St Nicholas' Church in Oddington, Gloucestershire, is a village parish church distinguished by a magical woodland setting and an entire wall of medieval wall paintings. It is included in Simon Jenkins' book on England's Thousand Best Churches for these features. The church is located just a few miles east of Stow-on-the-Wold in the beatiful Cotswolds area, and is open daily.
History of the Church of St Nicholas
St Nicholas Church in Oddington was founded in the 11th century and originally built in the Norman style. It stood on the Manor of Oddington, which was owned by the Archbishop of York (who at one time had a residence nearby).
A visit by King Henry III (1207-72) led to the addition of an Early English nave and chancel alongside the original Norman ones. The old nave became the south aisle and a tower was built over the old chancel.
The main wall painting in Oddington Church, the "Doom," was added to the north wall of new nave in about 1340. The painting to the right of the Doom, recently identified as a "Magnificence," dates from 1520. This is believed to be a satire on Cardinal Wolsey, who was Lord of the Manor of Oddington between 1514 and 1529.
With the Reformation came the widespread destruction of murals, sculptures and stained glass in churches. This was expressly ordered by King Edward VI in 1547 and again by Queen Elizabeth I in 1559. The few artworks that survived these orders were destroyed by Puritans or Cromwell's army in the 1600s.
The obliteration of murals involved first washing the walls, then covering them with a coat of whitewash (made of white lime mixed with water). Fortunately this treatment did not completely destroy the paintings, and in many cases the whitewash has been removed to reveal at least a faded version of the precious artworks.
The settlement around St Nicholas Church was moved to the present village a half-mile away probably due to plague. The church was abandoned in 1851, when a parish church was built in the new village, although most villagers continued to be buried at the old church.
The abandonment of the church saved it from Victorian "restoration" in the 19th century, which likely would have resulted in replastering of all the walls and complete destruction of the paintings. Instead, St Nicholas Church was gently restored and brought back into use by the vicar Thomas Hodson in 1912.
As part of the restoration, the whitewash was removed from the walls and the medieval paintings were revealed. They were in significantly better condition then, for at the time the accepted method of preservation was to coat them with wax. Unfortunately the wax quickly darkened and discolored the paintings, and by the 1920s they were beginning to disintegrate.
In 1926 the paintings were cleaned and treated by E.T. Long and in 1969-70 a thorough restoration was undertaken by Eve Baker, RSA, assisted by David Perry and John Dives. This allowed for a better view of the details and the interpretation of the 16th-century painting as a "Magnificence" by John Edwards in 1986.
What to See at the Church of St Nicholas
The setting of St Nicholas Church is a large part of what makes it special. It stands alone in a forest of yew and beech trees, fronted by a low stone wall and surrounded by jumbled tombs in its old churchyard. Outside the west end of the church are Victorian headstones in a lettering known as Grot (short for grotesque). Out back, behind the east end, is a 1690s tomb effigy of a woman with her feet sticking out beneath her dress.
Entrance is through the south porch, which leads into the original Norman nave. This is now the south aisle and is divided from the 13th-century Early English nave by three arcades. To the right from the entrance is a small doorway leading into the old Norman chancel, which became a side chapel when the Early English tower was built over it. The Norman chancel arch was mostly filled in to add support to the new tower.
The handsome windows of the south aisle are 14th-century Decorated Gothic. The fine Jacobean pulpit was mounted on its pillar by the Puritans. The stone reredos in the chancel was erected by the vicar responsible for the church's restoration in 1912, in memory of his son who fell at Ypres. Over the chancel arch is the coat of arms of King William IV (1765-1837), which was painted over a medieval mural.
The north wall of the nave is covered with a huge wall painting of a "Doom" (Last Judgment), dating from about 1340. It is 32 feet long and 15 feet high, and may be the largest Doom painting in Britain. It is badly faded from being whitewashed over at the Reformation and poorly restored in the early 20th century, and parts of it are missing due to various renovations in the intervening years.
The Doom originally would have extended to the roof, but the roof level was raised in about 1500. The lower part of the painting was destroyed when the plaster was replaced by cement; this area is now panelled over with wood. Several gaps in the painting were caused by the construction of a gallery in the west end of the nave, supported by beams in the north wall.
Despite its many injuries over the centuries, most of the details of the painting can still be made out. At the top is Christ in Glory, with his feet resting on a round shape that may represent the moon or the sea. He is surrounded by the apostles and saints, one of whom holds the instruments of the Passion: nails and a lance.
Below the enthroned Christ, two angels are sounding a trumpet to wake the dead. At the bottom of the picture (which originally continued all the way to floor level), the dead rise from their graves to be judged. A tall crowned figure standing or kneeling to the west is probably the Virgin Mary, interceding on behalf of the souls.
On the left, the righteous are welcomed into heaven by angels. They are led by a Pope and there are several kings among them. Heaven is depicted as a castle and most enter by the main gate, but one man is humorously being helped over a turret by an angel and another one enters through an upper window. Inside the Kingdom of Heaven are trees bearing fruit.
On the right, the wicked are driven into Hell. This group includes kings as well. The jaws of hell are on the lower right edge and the devil is shown as a black figure with paws, a spiky tail and horns, holding a long prod in his hand. Other demons, wearing striped clothes, help to torture the damned. One demon uses a bellows on the fire beneath a cauldron in which people are being boiled. Just to the left, a figure hangs from a gallows while another kneels in front of it, begging for mercy.
The impact of this painting is now muted by its poor condition and gentler modern theology, but it would have had an incredibly powerful impact for medieval worshippers at Oddington Church. Entering through the south porch, they would have been immediately confronted with a vivid depiction of the damned going to Hell.
Immediately to the right of the Doom is another mural, dated to about 1520 and painted after the roof level was raised in 1500. In 1986, John Edwards wrote an article for the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society that convincingly identified this painting as representing the morality play "Magnificence." This play, by John Skelton, is generally assumed to be a satire on Cardinal Wolsey, who was Lord of the Manor of Oddington at the time. It is possible that the play was performed in Oddington Church and commemorated with this painting.
The central figure is Magnificence himself, wearing fine clothes. With him are the 17 other personified characters in the play: Measure, Wealthful Felicity, Liberty, Fancy, Counterfeit Countenance (the preaching fox with bat wings), Cloaked Collusion (the man in a fur hat high up on the wall), Crafty Conveyance (the hound on a leash), Folly, Good Hope, Poverty (the man with two crutches), Mischief (striped devils), Courtly Abusion, Adversity, Despair, Redress, Circumspection and Perseverance.
There are traces of other paintings in the archway leading into the south chapel, the west end of the nave and south aisle, the south wall of the nave near the chancel arch, and on the east end (a fleur-de-lis).
Quick Facts on the Church of St Nicholas
|Names:||Church of St Nicholas · Oddington Church|
|Categories:||churches; parish churches; forest settings; Grade I listed buildings|
|Styles:||Early English style; Normans|
|Dates:||11th, 13th C|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.927943° N, 1.659837° W|
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Church of St Nicholas|
- Personal visit (October 15, 2007).
- Simon Jenkins, England's Thousand Best Churches (Penguin Books, 2000), 223.
- The Wall Paintings in St. Nicholas Church, Oddington, Gloucestershire (1996) - pamphlet provided at the church
- Oddington Parish Church - Rootsweb (source for 11th century date)
- Photos of the Church of St Nicholas - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of the Church of St Nicholas, Oddington
Below is a location map and aerial view of the Church of St Nicholas. 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.