Hanwell Heritage

Notes on the History and Architecture of the Parish Church of St. Peter,Hanwell, Oxfordshire 

Compiled by The Rev. Leslie W.A. Ahrendt, MA, FLS. Rector of Hanwell

St Peter’s Day 29th June 1941

Battle of Edge Hill
Capitals of the nave
Carved figures of musicians
Carving of Henry lll
Church Clock
External friezes
Ghost of Hanwell Castle
The Norman Font
William Cope and Hanwell Castle

The Church is partly of the 13th century (1230 A.D. onwards), mostly of the 14th century,
with some additions of the 15th century; with very slight later alterations and restoration. Outstanding and unique features are the capitals of the nave arcade (within) and the carvings on the wall plate below the Chancel roof (without). The latter are enumerated by Charles E. Keyser, M.L., F.S.A., in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association, December 1921, page 145, as follows:-

South side, beginning from the west: a ball flower; a figure with head. of hare and winged body and twisted tail; a head; a ball flower; a head; two human headed dragons facing each other; a mutilated figure; a human headed monster with winged lion’s body; two warriors with small round shields facing each other; foliage and head with cowl, facing a rabbit; a man with staff; a dog and stag facing each other; a man holding a branch; a human headed monster.

North side, beginning from the west; a head; a ball flower; a head; a man with two hounds on a leash; a mermaid holding a fish in each hand; a dog with rabbit on its back; a human headed monster, facing a leopard; a human headed winged monster; a head; an old lady with a pitch-fork pursuing a fox stealing her goose; two roses; two human headed monsters, one with helmet facing each other; a bunch of foliage; a figure in a coffin holding a chalice; a figure with a dagger in his side.  Mr.Keyser suggests these might have been desiged by William of Wykeham in his younger days, which would place them about 1350 A.D., and make them a later addition to the Chancel. The size and spaciousness of the Church for such a small village and the attractive appearance of the yellowish brown Hornton stone are both characteristics of the Churches of this district.


The oldest feature of the Church is the Norman font (in the south aisle), which is tub shaped, and decorated with an interlacing arcade of semicircular headed arches. Mr Keyser, in the British Archaeological Society’s Journal, refers to this as a relic of the earlier, Norman Church. The list of Rectors of Hanwell does not begin, however, until 1233 A.D.

Standing in the naive, there is visible above the approx. Chancel arch, the outline of the original steeply pitched roof, this was that of the earliest form of the present building dating from about the year 1230 A.D. and consisting, possibly of the nave only, possibly of the nave and the north aisle. Thus, the earliest work in the Church, of Early English period presumably consists of the walls at the east and west ends of the nave, above the chancel and tower arches; and it may include, also, the walls of the north Doors aisle. Contemporary with these are the beautiful early slender English doorways, on the north and south sides, with their conspicuous slender shafts, roll moulds, and deeply cut molding. These original doorways may have been moved outwards when the aisles were built. Some writers describe the north aisle as later than the nave and the south aisle, but this may be merely an impression due to its later window; the rectangular ones at the side replaced some earlier windows, and it is difficult to see that these could have been other than a series of lancets, and the narrow character of the north aisle does not suggest that it is late. The windows at the west end of this north aisle, and of the nave, may be crude plate tracery, transitional between Early English, and Early Geometric Decorated; but, in small and insignificant windows like these, there is scarcely material to enable a confident decision to be made.

Not long after, possibly about 1250 A.D. there was added the south aisle, belonging to the transitional period between Early English, and Early Geometric Decorated, with its characteristic window arches still showing the slender shafts. The east window of this south aisle, doubtless coeval with it, is a beautiful example of plate tracery, with roll moulded mullions characteristic of the transition; as is also the piscina combined with credence shelf in the south east corner. The other windows of this aisle have slightly later tracery.

Some time later, about 1270 A.D. possibly, the Chancel was added, being inclined slightly to the right, on account of the configuration of the land without. This belongs to the Decorated period and contains two low-side windows, now blocked up. These are some times thought to have been leper windows, whose occasional existence has possibly been generalised as an explanation for the making of all these windows. In general, they apparently served a variety of purposes where communication between the inside and outside of the Church was desirable. It may be noted that the head at the right side of the Chancel appears to be that of Henry III. The Chancel also bears on its outer wall the carvings referred to in the summary. Apparently, at the time the Chancel was built, the steeply pitched roof was raised. about two feet, and the outline of this is visible, less clearly, above the position of the original roof. The Chancel arch is early Decorated, with a plain continuous chamfer, without any capital, an unusual feature to be seen in the nave arcade of the neighboring parish church of Cropredy. Indications of ancient rood loft remain.

