From Oxford Diocesan Magazine

June 1968








A Hundred Years and More

The story of an Oxfordshire "chapel by the moor's edge"

by FRANCES JONES (one of the churchwardens)


The church of St. Barnabas, Horton cum‑Studley was dedicated in June, 1868, and the centenary will be celebrated during the coming month. Living in the parish, and being inquisitive about such matters, I have been looking into the story of this church and what went before it. The study turned out to be considerably more interesting and rewarding, as people now say than could have been expected. Here is a summary of the results, which is all that can be attempted in the space available.


Christianity came to Oxfordshire towards the middle of the seventh century. That is, for practical purposes; more precisely, it was re‑established. The Faith had been preached in Britain very shortly after the death of Christ and. was generally accepted. But in the fifth century the Angles and the Saxons began the over‑running of the country that took them just a hundred years to complete. Being worshippers of Woden, Thor, and the other old gods of the northern twilight, they systematically stamped out the religion that they found there, and the Celtic Church was driven to take refuge in the fastnesses of Wales; in Cornwall and more remote Cumbria. These Celtish pockets were cut off from each other by the Heptarchy, the seven Anglo‑Saxon kingdoms. That was the situation towards the end of the sixth century.


At that time the Pope, St. Gregory the Great, decided to send a mission to England, having been moved (according to the well known story) by the sight of some fair haired boys from that country in the slave market in Rome. Leading a band of 40 monks, Augustine landed in Kent in 597, where he was well received by the King and his people. They became converts, and the See of Canterbury was set up, with those of Rochester and London.


After the success of St. Augustine's mission, another was dispatched from Rome, headed by Birinus. His instructions were to see what could be done up‑country, but having got as far as Wessex and finding it completely heathen, he decided to start work there. Having baptised the King he was able to establish his bishopric at Dorchester by the Thames, and from there missionaries were sent out to proclaim the Gospel never the countryside This was in 635 Some would have taken the old road that the Romans had laid from Dorchester to their station at Alchester, close to what is now the town of Bicester. And they would have come to a point where, standing as if on a cliff‑top, they saw below a curious basin of marshy country, which they might have been told was Otta's Fen, the Ot Moor of later days.

Near there, missionaries must have stepped aside from the causeway and entered the forest country on the right, no doubt hoping to avoid any encounters with wolves. In less than a couple of miles the track brought them to Horton on the fringe of the moor, and to Studley in the clearing on the top of the hill overlooking it. At each of these places, a preaching cross would have been set up, to be followed by a church built first in wood, and later in stone. That was what commonly happened, and that St. Birinus took a personal interest in the work cannot be doubted; the Venerable Bede chronicled his zeal for the building of churches, It is reasonably certain that both of those here were completed in Saxon times, and would have been old buildings when the Normans took over the country.


Another chapter of .the story opened in the reign of Henry II, when the Horton church was made over by the lord of that manor to Eynsham Abbey, a house of Benedictine monks. This was about 1170, the year in which St. Thomas Becket was murdered in his own cathedral, and after the death of the King, the first act of his successor, Richard I, was to prepare for the third Crusade. Among those who answered his call was Bernard de Valery, lord of the manor of Studley, and also overlord of Horton.


Before departing, de Valery handed over all his property for the founding of a priory for Benedictine nuns, and dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin. This done he followed Richard, to meet his death before the walls of Acre.


The church at Studley having been absorbed into the new priory, those who had worshipped there would have had to make use of the one at Horton. But it appears always to have remained "bitter poor" (as John Buchan came to write of it), and there was a local belief that the Eynsham monks ware inclined to neglect it. Both Horton and Studley were really no more than chapelries of the parish of Beckley, the metropolis of the Seven Towns of Otmoor.


Soon after the Dissolution, the Studley Priory property was bought by one Croke, a Clerk in Chancery, but nearly, 40 years were to pass before the buildings were converted into a dwelling by his grandson. In the meantime the church had been allowed to fall into decay.


Just a century after the nuns had left the Priory, Sir John Croke decided to add a private chapel to his mansion. This was partly for the benefit of the almshouses that he built at the same time, but villagers also could attend the services. The effect was to hasten the decline of the Horton chapel; it was taken out of use altogether, and had collapsed into rubble before the end of the century.


During the Civil War; when the King was at Oxford, he rode over to Boarstall, just across the Bucks border, and happened to come in for an engagement, that he watched from the roof of the gatehouse. After the Roundheads had been beaten off, he called at Studley Priory on his return journey, and was there entertained to dinner. The chair in which Charles I sat was presented to St. Barnabas's some years ago by the former owner of the Studley estate, and is still to be seen there. Few churches possess a relic of the Royal Martyr, One thing calls for mention before coming to modern times. Horton Feast used to be held about the end of August; that is on the most convenient date nearest to the Nativity of the BVM according to the Old Style calendar. It is therefore most highly probable that the Horton chapel was dedicated to St. Mary, as the Priory came to be later. Charlton‑on‑Otmoor church is also St. Mary's, and Beckley's is dedicated to the Assumption.


