Wolvercote: Church

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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A P Baggs. W J Blair. Eleanor Chance. Christina Colvin. Janet Cooper. C J Day. Nesta Selwyn. S C Townley, 'Wolvercote: Church', A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 12, Wootton Hundred (South) Including Woodstock, (London, 1990), pp. 320-323. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol12/pp320-323 [accessed 24 June 2024].

A P Baggs. W J Blair. Eleanor Chance. Christina Colvin. Janet Cooper. C J Day. Nesta Selwyn. S C Townley. "Wolvercote: Church", in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 12, Wootton Hundred (South) Including Woodstock, (London, 1990) 320-323. British History Online, accessed June 24, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol12/pp320-323.

Baggs, A P. Blair, W J. Chance, Eleanor. Colvin, Christina. Cooper, Janet. Day, C J. Selwyn, Nesta. Townley, S C. "Wolvercote: Church", A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 12, Wootton Hundred (South) Including Woodstock, (London, 1990). 320-323. British History Online. Web. 24 June 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol12/pp320-323.


A chapel of ease at Wolvercote subject to the church of St. Peter-in-the-East, Oxford, was first recorded in 1236, but architectural evidence indicates that it existed by the late 12th century. Its dependent status was confirmed in 1294. (fn. 5) The 12th-century font, which survived in 1984, implies that the chapel early acquired baptismal rights, but it had no burial rights until 1414, when the inhabitants of Wolvercote successfully petitioned the pope for the consecreation of a graveyard. (fn. 6) A further appeal to the pope in 1416, against Wolvercote's liability to contribute a third of the cost of repairs to St. Peter's-in-the-East, failed; the judge at the Council of Constance, to which the dispute had been referred, confirmed that Wolvercote was a chapel of St. Peter's, ordered the payment of the contribution to the repairs, and awarded costs of 42 gold florins against Wolvercote. (fn. 7) Before 1443 an agreement was reached whereby Wolvercote paid 3s. 4d. a year to St. Peter's instead of contributing to repair costs as they arose. Payments were made regularly until 1869, were revived in 1923 and continued until the closure of St. Peter's in 1965. (fn. 8) Wolvercote was still a chapel of St. Peter's in 1535. (fn. 9) There was apparently a further dispute over its status in 1566, when the judgement of 1416 was translated into English, (fn. 10) but the outcome is unknown. Two 16th-century Wolvercote people bequeathed money to St. Peter-in-the-East as the 'mother church', and as late as 1636 a woman left 2d. to the parish church of St. Peter-in-the-East. (fn. 11) By the end of the 17th century, however, Wolvercote was in all respects an independent church, although in 1738 the vicar of St. Peter-in-the-East reported that Wolvercote church was said to be a chapel of ease. (fn. 12)

The living was considered a perpetual curacy in the 18th century and the earlier 19th, curates being nominated to the bishop of Oxford from 1790. In 1866 it was declared a vicarage. In 1976 the benefice and parish were united with those of St. Michael's, Summertown, Oxford, and a team ministry composed of a rector and one or more vicars was established. The incumbent of St. Michael's became the first rector, the incumbent of Wolvercote one of the vicars. (fn. 13)

In the Middle Ages the vicars of St. Peter-in-the-East appointed chaplains to serve Wolvercote, and the arrangement may have continued as late as 1642, when the vicar of St. Peter's signed the protestation return for Wolvercote. (fn. 14) Before 1658, however, Merton College, patron of St. Peter-in-the-East, appointed a chaplain to Wolvercote, and such appointments became the rule after 1696. (fn. 15) Merton was represented on the patronage board of the joint living in 1984. (fn. 16)

The medieval chaplains were paid by the vicar of St. Peter-in-the-East; in 1535 the stipend was £3 a year. (fn. 17) By 1591 the small tithes, dues, and offerings were no longer being paid to the vicar of St. Peter's, (fn. 18) and were presumably being paid to the chaplain or curate of Wolvercote. In 1685 the curate received the tithe of hay, livestock, and the mills. (fn. 19) Catherine Rawson, by will dated 1705, left £1 a year for an annual sermon on 16 October, the day of her baptism; the money was paid from 1706. (fn. 20) The curacy was valued at c. £22 a year in 1715 and at £20 in 1738. In 1785 Merton paid the curate an additional £13 6s 8d. a year. (fn. 21) By 1808 the college stipend had fallen to £10 a year, the small tithes had been commuted to a modus of £28, and surplice fees averaged £2, making a total of £40 a year, a value which had doubled to £80 a year by 1831. (fn. 22) At inclosure in 1834 the curate received 351/2 a. for small tithe, the earlier modus having been discontinued before 1817. (fn. 23) The living was augmented by the ecclesiastical commissioners in 1862 with £33 6s. 8d. a year, which was matched by an annual stipend of £50 from Merton. (fn. 24) There was a further augmentation in 1925 after the vicar's health had broken down from the strain of having to augment the inadequate stipend of £253 a year with four or five days' teaching a week. (fn. 25)

