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Dedication : St Peter                                      Simon Jenkins: **                           Principal Features : Northern Oxfordshire “School Carvings”

Together with nearby Bloxham and Adderbury, Hanwell completes the “Big Three” churches that showcase the so-called “Northern Oxfordshire School” of carving. Not that Hanwell is big physically. It is substantially smaller than other two and cannot boast the same lovely Decorated period window tracery. What it does have, however, is a carved frieze around the exterior of chancel that is palpably reminiscent of the friezes at the other two churches, and aisle capitals with similar motifs of groups of people with linked arms. In my article about the Northerm Oxford School I point out that there is very convincing evidence that the carvings were more likely to reflect local fashion than an individual carver or group of carvers common to all three, but the similarities are too obvious to be coincidental.

The Church Guide (a remarkably scrappy one) says that the first reference to a church in Hanwell was in 1154. So we don’t have the customary “probably replaced a Saxon church of which there is no trace” syndrome here! Which is not to say that there wasn’t one because Hanwell, complete with manor, certainly existed before the Conquest.

Of the Norman church only the simple font survives (although the Guide, surely erroneously, dates it at 1250). The doorways and one of the windows are Early English but the remainder of the church dates from the c14 and early c15. There are windows from all architectural periods from Early English onwards. The clerestory dates from around 1400.

Architecturally, Hanwell is insignificant. It’s carvings which are believed to date from about 1340 are not. The frieze, although similar in style to Bloxham and Adderbury, has a character all of its own. We don’t have the “village orchestra” here as we do in Adderbury. Nor does we have the grotesque monsters and scenes from village life we see in both Bloxham and Adderbury. It does have amusing man/animal hybrids such as are seen on Adderbury’s south aisle. This is significant because the claimed 1340 date for Hanwell’s frieze is close to the end of Adderbury’s own rebuilding in 1344. Bloxham claims a similar date. So perhaps there was indeed there was one or more carvers in common between the two churches. What is also interesting is that the Black Death hit England and halved its population in 1348. Did this man or these men survive?

Hanwell’s frieze has been restored. Inside the church there is a series of (rather tatty!) display boards showing the frieze before and after restoration and it is clear to me that the exercise was both necessary and worthwhile. A visit to nearby Alkerton Church a few weeks later was a massive disappointment because the frieze there has been weathered almost beyond recognition in most places. That frieze represented the life of Edward the Black Prince so it would be of particular historical interest. As matters stand, any restoration would be impossible unless old drawings exist because there is virtually no base from which to rebuild it. It is always slightly disappointing on an emotional level to learn that a treasure is not wholly original, but without restoration many external carvings on parish churches will in time be lost altogether. Did anyone suggest that the Mona Lisa should not be repaired when some idiot slashed it with a knife?  It is a crying shame that there is no concerted campaign to protect what we have - I am sure there must be chemical agents available to reduce the effects of the weather - rather than spending huge sums of National Lottery money on preventing the sale of paintings by Dutch and Italian masters to overseas buyers. Our churches are our heritage, accessible by all both physically and emotionally: not just for the gratification of the chattering classes and the metropolitan elite. Grrrr!

Having said that there were no musicians on the frieze,  I must point out that there are musicians on the south arcade standing upright above the decorated capitals. They are far more detailed than on Adderbury’s frieze (inevitably, given the small space for frieze carvings) and that they are here at all gives some indication that this was a popular local theme. There is no reason to suppose that these figures were carved by the same man or men that carved the Hanwell frieze. These musicians are not present, however, on the north arcade where small heads are preferred. The capitals themselves are also castellated on the north side, but not on the south. Thus we have quite different styles on the north and south arcades. We should not be too surprised: even if both were built as part of the same reconstruction program, one aisle may have been completed before the other, allowing fashions or the whims of the churchwardens to change.

A final word on these Oxfordshire “School” carvings. At Hanwell the frieze carvings are on the chancel walls. The capitals with the linked arm figures are on the aisle arcades. This further emphasises the fact that these features were not carved concurrently, although how far apart they would have been nobody can know. At Adderbury the frieze is on the two aisle walls and the tower, whereas the linked arm figures are on the arches that connect the more recent aisles to the more ancient transepts. I use this as further evidence that we can make no assumptions as to whether carvings at this group of churches were produced by the same men - even at any individual church.

