A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 15, Bampton Hundred (Part Three). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2006.
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A church was founded for Asthall probably soon after the Norman Conquest, and belonged until the early 15th century to Ivry abbey in Normandy. A vicarage was instituted in the early 13th century, to which appointments were made from the mid 15th to 20th century by Eton College. The living was poor and most incumbents were men of only local renown; they were generally resident in the 17th and early 18th centuries, but then nonresident until the late 19th century.
A few recusants were reported in the 17th century, including the lord of Asthall manor Sir Henry Jones, who converted to Catholicism c. 1667. Protestant Dissent was rare until the early 19th century when Primitive Methodists became active at Asthall Leigh. They built a chapel at Fordwells in 1862. In the late 19th century the Church of England exerted more effort: a chapel was opened at Asthall Leigh in 1861, a new vicarage house was built in 1873–5, and the parish church was restored in 1883–4, while resident clergy served the parish from 1876 to 1962. In the late 20th century observance and provision for worship nevertheless declined. The Methodist chapel closed in 1970, and the Asthall Leigh chapel in 1974. The cure was served from a neighbouring parish from 1967, and from Burford from 1994.
The Parish Church
A church existed probably by 1071 (fn. 1) and certainly by c. 1160, the date of the earliest surviving datable fabric (the north arcade columns). The benefice was a vicarage from the early 13th century, (fn. 2) by which time the church appears to have been fully independent, possessing baptismal and evidently burial rights: the font is early 12th-century, (fn. 3) and a graveyard (cimiterio) was mentioned in 1261 x 1273. (fn. 4) The church's dedication to St Nicholas is recorded from 1320. (fn. 5)
A chapel of ease at Asthall Leigh served the parish's north-eastern part from 1861 to 1974. (fn. 6) In 1937 it was proposed to divide the parish, but the plan was abandoned after parishioners objected. (fn. 7) In 1967, under Order in Council of 1966, the benefice was united with that of Swinbrook and Widford, (fn. 8) and in 1980 the three parishes were combined. (fn. 9) In 1982, c. 34 a. north-west and north of Asthall Leigh were transferred to the ecclesiastical parish from Fulbrook. (fn. 10) The united benefice was merged in 1994 with that of Burford, Fulbrook, and Taynton. (fn. 11)
Asthall church was probably given by Roger d'Ivri to St Mary's abbey at Ivry, Normandy, at the abbey's foundation in 1071. (fn. 12) The abbey held the advowson and rectory probably until the Crown's final seizure of possessions of alien religious houses in 1414. (fn. 13) Between 1441 and 1453 the advowson was granted presumably by Henry VI to the newly founded Eton College (formerly Bucks.), (fn. 14) which in 1923 transferred it to the bishop of Oxford. (fn. 15) The bishop retained alternate presentation with the patron of Swinbrook from 1966, (fn. 16) and joint presentation with the former patron after the merger with Burford benefice. (fn. 17) Before 1414 presentations to Asthall vicarage were probably made on behalf of St Mary's abbey, Ivry, by the prior of Minster Lovell, acting as the abbot's agent, though sometimes a separate proctor presented. (fn. 18) During royal seizures of alien priories from the late 13th to the early 15th century, and from 1414 to 1441, (fn. 19) the Crown presented. (fn. 20) Between 1492 and 1549 Eton is said to have appointed its chaplains to the living. (fn. 21)
Endowment and Income The vicarage was ordained between 1213 and 1218. It comprised a house, offerings, and tithes, and was valued at 5 marks (£3 6s. 8d.). (fn. 22) Its value rose to £5 in 1254, to £6 13s. 4d. in 1291 (of which £2 13s. 4d. was said in 1341 to be derived from hay and other tithes), and to £7 3s. 4d. in 1293–4. (fn. 23) In 1525 Eton substituted an annual stipend of £8 paid by the lessee of the rectory, who was reimbursed by the college. (fn. 24) From 1639 the lessee paid an additional £5 6s. 8d. (not reimbursed), (fn. 25) and in 1646 parliament ordered that £49 should be paid to the minister of Asthall from four other rectories. (fn. 26) The earlier stipend and supplement were presumably reinstated after the Restoration.