What is also very clear is that devotion to Our Lady of Otmoor ran strongly, and so much so that the Reformation failed to put an end to it. After the calvary had been torn down from the rood screen in Charlton church, the parishioners contrived a replacement of the cross and the statues of SS. Mary and John as best they could, using evergreens. The garlands, as they came to be called, were renewed every May Day, and again in September. After the ceremony, the figure of Our Lady was borne across the moor by the men of the village and taken up the hill to Studley Priory, where it was shown to the lady of the house. The processions were still being made well into the last century and the garlands custom still survives at Charlton.


In the year 1802, the Rev. Theophilus Leigh Cooke became vicar of Beckley. On his death in 1846 he was succeeded by his nephew, George Theophilus Cooke, who lived, until the end of 1893; between them,. they held the living for 91 years. Several members of the Cooke family took Holy Orders, and were academically distinguished; they were also the owners of the Beckley estate, and Theophilus Leigh, incidentally a cousin of Jane Austen's, was evidently a strong personality and a fine type of "squarson". The Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, had a high regard for him.


He took a keen interest in Horton cum‑Studley, as it was even then called, and frequently visited it on horseback. It may have been he who first planned to build a new church at Horton, but the ambition was not fulfilled within his lifetime.


George Theophilus Cooke was a Tractarian. At the age of 19 he entered Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1838, five years after John Keble had preached his Assize Sermon in St. Mary's on the theme of "National Apostacy". That marked the beginning of the religious revival, and the first of the Tracts for the Times, by which it was largely propagated, appeared a month or two later. The movement was at flood‑tide by the time the young undergraduate found himself in the centre of it, where he was to spend his most formative years.


It was not until 1866 that the plan for the Horton church began to take shape. George Theophilus offered to bear the whole cost himself, and it was decided to use the site of the original chapel. This piece of land, Chapel Close, was parish property, and it was agreed that it should be handed over. But officialdom, in the shape of the Poor Law Commissioners, intervened, and insisted that it must be sold; the price was fixed at 50, besides which Mr. Cooke had to pay all the legal expenses involved. The complication also naturally delayed the starting of the building. Another on one of his walks beyond the church towards the moor, he was shown some carved stones and other building material that had been dumped there after the demolition of an old farmhouse that had stood close to the church. It was quite clear to him that they must have come originally from the first Horton chapel, and it can be assumed that he had them removed to the vicarage garden for safer keeping. That would have been the obvious thing to do, and there is no other explanation of the stones still to be seen there.


The parish was again fortunate in Starey's successor, the Rev. Forbes Auchmuty, who consolidated the work begun on the heritage of former days. He stayed here for 13 years. One thing that he did was to organise a parish mission, which was conducted by a priest of the diocese of Salisbury. It was in his time that the Bishop of Lincoln, the saintly Edward King, was tried on charges of illegalities in ceremonial. A special service of intercession was held at St. Barnabas's, and the congregation also contributed to the fund being raised for the Bishop's defence. He was acquitted, and the effect of the Lincoln Judgement, as it came to be called, was to put an end to the prosecutions and persecutions that had become a crying scandal. Among Auchmuty's successors was William Cooke, another member of the Beckley family.


An organ was installed in the church in 1916, most of the cost being paid by Miss Hilda Henderson, only daughter of the owner of Studley Priory. Among her many other gifts were the altar crucifix, and the gold and jewelled chalice. It was she, too, who undertook the painting of the figures on the war memorial, though they have deteriorated sadly after nearly half a century. Later she entered the Community of St. Andrew in London, and Sister Hope, as she became in Religion, continued to take a keen interest in the church up to the time of her death in 1961 at an advanced age.


It was also during the 1914‑18 war that vestments were first worn in the church. At this time a large party of boy scouts, mostly from the East End, had their summer camp in the parish. Among the clergy leading them, who took part in the services at St. Barnabas's, were Humphrey Whitby, Magnus Laing, and C. P. Shaw. The names are interesting for the reason that Fr. Whitby afterwards became vicar of the famous London church of St. Mary's, Graham Street (now Bourne Street), and the other two joined his staff. All became very well known, and were among the more notable figures who followed Butler of Wantage in the pulpit of this church. Earlier there had been Canon Stuckey Coles, and Edward Clarence Paget, then principal of the missionary training college at Dorchester and later Dean of Calgary in Canada. Dr. Gore preached here when Bishop of Oxford; so did the legendary Dr. Phelps, Provost of Oriel.


The longest incumbency was that of the Rev. J. Kinchin Smith, who was instituted in 1915 and held the living until his death at the close of 1931. He was evidently a great personality and is still remembered by some of the older parishioners. Here as elsewhere the second war brought difficult times for the church, and it was ultimately decided to re‑unite Horton‑cum‑Studley with Beckley, to which Elsfield (St. Thomas Becket) was also joined. This followed an inter‑regnum of some three years; the first vicar of the combined parishes was the Rev. Clifford Jarvis, now Archdeacon of Lincoln.