The east window is a magnificent specimen of early bar tracery, of five lights with trefoiled heads, and simple plain, produced, curved, interlacing mullions. In The centre on the north side, is a simple two light window of the same style. The design of the tracery of the two three light windows in the side of the south aisle is also of this type, having been inserted later into its windows. The molded triple selilia and piscina are also decorated work. To the South from this period there belong, too, the south porch with plain, chamfered, continuous arch; and the nave arcade. Although it would seem that the arcade must have been erected somewhat earlier, the arches are of early Decorated style, as also the rare capitals, which may not have been carved at once; for it will be noticed that those at the west end have remained rough, un-carved blocks to this day. The pillars are compound with four clustered columns, and an octagonal abacus. The capitals are sculptured with human heads and outstretched arms; the hands clasping round the capital. On the north side, above, there is a small embattlement as an additional ornament, with further heads above. On the south side there is no embattlement, and the upper series of heads is replaced by one of complete figures playing the voil and fife. The carving of all these figures is remarkably realistic and expressive, and this feature is the most remarkable in the Church.

This brings us to the beginning of the fourteenth century. About this time the tower was built, and there is a Decorated arch between this and the nave; while it is separated from the aisle which surround it by massive, plain, chamfered arches of eight orders. There was originally a small Gallery under the tower; indications as to where this ran; and the staircase which lead to it can be clearly seen. In this period there was inserted the east window of the north aisle, which is mature Geometric with a reticulated tracery, somewhat transitional to the curvilinear, or flowing, type in which the late Decorated period found its climax. This window may be placed about 1315 A.D. while little later, say 1350 A.D. belong the three windows in the sides of the Chancel, to which reference was omitted before. These are of a simple curvilinear type, with lights with heads with ogee curves. To this period there belongs the sculpture now in the east wall of the north aisle. This has often been referred to as a reredos. Some writers, noticing that its ends have been cut off to fit it in to the present position, have suggested that it may have been the original reredos to the High Altar. Mr. Keyser’s suggestion is more likely, that it is “probably the side of a monument, possible of the lady whose effigy lies on the floor of the south aisle”, at the east end. It is elegantly carved, but somewhat damaged.

Possibly, about this time, there was a partitioned off a room, for the use of a visiting or chantry priest, or the sacristan of the Church, at the west end. of the south aisle. A fireplace (in which there is now a modern grate) is to be seen in the corner, and was possibly there, with the room in use, since the aisle was built. Above this, on the roof of the aisle was another little room, entered by a doorway (now blocked up) from the tower stairs.

The slanting wall, on the south side of the tower, which formed one boundary of this upper room, can be been from without. Beside it is the elegant rare, Decorated chimney, for the fireplace below. Apparently these rooms interfered with the windows at the west end of the aisle, for the west one on the south side was reconstructed with later mullions (though in the early Geometric style of about 1270 A.D.) But the west window of the south aisle has tracery of a later period, transitional between, Decorated and Perpendicular, with two mullions reaching to the top of the window; presumably about 1350 A.D.

As this new period developed, the walls above the nave arcade were raised, so as to provide the third position of the roof, the flat, elevated form which we now see. This was done in order that clerestory windows might be inserted, resulting in a great increase of interior lighting. The rather attractive clerestory windows are rectangular headed, and consist each of two lights with quinquefoiled heads. Towards the close of the perpendicular period, there were inserted the debased rectangular windows in the north aisle (presumably to give more light, as would have been necessary if this side had previously only lancets). These are typical of domestic, rather than ecclesiastical, architecture, have wooden lintels, and were most likely placed here when Hanwell Castle was built in l497, by William Cope, cofferer to Henry VII. This completes the building of the Church as we now see it.

During this last decade of the 15th century, the patronage of the rectory of Hanwell passed into the hands of the Cope family. Before a century had elapsed, the district was noted as a stronghold of Puritan influence. In 1585 Sir Anthony Cope presented John Dod, Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, to the Rectory of Hanwell, and his contemporary puritan Robert Cleaver to the neighbouring Rector of Drayton. It was probably Dod who introduced, the three houseling benches, which may be regarded as late 16th century. They were placed round three sides of the Communion table, which was brought down into the Chancel, or even the nave; and those who received the Sacrament sat upon them while so doing.

