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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In or before 1176 Richard de Camville granted South Leigh church and 2 yardlands to Reading abbey. (fn. 99) The abbey had earlier acquired Stanton Harcourt church from Queen Adela, and Richard de Camville's grant perhaps followed a successful attempt by the monks to settle the status of South Leigh church; certainly South Leigh was by then, and remained thereafter until 1868, a dependent chapelry of Stanton Harcourt. (fn. 1) The chapelry's glebe and tithes were absorbed in the Stanton Harcourt Oxf. Dioc. b 38, f. 180. living, (fn. 2) whose incumbents served South Leigh in person or through stipendiary curates or chaplains. The chapel had burial rights by the early 16th century and probably from the outset, since the grant to Reading abbey included land for a cemetery; (fn. 3) the font is 15th-century, and the chapel was presumably baptismal throughout the Middle Ages. (fn. 4) In 1506 the chaplain was expressly required to administer all the sacraments to South Leigh's inhabitants. (fn. 5) By the mid 15th century the chapel had its own wardens, already with an independent income; (fn. 6) in the 18th century they paid a 'church tax' of 4s. 4d. to the churchwardens of Stanton Harcourt, and a 'priestship' of 8s. a year to the lay rector. (fn. 7) In the Middle Ages South Leigh inhabitants were required to contribute to the upkeep of Stanton Harcourt church, but were refusing to do so in 1330; in the late 18th century certain lands in South Leigh owed charges totalling 9s. towards repairs of Stanton Harcourt church. (fn. 8)
In 1868 South Leigh was created a separate parish and the advowson vested in the bishop of Oxford, (fn. 9) who remained patron in 1987. The net value of the new benefice in 1870 was only £70, partly derived from c. 11 a. of glebe, (fn. 10) but in 1871, 'after much skirmishing' with the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, the living was allotted a tithe rent charge of c. £237. (fn. 11) In 1894 the net value was only c. £175. (fn. 12) A brick vicarage house in Italianate style with a three-storeyed tower, designed by John Gibbs of Oxford, was completed in 1871; (fn. 13) it was sold c. 1963, when the Cottage at Church End was acquired as a vicarage. (fn. 14) After 1970 there was no resident vicar, and the parish was served by a priest-in-charge; from 1980 to 1983 the cure was vacant, and in 1987 was served from Cogges. (fn. 15)
In 1506 the vicar of Stanton Harcourt was required to maintain a perpetual chaplain at South Leigh out of his own income of £16 13s. 4d. (fn. 16) The curate in 1530, Humphrey Richards, may have served South Leigh full time, since there was a second curate to assist the vicar at the mother church. (fn. 17) Some chaplains may have resided, for in 1584 the vicar claimed to own houses in South Leigh which were being detained from him. (fn. 18) In 1584 the chapel was served by John Wright, the curate of Stanton Harcourt, who administered the sacrament and catechized so far as time and leisure allowed; he did not preach there, however, the only recent sermon having been delivered by the vicar of Eynsham. (fn. 19) Curates served South Leigh throughout the 17th century, (fn. 20) but by 1738 the vicar of Stanton Harcourt bore sole responsibility for both churches, residing at Stanton Harcourt and performing one service with a sermon at South Leigh every Sunday, administering communion there four times yearly, and occasionally visiting on other days of the week to perform baptisms or burials. (fn. 21) The arrangement continued until South Leigh became a separate parish, (fn. 22) although during the early 19th century both villages were served together by nonresident stipendiary curates. (fn. 23) From 1816 Thomas Symonds, residing at Eynsham, received £100 a year for the two cures. (fn. 24)
Gerard Moultrie, the first vicar of South Leigh, had Tractarian sympathies, and was a well known writer and compiler of hymn tunes; an energetic pastor, he exchanged his former benefice of Barrow Gurney (Som.) for that of South Leigh to pursue an interest in rural education. (fn. 25) Besides establishing the National school and St. James's College he instituted a surpliced church choir, a clothing club for labourers, and a lending library, increased the number of weekly services from one to fourteen in summer and ten in winter, and secured the restoration of the church in 1872. (fn. 26) By his own account church attendance, originally low, rose sharply, but the number of communicants remained small, and Dissent persisted. (fn. 27) Arthur East, vicar from 1885 to 1912, improved the fabric and furnishings of the church, and completed the restoration in 1877-8. (fn. 28) Frank Freeman, vicar 1934-56 and a former naval chaplain, donated ecclesiastical furnishings acquired on his foreign travels, (fn. 29) paid for electric lighting and a heating system, and left the Cottage, subsequently acquired as a new vicarage house, to the Church Diocesan Board in 1962. (fn. 30)
At the Dissolution there was a chantry in South Leigh church, endowed with 1 a. of land rendering 6d. yearly for the finding of a light. (fn. 31) In 1564 the land, then held by Sir John Harcourt, was granted at farm to John Smith and Richard Duffield of London. (fn. 32)
The church of ST. JAMES THE GREAT (fn. 33) comprises chancel with north chapel, nave with north aisle, south porch, and west tower. (fn. 34) The earliest parts are late 12th-century: in the chancel they include an external string course, a reset tympanum over the south doorway, a pillar piscina set against the south wall, two altar brackets, and a window reset in the north wall. (fn. 35) Part of the east wall, which retains its medieval wall paintings, is probably also 12th-century, and a narrow rectangular window, now lost but formerly in the south wall of the chancel, west of the doorway, may have been of similar date. (fn. 36) The chancel arch, constructed partly with reused 12th-century masonry, (fn. 37) dates from c. 1300, when the nave was possibly enlarged or rebuilt; the south doorway of the nave is of c. 1400.