In 1676 the additional payment was increased to £13 6s. 8d., raising the total stipend to £21 6s. 8d. (fn. 27) From 1712 the vicar also received half-yearly interest on £500, part of a charitable bequest by an Eton schoolmaster towards augmentation of two College livings, (fn. 28) which in 1750 was used to purchase c. 17 a. in West Hendred (formerly Berks.). (fn. 29) In 1717 the stipend was increased from £8 to £10, (fn. 30) and in 1808 total annual income including surplice fees was £63 6s. ¼d., £40 of it from the West Hendred land. (fn. 31) The living was discharged from payment of first fruits and tenths between 1703 and 1723. (fn. 32)
Vicars in 1646 (fn. 33) and c. 1808–12 sought restitution of tithes. Although their claims were unsuccessful the inclosure bill of 1812 was amended to permit future claims, and Eton donated additional land worth £10 a year. (fn. 34) In 1814 the inclosure commissioners allotted c. 20 a. worth £33 6s. 8d. a year to cover the stipend (£10), augmentation (£13 6s. 8d.) and Eton donation (£10); (fn. 35) the vicar received the land in 1822. (fn. 36) In 1832 Eton gave £26 13s. a year under the Curates Act, (fn. 37) and in 1861 c. 38 a. in Wychwood parish worth £75 a year. (fn. 38) The Ecclesiastical Commissioners donated £1,000 capital in 1863 to match the recent Eton land donation, and £300 in 1868 to match an equivalent grant from the Oxfordshire Society for the Augmentation of Poor Benefices. (fn. 39) Total gross income in 1893 was £138 11s. 4d., of which £85 was derived from land, £10 15s. 10d. from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and £14 12s. 6d. from Queen Anne's Bounty. (fn. 40) In 1916 and 1924 Oxford Diocese and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners each gave £200 capital which was invested in stock, (fn. 41) and the Commissioners added a temporary augmentation of £50 gross income from 1918 (made permanent 1924). (fn. 42) The Commissioners and Oxford Diocese made further capital grants in 1924, and the Commissioners granted an augmentation of £32 from 1927. (fn. 43) The lands in Asthall, Wychwood, and West Hendred were sold between 1919 and 1922, (fn. 44) and in 1937 annual income was estimated at c. £350 including £245 from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, £48 from land, about £26 13s. from Eton, £15 from Queen Anne's Bounty, c. £11 from the Bank of England (probably from a Commissioners' investment), and c. £6 from Easter offerings. (fn. 45)
Vicarage Houses A house belonging to St Mary's, Ivry, was assigned to the vicarage at its ordination. (fn. 46) In 1646 the vicar, then living elsewhere, complained that the vicarage house was 'utterly out of repair', (fn. 47) and later vicars considered it mean and unfit. (fn. 48) In 1799 it was described as 'a kitchen and brewhouse . . . with two rooms over . . . a mere cottage', (fn. 49) and may have been rebuilt or perhaps renovated c. 1807. (fn. 50) It stood in 1814 at the north-west end of Asthall village street, on the south side. (fn. 51)
A new vicarage house was built south-east of the church in 1873–5, (fn. 52) on land (Eton Close) donated by Eton College (fn. 53) and on adjacent glebe. A barn on the close, and a cottage (presumably the former vicarage house) and stable on the glebe, all dilapidated, were demolished, and their materials re-used. (fn. 54) The new house was designed by John Collier of London, son-in-law of Henry Bateman of Asthall, (fn. 55) and was built by James Salter of Oxford. It is a large two-storeyed residence, with four main rooms and three service rooms on the ground floor, and four main bedrooms and two servants' bedrooms on the first floor. (fn. 56) A new stable was completed in 1877. (fn. 57) The house was sold in 1963, (fn. 58) later incumbents living at Swinbrook and, from 1994, at Burford.
