A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 12, Wootton Hundred (South) Including Woodstock. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1990.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
Part of the fabric of the church is pre-Conquest. An unsuccessful attempt of 1238 to claim jurisdiction in neighbouring Stonesfield (fn. 32) may hint at an early relationship with that parish. The ecclesiastical parish of North Leigh remained unaltered until 1953, when it was greatly enlarged by the annexation of Eynsham Park, Osney Hill, and the eastern part of Hailey, including New Yatt. (fn. 33)
The church was given to Eynsham abbey between 1140 and 1150 by John of St. John, lord of the honor of St. Valery. The abbey seems to have lost possession, for a confirmation c. 1200 by Thomas of St. Valery made no mention of North Leigh church, and Thomas's successor Robert, count of Dreux, presented to the living in 1225. (fn. 34) The church passed with the manor of North Leigh until c. 1278, when Edmund, earl of Cornwall, gave it to Hailes abbey (Glos.), founded by his father Richard. (fn. 35) The rectory was appropriated by the abbey in 1279 and a vicarage ordained. (fn. 36) The advowson of the vicarage was retained by the abbey until its dissolution in 1539, when it passed to the Crown. Grants of the advowson to the lay rectors in 1544 (fn. 37) and to Sir Thomas Pope in 1545 (fn. 38) seem not to have been effective, for the Crown and from 1838 the Lord Chancellor presented to the living. (fn. 39)
At appropriation in 1279 the vicarage was endowed with the former parsonage house, altar offerings, 10 a. of glebe, and a moiety of the hay tithes. (fn. 40) Small tithes were not then mentioned, but by 1312 Netley abbey had compounded for the payment to the vicar of some small tithes. (fn. 41) A dispute in the 1470s perhaps derived from an unsuccessful attempt by the vicar to take tithe lambs and wool. (fn. 42) The living was valued at c. £9 in the earlier 16th century, (fn. 43) and it remained poor in the later 17th century, despite a small increase in the amount of glebe to c. 14 a. in 1581 and c. 17 a. in 1686. (fn. 44) In 1675 the living was worth less than £30, (fn. 45) and only £38 in the early 18th century. (fn. 46) At inclosure in 1759 the vicar received 14 a. in exchange for glebe and 113 a. for tithes, mostly in a compact allotment near the vicarage. (fn. 47) An increase of value to £98 a year in the early 19th century (fn. 48) can perhaps be ascribed to the benefits of inclosure, but the living remained relatively poor.
When the rectory close was divided in 1279, the vicar took the part that included the house, next to the church, and the rector kept the part containing the barns. (fn. 49) In the 17th century, and presumably earlier, the vicarage had its own barn, a stable, orchard, and garden. The house, a building of four bays, (fn. 50) was reported 'decayed and ruinous' in 1726, and it was demolished and rebuilt soon after. The new house, apparently built 6 yd. from its predecessor, (fn. 51) is a tall, symmetrical, five-bayed building, of two storeys with attic dormers; it is of local stone with a stone slate roof. Its large casement windows with mullions and transoms, surviving intact on the first floor, are in a style that has led to the house's attribution to the late 17th century. (fn. 52) Despite a claim of 1811 that the house was 'too small for occupation' (fn. 53) it was one of the largest in the parish. It was much enlarged at the rear and in 1981 was sold as too big.
An incumbent was recorded c. 1150. (fn. 54) Hailes abbey presented several vicars whose surnames suggest that they came from near the abbey: (fn. 55) two were from the abbey's manor of Didbrook (Glos.). (fn. 56) In the 14th century it was usual for incumbents, 14 of whom are known, to move on after a few years. There were, by contrast, only four in the 15th century, Richard Jolyf, 1403-48, and Roger Ridley, 1469-1524, between them serving for a hundred years. Ridley was probably from a leading family of North Leigh copyholders, and may himself have farmed in the parish. (fn. 57) The two women living in his house in 1520 (fn. 58) may have been members of his family.