During the later 15th century the church was extensively altered, much of the work being done by masons employed by William Orchard at Oxford and Stanton Harcourt, presumably while the chapelwardens were leasing the manorial quarry at North Leigh, from 1463 or earlier until 1485 or later. (fn. 38) About that time the north aisle of three bays and the north chapel were added, new windows were inserted in the nave, and the embattled tower with turret staircase was completed; the tower arch is earlier and probably 14th-century. The incorporation into the west face of the tower of a broken 12thcentury tympanum, the abacus of which was found in the foundations in 1872, (fn. 39) suggests that 12th-century work survived in the nave until the rebuilding. The porch, probably also 15th-century, (fn. 40) was similar to its modern replacement, but windowless. (fn. 41) Other 15th-century alterations included the insertion of new windows in the south and east walls of the chancel. The tracery of the easternmost nave window is modern, the original tracery having been destroyed by 1806. (fn. 42)
In 1710 the chancel ceiling was renewed, (fn. 43) and in 1812 the nave roof was repaired and possibly replaced, (fn. 44) perhaps lowering its pitch. (fn. 45) In 1871 the church was ruinous, and in 1871-2 the chancel was partly rebuilt to designs by Ewan Christian, (fn. 46) and the nave restored to plans by Clapton C. Rolfe of Reading. The stone piers of the chancel arch were rebuilt, the north chapel roof was reset on new laths, and the medieval porch was rebuilt, incorporating the remains of a 15th-century holy-water stoup. (fn. 47) Heating was also installed. (fn. 48) In 1887-8 the woodwork in the tower and the roofs of the nave, aisle, and side chapel were replaced, and the parapet was reset, to plans by H. Wilkinson Moore. (fn. 49) The tower clock was installed in 1905; Arthur East, the vicar, is reported to have made the face, which was repainted and regilded c. 1953. (fn. 50) The inner oak doors to the nave, designed by Sebastian Comper and commemorating villagers killed in the Second World War, were fitted in 1946. In 1959 the chancel was repaved. (fn. 51)
The font is 15th-century; in the 19th century it was coverless, and stood opposite the south doorway. (fn. 52) In 1987 it was at the west end; the cover was designed by Sebastian Comper in 1948. (fn. 53) The pulpit was given in 1710 by William Gore, (fn. 54) and its stone base was replaced by a wooden one in 1936. (fn. 55) The screen in the north aisle is 15th-century, and the chancel screen incorporates 15th-century tracery; in 1710 an Italian cornice with the arms of Queen Anne was added to it, (fn. 56) but was replaced in 1872 by a painted wooden crucifix designed by Ewan Christian and painted by Gibbs and Moore of London. (fn. 57) The church was repewed in 1871-2. (fn. 58) The organ, built in 1890, was moved from the nave to the tower archway in 1936; the case was designed by Comper. (fn. 59) In 1987 a low wooden chest, dated 1780, stood in the nave. Fifteenth-century wall-paintings were discovered in 1871; (fn. 60) the earliest were, over the chancel arch, a Doom, the upper part of which had been destroyed when the roof was lowered, on the north wall the mouth of hell and tree of evil, and on the south wall St. Michael weighing souls. Slightly later and inferior in quality were figures of St. Clement, on the north wall of the nave, and of the Virgin, originally part of an Annunciation, on the east wall of the chancel. All except the mouth of hell were heavily restored by Burlison and Grylls, and the soulweighing was redrawn at twice its original size; a restoration in 1933 revealed traces of the earlier painting, still visible in 1988. (fn. 61)
Fragments of 15th-century glass survive in the east window of the north chapel, where they were transferred from the east window of the chancel in 1872. They were then said to have been complete until 'some years ago'. (fn. 62) There are smaller 15th-century fragments in other windows. (fn. 63) The east window of the chancel, given c. 1872, depicts John the Baptist, an allusion to John Wesley having preached in the church. (fn. 64)
A brass on the south wall of the nave depicts William Seacole of South Leigh (d. 1557); in the 17th century it was in the north aisle and included Seacole's four sons and three daughters. (fn. 65) Lost monuments include a marble to Robert Seacole (d. 1512) and his wife Alice, and inscriptions to William Spier (d. 1702) and Charles Smith (d. 1728). (fn. 66) The plate includes a pewter flagon, probably early 18th-century. (fn. 67) On the processional cross is a 14th-century brass figure of Christ, dug up in a garden in 1860. (fn. 68) In 1634 the parish clerk was arrested for trying to sell 'six small pieces of brass' with inscribed letters to a Woodstock brazier, who recognized them as church goods. (fn. 69)
The ring of eight bells dates from 1907; there were formerly three bells dating from the early 18th and the early 17th century. The saunce is 14th-century. (fn. 70)