From 1320 lands and rents worth 52s. 1d. a year supported a chantry in the church, founded by Lady Joan Cornwall and formally ordained in 1321. The endowment was vested in the prior of the hospital of St John the Evangelist at Burford, who was to provide a chaplain to say divine service daily for the souls of Sir Richard and Lady Cornwall and their children in the chapel of Saints Mary and Katherine. (fn. 59) The chantry was probably maintained until the hospital's dissolution in 1538. (fn. 60)
In 1612–13 repair of the church was assisted by rents from 7 a. in Asthall's fields, said to have belonged to the inhabitants for that purpose since time immemorial, and from two tenements and a garden. (fn. 61) The lands were exchanged at inclosure for c. 5 a., (fn. 62) which were still held as a charity in 2004. (fn. 63) After the parish was merged with Swinbrook and Widford in 1980, that parish's Ann Pytt's Charity made contributions to the maintenance of Asthall church.
Possibly only a few vicars resided before the early 17th century, including Otuel of Asthall (vicar 1220/1–c. 1260), (fn. 64) presumably a local man, John Lucas (1529–49), and Lucas's successor Owen Portington. (fn. 65) Few were graduates, exceptions including John Cokkes (vicar 1453–66), who was also rector of Witney from 1447 to c. 1475. (fn. 66) A curate was mentioned in the early 16th century, (fn. 67) though by then there seems to have been some neglect: a few years earlier the font lacked a cover, while the vicar failed to keep hospitality and was accused of attending to parishioners in other parishes while neglecting his own. (fn. 68)
In the early 13th century the parish included a holy well, (fn. 69) probably to be identified with the well outside Holywell Barn in the north-west of the parish, which was recorded in 1884. (fn. 70) Later popular piety is reflected in references in the 1530s and 1540s to a St Catherine altar, 'our lady of pity' (probably an image), the rood and its light, and lights dedicated to the Virgin and to Saints Anthony, George, and Thomas, in addition to the high altar. (fn. 71) By contrast between 1518 and 1521 five members of the Collins family were reported for suspected heresy, of whom three abjured. (fn. 72) Whether all mid 16th-century vicars conformed to the Elizabethan settlement is uncertain, (fn. 73) and the vicarage was apparently vacant from c. 1580 to 1595, (fn. 74) though the reason is unknown.
From the late 17th century most vicars were graduates, and from 1602 to 1731 most resided. (fn. 75) Thomas Colley (vicar 1602–c. 1637) (fn. 76) and Leonard Fell (1689– 1731) served long incumbencies. (fn. 77) From 1731 to 1876 all vicars were non-resident, though most lived near Asthall and served the cure. Richard Griffiths (vicar 1731–63) was master of Burford grammar school and in 1738 curate of Shilton. (fn. 78) His son Thomas served as curate of Asthall from c. 1745, and succeeded as vicar (1763–85), though he too resided at Burford. (fn. 79) James Pitt (1785–1806) resided in Oxford, where he was a fellow of Oriel College, and served the cure occasionally. (fn. 80) Thomas Cripps (vicar 1806–34), a former curate of Asthall, lived at Witney, where he was a schoolmaster, and served several other churches. (fn. 81) Henry Gregory (1834–82) succeeded Cripps at both Witney grammar school and Asthall, (fn. 82) and was later responsible for building Asthall Leigh chapel and the new vicarage house.
