A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 12, Wootton Hundred (South) Including Woodstock. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1990.
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There was a church at Combe by c. 1141, when the Empress Maud granted it to Eynsham abbey. (fn. 85) The Crown claimed the advowson in 1220 and presented to the church, but withdrew in 1222 when the abbey proved its title. The Crown's appointee was left in possession, but Eynsham presented thereafter. (fn. 86) The abbey appropriated the rectory in 1399 and a vicarage was ordained. (fn. 87) In 1451 the abbey consolidated the rectory and the vicarage, serving the church from Eynsham until 1478, when it was acquired by Thomas Rotherham, bishop of Lincoln, and appropriated to Lincoln College, Oxford. (fn. 88) Thereafter Combe was served by chaplains, sometimes referred to as curates, whose appointment and dismissal was the prerogative of the college rector. In 1867 the living became a titular vicarage. (fn. 89) Lincoln College remained patron in 1988.
The rectory before appropriation was valued in the earlier 13th century at £5, from which a pension of 10s. was payable to Eynsham abbey, (fn. 90) in 1254 at only £4, (fn. 91) but in 1291 at £8 net. (fn. 92) At appropriation the vicar was given tithes, except for those of hay and corn, offerings, all the glebe save a croft adjacent to the rectory house, and the use of grass and wood growing in the churchyard. He was to find sacramental bread and wine, a sanctuary lamp, and two processional tapers. (fn. 93) Lincoln College's chaplains were paid £5 6s. 8d. a year, rising to £6 in 1527 and to £10, approximately the average for a priest-incharge in Lincoln diocese, in 1559. (fn. 94) An additional £6 given by the college in 1641 was rescinded in 1655 when parliament granted a £30 augmentation. The latter was removed at the Restoration and the chaplaincy, acknowledged in 1703 to be 'very meanly provided for', was improved only in 1705 when the stipend was increased to £30. It was further augmented by £10 a year under the will of Nathaniel Crewe, bishop of Durham (d. 1721), benefactor of Lincoln College. An increase to £90 in 1812 left the incumbent still relatively poor, as did subsequent rises to £100 in 1861 and to £150 in 1865. (fn. 95) The Ecclesiastical Commissioners, matching private endowments, increased the annual income by £6 13s. 4d. in 1877, by £50 in 1883, and by £15 in 1915. (fn. 96)
An obligation imposed upon Eynsham abbey in 1399 to build a vicarage near the church (fn. 97) was never fulfilled, the vicar and, later, Lincoln College's chaplain being given accommodation at the rectory or the lease of a college cottage. (fn. 98) The chaplains also had accommodation in college, residing at Combe only to hold services. From 1705, however, residence was more strictly insisted upon. (fn. 99) In 1729 the chaplain was permitted to live at Stonesfield because of the lack of a suitable house, but in 1758 the college bought a cottage north-west of the church to serve as the chaplain's residence. (fn. 1) It was demolished in 1892 (fn. 2) and replaced by a substantial red brick house of suburban appearance which was sold in 1986. (fn. 3)
The medieval rectors and vicars of Combe included eminent churchmen who, in view of the poverty of the living, were evidently attracted by its proximity to the royal household at Woodstock. Several were pluralists, and nonresidence may have been common. The rector at the centre of the dispute in the 1220s was a royal clerk. (fn. 4) Another royal clerk, Henry of Woodstock, rector from c. 1273 until his death in 1277, was also the queen's chancellor, a papal chaplain, and a notable pluralist whose livings included Hanborough and Wootton. (fn. 5) He was succeeded by his brother Andrew, also a royal clerk, whose incumbency of 44 years was the longest recorded in Combe (fn. 6) and included a spell in Oxford gaol for alleged trespass in Woodstock park. (fn. 7) William of Huntingdon (fl. 1332) was a prebendary of Salisbury. (fn. 8) Henry Wakefield, rector in 1361, and yet another royal clerk, subsequently became bishop of Worcester. (fn. 9)
The medieval church contained a sepulchre with lights, and a rood, also with lights, and a Lady altar that both survived in 1560. (fn. 10) Lands given in the Middle Ages for an obit and a light were presumably the 2½ a. bought from the Crown in 1549 by John Dodyngton, a speculator. (fn. 11)
