We have seen so far that Penn had its own Clerk or Priest in 1183, and that the oldest parts of the present church appear to be late twelfth century, probably built in 1177. The question then arises of whether there was a still older church or churches on the same site or elsewhere, and the answer to this depends very largely on when there were sufficient people living in Penn to justify a church
There is no reference to Penn in Domesday Book but this does not mean that there was no one living here in 1086. Domesday Book was not a comprehensive list of all towns and villages, but was concerned only with those places at which geld or tax was collected. Penn was paying geld through the manor house at Taplow, and so was included in its Domesday totals. In fact, a very good case has been made that Penn was already a 5 hide manor with some 600 acres under plough, as a part of King Alfred’s royal estate centred on Burnham, some 200 years before the Conquest. By the time of the Conquest, in 1066, Penn seems to have been nearly fully developed, with 1500 acres of arable.
It is therefore reasonable to assume that there were earlier churches. Archaeological evidence, either of an earlier church or graveyard has not been found, probably because no one has been looking for them, and we should make a point of carefully inspecting any holes that are dug in or near the church.
Before the Conquest most local churches are likely to have wooden. The century or so between c.1050 – 1150 is recognised to have been a period of great rebuilding when simple wooden churches were replaced by stone churches or its local equivalent, flint in our case, and with more style. A pre-Conquest observer recorded that ‘the whole world was putting on a white mantle of churches’, and William of Malmesbury reported in 1125 ‘churches and monasteries rising in every village town and city in a new style of architecture’.
Domesday Book is not helpful on the presence of churches in Buckinghamshire. Some counties are more fortunate but only three churches are mentioned in the whole of Buckinghamshire out of what are assumed to have been two hundred or more.
An earlier church may well lie beneath the present one, but it is a reasonable assumption that the very first church to be built in Penn was a simple wooden building on a knoll half a mile from today’s church.
© Miles Green, May 1996