In 1738 two Sunday services were held, one including a sermon, and the sacrament was administered three times a year to a maximum of 12 or 13 communicants. Prayers were read on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and on days of state services. The church catechism was taught in Lent. (fn. 83) By 1759 and still in 1768 Sunday services were held only fortnightly between All Saints' Day and Candlemas. (fn. 84) Weekly Sunday worship was resumed by 1790, though only one service was held, (fn. 85) which in 1811 alternated between morning and afternoon. (fn. 86) Administration of communion was increased to four occasions a year between 1823 and 1831, and to six by 1854. (fn. 87) Sunday schools started c. 1790 and in 1827 failed to survive, (fn. 88) but a lasting school, with four voluntary teachers, was founded between 1854 and 1866. (fn. 89)
Throughout the 18th and early 19th century clergy reported that few parishioners were habitually absent from church, (fn. 90) though in 1831 the average congregation included only 40 out of 300 inhabitants. (fn. 91) During this period the church probably contained two private pews: in 1732 Richard Fletcher received permission to erect a family pew at the east end of the south aisle, (fn. 92) and in 1831 there was a 'manor pew' at the east end of the north aisle, described as 'richly carved, and formerly gilded'. (fn. 93) On Census Sunday in 1851 the morning service was attended by a general congregation of 50 and by 12 Sunday school pupils, though the vicar claimed that the pews and free sittings were usually occupied when the afternoon service was held in favourable weather. (fn. 94) After the opening of Asthall Leigh chapel in 1861 a Sunday service and monthly sacrament were held at each church, together with a weekday evening service at each church during Lent, and a service on Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Ascension Day. (fn. 95)
From probably 1876 (fn. 96) until 1962 both churches were served by a resident vicar, with J.H.K. Ward (vicar 1883–1902), his son W.H.K. Ward (1904–36), (fn. 97) and W.J. Sullivan (1938–62) (fn. 98) holding the cure for notably long periods. The number of regular services was increased. Gregory held an evening service on saints' days by 1878, (fn. 99) and J.H.K. Ward held a weekly communion by 1884 and daily matins at Asthall by 1887. (fn. 100) W.H.K. Ward held one Sunday service at Asthall Leigh, and between one and three services at Asthall. (fn. 101) It was estimated in 1866 that a quarter of the population usually attended church on Sunday, and in 1875 that 8 people were always absent and almost 40 regularly absent. (fn. 102) In 1872 there were thought to be more nonattenders in Asthall Leigh. (fn. 103) Decrease of population c. 1890 caused some decrease in attendance, (fn. 104) but the situation remained stable into the 20th century. (fn. 105) A parochial church council was established in 1920, and by 1921 118 people had joined the electoral roll. (fn. 106) By 1965, however, many parishioners preferred car outings and television to church services, (fn. 107) and in 1971 the vicar, J. T. M. Hine, considered attendance at services 'poor and dispiriting'. Sunday evensong was dropped in 1977, and after a review in 1979 morning services consisted of holy communion (said), matins, and parish communion on the second to fourth Sundays and parish communion when a fifth Sunday occurred. In 1970 the PCC declined the vicar's proposal for a pop service featuring an outside group. (fn. 108)
Parish Church of St Nicholas The church is probably that referred to in 1071. (fn. 109) It is a relatively unspoilt medieval building (Fig. 20) with nave and chancel of approximately the same width, and north aisle, porch, and chapel; the west tower is slightly offset from the nave. Most distinctive is the transeptal north chapel, built for a Cornwall chantry, which overtops the chancel. The nave is apparently early 12th century. The chancel arch, altered in the 19th century, has an order of beakhead, largely recut. There is also a large, early 12th-century tub font. A north aisle, originally narrower, was added c. 1160, and has a three-bay arcade of circular piers with varying scallop capitals. The north chapel, added c. 1180, projected north of the aisle's north wall, and was originally lower and was lit from a single north lancet and an eastern group of two or three lancets. Responds with volute capitals have been reused as part of the 13th century arch between chapel and the aisle. In the early 13th century the chancel was apparently extended eastward: the new part has, north, a lancet with hoodmould above a blocked priest's door and, south, a two-light window with plate tracery. The moulded arch and low stone screen between chancel and chapel may also be of that date. (fn. 110) In the later 13th century the north aisle was widened, and was given a traceried west window and a north porch; the nave arcade seems to have been remodelled, and the north chapel's roof may have been raised to correspond with that of the aisle.
