The Christian faith was first brought to our local community by Diuma, a wandering Celtic evangelist who probably died at Charlbury on 7th December 658 A.D. Christianity spread through the neighbouring villages during Saxon times. After the Norman conquest, Ernulf de Hesdin appointed Theodard, a Fleming, as his chaplain; Theodard is thought to have been the first Rector of this parish.
In 1081, Ernulf and his wife granted Norton church to the Abbey of St Peter in Gloucester; the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester Cathedral are still the patrons of the parish today and nominate the vicar. A violent dispute took place in 1293 between William of Cherington and Richard of Gloucester over which of them was the rightful rector of the parish. William threw Richard out of his house and seized its contents. Richard appealed to the king who decided in favour of William, one of his senior officials.
The 15th Century
Chipping Norton flourished as a wool town in the fifteenth century. Wealthy merchants of the Guild of the Holy Trinity gave Chipping Norton a Guildhall, Grammar School and almshouses, in addition to rebuilding the parish church. Six priests, three of whom served chantry chapels where masses were said for the souls of the departed, staffed the church in Henry VIII’s reign, but under his son, Edward VI, all chantries were closed down. There was widespread local resistance to the changes, and when the new English Prayer Book was introduced, Henry Joyce, the vicar, helped to lead the Oxfordshire Rising against it in 1549. As a punishment, Henry Joyce was hanged in chains from the church tower until he died.
The 16th Century
John Norgrove was instituted vicar in 1626, and endeared himself to his parishioners by his conscientious pastoral care. He was ejected in the 1650s, but his family settled here and he continued to live in the town until his death in 1659. In his place, Stephen Ford, a learned and devout Puritan, was installed as minister. Unwilling to accept the restoration of the Prayer Book in 1662, Stephen Ford resigned and led a large part of his congregation away to form a dissenting Independent church in the town, the forerunner of the present Baptist Church. No new vicar was appointed until 1683.
From 1663 to 1676 the pastoral care of the town was in the hands of a Curate, Edmund Hall, who had himself been a Puritan. His sermons, we are told, contained many odd and whimsical passages, and his gestures in the pulpit caused the youthful members of the congregation to laugh and imitate him.
The 17th Century
The next vicar from 1683 to 1721 was Edward Redrobe, who made generous contributions to the town’s charities. The stipend of a vicar of Chipping Norton was low, so in the eighteenth century the Dean of Gloucester had difficulty finding a suitable person to accept the parish. When Thomas Evans, an unpopular vicar, died in 1808, the Dean appointed Richard Skillern. However, Skillern moved away from the town after a few years leaving the church without a satisfactory ministry for another seventeen years.
Eighteenth Century to present day
Francis Harris, vicar from 1866, began to appoint curates from the Anglo-Catholic wing of the church, who introduced several new practices and ceremonies into the services. This led to a confrontation between the clergy and the townspeople, that ended with Francis Harris’s resignation in 1886.
During the challenging days of the twentieth century, the church benefited from the wise and godly ministry of seven vicars: Godfrey Littledale, Henry Arkell, Kenneth Thomas, Richard Jeans, Tony Wharton, Tom Curtis and Stephen Weston. The present incumbent, James Kennedy, was installed in September 2013.
St Mary's is one of the largest of the magnificent Cotswold churches financed by the proceeds of the medieval wool trade. It is listed Grade I, and Simon Jenkins gave it a three-star rating in his Englands 1000 Best Churches.
The most outstanding feature, which is much admired by visitors, is the sumptuous and lofty nave, rebuilt about 1450 and attributed to John Smyth of Canterbury, designer of Eton College Chapel. Its complex pillars, derived from those in Canterbury Cathedral, soar upwards to the roof, and every inch of wall surface is worked into rich mouldings or geometrical stone panels flooded with light from the huge and virtually continuous clerestorey windows. As in other large Cotswold churches there is also a great window above the chancel arch; in this case with a rare inner veil of delicate stone tracery.
The rest of the church dates largely from the previous century, although two arches in the chancel and a few other details survive from the early 13th century. Particularly fine are the glorious “Creation” window in the south aisle, with beautiful late-19th century glass by Clayton and Bell, and the handsome south door surrounded by ball-flower ornament. The hexagonal south porch (one of only three in England) has 15th century stone vaulting incorporating a green man and various grotesque faces.
The church has a tranquil setting below the hillside town. Immediately north of the large churchyard are the earthwork remains of an early-Norman motte-and-bailey castle, and several delightful footpaths radiate out into open countryside.
Following the discovery of wet rot in the nave platform, installed in 2002 when part of the heating system was renewed and upgraded, we rebuilt it in 2009, incorporating greatly improved ventilation, and finished it with a new hessian-backed carpet in a colour that complements the stonework.
This large flexible space continues to be a tremendous asset to our worship and for the many other activities that take place in our church building.
The Living Stones Project
Since 2003 we have been looking at further ways of developing our beautiful historic building to equip it better to suit our worship and the needs of the community.
By 2006 we had formulated, with our architect, a vision for the church that we entitled Living Stones. This is described in more detail in the brochure which you can download by clicking here.
The first stage of this exciting initiative was achieved in 2011. This included the provision of well-equipped toilets, utility room and a mezzanine clergy vestry within the lowest stage of the tower; at the other end of the church, the conversion of the former vestry into a fitted sacristy and lobby, plus another new stair leading to a delightful first-floor meeting room created within a forgotten space formerly occupied by some 2400 organ pipes; and lastly, the transformation of the dingy north (Croft) aisle of the chancel by the removal of a large organ console (revealing to full view the fine 500-year-old alabaster Croft tomb), re-flooring it with historic ledger slabs salvaged from the churchyard, and new lighting and temporary display panels telling the stories behind our monuments.
Work started again in July 2015 with the conservation of the Croft tomb, and continued with the relocation from the west end of the Redrobe tomb (commemorating an 18th century vicar). Our conservators, Kelland Conservation, returned in August 2016 to relocate and conserve the splendid late-16th century Rickardes tomb. The considerable cost of this project has been largely met by generous grants from Churchcare, St Andrew’s Conservation Trust, the William and Jane Morris Fund, Oxfordshire Historic Churches Trust, Friends of St Mary’s and particularly the local Shaw-Meades Trust. It was topped up by local donations and the proceeds of a sponsored walk by a former vicar, Rev Canon Stephen Weston. It is hoped that this important conservation work can now be complemented by new illuminated display boards providing historical information on those commemorated by our monuments and ledger slabs.
Not only has completion of this project resulted in the creation of an area of stunning beauty and great historical interest within the church, but it has enabled us to begin to make much more creative use of the west end to serve the needs of a rapidly growing congregation – not least to provide more space for enjoying refreshments after the main Sunday service. We can now also start to plan and consult on the more radical reordering of the interior that was envisaged way back in 2005 in the architect’s feasibility study and illustrated in our 2010 appeal brochure.