A glebe house, falling down from old age, was repaired in 1679, but by 1727 was again uninhabitable; it was rebuilt by a parishioner in return for a 40-year lease. (fn. 26) Thereafter the house, at the west end of the church, which comprised only parlour, kitchen, and two other rooms, was regularly repaired by Merton. (fn. 27) It seems to have been used mainly as a source of income, although in the earlier 19th century the curate kept a room there. From 1821 or earlier it was occupied by the schoolmaster, who in the 1830s was also parish clerk. (fn. 28) A new house, east of the church, was built for the vicar in 1875, enlarged in 1883, and further improved in 1925. It was sold and a new house built in 1963. (fn. 29)

In 1239 the vicar of St. Peter-in-the-East claimed small tithes and other dues from Godstow abbey and its servants, but had to acknowledge that the abbey itself was exempt, as were its servants, except for those with their own households in Wolvercote; he did, however, establish his right to tithe of some meadows and was granted a pension of 3s. a year, which seems to have been paid by the mill. (fn. 30) The abbey's rights over its servants may have led to one of its chapels being treated as a parish church in the early 16th century. In 1526 the abbey's confessor and three chaplains were listed among the parish clergy, and in 1533 and 1535, the abbey presented to a rectory in 'St. Thomas's church', the chapel in their outer court. Both men presented were Oxford scholars: Matthew Smith, principal of Brasenose College, in 1533 and Thomas Powell, former law bursar of All Souls and a pluralist, in 1535; the abbey may have wished to make use of their services. (fn. 31)

In the Middle Ages the vicars of St. Peter-in- the-East maintained Wolvercote chapel and its furnishings, but the chapel had its own wardens by 1416. (fn. 32) Only one medieval chaplain is known, John of Kirkby whose visits to Godstow abbey were forbidden in 1392; he may have been the chaplain of that name accused of housebreaking and robbery in 1374, or the John of Kirkby who attacked Welshmen in Oxford in 1387. (fn. 33) There was no chaplain in 1520, but by 1530 one had been appointed, and all was reported to be well. (fn. 34) In 1558 the church contained a Lady altar and St. Margaret's altar as well as the high altar. (fn. 35)

The 16th-century curates, like the vicars of St. Peter-in-the-East, (fn. 36) presumably conformed to the Elizabethan settlement, although as late as 1585 a Wolvercote woman's will opened with a moderately Catholic formula. (fn. 37) William Sellar, vicar of St. Peter-in-the-East from 1623 to 1631, served Wolvercote himself for at least part of his incumbency, leaving St. Peter's to curates. (fn. 38) Soon afterwards Wolvercote became independent of St. Peter's, and thereafter was served by its own curates or their deputies. Anne Walter, widow of Sir John, by will proved in 1636, gave £200 to Jesus College, Oxford, for 'a learned and able minister' to preach at Wolvercote every Sunday. (fn. 39) By the early 18th century the practice seems to have been for a fellow of Jesus to take the service and preach every other Sunday or give a Thursday lecture. Both sermon and lecture had ceased by 1738. (fn. 40) The curates appointed by Merton frequently did not serve the church themselves but found substitutes from that or another college. In 1731, perhaps in an attempt to improve matters, the college ruled that any curate who absented himself for three years should be deemed to have resigned; during shorter absences any resident fellow of Merton might serve the cure and receive the stipend. (fn. 41) Between then and the early 19th century 19 curates were appointed by Merton and at least 23 others served the church on occasion. (fn. 42) Throughout the period, however, the duty, two services and one sermon on Sundays and Communion three or four times a year, was the same as in neighbouring parishes; the number of communicants, usually 20-25, was slightly above average, and did not decline markedly in the early 19th century. In 1781, however, the curate did report that too many parishioners failed, for reasons which he did not understand, to attend church. (fn. 43)

