The 15th-century Church of St. Mary the Virginin Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, is notable for an impressive Gothic nave that was funded by the lucrative Cotswolds wool trade. It also has a unique hexagonal porch with a vaulted ceiling featuring Green Men and other funny faces.
History of the Church of St Mary
Chipping Norton's parish church was first built by the Normans in the 12th century, but all that survives from this period are two arches and a simple round pillar on the left of the chancel, dating from around 1200.
St. Mary's Church received a thorough rebuilding by wealthy wool merchants in the mid-15th-century. The impressive Gothic nave was built by John Smyth of Canterbury, who also designed the chapel of Eton College. The church was restored by E.G. Bruton in the 1870s.
What to See at the Church of St Mary
As you enter the church, pause for a moment in the south porch, which is quite unique and interesting. Dating from the 14th century, it is one of only three hexagonal porches in the country. The vaulted ceiling has carved bosses featuring the Green Man, grinning devils, and a sheep overpowering a wolf. In the center is a lovely rose. The south door is decorated with ball flowers.
Inside, the main focus is the grand Gothic nave, with a tall ceiling and a impressive clerestory (high-level windows). The pillars are identical in plan to those in Canterbury Cathedral, although smaller in scale and boasting five clustered shafts instead of Canterbury's three.
The chancel arch at the east end of the nave is, like those in other grand Cotswold "wool churches," topped with a large window. On either side of the window are empty niches that once held statues of the Virgin Mary and St. John. There was a chantry chapel to the left of the chancel arch; all that remains of it are three niches that have been incorporated into the 1870s pulpit.
The chancel is less impressive than the nave, as this section was once reserved for the clergy and as such was less interesting for the wool merchant patrons. But it does contain the oldest remaining features of the church: two Norman arches and a pillar dating from around 1200.
The east window in the chancel, above the altar, depicts the crucified Christ and the four evangelists. The windows of the south chancel wall depict Jesus' miracles of turning water into wine and feeding the five thousand. Also on the south chancel wall is a three-seat sedilia from the 15th century and a priest's door. The lowest window, by the Victorian C.E. Kempe, shows a pregnant Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth. The charming squint in the chancel allowed priests celebrating Mass at different altars to synchronize their services.
At the east end of the south aisle is the impressive Creation Window, with tracery consisting of an astonishing 98 separate openings. It appears too big for its wall and indeed is believed to have been taken from the monastery of Bruern after the Reformation. Sadly the original glass has not survived, but the current glass is a fine Victorian artwork by Clayton and Bell.
The rest of the church dates mainly from the 14th century. At the end of the north aisle is the former Lady Chapel, which contains the Croft Tomb (c.1500) hidden in a corner next to the large pipe organ. The chapel is now used for coffee hour and for displaying church information.
The tower is a Georgian addition and has some interesting gargoyles. The churchyard is "still refreshingly wild" (Simon Jenkins), with tombstones and 18th-century chest tombs stretching down the hillside among trees and wildflowers. Immediately north of the churchyard are the remains of a Norman motte-and-bailey castle as well as several footpaths that lead out into the countryside.
St. Mary's Parish Church is not in the city center but tucked away at the bottom of Church Street, which is downhill from the main street with the Town Hall. See map on this page for details. There is parking available for visitors at the church.
Quick Facts on the Church of St Mary
|Names:||Chipping Norton Church · Chipping Norton St Mary · Church of St Mary · Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin|
|Categories:||churches; parish churches; Grade I listed buildings; England's Thousand Best Churches: Three Stars; wool churches|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.943816° N, 1.547946° W|
|Address:||Chipping Norton, England|
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Church of St Mary|
- Personal visit (May 6, 2007).
- Information sheet provided by the church.
- Simon Jenkins, England's Thousand Best Churches, 538-39.
- "History" - Official Website
Map of the Church of St Mary, Chipping Norton
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.