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Dedication : St Mary’s                                     Simon Jenkins: ****                 Principal Features : Superlative Decorated Period Carvings and Windows

It was an excellent little book called “Gargoyles and Grotesques”written by Alex Woodcock and published by the superb Shire Library, that led us to discovering the churches that exhibit work by the so-called “Northern Oxfordshire School” of carvers. We headed for nearby Adderbury and also discovered both Bloxham and Hanwell on the same day. Put these three together and you have the most stunning set of Decorated period carvings.

Simon Jenkins gives this church four stars - thus rating it as one of England’s top 100. We would agree with him, although he is a little less enthusiastic about the carvings than we are. We do agree on the quality of the Decorated window tracery. The Decorated period was characterised by, amongst other things, its window tracery. It varies widely and is perhaps a subject for the connoisseur rather than the occasional church visitor, but in both Bloxham and Adderbury the quality and the originality is clearly exceptional.

There was a Saxon church at Bloxham and in 1067 William I awarded it to Westminster Abbey. Royal patronage continued via King Stephen who endowed a chantry chapel for his mother. Henry II took if from Westminster Abbey and gave it to Godstow Abbey which was a couple of miles from Oxford. The monastery was, of course, dissolved by Henry VIII. The living was granted to Eton College who hold it till this day. Thus are the weird anachronisms and privileges that persist within British society!

The oldest parts of today’s church are of the c 13 Early English period although, as we shall see, later c14 Decorated work incorporated decoration salvaged from earlier Norman work. The EE work is to all intents and purposes limited to the south porch. Chancel, tower, north transept and nave are mainly Decorated. To the south is the incongruously large Perpendicular Milcombe Chapel of the c15.

This is such a “visual” church that further narrative would be pointless, so let’s to the photographs...

Looking towards the east. The bare stone of the nave and transepts and the large acreage of windows lead to a light church without resorting to the horrors of wall to wall whitewash!

The re-use of the original Norman decoration even extended to the use of this tympanum that now adorns a doorway into the old vestry. It’s not one of the wonderfully graphic tympani such as that at but its location inside means it is well preserved - and certainly a startling sight!

The chancel is Early English. One of its remarkable features is the re-use of Norman mouldings to decorate the Gothic pointed arches. The east window has been heavily restored and has glass by Burne-Jones amongst others.

Bizarrely, even beakhead mouldings which must have adorned an external door - perhaps the one from which the tympanum came have been re-used on the Early English window on the south side of the chancel. An unusual - and to my eyes unique - feature are the animal figures located below some of the heads - in this case a saddled horse.

The beakheads also feature a rather benign-looking dragon (left) and a serpent (right)

Right: The east window with its Decorated period tracery and re-used Norman decoration.

Above: Beakhead decoration above the south chancel window.

Left: Looking towards the west end. The tower is c14 Decorated and both arcades are c13 Early English

At the east end of the north aisle there is a north transept, although in fact it is barely any wider than the aisle itself owing to the widening of the aisles in c14, Nevertheless two Decorated period arches separate aisle from  transept. This richly-carved capital adorns the intervening column. The instantly recognisable image is (left) of St George whose popularity was boosted by returning soldiers from the First Crusade.. He holds a banner in his right hand and shield in his left. He is dressed in the style of a knight of Edward I’s era. The other faces of the capital are not readily recognisable. Each of the figures has his or her arms linked to those on either side. Note the naughty-looking creatures assailing the “lady” bottom right. Apologies for the substandard photographs....

Rge north aisle looking towards the north transept. The decorated capital is on the column in the centre of this picture. The aisle windows are Decorated period from the date of the aisle widening. The transept window to the east, however, is from the later Perpendicular style with its much larger proportion of glazed areas and lighter tracery.

Bloxham has a rare surviving c15 rood screen. This was a gift from Cardinal Wolsey, no less, Henry VIII’s famous chancellor who was disgraced for his inability to secure the King’s divorce from Anne Boleyn. This screen replaced one destroyed during the Wars of the Roses. It lost its original rood (cross) during the Reformation and was actually removed altogether in 1850 before it was restored to its former glory and position in the church. The lower panels are decorated with popes and evangelists.

Bloxham has some interesting wall painting fragments. This is a figure of St Christopher in his customary position opposite the south door. An unidentified figure kneels next to him and also a mermaid!