From 1790 curates were nominated to and licensed by the bishop of Oxford, but none held the living for long until the mid 19th century, and temporary curates, among them, in 1834, J. H. Newman, continued to be used. (fn. 44) Laurence Eberall Judge served the cure from 1837 to 1853, holding it with the chaplaincies of Merton and New College, and his successor Stephen Edwardes held it from 1854 to 1870 and from 1871 to 1874, retaining his fellowship at Merton. (fn. 45) Edwardes increased the number of Communion services from four a year to at least one a month. In the 1850s and 1860s congregations averaged only 150, for which Edwardes, who employed an assistant curate by 1866, blamed the lack of space in the church, the non-residence of the clergy, and the difficulty felt by artisans in placing themselves in the church between the farmers and the labourers. (fn. 46) Edwardes's successor, the first resident incumbent, increased the number of services, introducing a weekly communion and daily evensong, and reported increased congregations. (fn. 47) Attendance continued to increase, partly at least because of the growing population of the parish as North Oxford expanded into it, and by 1909 there were 214 Easter communicants, although the vicar reported that matins was less well attended than it had been. (fn. 48)

The vicar's financial difficulties and failing health caused problems in the 'spiritual condition of the parish' in 1924 and 1925. (fn. 49) By the 1930s a new vicar was expressing concern that the bulk of the congregation came from the 'better class' houses on the Banbury and Woodstock roads, and that the church was losing the young people from the village. (fn. 50) Since the Second World War parish life and activities, particularly drama, have flourished. A curate's house was bought in 1961. In 1982 the parish entered into a local ecumenical project with Summertown United Reformed Church. (fn. 51)

The church of ST. PETER (fn. 52) comprises chancel with north vestry, nave with north aisle and small mortuary chapel and a south porch, and west tower, all except the tower built in 1860. The medieval church, demolished in 1859, comprised chancel, nave with north chapel and south porch, and the surviving west tower. (fn. 53) The later 12th-century chancel arch, which survived until 1859, confirms the evidence of the surviving 12th-century font for a 12th-century church, comprising nave and chancel. That church was enlarged in the earlier 14th century when the north chapel was added, the nave was probably extended westwards, and the west tower was built. The church was remodelled in the later 15th century, the chancel being rebuilt by Merton College in 1482. All the windows except the belfry windows were replaced, the nave was reroofed, and a plain south porch built; the west doorway, west window, and tower arch are probably of the later 16th century. (fn. 54) A 15th- century rood screen and an early 16th-century pulpit survived in the church until 1859 although the screen was removed from the chancel arch to the north chapel between 1846 and 1857. (fn. 55)

In 1627 the north chapel was conveyed to Sir John Walter of Godstow as a private pew and burial place. Walter or his heirs seem to have carried out extensive repairs to the chapel, for in 1657 the antiquary Anthony Wood assumed that he had built it. After Walter's death in 1630 his widow Anne erected an elaborate marble tomb on the north wall of the chapel, with effigies of Sir John and his two wives with four sons kneeling at their heads and four daughters at their feet. The large chest tomb was surmounted by a canopy supported on five columns, and lit by two small round windows in the north wall. The tomb was badly damaged in the Civil War, the figures of one son and one daughter being lost, and when it was restored the daughters were placed at their parents' heads, the sons at their feet. (fn. 56) The canopy was removed when the church was demolished in 1859, and all that survived in 1984 was the chest tomb, the mutilated effigies still retaining traces of their original paint.

Minor repairs to the church were recorded in the later 18th century, and Merton College repaired the chancel in 1677 and 1784. More extensive repairs were carried out by the churchwardens in 1801-2, the work probably including the making of a window high in the west end of the south wall, presumably to light a gallery. (fn. 57) In 1808 Merton ordered repairs to the chancel window, an order which probably led to the replacement of the 15th-century window by the poor 'modern perpendicular' window recorded in 1846. (fn. 58)

In 1859 the whole church, except the tower, was demolished and rebuilt in 14th-century style to designs by Charles Buckeridge. The nave was rebuilt on its old foundations, the chancel (rebuilt by Merton College) was enlarged and a medieval altar slab set into the floor at the east end, a new south porch was built at the expense of Thomas Combe of the university press, and the north chapel was replaced by a wide north aisle with a small mortuary chapel, approached by a re-used 13th-century stone arch, at its north-east end to accommodate the reconstructed Walter monument. (fn. 59) The nave and chancel roofs were extensively repaired in 1927 but had to be replaced in 1977 when reconstituted slates were substituted for the original Stonesfield slates. The tower was repaired and the belfry adapted for a larger ring of bells in 1967. An altar set up at the east end of the north aisle in 1947 was removed in 1974 when a new nave altar was erected. (fn. 60)

