809 they were recast as a peal of eight by John Briant of Hertford who produced many bells for North Buckinghamshire churches. 

Return inside the church and walk towards the chancel steps.... 

The pronounced 'lean' on the pillars supporting the chancel arch looks alarming but they are quite stable! It is likely that this developed soon after the initial building of the nave. The chancel arch shows little trace of that disturbance and was probably rebuilt along with the north pillar and aisles in the late 13th century which prevented further movement. The pulpit and lectern are the 20th century work of a local carpenter along with the vestry screen panelling. 

Move up into the chancel... 

The chancel floor is false and was raised in the late 20th century to provide greater height to the chancel for visibility. Below this the floor dates from a major Victorian restoration and is of encaustic tiles like those around the communion table below the east window. The small south vestry, opened up during the restoration work in 1860, formerly housed a pipe organ and console. An even earlier pipe organ once occupied the side chapel. 

Three well-worn brasses dating from the 15th century mounted on the north chancel wall were, before the 1860 restoration, set into the floor and, although the inscriptions were mixed up during those works, are memorials to priests of that time. The most interesting brass is on the south wall mounted in a small wooden frame. This is ostensibly a memorial to Adam Wergrave who at the start of the 15th century was the Prior of Bisham Abbey near Marlow. 

Turning the brass in the frame however, reveals it to be a 'palimpsest' - a brass re- used at a later date. It is likely that after 1538 when the dissolution of the monastery in Bisham took place, the brass was purchased for re-use since the reverse inscription is a memorial to a Haddenham yeoman, Gylls Woodbrygge who died in 1539. 

Some memorial tablets known to exist prior to 1860 did not survive the Victorian restoration; those which do are mainly to previous incumbents of the parish in a variety of designs and with epitaphs reflecting the style of their times. 

The small lancet windows were re-glazed during the 1860 restoration. Two are undistinguished mass-produced Victorian work – another is a Victorian copy of a 13th century 'grisaille' panel from Ely Cathedral and noteworthy because its design is consistent with the age of the chancel. The fourth window was replaced in 1988 with glass by Farrar-Bell illustrating the 'Benedicite' – a Song of Creation. A 15th century 'piscina' for the washing of communion vessels can be seen in the south wall by the communion table. 

Turn back to enter the side chapel through the opening in the screen... 

The Side Chapel is a work of the 15th century and has a high low-pitched roof over massive original beams and characteristic perpendicular windows. The oldest glass in the church is in the east window here. In 1928 this was reconstructed as a memorial to the village's 52 dead in the First World War. Previously its centre light had been filled with fragments of 15th century glass. When these were re-arranged it emerged that it had once been a complete set of the Twelve Apostles with the Apostles' Creed in Latin below, plus two further figures of St. John the Baptist and St. Paul. It is possible that this glass, of which only a little now remains, was originally installed in the north window where the number of lights would more easily accommodate such a design. On the south -east corner wall is a 13th century piscina with a dog-toothed arch above - now much eroded but proving the presence of an earlier chapel in this location. 

If you wish, at the end of your tour around this historic building, please take a moment to give thanks to God for the thousand years of Christian witness in this place and pray for the ongoing work of today's Church in this corner of England. 

Do, please, sign our visitors book before you go and, if you have a particular interest in our church, take a 'Welcome' leaflet which will tell you more about our work of Worshipping God, Serving our Community and Sharing Life together. 

Adapted from a guide written by Tim Shaw and produced by the Friends of St Mary's. Please take a “Friends of St Mary's” leaflet and join us in celebrating and preserving this unique and important historic building for the years to come.