Built in 1170 under the patronage of Robert de San Remy, the Church of St. Mary the Virginin Iffley (a village now within the city limits of Oxford) is one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in England.
Unlike most other Norman churches, which were heavily altered in later years, Iffley Church retains its original simplicity of architecture and its spectacular figurative carvings.
Iffley Church is easily accessible from Oxford's city center by bus or a pleasant walk along the Thames River (see below for details).
History of the Church of St Mary
Iffley Church was built c.1170 by Robert de San Remy and his family, who were part of a large 12th-century immigration from Normandy to England. (The Normans had ruled England since William the Conqueror subdued it in 1066.) Robert's wife was from a wealthy family, which helps explain how this highly ornamented church was funded.
In the early 1200s, the chancel was extended to the east in the Early English style. This was a common occurrence in parish churches at that time, in order to accommodate the more elaborate ceremonies that were then introduced. Around 1250, the sedilia (seats for clergy) were added to the chancel. Churches were often rededicated when enlarged, and it may be that Iffley Church was dedicated to St Mary the Virgin at that time.
In 1383, the manor of Iffley passed to the lords of Donnington manor (near Newbury), who took little interest in Iffley. Their neglect is our gain, as it contributed to the preservation of the church's original form. They did, however, put in larger windows and add a rood screen.
In this early period, the walls were painted with biblical scenes and saints and the nave was dominated by the large crucifix on the rood beam. The floor was made of compacted mud covered with reeds and herbs. The congregation would have stood during Mass, which was read in Latin from the chancel. A few benches may have been available for the elderly or disabled.
In the Middle Ages, side chapels were carved out of the north and south walls near the first arch of the nave. One was dedicated to the Virgin Mary; the other to St Catherine, who was the patron saint of a guild in Iffley. During this period one William Mede left in his will six bushels of wheat to the church to maintain the light on the altar of the Virgin.
As throughout England, the Reformation brought significant changes to Iffley Church. The wall paintings, now considered idolatrous, were whitewashed over. In their place, biblical texts may have been written. The side chapels dedicated to saints were blocked up and plastered over. Boards bearing the Ten Commandments, Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer hung from the walls on either side of the altar, which had been replaced with a wooden table.
The interior was then transformed to reflect the new focus on preaching and the participation of the congregation. The existing roof was entirely removed and replaced with a much lower one, which was covered in plaster on the interior. This allowed everyone to hear the sermon better. Since the sermons were long, box pews were built to provide more comfort. The pulpit was raised much higher so that everyone could see the preacher.
In the 19th century, the vicars of Iffley seem to have been in sympathy with the Oxford Movement, which promoted a more Catholic-style liturgy. The focus was returned to the altar from the pulpit and the box pews were removed. An ornate reredos replaced the Ten Commandments and Creed. The roof was raised to its original height with new roof beams.
In 1995, Iffley Church was restored and refurbished to its original Romanesque appearance, which mainly involved clearing away Victorian furnishings that obscured carvings.
What to See at the Church of St Mary
The plan of Iffley Church is long, high and narrow, with no side aisles. This was a fairly common plan in 12th-century parish churches, but Iffley is unique in retaining this simple plan with no chapels or aisles added later.
The original building consisted of four parts: a square baptistery, a rectangular nave, a square tower and a square choir. A fifth part, the chancel in the east end, was added in the early 13th century.
Easily t he best part of Iffley Church is its west front, with perfect geometrical proportions and magnificent carvings. The layout of its elements is unique in England and may have been inspired by the west front of St. Denis outside Paris.
The west door is adorned with several rows of chevron (zigzag) arches, followed by two rows of beakheads, then an outer molding with figurative carvings.
The zig-zag pattern was very common in Norman architecture as a means of adding richness and depth. In Oxford, it can also be seen in the chapter house of Christ Church Cathedral.
The beakheads are less common, but can also be seen at Reading Abbey and several churches in Oxfordshire and Berkshire. They seem to be made of lions' heads and eagles' beaks, which might symbolize the power and victory in Christ.