A number of monuments from the old church were re-erected in the new one in 1860. Apart from the mutilated monument to Sir John Walter, they included, on the north wall, a wall plaque surmounted by a bust and a cartouche of arms to David Walter of Godstow (d. 1679) and wall plaques to Bartholomew Peisley of Trinity College (d. 1781) and to members of the Swann family. On the floor at the east end of the north aisle are several slabs from the old church, including memorials to Mabel Collins, wife of Richard, who died in 1686, and to several members of the Howell and Rowlands families, the earliest dated 1696. Lost monuments include marble slabs commemorating Edmund Reynolds (d. 1630), and Avis (d. 1636) the wife of Matthew Cheriton. (fn. 61)

The church has no early plate, the earliest surviving piece being a pewter plate of c. 1771. (fn. 62)

The old church had a ring of five bells cast by William, Henry, and James Bagley in 1707, 1710, 1742, and 1747; those of 1710 and 1742 were removed in 1860 and replaced in 1881; a new treble was added in 1900 making a ring of **six. All the bells were recast in 1956. (fn. 63)


  • 5. Rot. Grosse. (L.R.S. xi), 451; Reg. Sutton, v (L.R.S. lx), 45-6; below.
  • 6. Cal. Papal Reg. vi. 441.
  • 7. O.R.O., MS. d.d. Par. Oxf. St. Peter-in-the-East c 4; C. M. D. Crowder, 'Four English Cases during the Council of Constance', Annuarium Historiae Conciliorium, xiii. 67-126.
  • 8. O.R.O., MS. d.d. Par. Oxf. St. Peter-in-the-East a 1; there is no evidence to support the statement, entered c. 1923 at the front of MS. d.d. Par. Oxf. St. Peter-in-the-East c 4, that the payment was made from 1417: cf. T. Hearne, Account of Antiquities in and about Oxf. (1711), 82-3.
  • 9. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), ii. 175.
  • 10. Bodl. MS. Wood D 2, p. 46b.
  • 11. O.R.O., MSS. Wills Oxon. 184, f. 28v.; 189, f. 239; ibid. 18/2/11.
  • 12. Secker's Visit. 122.
  • 13. Oldfield, 'Clerus Oxf. Dioc.' f. 505; O.R.O., MS. Oxf. Dioc. c 1976/1.
  • 14. Rot. Grosse. (L.R.S. xi), 451; Rot. Graves. (L.R.S. xx), 214-15; Reg. Sutton, v (L.R.S. lx), 45-6; Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), ii, 175; Protestation Return, 95-6.
  • 15. Merton Coll. Mun., registers, passim.
  • 16. O.R.O., MS. Oxf. Dioc. c. 1976/2.
  • 17. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), ii. 175.
  • 18. O.R.O., MS. Oxf. Dioc. d 16, ff. 187v., 192v.
  • 19. Ibid. MS. Oxf. Archd. Oxon. b 41, f. 24.
  • 20. Ibid. Misc. Su. LXXVIII/i/1.
  • 21. Ibid. MS. Oxf. Dioc. c 155, f. 51; Secker's Visit. 177; Merton Coll. Mun., 1.4 (reg. 1731-1822), p. 360.
  • 22. O.R.O., MS. Oxf. Dioc. c 446, f. 205; Rep. Com. on Eccl. Revenues, H.C. 54, p. 789 (1835), xxii.
  • 23. O.R.O., incl. award; ibid. MS. Oxf. Dioc. c 449, f. 65.
  • 24. Return of Augmentations to Poor Vicarages, H.C. 366, p. 137 (1869), Iv.
  • 25. O.R.O., MS. Oxf. Dioc. c 385, f. 290; MSS. d.d. Par. Wolvercote b 6; c 6.
  • 26. Merton Coll. Mun., 1.3 (reg. 1567-1731), p. 535; O.R.O., MS. d.d. Par. Wolvercote b 1, p. 2.