Hanwell is charmingly situated next to Hanwell Castle, built by William Cope in 1498. His descendant Sir Anthony Cope was a leading Puritan who was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1587 by Elizabeth I. He managed to navigate these turbulent times and James I visited Hanwell in 1605 and 1611. The alabaster tomb of himself and his wife are a feature of the church. Hanwell was embroiled in the Civil War. Royalist soldiers are believed to have prayed here before the indecisive Battle of Edge Hill in 1642. Hanwell Castle was captured by the famous Roundhead General William Waller just before the Battle of Cropredy Bridge in 1644 and troops and horses occupied both village and church.

The view to the east end. Note the differences between the two arcades.

The view to the west end. The arcades have three bays each, resulting in four sets of “linked arm” capitals.

The chancel. The east window with its flowing tracery is of the late Decorated period.

A perspective from the south aisle to the north with a musician carving visible on the capitals nearest the camera.. Note the mish-mash of gothic windows in this church

The “linked arm” capitals. The top two pictures are the north aisle; the lower two pictures are the south. The carvings on all the North Oxfordshire churches are a treasure house of information on the dress styles of the day. Note that the abaci surmounting the capitals have identical mouldings and the geometry of north and south arcades also appears roughly identical. Yet the north aisle has castellations.  Strangely, they rather look as if they were added as an afterthought. If so, one can only wonder why this was only done on one arcade! Note that on all the linked arm capitals in the North Oxfordshire group churches are single sex - indeed they are never mixed on one side of the aisle, never mind on a single capital. This leads to speculation that the congregation (and let us remember that seating would have been available only for the infirm at this time) were similarly segregated.

The tower arch.

The Cope memorial is a fine and elaborate one.

Again, we can see the value that church monuments and carvings have in informing us about the costume of the day.

This is a fascinating display of the Cope family “funeral helms”,

William Cope obviously saw himself as something of a martial figure. This is detail of the sword hilt on his monument.

The font is simple to say the least. It could, in truth, be late Norman or Early English. Given that the original church was Norman, however, it seems unlikely to me that the font would have been replaced only 100 years later.

The hatchment of Sir William Cope. Hatchments are not, as commonly supposed, mere ornament. This supposition probably came about because of the prevalence of royal coats of arms displayed in our parish churches from the around the end of the c16. Genuine hatchments such as this one were hung outside the homes of deceased gentry for a period of a few months before being removed for display at the parish church.

The musicians on the south aisle arcade. The fiddle player (far right) is particularly fine and note the amount of detail in the clothes, beard and the instrument itself. You can even see the pegs for tightening the strings!

This is the frieze of the north side of the chancel. It gives the impression of one long continuous canvas - in common with Bloxham and Adderbury - and could be compared with the East Midlands School where the carvings are discrete blocks rather than continuous, See, for example, Ryhall, Rutland.

The South Side of the Chancel with its frieze.

The Frieze (to see the whole Frieze click here)

This is just a taster. To see the full frieze click HERE. Just in these 6 examples you can see the exuberance of the themes. There are many animal and hunting scenes. Top left we see a huntsman with cudgel over his shoulder and a dog on a leash behind him. Middle left there us a hound with a bird in his mouth. The bird seems to have webbed feet. Bottom Left we have a stage. Top right there us a dog with a rabbit. Middle Right is a rather singular merman who seems to be holding some other creature over his shoulder. Bottom right is a hare.

Here are a couple more human figures. On the left a man with a shield. Possibly there was a weapon in his right hand but only the hilt seems to have survived. Note, however, the way his body and especially his feet are beautifully poised to fit the narrow space, and the lovely foliage twisted around his feet. To the right we have a woman bearing a staff.

The south door is Early English but the porch is later.

Hanwell Castle (complete with c17 trampoline) as seen from the east end of the church.

A simple north door of EE origin.

The Complete Friezes. Upper: South Side Lower: North Side

The tower and south aisle from the west.