St. Mary's Church, Sydenham

Ambrosden church

The church of St. Mary, dedicated as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a small building of flint and stone, dating mainly from the 13th century, although considerably restored in the 19th century. It comprises a chancel, nave, north transept, south porch, and wooden central tower with a short, shingled spire.

The chancel and nave retain most of their 13thcentury lancet windows: two single lancets in each of the north and south walls of the chancel and two on each side of the nave. Before the north transept was made there was probably a third lancet in the north wall to correspond with that in the south wall. Before the tower arches were rebuilt in the 19th century they were said to be plain 13th-century arches with masonry responds and moulded abaci. The piscina with fluted bowl and trefoil arch in the south wall and the plain tub font also date from the 13th century. The greater part of all the 13th-century work presumably belongs to the year 1293 or just after, for in that year the church was 'in ruins', and work on its restoration had begun. 

In the 14th century the chancel was lightened by the insertion of a three-light window at the east end, and in the next century the church was beautified with a rood-screen and loft that survived until 1840. 

There appear to have been no major alterations to the fabric until the 19th century, but minor repairs and improvements were no doubt carried out from time to time. It was reported in 1607 that the floor was out of repair and in 1608 that the Communion table was broken. The table now in the vestry may be the new one that the wardens were ordered to provide. The steeple was said to be in need of repair in 1620, and an inscription with the names of John North, jnr., and Richard Web(b), churchwardens, 1662, recorded by Rawlinson, but which has since disappeared, may have commemorated some repairs in the latter year. In 1700 the chancel needed repair, but no records have survived of any work done to the church in the 18th century. The west gallery, however, 'a shocking unsightly thing' according to a 19th-century vicar, was probably erected towards the end of it. When Parker visited the church in the early 19th century he found the rood-screen and loft disfigured by whitewash. 

In 1877 a badly needed restoration was undertaken. The chief structural alterations were the lengthening of the nave by 7 feet at the west end, the lengthening of the chancel and the rebuilding of the tower arches, the erection of an entirely new tower and shingled spire of oak, and the building of a north transept and vestry. The walls of the extended nave were buttressed on both sides. Lee's drawings of the church before and after the restoration show how the chancel was lengthened and how the central tower and its supporting arches were moved some way to the west. When the work of restoration was being considered, it was proposed to 'raise the ceiling' and 'remodel' the seats. The vicar said that the seats in the chancel were useless 'by reason of the tower ceiling and beams', and that under the new arrangement these seats would be made available. The chancel ceiling, which is now coved and plastered, was presumably intended. The nave has a hammerbeam roof, and although much of its timberwork has been renewed, the main beams are ancient. During the restoration the south doorway, which retained 'good' iron work, was replaced and the south porch was rebuilt. An early window of three lights in the south wall of the nave was replaced by double lancets, which were later filled with painted glass by Bell & Sons of Bristol in memory of the Revd. W. D. Littlejohn (d. 1891). A window in the 'Decorated style' was inserted in the west wall of the nave and the new north transept was given 'lancet' windows. The gallery and the screen were taken down. The architect was John Billing of Reading and the builder Giles Holland of Thame. The estimated cost of restoration was £647. 

In the 20th century a clock was set in the tower in memory of William Morris, vicar 1904–19. Electric light replaced in 1936 an earlier system of lighting that was installed in 1913 in memory of Margaret Mary Morris, wife of the vicar. In 1958 the north transept was used as a vestry and had been cut off from the church by a wooden partition.

A 17th-century memorial to Mary Day (d. 1698) has disappeared. There are two 18th-century memorials, one to Abigail (d. 1705), wife of Robert Seywell, jnr. and daughter of Edward Phillips of Thame, draper, and the other to John Quartermain (d. 1780). The first is now in the north transept. A tablet on the north wall of the nave commemorates the parishioners who died in the First World War.

At the time of the Edwardian inventory there was one silver chalice. In 1958 the church possessed one dating from between 1660 and 1684, which was probably presented about that period. There were four bells in 1958 as there were in 1552. The treble is probably a medieval casting and the tenor is dated 1625. The sanctus bell, dated 1650, now hangs in the ringing chamber. 

The register of baptisms and burials dates from 1705, that of marriages from 1754, but there are some earlier transcripts.

Historical information about St. Mary's Church is provided by 'Parishes: Sydenham', in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 8, Lewknor and Pyrton Hundreds, ed. Mary D Lobel (London, 1964), pp. 116-127. British History Online [accessed 20 March 2023].

St. Mary's Church is a Grade II* listed building. For more information about the listing see CHURCH OF ST MARY, Sydenham - 1180738 | Historic England.

For more information about St. Mary's Church see Parishes: Sydenham | British History Online (