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Adderbury

Dedication : St Mary the Virgin                                    Simon Jenkins: ***                Principal Features : Superlative Decorated Period Carvings and Windows

Adderbury is a tiny village near Banbury in Oxfordshire. I made a special journey to see it and nearby Bloxham to see the c14 Northern Oxford School friezes which I knew were special. Nothing, however, had prepared me for the breathtaking array of carvings that one sees at Adderbury. Quite simply, this is one of the most wonderful parish churches in England.

 Adderbury villlage has had many aristocratic connections dating right back to Saxon times. It was a prosperous place but suffered badly during the Plague in 1348. The earliest parts of the church we see today are the c13 transepts. The nave arcade was rebuilt in late c13 or early c14 and the tower and spire added. Later in the c14 clerestory was added to the nave. Finally, at the turn of c15 Adderbury Manor and the church were acquired by New College, Oxford who rebuilt the chancel between 1408 and 1419. Its Perpendicular style is quite distinctly different from the rest of the church.

Not for the first time, I wonder how the expenditure of money and labour could be justified during and shortly after the country’s population was reduced by as much as 60% by plague? Not only was the building extensive but the decoration is elaborate. There are parallels in my own county of Rutland. To see my own speculation on why this seemingly unjustifiable expansion in church buildings occurred please click here.

Where to begin? Well, the frieze on the north and south chancel walls  is almost certainly the finest in the land and moreover it is in a decent state of

preservation. There are beasts and scenes from village life in abundance. The south side perhaps has the more elaborate pieces with quite a lot that is super-natural (and hard to identify!). The north has more domestic scenes and, best of all, an entire mediaeval orchestra. I had been proud to speculate that my own local church - St John’s Ryhall, Rutland - had the best frieze from this period and there are plenty of other candidates in Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Rutland. But Adderbury wins hands down with nearby Bloxham not far behind. The similarities of the carvings on the friezes at both these churches and also at Hanwell and Alkerton (both in preparation for this site) leaves little doubt that they were the work of one man. There are only four churches in the Northern Oxfordshire School. Moreover, the carvings seem to pre-date the Great Plague of 1348 which was later to lead to the development of “shop work” at the quarries. So, while the late c14/ early c15 friezes in the East Midlands may well be the work of several men, those in the Northern Oxfordshire School are more likely to be the work of one man - with or without the help of apprentices or journeymen.

The carving is not confined to the friezes. The “hollis” around the tower parapet also has whimsical, though rather less elaborate, frieze carvings. The chancel has carved capitals with intertwined human figures, a style also clearly seen at Bloxham, Hanwell, Alkerton and, intriguingly, at Shenington which is not generally listed amongst the Northern Oxon School churches.  The tower, nave and aisles all date between 1315 and 1344. Did our carver work on this church and those around it for this long period? Or did he do it towards the end of the overall rebuilding program? 25 years seems a long time in those days of extraordinarily short lifespans. Yet frieze stones are normally part of the structure - not simply stuck on the outside. As with the east Midlands churches, I wonder if the friezes were added at a somewhat later date when parapets were added to aisles and towers? I suppose we have no way of knowing. We will also see superb gargoyles on the Perpendicular chancel exterior and carved corbel stones in the nave.

The body of the church fits unusually neatly into three quite distinct periods. Tower, nave and aisles - effectively the west end of the church are all of the Decorated period built between 1315 and 1344. The transepts and the east end of the nave are on the cusp of Early English and Decorated at around 1250. The chancel is Perpendicular between 1408 and 1419.

What a church! Simon Jenkins rates Bloxham at 4* (making it one of his top 100) and Adderbury at 3* but for me Adderbury is the more enjoyable if only because its carvings are slightly the better. Simon is in turn, in our view, influenced by his own love of funerary monuments that are clearly more interested at Bloxham. If you are new to church architecture make these two churches two of your “Must See” churches and decide for yourself.