Chaplains appointed by Lincoln College were not at first college fellows, and there seems to have been an awareness that the parish was not being well served. A resolution of 1630 that in future a fellow should lease the rectory and reside permanently, serving the cure himself, seems not to have been implemented, nor an agreement of 1649 that each fellow should preach at Combe at least once a year. Only from 1705 did it become usual for fellows to serve as chaplains. (fn. 12) In 1851 the college reverted to the earlier practice of appointing from outside its ranks. The college statutes required the rector to visit twice a year, and many rectors spent long periods at the rectory house, looking on it as a country retreat. The statutes also required that a fellow live at Combe during Lent to assist the chaplain but the commitment was reduced at the Reformation to an annual sermon. (fn. 13) The conservative influence of Lincoln College is perhaps discernible in the Catholic tone of many Combe wills of the 1540s and 1550s, frequently witnessed, and probably drawn up, by the chaplain. (fn. 14) Until the mid 19th century few chaplains lingered at Combe: with two notable exceptions the average length of incumbency from c. 1650 to c. 1850 was four or five years. (fn. 15) Thomas Ashfield, 1662–91, was also rector of Stonesfield, where he lived, but he seems to have involved himself closely with Combe. (fn. 16) His length of service was matched before the later 19th century only by that of William Smith, 1735–63. For a short time in 1726 the services were taken by John Wesley, who in 1731 preached the Lenten sermon. (fn. 17)
An assertive college head, able to dismiss the chaplain and periodically residing at the rectory, could influence church life considerably. Edward Tatham (d. 1834), perpetually at feud with his college, lived increasingly at Combe, where he served the chaplaincy personally for three periods between 1808 and 1817. His combative nature found expression at first in such eccentricities as dragging the publican of the Cock inn bodily to church services, but in 1820 Tatham became embroiled in a bitter dispute with the chaplain, Bartley Lee, a Cambridge man whom he had appointed in 1817 to spite the fellows. Lee, believing that his appointment was for life, refused to leave his post, and only in 1823 did Tatham manage to eject him. Meanwhile the parish was divided, with two chaplains, two sets of churchwardens, 'tumultuous vociferations' and brawling in the church and a riot outside, to the delight of the neighbourhood and the despair of the bishop. There were more than church issues at stake, but Tatham alienated a large proportion of Combe's parishioners, and Lee's replacement, Charles Rose, 1823–38, was unable to heal the divisions. (fn. 18) Congregations were affected, and the 1820s were years of resurgence for nonconformity in the parish. (fn. 19)
In the 18th century and earlier 19th there were two services and a sermon on Sundays and four communion services a year. (fn. 20) Although Lincoln College continued to nominate 'Combe preachers' for the Lenten sermons from among its fellows, the obligation was by 1843 a dead letter. (fn. 21) The chaplaincy of John Hannah, 1843– 5, wrought remarkable changes in church life. He introduced a second Sunday sermon and held communion services every six weeks, attracting as many as 100 communicants to each, but was, with his wife Anne, longest remembered in Combe for an uncommon interest in pastoral care. For example, he persuaded the vestry to provide allotments for villagers. At his resignation he was gently reproved by the rector of Lincoln College for having raised expectations in the parish beyond what could legitimately be expected of a chaplain on such a poor salary. (fn. 22) In the event the number of services seems not to have decreased, (fn. 23) but there are indications that the Anglican revival of the later 19th century made little impact on Combe. (fn. 24) John Abrahall, 1861–91, was described as 'lax and eccentric', (fn. 25) and his successor, Stephen Pearce, 1891–1922, found both church and parish in a state of neglect. Pearce restored the church, rebuilt the vicarage, and devoted immense time and effort to parochial work. (fn. 26)
For at least part of the Middle Ages Combe seems to have had two churches. Of the church, presumably once the parish church, that stood east of the mill, (fn. 27) part remained standing in 1533, when a bequest was made 'to the repairing of the old church of Long Combe', (fn. 28) but its status at that time is unknown and the centre of worship in the parish had shifted to the church on the hill above.