In the earlier 16th century lights were maintained in the church, (fn. 59) and in 1549 land given for that purpose was sold by the Crown to William Ward, a speculator. At the same time he obtained a cottage and land 'given to an anniversary' in the church. (fn. 60)
Bartholomew Gunstone or Gunson, vicar 1524-35, farmed two copyhold yardlands in the parish (fn. 61) and employed a curate in 1530. (fn. 62) John Mitchell, vicar 1546-73, Thomas Taylor, a local man, vicar 1573-1618, and Thomas Twitty, vicar 1618-62, also farmed in the parish; (fn. 63) close involvement in parish life is further suggested by the frequency with which they attested local wills. Mitchell was owed money by several parishioners, notably by William King, one of the most prominent men in North Leigh. The attendance of members of the King family at Mitchell's deathbed was followed by the discovery that the vicar's 'book of reckonings', an object of lively speculation in the village, was missing. (fn. 64) Bartholomew Gunstone was the first incumbent known to have attended university; (fn. 65) Thomas Taylor, said in 1593 to be 'weak in learning', (fn. 66) was the last who did not. Thomas Twitty held the living with that of Wilcote and was chaplain to the lord of North Leigh, Thomas Pope, earl of Downe. (fn. 67) David Price, vicar 1731-83, was a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford. For many years he served the cure personally, staying at the vicarage almost half the year. In 1751 he became rector of Aston Clinton (Bucks.), and at North Leigh routine work was undertaken by curates, often young Welshmen from Jesus College. Most notable was John Price, 1766-70, Bodley's Librarian; the book of benefactions, which he allegedly appropriated, (fn. 68) seems rather to have belonged to the Perrott family and to have been given to him after the death of William Perrott in 1765. (fn. 69) George Seele, vicar 1783-1810, was also curate of Cogges and master of Witney grammar school. (fn. 70) Benjamin Churchill, of a prominent Deddington family and fellow of the Queen's College, (fn. 71) from 1812 took up permanent residence at the vicarage. (fn. 72) He was also rector of Wilcote and perpetual curate of Appledram (Suss.), but in the late 1820s, seemingly implicated in his family's financial difficulties, (fn. 73) he took refuge in France. In 1833 the living was sequestrated and transferred to his creditor, (fn. 74) until his death in 1839. The curates appointed during the sequestration held two services and a sermon on Sundays, communion four or five times a year, and catechism during Lent, (fn. 75) as had been the practice in the 18th century and the early 19th.
Isaac Gillam, vicar 1839-56, resided permanently in North Leigh, and reintroduced direct farming of the glebe, probably the last vicar to do so. (fn. 76) Relations with his parishioners were bad. (fn. 77) Gillam blamed the small congregations of only c. 70 on the church's isolation and poor roads, (fn. 78) but absenteeism was persistent, especially among those 'of the lowest rank', and nonconformity was increasingly attractive. In the later 19th century there was an Anglican revival: under Robert Fiske, 1862-83, the church was restored, the number of communicants trebled to c. 60, children's catechism classes flourished, and a Bible reading group for adults was established. (fn. 79)
The church of ST. MARY (fn. 80) has an AngloSaxon tower and a 15th-century chapel of outstanding quality. The church, of coursed limestone rubble and ashlar, comprises the integral west tower, a chancel with south vestry and organ chamber, a nave with, on the north, the 15th-century chapel and a 17th-century chapel, and a south aisle and south porch. (fn. 81) The existence of a substantial pre-Conquest church is evident from the tower, which is of the earlier 11th century. It is of oblong plan and formerly had a large arch, presumably into a nave, in its western face: in the mid 19th century traces of foundations were uncovered west of the tower, reputedly consistent with a nave of two bays. (fn. 82) The external faces of the tower on the east and west retain the gable-marks of the early highpitched roofs, and the 11th-century church is usually thought to have been axial. (fn. 83) The nave was presumably abandoned in or before the later 12th century, when an aisled nave of two bays was built east of the tower with a chancel beyond it. Early in the 13th century the tower arch was enlarged, and a new chancel of two bays was built, leaving the former chancel to serve as a third, unaisled, bay of the nave. There is a contemporary tomb recess on the north side of the chancel. In the earlier 14th century both aisles were rebuilt or remodelled and extended westwards, and arches were made in the north and south sides of the tower. The tower was given a new west window, the chancel a new east window. A doorway, now blocked, was put at the west end of the north wall of the north aisle, (fn. 84) and in the south aisle a mid 12th-century doorway was reset, its opening and tympanum being recut. A doorway on the south side of the chancel was built or remodelled in 14th-century style. (fn. 85)
In the mid 14th century a crocketed ogee arch, perhaps over a tomb, was made in the north wall of the easternmost bay of the nave, and there was presumably a chapel continuing the north aisle. That chapel was replaced c. 1440 by the Wilcote chantry chapel, (fn. 86) a small, lavishly decorated building whose workmanship, notably that of the fan vaulting, is of a quality rarely found in parish churches; the chapel has been attributed to the master mason Richard Winchcombe. (fn. 87) Winchcombe, who had worked for New College, Oxford, may have been known to the Wilcotes family through the Wykehams. (fn. 88) Beneath the arch is a stone tomb bearing the alabaster effigies of Sir William Wilcotes (d. 1410) and his wife Elizabeth (d. 1445). (fn. 89) The effigies are of different lengths and are not fixed to the tomb; (fn. 90) Sir William's may have been prised from the centre to make room for his wife's. All three chapel windows retain some contemporary heraldic and decorative glass. (fn. 91)
