The Church of St. Mary in Chalgrove, Oxfordshire, is famed for its magnificent medieval wall paintings, which date from about 1330. Narrating the life of the Virgin Mary on one wall and the life of Christ on the other, the murals form one of the most complete sets in England.
History of the Church of St Mary
The Domesday Book in 1087 recorded that a priest named Brun occupied land here and preached the gospel. The present church was founded in the early 12th century by monks from Bec, an important Benedictine abbey in Normandy.
Most of the present church dates from the 13th and 14th centuries. The chancel murals were painted around 1320, probably commissioned by the Barantyn family who lived in one of the manors in Chalgrove at the time.
As throughout England, Chalgrove's murals were whitewashed over at the Reformation and lie hidden for centuries. They were rediscovered and restored in 1858 during a period of renovation work under the vicar, Robert French Lawrence.
The west tower dates from the early 14th century. Part of it fell down in 1726 after a peal of the bells and was rebuilt the following year. The steeple collapsed in a storm in 1727 and was never replaced.
What to See at the Church of St Mary
Chalgrove Church consists of a nave, side aisles, chancel, and large west tower. The exterior is mostly Decorated Gothic (c.1290-1350) and Perpendicular Gothic (c.1335-1530) in style.
The nave is Transitional (c.1175-1200) and the south arcade is one of the oldest features in the church. It has pointed arches and round piers with square bases and corner spurs. The north arcade is closer to the Early English style, with round piers and stiff-leaf capitals.
The chancel is entirely Decorated Gothic (c.1290-1350) and has several interesting features besides the famous murals. The south wall has a fine piscina and sedilia under four cusped ogee arches and a little priest's door. Under the rug in the chancel aisle are two notable brasses: Drugo Barantyn (d.1437) and two wives; and Reginald Barantyn (d.1441).
The lower part of the chancel walls have been stripped to bare stone to protect the murals, the great glory of the church, from rising damp. The murals form a comprehensive series telling the story of Christian salvation, with special emphasis on the Virgin Mary, the church's patron.
The series begins at the west end of the north wall and is read from left to right around the chancel. The north wall centers on the Life of Christ and the south on the Life of the Virgin. The former is in significantly worse condition due to receiving more sunlight.
The first mural is a Tree of Jesse, which quickly sums up the theme of Old Testament prophecy pointing to Christ. At the bottom was the Latin text (which has not survived) of Isaiah 11:1: Et egredietur virga radice Jesse et flos de radice ejus ascendit, "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots."
Above this inscription is a badly faded King David playing his harp, framed by a vine and flanked by praying figures. The vine frame directly above David is occupied by the Virgin holding the infant Christ. She is a beautiful figure, drawn by a highly skilled hand. She stands in a graceful S-shape and is clothed in a blue mantle with draped folds.
The window splays immediately right of the Tree of Jesse have portraits of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin, representing the Annunciation. The rest of the north wall is devoted to the birth and passion of Christ, culminating in the Resurrection and Ascension depicted on the north side of the east wall.
The south wall depicts mostly apocryphal scenes from the life of Mary, including her death and assumption into heaven, with her coronation as Queen of Heaven on the south side of the east wall. At the west end of the south wall is the resurrection of the dead and the Day of Judgement, bringing the series to an end.
The aisle windows are mostly Perpendicular. Near the east end of the north aisle are two stained glass heads of angels (one of which is rather cross-eyed) from the early 15th century. The octagonal font is c.1660, carved with rose, thistle and fleur-de-lis.
Quick Facts on the Church of St Mary
|Names:||Chalgrove Church · Chalgrove St Mary · Church of St Mary|
|Categories:||parish churches; Grade I listed buildings|
|Styles:||Decorated Gothic style; Perpendicular Gothic style; Early English style; Transitional Style|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.664204° N, 1.080260° W|
|Phone:||See contact page on official website|
|Hours:||Apr-Sep: Wed 10:30-2, Sat 2-4pm|
At other times, key available from the newsagents in High Street or contact a churchwarden
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Church of St Mary|
- Personal visit (October 28, 2007).
- St Mary's Church, Chalgrove - official website
- Nikolaus Pevsner and Jennifer Sherwood, The Buildings of England: Oxfordshire (Yale University Press, 2002), 525-26.
- The Annunciation and Tree of Jesse at Chalgrove - Medieval Wall Painting in the English Parish Church
- Photos of the Church of St Mary - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of the Church of St Mary, Chalgrove
Below is a location map and aerial view of the Church of St Mary. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.