How Old is our Church

No 1: 12th Century Evidence

How old is our Church?

This is a question that we ask of any church, and the older the church, the more meaningless the question becomes. Churches grow and change throughout the centuries reflecting both the size and wealth of the population, and changing fashions of architecture and worship. Thus parts of Penn church belong to each of the preceding centuries and we have to ask instead, what is the oldest visible part of the church, and probably with a different answer, when was a church first built on this site?  What we can be quite sure of is that the earliest forerunner of today’s church would have been unrecognisably different. Much smaller for a start.

Dr. Clive Rouse, who lives in Gerrards Cross is one of the country’s leading experts on old churches. It was him that painstakingly re-assembled the Doom painting when it was mistakenly crow­barred out of its place above the chancel arch in 1938. I went to see him some years after and he was quite clear that the yellow mortar in the north wall of the nave (the wall you see as you approach the church) suggested 12th century work. He was able to say this as a result of working on many of the churches in this area.

This dating is supported by the 12th century font of which the stem and base are of Purbeck marble, and to some extent by the stone coffin just outside the vestry, which is thought to be early 13th century.  (I always enjoy the comment of the vicar of 1883 who noted of the stone coffin, that, ‘there are no present contents!’)

Written records of this period are scanty, and there are almost no parish churches which can lay claim to a recorded foundation date. However we do have some unusually significant dates for Penn. The Cartulary of Missenden Abbey records ‘Hugh, Clerk of Penn’ as a witness to an agreement in 1183.  Clerk was the term used then, as it still is today in legal documents, in the sense of cleric, and so Hugh is the first recorded priest in Penn. ‘Walter de la Penn’ appears on a record in 1194 and is referred to as clerk of Penn in 1200. The celebration of the 700th anniversary of the church, which was marked in by the putting up of the Iych gate in 1913, thus seems to have been decided more on the grounds of convenience than of history.

Perhaps the most intriguing clue is provided by a letter written in 1802 by the Rev. John Middleton, who was curate, and then vicar, between 1766 and 1800, responding to enquiries by one of the Lysons brothers, the authors of Magna Britannia, an historical and topographical survey by county.  In his letter to the Lysons, he says he saw the date 1177 on a foundation stone whilst the Curzon vault was being dug under the chancel in 1797. Buckinghamshire was published together with Berkshire and Bedfordshire in 1806.  It was republished in 2022.  The letter is in the British Museum under BM Add 9411.

We are very fortunate that John Middleton had been Curate and then Vicar since 1766 and he kept meticulous records.  His response is correspondingly full of accurate and interesting detail.’

John Middleton’s letter to the Lysons, opens as a PDF.

I shall examine his claim that he saw the date 1177 on a foundation stone, more closely in the next article.

© Miles Green, January 1996

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No 2: 1177 Inscription in 1797 vault

John Middleton, the vicar in 1802, claimed that he had seen the date 1177 on a foundation stone whilst the Curzon vault was being dug under the chancel in 1797.

Outside the east wall of the chancel (the wall unfortunately ‘improved’ by black knapped flints in the 1860s), there are steps leading down to the vault. The entrance is now bricked up, but about ten years ago it was opened and the then vicar, Oscar Muspratt, Earl Howe and myself, went in to explore. There was no obvious inscription, but poor lighting and the presence of a large number of ancestral bones and decaying coffins was inhibiting and we did not feel able to have a close search.

In the absence of any physical evidence can we reasonably believe John Middleton’s claim? Expert opinion is divided. To find an inscription of such an early date would, according to my Oxford supervisor Dr. John Blair, a leading historian of the early church, be both unprecedented and improbable. On the other hand, Dr. Doris Jones-Baker, who specialises in the graffiti found in churches, agrees that it would be unique but regards it as perfectly possible since there is no doubt that in later centuries the dates of building and consecration were typically cut into the stonework. Both the age of the font and Dr. Rouse’s estimate for the age of the north wall of the nave support 1177, which also marries in with the wider picture which saw the great majority of later medieval parish churches built by the mid 12th century and the parochial system crystallised by 1200.

It is a pity that John Middleton did not describe in detail how the date was written – whether in Roman numerals or in our modem Arabic form which was not commonly used before about the 14th century. The date Middleton saw would presumably have been written as MCLXXVII, perhaps preceded by ‘anno incamationis’, but he was an educated man, the tutor to several ‘young gentlemen’ and one can reasonably assume that he was entirely familiar with Latin, which remained the language of record until the 1730s, and did not regard it as of any particular significance.