At about the time that the ogee arch was made, the division between nave and chancel seems to have reverted to the end of the 12thcentury chancel. The roofs were reconstructed and the old chancel arch was removed, leaving the responds. In the 15th century new windows were put in the north and south aisles. The Wilcote chapel was repaired in 1557, (fn. 92) and by the earlier 17th century the main body of the church was said to be in great decay and lacking funds for repairs. (fn. 93) Lavish expenditure later in the century was devoted to building a second north chapel, for the burial of members of the Perrott family, lords of the manor. James Perrott (d. 1724) obtained a licence for it in 1687, (fn. 94) and presumably built it soon after. He employed the Burford mason Christopher Kempster, who worked in a Classical style reminiscent of the London churches on which he had worked for Wren. (fn. 95) A contemporary wooden screen separates the chapel from the north aisle. Perrott initiated in 1723 a refitting of the church. The old pews were replaced, despite protests, and seats were put in the tower displacing the bellringers, for whom a belfry was built behind a gallery which probably had not long been built; (fn. 96) the Norman font was replaced by a wooden one (fn. 97) and put to serve as a water butt in the churchyard. (fn. 98) Other 18th-century alterations may have taken place at roughly the same time. By 1726 the chancel east window was blocked, (fn. 99) and it was later said to have been bricked up and covered by an Italian screen of painted deal. The north and south sides of the chancel were given large, plain, round-headed windows. (fn. 1) Chancel and nave were separated by a wooden screen with lockable doors, surmounted by iron spikes. (fn. 2) Thomas Warton, visiting the church c. 1776, noted changes to the Wilcote chapel: 'its outside roof was once of stone, since removed', (fn. 3) perhaps accounting for the misalignment of the east window and gable. (fn. 4)
Restoration in the 19th century swept away all but the Perrott chapel of the extensive 17tand 18th-century changes. In 1857 the bowl of the old font was taken from the churchyard, rechiselled, and returned to the church. (fn. 5) Thorough restoration of the church was begun in 1864 under G. E. Street. Chancel, nave, and aisles were reroofed and refloored, and the chancel's plaster ceiling replaced with one of wood. The east window was reopened and used as a model for the replacement of the other chancel windows and for a new east window for the south aisle. The altar and chancel screens were removed, and a 15th-century Doom painting was discovered at the east end of the nave; the rood beam was therefore left in position, the painting restored, and a stone screen built to Street's design with matching pulpit. Also uncovered were the Easter sepulchre on the north wall of the chancel and a 14th-century piscina on the south. The gallery was removed and the box pews replaced by low-backed benches. The south porch was completely rebuilt. (fn. 6) The Wilcote chapel was largely untouched, but whitewash was scraped from the walls and the stonework left exposed. (fn. 7) In 1914 the base of the tower was repaired. At the same time an oak reredos was installed in the chancel, and the chancel floor was repaved. Roughcast on the external walls of the church was removed. In 1954 the south aisle was extended eastwards to provide an organ chamber and vestry, forming a memorial to Annette (d. 1950), wife of Michael Mason of Eynsham Hall. The medieval wall painting was restored in 1967 under the direction of Mrs. Eve Baker. (fn. 8)
The chancel contains a brass figure of Thomas Beckingham (d. 1431), husband of Agnes Paynel, (fn. 9) and a mural monument depicting Robert Perrott (d. 1605), his wife Susanna, and their eight children. A similar, though defaced, monument in the Wilcote chapel depicts William Lenthall (d. 1596) and his wife Frances, also with eight children. The Perrott chapel contains memorials of the Perrotts and their descendants the Musgraves; it includes an elaborate inscription to James Perrott. (fn. 10) The chapel contains engraved brass plates taken from coffin lids. Among other memorials are those on the floor of the Wilcote chapel to members of the Martin family. That in the south aisle to the earl of Denbigh's brother Edward Feilding, who died in 1643 from wounds received at the first battle of Newbury and was buried at St. Mary the Virgin church, Oxford, was 'taken away by command of the Olivarians' (fn. 11) and was perhaps brought to North Leigh by Edward Perrott, a royalist. (fn. 12)
There is a sundial, possibly 12th-century, high up on the south wall east of the porch, and west of the porch is a mass dial. There are six bells, recast in 1875 from a ring of five, and a saunce reputedly 15th-century. (fn. 13) Bells of unspecified number were mentioned from the 16th century. (fn. 14) The clock on the east face of the tower was given in 1896 by Susanna Gascoigne. (fn. 15) The church plate includes a silver paten of 1671 and a silver chalice of 1680, both given by Ursula, daughter of Edward Perrott. A pair of silver flagons is dated 1717. (fn. 16) The churchyard, extended in 1877 and 1925, (fn. 17) contains tombstones from the 17th century.
At inclosure in 1759 the parish clerk was allotted 3 ½ a. (fn. 18) In 1899 the vicar appropriated the land, paying £4 a year for the clerk's stipend. (fn. 19) A cottage at the north-east corner of the churchyard, known from the 16th century as the church house or town house and in the 19th as Church Cottage, was let by the churchwardens who used the proceeds for the church. By the later 19th century the cottage was usually occupied by the parish clerk. (fn. 20)