Significant changes were made in the early 14th century. The chancel was extended further east and has south-east and east windows similar to those at Black Bourton, with sedilia and a piscina built into the southeast one. The north chapel was remodelled to house Lady Joan Cornwall's chantry. (fn. 111) The roof was raised and the lancets replaced by square-headed windows with reticulated tracery. The north one is larger and has ogee quatrefoil reticulation related to work in Merton College chapel. Fragments of stained glass in the east window and larger pieces in the north one, including Cornwall family arms (of Sir Richard and his sons Edmund and Geoffrey) and part of a crucifixion scene, are also related to work at Merton: (fn. 112) a female donor figure, recorded c. 1718, has been lost. (fn. 113) Placed against the north wall under a heavily crocketted ogee canopy is a female effigy, presumably of Lady Joan. It is slightly wider than the canopy and set on what is now a minimal coffin at its base (Fig. 21). Though possibly only a fragment of the medieval tomb and apparently much restored, the monument is almost certainly that described in 1840 as 'a recumbent effigy on a stone coffin, under an enriched arched canopy' in the north aisle. (fn. 114) In the south-eastern corner of the chapel an altar with a piscina as part of one of its legs is composed of reset fragments, some of which may be related to the monument. In the churchyard a stone tomb chest with quatrefoils is of similar date.
Eton College spent £5 5s. 4d. on repairs to the chancel in 1456–8; (fn. 115) thereafter lessees of the rectory estate were responsible for chancel maintenance. (fn. 116) The two-stage west tower with west door was added in the early 15th century, during the period when new bells were cast. (fn. 117) In the next century some rectangular windows with cusped arched lights were inserted in the aisle and chancel.
In 1732 a pulpit and reading desk were mentioned in connection with repositioning them near the south window. (fn. 118) The chancel needed repair in 1749 and 1756, and was being repaired in 1794. (fn. 119) The church, presumably the nave, which required attention by 1807–9, was repaired in 1810, (fn. 120) and in 1812 reroofing cost nearly £400. (fn. 121) The tower was repaired in 1837; (fn. 122) the church was repewed and provided with a singer's gallery (perhaps a special pew) in 1854; (fn. 123) and between 1848 and 1884 a small organ was installed, built by J.W. Walker of London. (fn. 124)
In 1883–4 comprehensive restoration was undertaken to plans by Collier and Merrin of London. (fn. 125) The cost was met by Eton College, which paid for the chancel, and by Emily Westall Collier of Putney (Surrey), a member of the Bateman family of Asthall. (fn. 126) Work apparently included complete reroofing, providing new clergy and choir stalls, moving the organ, and rebuilding much of the south nave wall, including a new window copied from an aisle window. (fn. 127) The floors of the nave, north aisle, and chapel were raised. The bellcote may have been added then, and the north porch restored. The east window was reglazed c. 1887–90, (fn. 128) and in 1892 the chancel was painted by Joseph A. Piggot with biblical scenes, saints, and other motifs designed by John H. Powell of John Hardman & Co., London. (fn. 129) Eton College commuted its liability for maintenance and insurance of the chancel in 1970. (fn. 130) Central heating was installed in 1929, (fn. 131) the organ was restored and moved in 1973 by W. & A. Boggis of Diss (Norfolk), (fn. 132) and the tower was repaired in 1982. (fn. 133)
Church plate includes a silver chalice and paten cover of 1614 and a chalice and paten of 1859, formerly used at Asthall Leigh. (fn. 134) Of the ring of three bells, the second and tenor were cast in the early 15th century, apparently at Wokingham (Berks.). The treble, unfit for use by 1840, was recast in 1859 by Taylor's foundry of Loughborough (Leics.) and rehung with the other bells in a new frame. (fn. 135) The sanctus bell, by James Keene, is of 1640; in 1986 it was cracked and disused. (fn. 136) A verge-and-pendulum turret clock, installed in the tower c. 1670, operated reportedly until 1903; it was moved to the nave in 1980. (fn. 137)
The churchyard was extended north in 1897 by incorporation of land donated by Arthur Charles Bateman. (fn. 138) Bale tombs of the late 17th and early 18th century include a fine example of c. 1731 by J. Humphrey (for Harman Fletcher, d. 1730). (fn. 139) Burials in woollen in 1684–93 and 1697–1705 were recorded in a rough notebook, which served as a burials register until 1819. Formal registers begin in 1714. (fn. 140)
Chapel of St John the Evangelist The chapel was built at Asthall Leigh on 'waste' of Asthall manor provided by Lord Redesdale and allotted by the Wychwood inclosure commissioners, and on the corner of a field purchased by Henry Bateman. (fn. 141) Designed by Robert Wetten, its estimated cost of £550 was met by residents, property owners, church-building societies, and others. (fn. 142) The chapel (Fig. 22) was completed, consecrated, (fn. 143) and licensed for banns and weddings in 1861. (fn. 144) It comprised a unified chancel and nave and was intended to accommodate 126. (fn. 145) The side windows are circular with foils, and a south door has banded jamb shafts. (fn. 146) An open central turret contained a small chiming bell. (fn. 147)
In 1913 the chapel's condition was considered unsatisfactory, (fn. 148) and considerable repair work was under-taken in 1924. (fn. 149) By 1962 leaking gutters had caused considerable dampness, and the pews were infested with beetle. Locally raised funds enabled essential repairs to be made in 1963, including removal of the bell turret, (fn. 150) but the chapel's state remained 'deplorable' in 1968. (fn. 151) In 1974 it was declared redundant, (fn. 152) and was later sold and converted into a private house.