My own view is that Middleton’ s claim was an accurate one. He had been curate and vicar for 42 years when he died, ‘universally regretted’ in 1808, and his many entries in the parish register are meticulous, neat and full of interesting information. There seems no good reason why should wish to mislead the author of Magna Britannia. On this view, we missed our 800th anniversary in 1977.

John Middleton’s letter to the Lysons brothers authors of Magn Britannica, Opens as a PDF.

© Miles Green, April 1996.

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No 3: Where was the earlier church?

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 

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No 4: Dedication: Holy Trinity or St. Paul?

Before we look away from the site of today’s church let us briefly consider any clue there might be to an earlier church on the same site. The discovery of earlier foundations would of course be conclusive and this should be borne in mind when any work is being done, but the alignment of the present church is also of interest. Christian churches follow the earlier pagan pattern of aligning the altar to the point of sunrise but this direction varies widely through the year, especially in our northern latitudes, and also depends on the height of both the observer and the horizon.

It has been suggested that during the Saxon period new churches were aligned to the point of sunrise on the day of the patronal festival and that the date of the village feast or annual fair (which has been forgotten for Penn) coincided with it. But this does not work for the feast of the Trinity which falls the week following Whit Sunday, which is in turn seven Sundays after Easter and so, like Easter, varies with the lunar calendar.

However, re-dedication of churches at a time of re­building or re-endowment were not at all unusual and the earliest reference to the Holy Trinity in Penn that has been found so far (in the will of Thomas Alday) takes us back onIy to 1505. Although the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated in AD325 by the Church Council at Nicaea, the feast of the Trinity was apparently onIy made general for the Western Church in 1334. It was shortly afterwards, in 1344, that Chalcombe Priory in Northamptonshire was finally confirmed as the proprietor of our church following an appeal to Rome and it seems to have been at this stage that the south aisle and Lady chapel were added.

The newly enlarged church would have been re-consecrated by the Bishop of Lincoln, as was required by Canon Law, and Penn’s monastic proprietors may well have re-dedicated their church at this time to honour a festival that was in vogue. Holy Trinity is an unusual dedication in Buckinghamshire and there are onIy two or three early examples. On the other hand, St. Paul was a popular dedication and the names of Pauls Hill and of the farm Old Pauls, whose fields (which included the present vicarage) lay to the east of the lane and were bounded by it, could indicate an earlier dedication. St Paul had two feast days, 25 January and 30 June.

I have long had in mind to check when sunrise is aligned with our church, perhaps by observing from the tower with due allowance for an original ground level observation, or by taking a compass bearing of the alignment and laying it out on more open ground. Any ideas would be welcomed, and particularly from those living nearby, an idea of roughly what month we should be looking at.

The alignment of burials is also of interest. It was important that the dead were buried with their feet to the east, both like Christ in the tomb, and to be ready to meet him coming from the east on the day of judgement. Graves were therefore aligned with the church and the discovery of any sufficiently old burials on a different alignment would suggest an earlier church.

© Miles Green, August 1996

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No 5: Evidence for Church Knoll

We do not know whether today’s church was the first to be built on the same site but we can propose, with some confidence, that the earliest church in Penn was on Church Knoll, half a mile away in the valley to the north east.

The name itself offers the best evidence. The earliest written reference to it that I have seen is only mid-17th century but long-standing local place and road names can be taken seriously. Many have survived accurately and tenaciously over many hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. It does not matter that the society may well have been illiterate since illiteracy is particularly conducive to accurate oral transmission.

There is also very convincing support from the pattern of roads and footpaths which, in ancient countryside such as Penn, are very good indicators of settlement. I suggested in an earlier article (part 3) that prior to the connection with Taplow, Penn was part of a Saxon royal estate centred on Burnham. The focus of roads into Penn from Bumham, via Beaconsfield, is on Church Knoll.

