St Dunstan's Church

St Dunstan's Main Door

The parish church is dedicated to St Dunstan, an Archbishop of Canterbury who lived from circa 909 to 988, and who served as an advisor to many kings of Anglo-Saxon England.  Dunstan worked hard throughout his life to reform both Church and State, and was not afraid to speak truth to those in positions of power.  He was also a passionate supporter of learning, and was himself an accomplished musician, illuminator, and metalworker.

Dunstan’s legacy also includes the legend of an encounter with the devil. Giving chase and cornering the him, Dunstan gripped his nose firmly with his blacksmith’s. This tale is commemorated in the 15th century porch by arms of tongs converging (above the outer door) on a face roughly carved in wood and (above the inner door) on a cross. It is also represented >by the more modern (1971) lead and fibreglass figure shown here which is on the south aisle wall.

St Dunstan and the Devil

The building contains many visible traces of the community which has lived around it and worshipped in it down the centuries. The earliest feature is the font at which they have been baptised, and which dates from the late 12th century. The fluted, chalice-shaped design is similar to others in neighbouring parishes, the so-called ‘Aylesbury fonts’, all believed to have been produced by the same craftsman. Unfortunately, it lacks the original square carved base possessed by the others. The northern range of wall, including the tower, was constructed during the 13th and 14th centuries, while the south aisle and chancel were built in the 15th century when the roof pitch was altered and the clerestory added. Many other churches were enlarged at this time, evidence of an upsurge in national prosperity associated with the wool trade, and of course, the religious houses were the most efficient estate managers in the realm. Set in the floor of the nave before the Screen and in the north transept are tiles from the renowned fourteenth century tilery at Penn which supplied them in bulk over a wide area to churches and other important buildings including Windsor Castle and the Tower of London.

 

Vestiges of medieval Christian practice are still discernible. The 15th century screen divided the body of the nave, the only public assembly hall in the parish which had to do service as courtroom, indoor market, foul weather byre and asylum for the homeless, from the chancel wherein the miracle of the Mass was celebrated daily. Above the screen would have been the great Rood, the Crucifix flanked by Our Lady and the Beloved Disciple, and the Rood loft was reached by a staircase so that the Gospel might be read from a point where all could hear. The painted figures on the panels may represent prophets and probably have been overpainted at a much later date. Such screens were the target of the Protestant Reformers, so that mid-Victorian woodwork takes the place of the destroyed rood and loft, and the well behind the pulpit and one corbel are all that remains of the staircase.

 

In the floor of the chancel before the altar rail is a brass of a priest in Mass vestments, said to be Robert Blundell, Rector of the parish in 1431. A parishioner, his wife, two sons and four daughters appear on brass fragments at the east end of the south aisle. On four 15th century pew-ends there are carvings, three with small figures standing on two heads, the fourth with two heads of women in elaborate head-dresses. The step leading to the chancel should be noted, for generations of feet making their way to the altar have worn it away. A medieval church was a blaze of colour, for the stonework was painted. Traces remain on the easternmost principle of the roof, on the chancel arch and on the canopy of the niche in the chantry. The niche once held a Madonna, no doubt another item to be removed in Protestant times, as was the colour which was scraped away or white- washed over. Very little of the original glass remains in situ, just some 15th century fragments in the chancel windows, including a maker’s mark.

 

Internal Door

By the inner door of the porch is all that is left of the Holy Water stoup, placed so that villagers might make the sign of the Cross upon themselves when entering and leaving. Among the clergy who served the parish as Rector have been a number who became deans and three who became Archbishops of Canterbury, York and Dublin respectively, but the most influential in life and death was John Schorn, monk of Canterbury, who is usually associated with North Marston. His saintly life ensured that when he died there as Rector in 1314 his tomb became a place of miracle cures and pilgrimage until his relics (and the offerings of the grateful) were transferred in 1478 to Edward IV’s new chapel at Windsor Castle. The Dissolution of the Monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII released the land from the possession of Canterbury, but the Archbishop continued to be the patron, and the parish was still thus exempt from the Bishop of Lincoln’s jurisdiction whose Diocese included Buckinghamshire. In 1850, that connection was severed when the benefice passed into the Diocese and patronage of the Bishop of Oxford.

From 1587 the lives and deaths of less exalted inhabitants are recorded in the Parish Registers. Nail holes can be seen in the church door, which served as the parish notice-board, as the porch itself served for a meeting place. The hinges and lock plate date from the 14th century, but the lock and handle plates are 17th century.

In the 17th century, a start was made upon restoring the depredations of the previous one, by hanging five bells in the tower. Together with a sixth hung in 1885.

In the 18th century commemorative tablets to rectors, Reverend Dr Hody and Dr Quarles, and other gentlemen of means appeared on St. Dunstan’s walls, and a wooden two-decker pulpit and reading desk was reared in the nave from which all the congregation might be instructed in the duties of their respective stations.

In 1807, pieces of the glass were uncovered in the churchyard, and were set in one of the windows in the south aisle. It is a patchwork – here a Virgin and Child, there a saint,

In 1863, St Dunstan’s was ‘restored’ to take account of the liturgical fashions promoted by the Oxford Movement. The function of the chancel was enhanced, its roof was raised, the altar surround embellished, and an organ and choir stalls accommodated. The wooden pulpit was replaced by a grander stone pulpit and the gallery housing the now redundant village band was demolished. 

While there is no stained glass of merit in St Dunstan’s, the memorial window in the chantry to Bishop Wilberforce is worthy of note for its subject’s sake. It was erected after his death in 1873, which was due to a riding accident. As the first Bishop of Oxford to have the care of Buckinghamshire, his zeal for restoring decaying churches and opening new ones, his close contacts with his clergy and his concern for the education of the poor were widely appreciated. His scrap book is preserved in the Bodleian Library, and contains a picture of St Dunstan’s before ‘the improvements’, drawn from Burton Lane. Unfortunately, his national reputation rests upon a single incident. He rashly allowed himself to be put up as the spokesman of the scientific opposition to Darwin’s evolutionary views at the notorious Oxford meeting of the British Association, and was demolished by Darwin’s champion, Huxley. The Church has not been allowed to forget it. St Dunstan’s view of the bishop is, however, both kindlier and more accurate. The proper designation of the chantry is ‘The Wilberforce Chapel’. In 1947, the chantry was furnished with an altar and tabernacle to hold the Reserved Sacrament to serve as St Dunstan’s own war memorial, but no tablet was placed there to make record of the fact.

At its heart still, where it has long been, is the community of Christian worship and service which meets in St Dunstan’s. In thanksgiving, a year of celebration was held in 1988 to mark the Millennium of Archbishop Dunstan’s life and death and stained glass roundels showing scenes of his ministry were set in a window in the north aisle.