Above the chancel arch is a remnant of a doom painting - again in its customary position. The poor old sinners are being consigned to the flames of Hell, also in conventional fashion!

The early Decorated period (about 1280-1377) saw a welcome revival of the church carving following the dignified restraint of the Early English period. The interior of Bloxham church contains a number of internal roof corbels. Left: A man with axe and a rather murderous-looking knife. Centre: A man at prayer. Right: A man playing a cornemuse (an early form of bagpipe - note the enormous pipe.)

The south arcade still has traces of mediaeval wall painting on the soffits of its arches.

Most of the arcade capitals are plain - but this leaf capital is on the south aisle.

The South door is another example of re-use of Norman materials. The doorway is pointed in the Gothic style. The Norman decoration was part of the original chancel arch.

The c13 porch has fine rib vaulting. It too was moved here from in c14 when the aisles were widened.

The Perpendicular east window of the North aisle has glass dating from 1921 manufactured by William Morris’s company.

Bloxham has a now-unused c14 West door. It has three orders. Each has in its recesses carvings of birds, ballflowers and vine leaves. Above the door is a carving of Christ in Judgement. Around the outside of the arch are the 12 apostles. This must surely be one of the finest doors of its kind in England.

The bird figures in the arch recesses are elaborate with lyre-type tails and seemingly surmounting what look pine cones. Each is only subtly different from the others as can be seen from these two examples.

Above: The three orders of carvings with birds, vine leaves and flowers.

Right: Christ in Majesty flanked by two carvings with the instruments of the passion.

The apostle carvings appear in a kind of “stepped” configuration, and each surrounded by its own little niche. Each carries symbolic artefacts that would have allowed identification of the man in question, but I confess that I am always at a bit of a loss to tell one form another because there is quite a lot of crossover in this symbolism and some of the things we see are not commonplace today. Make you own judgements!

The west door also has some important carvings on the adjacent walls. Above: A particularly graphic carving of the “damned” being cast into Hell. The Christian church just couldn’t get enough of this imagery, could it? Above Left and Right : An altogether more optimistic carving of the Good rising from their coffins to eternal bliss. No prizes for artistic virtuosity here, but I rather like the chap in the lower picture who seems to be lifting his coffin on his back! Note that these carvings are actually adjacent to form one contiguous image.

The tower of the church has a frieze of its own around the base of the spire. The (superb) church guide informed that this is called a “hollis” - a term I have never seen elsewhere.

In my enthusiasm for the carvings, I didn’t take enough pictures of the wonderful Decorated window tracery. This “Star of David” design, however, is one - although by no means the best - example.

The hollis at Bloxham Church has many fascinating carvings - but you can only really appreciate them with the aid of binoculars or a telephoto lens. Right Top: A man plays some kind of stringed instrument next to another with two handbells. Right Centre: A monkey and a lion. Perhaps the monkey is carrying a bag of money? It was popular to characterise overly rapacious bishops in this way. Right Lower: A man playing a harp is flanked by two typical Decorated period ballflowers. Left Above: A trio of grotesque figures. On the right is a very obvious unicorn with somewhat savage teeth and a most unhorse-like head and body! Left is a dragon seemingly in full flight. He has a knot in his tail, detailed wings and a somewhat unthreatening face. Above: A fox (right) is running away with a goose in his mouth hotly pursued by a man with a cudgel and his wife with a distaff (a spool used in spinning wool or flax).

The North Wall Frieze

Bloxham and nearby Adderbury Churches were a bittersweet discovery for us. I had put considerable time and effort into researching wall friezes in Rutland and East Lincs, the region where I live, and was proud to think that the tradition here was the finest and perhaps unique. Please follow the link to the Demon Carvers and in particular to St John the Evangelist Church in Ryhall. The Northern Oxfordshire “School”, I have to confess, is more than its equal in quality, although perhaps covering not such a wide area. All mediaeval life is on the frieze at Bloxham. To keep things sane, I am showing only the best examples on this page. Please follow this link to see the rest.

Two men armed with swords and shields fight it out after a disagreement whose turn it was to buy the drinks..

A particularly well-drawn devil figure.

Well it’s anybody’s guess what these two are up to and what they are meant to be, although that looks like a rabbit on the right.

Someone is up to no good here!

A sow feeds her many piglets.

At first glance this looks like a simple foliate design - but see a,rabbit skulking inside a thicket!


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