The view from the nave towards the east end. The width of the aisles is demonstrated by the two arches that lead on either side to the transepts. The transepts, like the crossing, are survivors of the c13 church, thus pre-dating the existing nave and aisles by 70-80 years. The transepts are, in fact, now barely any wider than the aisles.

The view to the west end. One of the charms of these North Oxford churches is the lovely brown stonework.

Looking into the north transept from the nave. The north window is just one of several magnificent examples of Decorated period window tracery. This window must post-date the transept itself (1250) so perhaps it was replaced during the construction of the aisles.

Looking towards the south transept from the south aisle. Note the arches that join the two, causing them to seem continuous.

Looking towards the North Transept - the Lady Chapel - from the south aisle. Another fine Decorated window adorns the east wall but the filled-in arches from earlier, narrower Early English windows are clearly visible. Note the highly decorated capital above the fluted pier between the two arches.

The Perpendicular chancel contains this fine canopied triple sedilia, with piscina to its left.

Many churches acquired remodelled altars during the Perpendicular period and some were rather grim. Adderbury’s however, was commissioned William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of England, and it is beautiful. Indeed, it could be said that it is the finest part of the church. We know that the mason was one Richard Winchcombe.

Although heavily restored by the ubiquitous Gilbert Scott, Adderbury still has its c15 wooden rood screen.

The north window of the north transept flanked by two “blind” niches.

The window tracery at Adderbury is superb. Sadly, however, almost all of it was ingenious reconstruction by Sir George Gilbert Scott. In the late c18 there was a dispute between the rector and the churchwardens about who was responsible for their repair. The “solution”, sadly, was to rip them out!

Both of the two-bay arcades between aisles and transepts have ornate capitals on the central pier. Both depict figures with linked arms, as seen also at Bloxham and Hanwell. That to the north transept depicts (top) whimpled female figures, that to the south (below) male figures in armour - and it must be said that the ladies are the more interesting group, the male figures being somewhat similar to each other. It is believed that these capitals point to segregation of the sexes within the church.

The interior of Adderbury is barely less crowded with carvings than the exterior. Most of them are corbels supporting the roof beams of the nave and aisles.

The architects of the Perpendicular nave at Adderbury picked up where the carvers of the Decorated period nave and aisles left off. There seems to be a dearth of information of what these figures represent, except that two of them (centre top and bottom right?) are of William of Wykeham who, as Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of England, authorised the expenditure on the new chancel. There look to be kings here, Henry IV and Henry V were the kings of the day. More intriguing are the little cameo scenes.  Middle right is a chap apparently with a sack on his shoulder, a tool in his right hand and a spade and pick at his side. The group bottom left is even more mysterious. Is the man on the left using bellows? The lady next to him is a foxy-looking wench but what is that in her right hand? Bottom middle looks like a shepherdess - with a lamb and a basket?

The South Frieze

The frieze on the south side is mainly of fantastical figures. Note, however, top left a man with two dogs (?) on a lead. Below him is a man ringing a bell (one broken) in each hand. These elongated carvings (contrast them with the square adornments on the friezes of, for example Ryhall and Oakham) are characteristic of the North Oxfordshire school.

For further photographs of the south frieze click here.

The North Frieze

The North Frieze is my favourite because it contains what appears to be a full mediaeval village band - including a hurdy-gurdy player bottom right. On this side of the church we have mainly figures from village life - and what a fascinating picture they give us of dress and customs of the day. We still have our fantastic creatures, of course, and I particularly love the dragon (bottom left) which looks like something from a modern children’s picture book!

Do not miss the rest of the north frieze - click here to see it.

The Hollis Frieze

The hollis (the frieze just below the tower parapet has a frieze of its own. Bing more exposed to the weather it is a little damaged but it is still possible to see the yet more fun figures.

This wonderful window tracery has a man’s head at its centre - but bear in mind that the windows are reconstructed.

This is the sumptuous Perpendicular chancel from the south side. Note the gargoyles.

As with every carving at Addington, the gargoyles are lavish and quirky!

Gargoyles

For a Discussion of the Northern Oxfordshire School of Carving, Click Here