Until the 1840’s, Witheridge Lane, the main road that we now drive along from Beaconsfield, turned off at Penbury Farm which was, according to its name, the fortified manor house of Penn. Witheridge Lane continued on down to Church Knoll, then turned sharp left up the valley to ‘Withiheg’, a croft which is recorded in 1199 as belonging to the Turvilles, the overlords of the de la Penne family, which we now know as Puttenham Farm. Thus Witheridge Lane is so named because it led to Withiheg and Crown Lane was the only road up to today’s church from the Beaconsfield direction.

In the same way, the tortuous route between Penn church and Taplow, via Paul’s Hill, suggests that the manorial link between Penn and Taplow was later and artificial.  Elsewhere I have suggested it may well have been a military connection.

Another pointer to the secondary nature of the settlement around Penn church could be that it seems never to have had its own name in the same way as other hamlets like Knotty Green, Forty Green and Tylers Green. We assume today that it is called Penn but Vestry records refer to the area as Penn Church, reserving Penn for the parish as a whole.

The Tithe Map of 1838 shows about 50 acres of woods and fields along Penn Bottom up to Church Knoll all sharing the name Downham (Downham Grove still appears on modem maps). Downham may possibly have been the earlier name for a Saxon hamlet around Church Knoll which sits on (still) common land right at the centre of the parish, overlooked by the fortified manor house at Penbury. We would need an earlier spelling to know whether Downham meant ‘hill village’ (down ham) or ‘at the hills’ (dunum).

© Miles Green, October 1996

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No 6: Sarsen Stones as Evidence

Sarsens by Crown Lane

Large sarsens or sandstones, like those that line the track below Church Knoll, were often used in pre­-christian religious sites and there is, in fact, a local tradition of a circle of Druid stones on the Knoll. One version says that the stones were hauled up Crown lane (where several apparently littered the roadside until it was widened) to start a new church, but that most of them walked back home every night. In another version it was the Devil who dragged them back. This type of legend is not peculiar to Penn and is fairly common elsewhere.

Sarsens were particularly useful and valuable to early man because they were the only large stone in the south of England that was easily accessible, very strong and could be moved by hand fairly easily. Fred Payne, my former neighbour, explained to me the technique still practised by farmers at the start of the century when they had to dig these stones out of their fields. They dug under the stone and by balancing it on a series of wooden poles were able to swing it around and slide it along relatively easily.

Sarsens could be very large, one quarried for Windsor Castle, was 15 feet long and weighed about 50 tons. Together with pudding stones (a sarsen matrix surrounded by pebbles or roughly rounded flints), they are found all over the Chilterns and were mapped in 1952 by Dr. Morley Davies and Dr. Arnold Baines. They gave Chesham its name (Ceastel, a heap of stones), as well as Honor End (hon, whetstone), Stony Green and Ibstone. Stonehouse, in Church Road, was so called in the 17th century but the name is probably very much older and presumably refers to the plentiful sarsen stones found there.

Sarsen in base of Penn Tower

The stones are to be seen in or near the churchyard and/or in the foundations of the towers of fourteen Chiltern churches including Penn, Little Missenden and Amersham, as well as Chesham. They often marked parish boundaries as at Widmer Pond where a large stone marked with a cross lay on the Penn and Tylers Green border until 1973. There was a five foot long stone on Winchmore Hill common near the Village Hall which was apparently dug up when Horsemoor lane was widened in 1912 and now lies on the far side of the common.

Farmers had been finding these stones in their fields over the centuries but in 1952, Fred Payne, who was living in what was then an estate cottage on the Knoll, dug a cesspit and found four large stones stacked one on the other as if they were roughly stepped.

Then two larger stones were unearthed by the Electricity Board when putting in a cable along the track running past the house. In 1974, the new owner, Freddie Griffith Jones, doubled the size of the house by adding a new west wing and put in a new driveway and garage. During construction, 46 stones of varying size were dug up from various depths. The contractor, Mr. C. Bristow thought they were randomly scattered but the digger driver, Charlie Sawyer, found what he remembered as a circle of large stones about two feet down, of about nine foot diameter with a small hole at the centre which was black, he supposed from a fire.

This was the story I put together in 1982 after talking to all concerned and I was very excited by it. Knowing that Pope Gregory in AD 601 had advised that new Christian churches should incorporate pagan monuments in order to borrow their powerful associations (which may well have been the case at Chesham), my imagination was allowed full rein (despite disappointing scepticism from experienced archaeological friends) and I did my own dowsing and digging which, as I thought, confirmed my theories.

© Miles Green, December 1996

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