The church of ST. LAURENCE (fn. 29) stands on rising ground at the south-east edge of Combe village, and comprises chancel, nave, embattled and pinnacled west tower, and north and south porches. White Kennett's assertion that the church was built in 1395 (fn. 30) has led to a misconception that it is all of one build. (fn. 31) A church may have stood there from c. 1200 or earlier if the round-headed doorway of that date leading from the south porch into the nave is in situ or was re- used from a previous church on the site: the doorway is not of a quality to have merited transporting. The chancel and chancel arch were built or rebuilt in the earlier 14th century. The chancel is a modest structure but contains in its south wall notable sedilia, with canopies and detached shafts, and a trefoiled piscina. The arch is wide, indicating that the then nave, whose date is unknown, was spacious even before its rebuilding in the late 14th century or early 15th, and that it may have been aisled; the nave, 8.48 metres wide, is one of the broadest in the county, and was presumably rebuilt to the full width of any aisle or aisles flanking its predecessor. South of the chancel arch is a mid 14th-century niche with ballflower decoration: 'Our Lady's altar', the object of bequests in the 16th century, (fn. 32) probably stood beneath or to the side of the niche, which contained a statue or painting of the Virgin. There is a 15th-century piscina in the nave wall adjacent, and some decorated floor tiles below. The niche's cramped position against the south wall of the nave may be the result of removal in the 15th century, possibly so as to balance the rood stair doorway, which occupies a similar position north of the chancel arch. The niche's location also allows a 15th-century wall painting of the Annunciation to depict the archangel Gabriel looking directly into it. (fn. 33) The nave is markedly superior to the chancel in design, and contains the church's most remarkable feature, a rare 15th-century raised stone pulpit built against the north wall of the nave at its east end: springing from a corbel in the form of a human head, the pulpit is polygonal, its traceried panels flanked by crocketed pinnacles and surmounted by a crenellated cornice. The tower was presumably added when the nave was rebuilt. The north porch contains 14th-century windows, and has an unusual stone-vaulted roof, but was extensively remodelled in 1595. (fn. 34) The south porch appears to be post-medieval, although it incorporates a 15th century arch, of lop-sided construction, as its outer doorway.
The chancel windows appear to have been replaced at about the same time as the rebuilding of the nave, the new east window being unusually wide and flat-headed. A carved wooden rood screen of the 15th century survived until 1852 when it was removed and destroyed as being 'old and decayed'. (fn. 35) The rood stairs and doorways remain, north of the chancel arch. Wall paintings of the 15th century were uncovered in 1892 around the chancel arch and on the north and south walls of the nave. The Last Judgement is incomplete, the lower part, presumably painted on a tympanum, cut off by the chancel arch; the upper part is hidden by the later insertion of roof brackets. Between the arch and the lower rood doorway is a Crucifixion, painted c. 1500 over an earlier picture of the same scene. On the north wall of the nave is a painting of St. Catherine, and in the south- east corner of the nave the Annunciation. Above the south door are the remains of a large-scale painting of St. Christopher with fish and an otter, reckoned to display rare skill in perspective. It was overpainted with a table of the ten commandments in the 17th century and again in 1809. (fn. 36) The nave windows and the east window of the chancel appear to have been glazed by a single workshop in the earlier 15th century. Of the main lights, only one, in the south-east of the nave, retains its principal figure, St. James the Great. The chancel window retains in its upper lights the figures of Christ in Majesty blessing the Virgin Mary, flanked by cherubim identical to others in the nave windows. In the early 18th century the window's main lights still retained ten figures, beneath which were the kneeling figures of the donors, a man and his wife described as of Oxford. (fn. 37) Most of the windows were restored in the late 19th century and early 20th. (fn. 38)
Complaints about dilapidations were made regularly in the 16th century and later. (fn. 39) Major works included reroofing the nave in 1632 (fn. 40) and remodelling the north porch. (fn. 41) The coved chancel ceiling, with its ribs and bosses, appears to be of the 18th century but might have formed part of the repairs carried out by Lincoln College in 1824 in response to allegations that the chancel had long been open to the elements. (fn. 42) The stone cross on the chancel gable, sometimes said to be medieval, was placed there by the college in that year. (fn. 43) The nave was releaded in 1803–4. (fn. 44) Work was under way on a west gallery in 1821, but it is not clear if it was being installed or repaired. Box pews of deal were introduced in the 1820s, (fn. 45) some of which survive at the west end of the nave.