The outer arch, which stretches just to the top of the door, consists of figurative images inside an interlacing chain. The carvings include several signs of the zodiac — Aquarius (a woman carrying a bucket), Pisces (two fish), and Virgo) — as well as the symbols of the Four Evangelists: Matthew (winged man), Mark (winged lion), Luke (winged ox), and John (eagle).
Flanking the west door are two blind arches, a common feature of churches in Normandy. There is also a small blind arch at the top of the facade.
Above the west door is a round window, known as an Oculus or Eye of God window. It also is surrounded by chevron carvings.
Even finer quality of carving can be seen on the south door, which may be the work of the master mason himself. The layout and carvings here are very different from those on the west door, but there is still the same creativity controlled by pattern and repetition that characterizes all of Iffley Church.
Two columns flank the south door on each side, the innermost of which is carved with delicate patterns. The capitals on the left side have fighting beasts and centaurs; those on the right show Norman knights in battle. Arching over the door are several rows of zig-zag, chevron and other decorative patterns, but no beakheads or figures.
The innermost arch, which runs all the way to the ground, is decorated with large, uniformly sized images. Above the door, on the inside of the arch, are rose-type flowers of various kinds. On the left and right, large flowers alternate with mythical creatures including a merman, a green man, and a sphinx. On the left side, look for a mustached face with a crown - this is known to be King Henry II (1133-89) because of similar images on a silver penny from that time.
The nave of Iffley Church is narrow but perfectly proportioned, and the floor level gradually rises from west to east. The architect seems to have been influenced by the ideas of the Roman architect Vitruvius (1st cent. BC), as the arches are perfect semi-circles and the distance between the capitals is the same as the height of the columns. This careful geometry makes the interior pleasing to the eye, and it would have been even more so when there were no pews.
Next to the columns supporting the tower are pillars made of Tournai black marble. This is one of the ealiest uses of architectural marble in England, which later became widely popular. The arches are decorated with layers of chevron designs, adding to the sense of strength and depth.
A few figurative carvings can be seen in the interior. The ceiling of the choir is decorated with chevron ribs leading to a boss carved with a dragon and four lion heads. At each corner of the choir are double colonnettes decorated with flowers and figures reminiscent of the south door.
On the right is a bird on its nest, which might represent Psalm 84:3: "The sparrow has found her a house and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young..." These colonnettes were unusual in this period, but there are contemporary examples in the crypt of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It may be that someone involving in building the church at Iffley had been on a pilgrimage there.
The east end of the church is not part of the original, c.1170 building, but was added not long after in the early 1200s. The chancel was extended to accommodate new, more elaborate ceremonies of the time and is in the Early English Gothic style. Here the "sturdy masculine architecture of the Romanesque gives place to the feminine grace of the Gothic" (Iffley Church Oxford).
On the north wall of the chancel is a 13th-century circular carving of the Lamb of God. This was originally placed in the churchyard cross that stands by the huge yew tree south of the church. It was replaced by a new carving in 1858, and in the 1960s was discovered buried in the Rectory garden.
Tthe 12th-century baptismal font is placed just inside the door. In the original church, this first area of the church functioned as the baptistery — it would have felt more spacious then, when the north and south doors were accessible and there was no organ. The font is made of marble from Tournai, Belgium, and is large enough for infant baptism by total immersion, which was the practice at the time.
Iffley Church makes a very pleasant walk from the center of Oxford. From Christ Church, head south on St Aldates to Folly Bridge. Cross Folly Bridge and take an immediate left onto the towpath along the Thames River. Follow the path - which leads past the college boathouses and nature reserves - for about two miles until you reach Iffley Lock. Take a left and cross over the lock, then take the first right up a gentle hill towards the church.
Quick Facts on the Church of St Mary
|Names:||Church of St Mary · Iffley Church · St Mary|
|Categories:||parish churches; Grade I listed buildings|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.727380° N, 1.238309° W|
|Hours:||Open during daylight hours|
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Church of St Mary|
- Personal visit (May 4, 2007)
- Iffley Church Oxford - booklet published by the church (available inside for £2)
- Geoffrey Tyack, Oxford: An Architectural Guide (1998), 12-14.
- St Mary's Iffley - official website
- Photos of the Church of St Mary - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of the Church of St Mary, Iffley
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.