Another relic of this period is the oak table now standing at the side of the Chancel. This was introduced in order to supersede the medieval High Altar. It was apparently an ordinary Elizabethan domestic table, which has been raised by additions at the base. To John Dod, also, must be given the credit of starting the earliest Church register now in existence, which begins on February 2nd, 1586. It is interesting to note that for these earliest recorded years some names recur which are still represented in the village – Hazlewood, Buller, and Gunn. It seems likely that the opening pages of the register are in John Dod’s own handwriting, for it remains the Same during his incumbency, and changes immediately afterwards. The valuable paten and chalice now used rarely, which the Church possesses date from this period. John Dod remained, at Hanwell for 20 years, being then “suspended, for non-conformity’ (as was also Robert Cleaver). In the confusion which followed, Archbishop Bancroft attempted to present to the benefices of Hanwell and Drayton on the ground of a lapse; but he finally agreed that Sir Anthony Cope should present, on condition that, of his two nominees, Robert Harris should go to Hanwell. This celebrated Puritan officiated therefore, in succession to John Dod. It is sometimes recorded that he came in 1614 A.D. which implies a long vacancy; but this cannot be so for Bancroft died. in 1610. Sir Anthony Cope himself died in 1614, so to the incumbency of Harris belongs the large monument with alabaster effigies which blocks up the eastern window on the north side of the chancel. The initials R.H. on this monument are those of the Rector, who preached a funeral sermon entitled “Samuel’s Funeral”. Keyser relates that this “was issued in pamphlet form, and was treated as a Bible amongst the early Puritans in Banbury and the neighbourhood.”. Unfortunately, no copy of this seems to have been preserved in the Church, but there is in the Church chest a copy, printed in 1626, of another of Dr. Harris’s sermons, entitled “Hezekiah’s Recovery” Further at this time, the east part of the floor of the chancel was raised, so that a vault for the Cope family might be constructed beneath. The sanctuary is thus approached by a series of steps in the middle; while this, modified later, does not spoil the appearance of the Chancel, viewed from the nave, it does spoil the piscina and triple sedilia by bringing the shelf of the former and the seats of the latter to the floor level.

In August 1642, not long before the Battle of Edge Hill was fought, some four miles away, Cavalier soldiers took possession of Hanwell Castle, and turned Dr. Harris out of his Rectory house. Reminiscent of this incident is an inscription in the fly leaf of the Church register which reads

“This register was lost in the late wars, 1642 til 1649, when it was found in Oxford”.

Within the body of the book, there is a gap in the entry of Baptisms, from March 14th, 1639, until 1647, and in this gap is inscribed

“This book was taken away by soldiers in the year 1642 and 1649 “.

Presumably the register was removed when Dr. Harris was turned out of his house. He does not seem to have vacated the benefice until 1645, when he was instituted to the Rectory of St. Botolph, Bishopsgate, in the City of London. In the following year, Dr. Harris became Rector of Petersfield in Hampshire; and, in l648, President of Trinity College, Oxford, and Rector of the college living of Garsington (Oxfordshire).

We may, however, feel that he had a deep affection for this benefice, where he stayed for so long because the register records, on June 18th, 1664, the burial in Hanwell Church of Joanna, widow of Robert Harris.

There appears to be no record of what happened from l642 until 1645, when the Rector was driven out of his parish, nor whether there was any interval after he vacated the benefice. His successor was Walter Harris, who is definitely recorded as Rector in 1651, in the register, when his daughter was baptized. The present old register which covers the period 1586 to 1754, really consists of a number of earlier volumes, later bound together. The dates do not run consecutively, but in groups, as baptisms, marriages, and burials were in the first instance kept in separate volumes. A fresh register (or section of the present volume) was started at this period with a title page bearing the inscription

“A register for the parish of Hanwell, according to an Act of Parliament, commencing September 29th l653. Walter Harris, Minister and Registrar.”

This Rector almost covered the period of the Commonwealth, remaining until 1658. A memorial on the wall of the south aisle, to his wife, bears the date 1656.

The Restoration period covered by the incumbency of George Ashwell, also left its mark on the Church. An entry, duly witnessed, in the register, dated August 3lst, l662, records that, according to the Act of Uniformity, the declaration was made, and the new Prayer Book used on “the Lord’s Day immediately preceding the Feast of St.Bartholomew,1662”.

At this point, history is recorded, on two brasses under the Chancel carpet. The Rector, and the parish are greatly indebted to C. E. Wrangham Esq., not only for getting these notes published in order to help the Church funds, but also for the following note on the brasses, with translation of the Latin inscriptions.