The internal state of the church was criticized in 1843 as 'miserable, deal pews, white and yellow wash, dirt, and everything most offensive', the pulpit occupied 'only by spiders and other vermin'. (fn. 46) Little seems to have been done before the late 19th century. A new window was placed in the chancel in 1887, (fn. 47) presumably that in the south-west corner, but in 1892 Stephen Pearce found the church in bad order and much neglected. (fn. 48) A programme of gradual restoration included the removal of the gallery in 1892, (fn. 49) the repair of chancel and nave walls, the uncovering of the wall paintings, the renewal of windows, and extensive repairs to the nave roof between 1907 and 1909. Pearce also refurnished the chancel, presumably including the Jacobean chairs kept there, and obtained pews for the nave from the chapel at Blenheim Palace. In 1918 the tower was gutted by fire, and repairs were completed only after 1922. (fn. 50)
Choir stalls were placed in the chancel in 1928. In 1933 electric lighting was installed. In 1937 the south porch was converted into a vestry. The stonework of the tower was restored between 1952 and 1955, and a screen was erected at the tower entrance in 1971. The chancel was reslated by Lincoln College in 1963, and in 1976 the nave roof was re-covered in aluminium. (fn. 51)
The octagonal bowl of what appears to be a 15th-century font lies in the south-east corner of the nave. That it was a font is disputed, (fn. 52) and it may have been the base of a churchyard cross such as those at Eynsham and Yarnton before being hollowed out to serve as a well-head. (fn. 53) It is roughly carved inside, and was used as a wellhead in the late 19th century, but it appears to have served as a font in 1846. (fn. 54) It was returned to the church in 1912. (fn. 55)
The monuments include, on the chancel floor, a memorial to John Horner (d. 1792), chaplain 1784–5, (fn. 56) and his wife Mary (d. 1789), and, in the nave, a memorial to members of the Golding family, prominent in the 18th century. There are plaques in the nave to Stephen Pearce (d. 1899) and to Alfred Spencer (d. 1885).
The church plate includes a chalice and paten cover dated WH 1575, recorded from 1624 in inventories of church goods. (fn. 57) A pulpit cloth of 1634, presumably that mentioned in an inventory of that date, hangs in a case. (fn. 58) The fire of 1918 destroyed the parish chest and its contents. The parish register for 1646–1705, and some 19th-century registers, vestry minutes, and churchwardens' accounts were at the vicarage and survived. Transcripts also survive of much of the burnt material. (fn. 59) Bequests for the maintenance of the bells were made from the earlier 16th century; (fn. 60) one bell in 1585 had been recently cast. (fn. 61) In the late 19th century there were five bells, one dated 1602 or 1621, two made by James Keene of Woodstock in 1628 and 1629, the fourth dated 1723, and the fifth 1698. (fn. 62) The bells were irreparably damaged in 1918, and were melted down and recast in 1925 as a ring of six at the Taylor foundry in Loughborough (Leics.). There is a turret for a sanctus bell on the nave gable; it was empty in the earlier 19th century, and the bell may by then long have been housed in the tower. It survived the fire, and was rehung in 1925. (fn. 63) A single-handed clock on the tower, damaged in the fire and discarded, was rescued and found to contain a 17th-century escapement apparently replacing an earlier mechanism. Restored, the clock was given to the History of Science Museum in Oxford. (fn. 64) A new clock was installed in 1948. (fn. 65)
The churchyard has twice been extended on the south, in 1878 by ⅓ a. given by the duke of Marlborough, and in 1917 by ¼ a. given by Lincoln College. Previously the churchyard had lain largely north of the church. (fn. 66) Two 15th century table-tombs survive north-east and south of the chancel, with quatrefoil panelling matching that on the nave parapet. (fn. 67) Tombstones of the late 17th century survived north of the church c. 1900, but seem to have been among those removed in a clearance of 1961. (fn. 68) A low, thatched, building, probably a barn, by the south-west corner of the church was removed in the later 19th century. (fn. 69)
The church was by the mid 17th century the owner of c. 2 a. of land in Ten Acres furlong, in the north-east corner of the parish. (fn. 70) At inclosure in 1792 the church received instead a close at the southern edge of the village, east of the road to Grintley hill. From 1825 the close was leased annually by candle auction until in 1845 John Hannah persuaded the vestry to divide the land into allotments which survived, reduced in area, in 1988. (fn. 71) Thomas Summer, by will proved 1530, (fn. 72) devised to the churchwardens a cottage, later known as Church House, north-west of the rectory. The cottage was vested in the Charity Commissioners in 1861, and the proceeds continued to be applied to church repairs until 1952, when the cottage was sold. (fn. 73) It is apparently 17th-century and has elaborately decorated wooden lintels. After 1952 its thatch was replaced by clay tiles. Two cottages south-west of Green Close, towards the southern end of the village, were mentioned from 1623 as being in church ownership. They were demolished c. 1860 and replaced by a row of four terraced houses known as Church Cottages. They were sold in 1926. A cottage east of the lane leading to the church was church property in the mid 17th century. It was a public house, the Cock, from 1778 until 1828 when it was rebuilt as two cottages. There were still two cottages in the earlier 20th century, but by 1988 they had been converted into a single dwelling. (fn. 74)