How Old is our Church


No 8: Minster priests; reasons for moving the church uphill.

A simple wooden church may reasonably be supposed to have stood on Church Knoll for at least a century or two before the Conquest. Christianity returned to England with St Augustine’s arrival in 597 and by 643 Birinus was appointed the first bishop of Dorchester and local tradition has him baptising converts in Bapsey Pond, Taplow.

F or the next two or three hundred years, religious life was focused in the monasteries or minsters which were often richly endowed with land and linked to adjacent royal estates. An important minster at Cookham is documented from the early 8th C and its ‘parish’ may well have covered the royal estate centred at Burnham which, I have proposed elsewhere, included Penn.

There were no local priests and it was the minster priests that went out visiting outlying areas, often performing their duties in the open air or in a wooden church. It was only when the large royal estates started to be broken up, to reward royal thanes, mostly from the 10th C onwards, that local manorial churches started to appear. Local churches were of different status, some with an attendant priest and graveyard and some without either. Tithes and taxes such as plough alms, churchscot and soulscot (burial fees), were a valuable asset and so were often a source of contention between the old minsters and new lords. Local graveyards were not always permitted at first despite inconvenience to far flung parishes.

No burials have been found at Church Knoll. Deadmans Dene, on the northern border of the parish, where an Anglo-Saxon warrior burial was found in 1828, is a possible early burial site and the field name ‘Bonescroft’ under part of Wheeler Avenue and the Middle School is suggestive, although the area lies firmly across the old parish border in Tylers Green.

The move of the church up to its present site probably took place in the century or so after the Conquest and there are a number of possible explanations that fit the events of the time :-

— It may have been part of a community agricultural reorganisation which introduced the rotating open field system and required the concentration of a previously dispersed population.

— It may have been a response to campaigns by several early Bishops of Lincoln to stamp out superstitious and pagan practices associated with particular places. Wycombe is specifically mentioned during St Hugh’s tenure (1186-1200).

— It may have arisen in the same kind of way as when a Lincolnshire landowner, in c1180, left a wooden church to a Priory on condition that a new church be built on 3 acres of land next to the road which he also bequeathed, requiring, that the bodies be moved from the old graveyard to the new.

— Or perhaps it was simply that when the fashion for stone churches arrived, around the time of Conquest (see part 3), the present site was considered more convenient or appropriate.

© Miles Green, April 1997

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