Note on the Brasses In Hanwell Church – C.E. Wrangham

On the floor of the Chancel are two plain brasses, bearing Latin inscriptions in capital letters. These are memorials to two children of the third Sir Anthony Cope of Hanwell Castle, V.P. for Banbury, and of Mary Gerard, his wife and first cousin. They had, already lost two sons. The words may be translated as follows:-

“Here lies a boy of high qualities, and higher hope, Henry Cope, darling only son of the most noble Sir Anthony Cope, Baronet, and of Vary his wife. Seven years he lived here, and then he rested in the Lord to enjoy the eternal Seventh Day. During his eighth year the Lord took him on the Lord’s itself, June 8th, A.D.1662. The Lord gave the Lord hath taken away, the Lord will give again.”

“Here, at the feet of a beloved brother in death untimely to her family, yet timely to her, lies mistress Mary Cope, only begotten daughter of these same parents, and their only hope. A virgin, she passed to the Choir of Virgins on the Eve of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose name she bore. She reached within a year of the same limit of life as her brother, and the same day of the week on which he died before her, namely the Lord ‘s Day, A.D.1671. “This hast thou ordained, O Lord, to whom her family remaining humbly pray that thou mayest graciously look on her in her loneliness and grant her a glorious resurrection.”

Four years later, at the age of only forty three their father died of a broken heart. Their mother went out of her mind through grief, and lived for another forty years. Perhaps it was she who caused the legend of the Ghost of Hanwell Castle. These were the last of the Copes to live here. Thereafter, the estates passed out of the family, who had built the Castle, and possessed it for two hundred years.

Taking up the story once more, it must be mentioned that before Sir Anthony died, and the Cope family disappeared, they left one precious memento behind them. This is the Clock, which strikes the hours, and whose mechanism is at the west end of the nave, under the tower. It bears a plate with the inscription “Sir Anthony Cope, his gift. George Harris, Fritwell. January 1671.”

The register has an entry, on September, 19th, 1676, with witnesses, recording “A terrier of land belonging to the Church (presumably the benefice) of Hanwell”. This “lay in the common field belonging to the said parish, and is in common estimation about an acre and a half; whereof one parcel, well nigh an acre in quantity, lies in ye west field, ye west end thereof, shooting into Warwick Road. and it lies between two other lands, whereof that on the north side is now in the occupation of ye widow Coxe, and that on ye south side in ye occupation of Mrs Wotton.

The other parcel being somewhat above half an acre in quantity, lies in lotzum quarter, between ye common Balke on ye north side, and on ye south side a land now in ye occupation of Jonas Hazlewood”.

Another register entry of this period runs as follows: “That on Easter Day, April 4th, 1686, ye Hoble William Communion-Spencer Esq., out of his pious liberality, lent his Communion plate for the use of my parishioners of Hanwell, viz, one large silver flagon, one large silver chalice, and one large silver paten, the which are not to be taken for his gift to my Church of Hanwell, unless he please hereafter to signify his will herein, but otherwise may be resumed if he think fit, whensoever he pleaseth. The week before, ye Hoble Will. Spencer, Jun. Esq., committee of ye body and estate of ye Lady Mary Cope at his own charge set up rails in my chancel before ye Communion table, and painted ye walls from ye east end, and along ye south side rails as far as ye said rails. The coping and painting of the roof was done, partly at his, partly at ye Rector’s charge. The setting up of the wainscot, and ye benches, with ye painting of both, as also of ye walls in ye west part of ye chancel, between ye rails and ye body of ye church, besides ye more necessary repairs of paving, slating, whiting, and glazing ye chancel was done at ye charge of ye Rector.”

Perhaps this includes the renewal of the mullions in the east window, recorded by Beesley as done in the reign of Charles II. This period contributed one more monument, the altar tomb to the Rector, George Ashwell, in the south aisle.

The eighteenth century is represented by further monuments. At the east of the south aisle is an altar tomb to another Rector; Dr. Fitzherbert Potter, who died in 1750. This is crowned with an immense slab of black marble, measuring 9 feet by 4 feet 6 inches. Immediately after the entry of the burial of this Rector, a note has made in the register, and afterwards erased. Several attempts have been made, at later times, to decipher these words. The suggested reading is – “The stone laid on Dr. Potter’s tomb belong to the Church at Hanwell, and may be removed into its place without risk”. The significance of this reading, which is of doubtful accuracy in parts, is not clear. Another similar large slab of black marble has been recorded in the neighbourhood, namely on the tomb of the cofferer, William Cope, in the mediaeval parish church of Banbury. When this was destroyed in 1790, the remains crumbled into dust. It is possible that this slab was then brought from Banbury to Hanwell. In favour of this it may be mentioned that the slab is too large for its present tomb, and that the comment in the register is in small cramped writing which suggests a later insertion. Dr. Keyser suggests that it may have been the original stone of the High Altar. Both suggestions may be true, for the Altar stone would have been discarded by the puritans in 1585, and would probably have lain about in the intervening years.