  • 27. Merton Coll. Mun., 1.4, pp. 260, 277, 289, 360, 453, 552; O.R.O., incl. award; ibid. map in MS. d.d. Par. Wolvercote b 6; ibid. MS. Oxf. Dioc. c 449, ff. 64-5.
  • 28. Merton Coll. Mun., 1.5, p. 133; Gregory notebk. pp. 32-3; O.R.O., MS. d.d. Par. Wolvercote b 6; ibid. MSS. Oxf. Dioc. b 31, f. 100; b 34, f. 94; b 39, f. 381v.; b 41, f. 244; Ch. Ch. Arch., MS. Estates 69, f. 75; P.R.O., RG 10/1449.
  • 29. Merton Coll. Mun., 1.5 (reg. 1822-76), p. 536; 1.5a (1877-1914), p. 98; O.R.O., MS. Oxf. Dioc. c 1976/1.
  • 30. Godstow Eng. Reg. ii, pp. 574-7, 580; Registrum Annalium Coll. Merton. 1485-1521 (O.H.S. lxxvi), 66.
  • 31. Subsidy 1526, 278; Godstow Eng. Reg. i, pp. 31-2; Emden, O.U. Reg. 1501-40, 523-4, 460.
  • 32. Rot. Grosse. (L.R.S. xi), 451; Reg. Sutton, v (L.R.S. lx), 45-6.
  • 33. V.C.H. Oxon. ii. 73; Emden, O.U. Reg. to 1500, 1054.
  • 34. Visit. Dioc. Linc. i. 140; ii. 61.
  • 35. O.R.O., MS. Wills Oxon. 183, f. 17v.
  • 36. V.C.H. Oxon. iv. 399.
  • 37. O.R.O., MS. Wills Oxon. 21/3/31.
  • 38. Ibid. MSS. Oxf. Dioc. c 2, f 19; c 265, p. 62.
  • 39. P.R.O., PROB 11/170 (P.C.C. 36 Pile).
  • 40. E. G. Hardy, Jesus Coll. 93; Secker's Visit. 177-8.
  • 41. Merton Coll. Mun., 1.4, p. 2.
  • 42. Ibid. 1.5 T (index to reg. 1731-1822) s.v. estates; O.R.O., MS. Oxf. Archd. Oxon. c. 131, f. 124; MSS. Oxf.
  • 43. Secker's Visit. 177; O.R.O., MSS. Oxf. Dioc. b 37, f. 177; d 557, f. 162; d 560, f. 195; d 563, f. 187; d 565, f. 229; d 569, f. 167; d 571, f. 157; d 573, f. 149; d 575, f. 152; d 577, f. 161.
  • 44. M.E. Freeborn, Ch. of St. Peter, Wolvercote, 28.
  • 45. Alum. Oxon. 1715-1886, 413, 778.
  • 46. Wilb. Visit. 166; O.R.O., MSS. Oxf. Dioc. c 332, ff. 473-4; c 335, f. 437v.
  • 47. O.R.O., MS. Oxf. Dioc. c 344, f. 453.
  • 48. Ibid. b 47, f. 361; c 365, f. 443; c 368, f. 445; c 374, f. 403.
  • 49. Above.
  • 50. O.R.O., MSS. Oxf. Dioc. c 388, f. 324; c 391, f. 289; c 394, f. 291.
  • 51. Ibid. c 1976/1; MS. d.d. Par. Wolvercote c 6.
  • 52. Dedication recorded as St. Peter and St. Paul in 1414: Cal. Papal Reg. vi. 441.
  • 53. Description based on Parker, Guide, 98-100, and drawings in Bodl. MSS. Top. Oxon. a 39, f. 165; a 65, no. 26; a 69, no. 602; b 220, f. 61; d 282, f. 260; d 798, f. 153; MS. Don. c 90, f. 172v.
  • 54. Merton Coll. Mun., roll 3801.
  • 55. Parker, Guide, p. 98 and pl.; MS. note in Bodl. copy; Freeborn, Wolvercote Ch. 18.
  • 56. O.R.O., MS. Oxf. Dioc. c 265, p. 62; Par. Colln. 355; Wood's Life, i (O.H.S. xix), 216; drawing in G.A. Oxon. a 71, p. 60.
  • 57. O.R.O., MS. d.d. Par. Wolvercote b 6, passim; b 5, ff. 48v., 49v.; Merton Coll. Mun., 1.3, p. 518; 1.4, p. 354.
  • 58. Merton Coll, Mun., 1.4, p. 510; Parker, Guide, 98.
  • 59. O.R.O., MSS. Oxf. Dioc. b 70, f. 852; d 761, f. 78.
  • 60. Ibid. MSS. Oxf. Dioc. c 1975; c 1976/2; MS. d.d. Par. Wolvercote c 6.
  • 61. Bodl. MS. Rawl. B 397, p. 245.
  • 62. Evans, Ch. Plate. 183.
  • 63. Ch. Bells Oxon. 446-8; O.R.O., MSS. Oxf. Dioc. b 70, f. 852; c 1975; MS. d.d. Par. Wolvercote, c 6.