Six recusants were reported between 1605 and 1629. They included four members of the Kenyon family, (fn. 153) another of whom, Thomas Kenyon (d. 1616) of Asthall, was related to prominent local Catholics. (fn. 154) Four recusants were noted in 1642. (fn. 155) Sir Henry Jones of Asthall Manor became a Roman Catholic probably c. 1667. (fn. 156) Five papists were noted in 1682 but only one in the late 1680s and 1690s, and no later references to Roman Catholics have been found. (fn. 157)
In 1682 there were 7 Anabaptists in Asthall parish. (fn. 158) The vicar reported 2 Anabaptist families in 1738 and 2 women Presbyterians in 1759. (fn. 159) Thereafter no Dissent is known until the early 19th century.
Primitive Methodists In 1827 Primitive Methodists from Witney organized preaching and classes in Asthall Leigh, recruiting 8 members by June 1828. (fn. 160) In 1827, perhaps in connection with the Methodists, two Witney men each registered a house in the parish for Protestant worship, one being in Asthall Leigh. (fn. 161) Preaching was halted in 1829, though another house in Asthall Leigh was registered in 1833 (fn. 162) and preaching there was resumed in 1843; (fn. 163) meetings were held in a private house from 1858 or earlier until 1862. (fn. 164) Primitive Methodists also preached at Asthall from 1836 and again from 1855, (fn. 165) worship continuing until 1868, mainly in the open air. (fn. 166)
In 1857 the Witney Primitive Methodist circuit resolved to establish a chapel at Asthall Leigh, and in 1858 and 1859 started camp meetings at Field Assarts and Asthall Leigh respectively. (fn. 167) Services were held in a house at Field Assarts from 1860 to 1862. (fn. 168) A chapel was eventually built at Fordwells, between Field Assarts and Asthall Leigh in the new parish of Wychwood, apparently in late 1862. (fn. 169) Constructed of coursed limestone, it provided 140 sittings. (fn. 170) From 1900 to 1910, 80 people attended the chief services, rising to 90 from 1911 to 1914, but falling to 50 from 1915 to 1932. (fn. 171) Membership from 1900 to 1909 was usually between 24 and 28. (fn. 172) A Sunday School had 40–59 pupils in 1866–70 and usually 16–24 in 1912–31. (fn. 173) In 1892 there were two Sunday services and an evening service on Thursdays. Eight of the Witney circuit's 37 preachers were from Fordwells or Asthall Leigh. (fn. 174) By 1951 there was one Sunday service (at 3 p.m.) and an evening service on alternate Tuesdays. (fn. 175) The chapel remained in use until 1970. (fn. 176)
Wesleyan Methodists Wesleyan Methodist classes, affiliated to the Witney circuit, met at Asthall Leigh by 1837 and still in 1844–5, when there were 5 members. Classes met in Asthall from 1840, when membership was 8, until 1844. (fn. 177)