In 1750, there began as happened in many parishes, a series of non-resident Rectors. This resident state of affairs lasted until 1814. During this period a succession of curates officiated, and the name of the Rector does not appear in the Church register. Some of those curates held benefices elsewhere, being themselves non-resident in these. One of these, Thomas Gill, who was also Patron and Rector of Avon Dassett in Warwickshire, and of Holcot in Northamptonshire, is commemorated by a Tablet in the north aisle, dated 1777; with a tombstone below.

The 19th century ended the practice of non-residence, and is marked at Hanwell by the incumbency of two members of the Pearse family, who together held the living for 96 years, from 1814 until 1910. Of these the former was William Pearse from whose incumbency two features have been handed down. In 1841, the whitewash, applied in Puritan days, was removed from the walls of the Church. Beesley records that the whitewash around the altar was removed, there was brought to view a series of paintings extending the whole breadth of the Chancel. These consisted of figures of saints, etc. but the plastering was in so bad a state that it was impossible to preserve more than one of them. There is, however, none now visible; indeed the only vestige of mediaeval colouring left are a few traces on the east wall of the south aisle. However, the removal of the whitewash and plaster has greatly added to the interior appearance of the Church which now glows softly with the warm colour of the Hornton stone.

During the end of his incumbency, it appears that William Pearse was incapacitated, presumably by age, and so, from 1852-1861, curates officiated. Most of the work was done by another member of the family, Thomas Pearse, Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, who in 1854 presented the second paten which is that now in common use.

The second long incumbency of the century began when Vincent Pearse came in 1861. During the summer of 1879, slight restoration work was carried out to some of the stone work in the chancel, and the western portion of its floor was raised; when the vault was constructed in the 17th century only the east end was raised, leaving a sudden, rise in the middle. This must have produced an ugly effect which has been effaced by the introduction of a more gradual incline. Presumably at this stage, the present altar rails and pews were inserted; part of the woodwork of the earlier box pews was used to construct the pulpit.

In 1910, when the Rev. H. Armstrong Willis became Rector, the old Puritan oak table was displaced and replaced by the present Communion table, together with the series of frontals now in use. The very fine carpets were placed, and show to great advantage, in the large Chancel and sanctuary. It is a matter of great regret that this incumbency, which is marked in the Church service register by a real spiritual revival in the parish, was cut short, little after a year had elapsed, by sudden death.

In 1917, the patron of the benefice, Earl de la Warr, presented the second chalice, that is now in general use. In 1923, the present organ was purchased, and placed at the west end of the south aisle.

In 1938, as a result of the enthusiastic care of the Rector, The Rev. C.A. Ccmpton, the roof (apart from the Chancel), was thoroughly restored. The Roof of nave was replaced, having been much affected by the ravages of Death watch Beetle. The roofs of the aisles were restored and treated. The outside was completely re-leaded. The whole work cost about 1,100, and leaves a Church mostly in a fine state of repair.


The foregoing survey reveals one point worthy of remark. From about 1150 A.D. until 1938 we have a series of material features which record, and bear witness to the work of every period in English history, in a very complete way. At no stage is there a long gap, never more than 50 years without some achievement preserved in the fabric and possession of the Parish Church. Most English country Churches are old and interesting. By no means all are so representative of every stage of history, and so unaltered and unrestored. from their medieval State. Writing to the Rector in 1958, the Diocesan architect wrote – “The Church possesses, as is well known to you, many features of unique interest; it has been handed down to you in almost its original condition; and its preservation, both as an authentic historical record, and a beautiful survival of the past, will he a matter of grave concern to all responsible for its preservation”.

To these words certain others ought also to be added. Such a possession is a privilege which brings the responsibility of USING it. Should these words be read, by any who are able to help in the preservation of this lovely Church, by making donations, which can now be invested in War Savings, and used when the war is over, such help will be very valuable. Two things still need to be done: –

1) The Chancel roof needs attention, for the plaster steadily falls from it.
2) Supreme in all else, Hanwell Church is notably lacking in any good woodwork. Its appearance would be much enhanced if funds were available, for replacing the pitch pine, Which is partly falling to pieces, by something more worthy.

If these things can be done, the years of this decade can find an honourable place after their predecessors, in later times when this little history is rewritten.

In this connection, there may be quoted a passage which occurs in a sermon preached about 1620 by Dr. Harris, the famous Puritan Rector of Hanwell, and of which a copy printed in 1626 (second edition) exists in the Church Chest:

“Be, with Hezekiah, a good Churchman. Repair God’s home, and let it never be said that our Churches lie like barns, and that Our Father lets down what Pater Noster set up.