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Stepping into 900 years of history



The lights have been lit on the village green, the tree is adorned with decorations and Denham is preparing for Christmas. There is no better time then to explore the rich history of St. Mary's Church and no better person to tell its story than the Rector, Christoph Lindner.


Assisted by a map and with links to articles from the Parish magazine, Christoph takes us on a guided tour of St. Mary's monuments, memorials and special artefacts and tells some of the history of the wealthy and influential whose names are recorded on those monuments and many others who have been part of the Denham community.


Please do use the links by clicking on the words in orange and underlined.


Over now to Christoph.

The history of a church is always the history of its people, to which bricks and mortar bear witness. A few weeks ago (in September 2023) we celebrated 900 years of St Mary’s Church in Denham. One of our church members, Fay Williams, celebrated her 100th birthday in church earlier this year and represents one ninth of that long history. Others, such as Ann Collins, were born and raised in Denham and can look back on more than 80 years of the church’s life.


The church tells the stories of the broader village community as well the stories of the influential and powerful who have been part of Denham's history and have sustained the life of the church over so many centuries.


So here to assist in my story of the church, is a map of the inside of St. Mary's. The numbers in the text refer to the locations on the map.



As you enter St Mary’s through the beautifully restored west door [1], you find yourself in the oldest part of the building, dating back to around 1100-1120. The oldest proof of St Mary’s existence dates back to 1123 in the records of Westminster Abbey.



The Bells, the organ, the pews and paraffin lights

The floor of the church tower is where the bells would have been rung in the past and often wedding couples had their photo taken here The eight bells were originally a ring of six from Biddlesden Abbey (North Bucks). They were brought to St Mary’s by Sir Robert Peckham (more of him later) after Henry VIII's dissolution of the abbey and recast as eight bells in 1683. After major restoration work they were re-dedicated in 1948.


In the days when most people didn’t own a watch and without the instant delivery of news, bells marked the working day, alerted to imminent danger and called the community to worship. We still mark special occasions (such as the coronation of King Charles III), weddings and Sunday worship by ringing them. Click here for more about the bells.


Today the bells are rung on the organ balcony, following the installation of a new church organ in 1983. There is more about this in an article by one of my predecessors, Peter Crick. The existence of a church organ is first mentioned in a report from 1637, curiously stating that a certain John Bull of the age of 93 years can remember the existence of two (!) organs as early as the 1570s.


During the first centuries of the church’s life there would have been no organs and - in fact - no pews. Churches were the largest gathering places in many communities, not just for worship but also for other meetings and as places of safety in emergencies. During the 18th century even the parish fire engine was kept under the bell tower and the churchwardens were obliged by law to maintain it. It is interesting that many churches have recovered the flexible use of space in recent decades by replacing the fixed pews with movable pews or chairs. The current pews were introduced in 1861 to replace closed pews.


The pews and organ are just two examples of how our church has always been updated. Two twisted brass rods, attached to the backs of two pews [2], are the only remnants of paraffin lights, replaced with electric lamps in 1923. More recently, we have introduced WiFi in the church, following the closure of St Mary’s during lockdown, to enable us to stream our services on YouTube each Sunday.



The patrons


Anglican churches have "patrons", whose main function is to select and recommend the appointment of clergy to the parish. The patron may be a private individual, the Crown, bishops, colleges, religious bodies, charities, etc. The patronage of St. Mary's is very much part of Denham's history and that of the significant families which for centuries have provided the church's patrons - the Peckhams, the Bowyers and the Hill and Way family members. Our current patron is John Way and he is very much committed to the life and future of St Mary’s. Click here to hear John Way talk about his role.


There are stories about the Peckham family of Denham Place elsewhere on this website but one story that concerns the church is worth telling here. In 1973 workmen uncovered a heart in the lining of a casket. After further investigation it was identified as the heart of Robert Peckham who died in Rome in 1586. He had stated in his will that he wished his heart to be put in the tomb of his ancestors at St Mary’s.


Another of St. Mary's patrons was Sir Roger Hill (1642-1729). On his memorial [3], his son (also called Roger) is recorded as having died on the same day as his father. This is the story behind it as told by Hazel Harries in her booklet One Thousand Years In A Village Church : “As his father lay dying, Roger was consumed by anxiety as to whether Sir Roger had made him or his eldest brother [a wastrel] heir to his fortune. Eventually the suspense was too much him […]. He found his father’s will and discovered he was indeed the heir. […] According to an old family record, Roger ‘died from apoplexy caused by inebriation at his surprise at finding himself heir’. Through his greed he did not live long enough to enjoy his inheritance, but died a few hours after his father.”



Monuments and Memorials


The story of St Mary’s is also the story of its Rectors. By the South door [4] you can find a list of them, dating back to Osbert de Skypton in 1218. It contains several members of the patrons’ families, including Charles Way (1939-1945), who had to lead the church during the difficult war years. Another incumbent Rector, R H Lathbury (Click here for his story) is the author of a very detailed history of Denham, published in 1904.The book is a meticulous account of all the historical records Reverend Lathbury could find. As one of his successors, I wonder how he found the time for it. Maybe he left the day-to-day work in the parish to the curate (assistant priest) who lived next door in Hills House, while Robert Lathbury himself lived in what is now the Old Rectory in Old Rectory Lane, a safe distance from church and village.


One of the few surviving copies of the Reverend Lathbury's book has its own history. In 1975 it was given to Sir John and Lady Mills (who then lived in Hills House, next to St Mary’s) by Lady Vansittart, who together with her husband had lived in Denham Place for many years. And then, in 2006, they gave the book to Hugh and Frances Stewart, the parents of our current treasurer Mike Stewart.


A church’s history is a rich tapestry of its people’s faith. By the South door we find the font [5], where many generations have been baptised. It dates back to the 13th century and is made of Purbeck marble. The oak cover is Victorian.

While baptism marks the beginning of a Christian’s faith journey, the mural above the South door [6] illustrates the ultimate goal. It is the church’s only surviving medieval wall painting of many, and it shows the dead being raised as Christ returns to earth on Judgment Day. At a time when many people couldn’t read, this fresco showed the Christian vision of a future where there would be no more death and gave believers hope in the present, as well as a sense of accountability to God for how we live our lives.


The monument above the pulpit [7] records the death of Captain Arthur George Tillard in 1914 and that of his youngest son in 1929, whom he never met. The sparse words contain the double grief of a wife and mother. Mrs Tillard provided the lime trees for the Way and Tillard Recreation and Cricket ground in Denham Village, which was opened in 1920 and named after her late husband together with Lieutenant Colonel B.I. Way who gifted the land.


The most imposing monument can be found in the south-east corner of the church [8]. It is the burial place of Sir Edmund Peckham and his wife Anne. He was treasurer to Henry VIII. He became the first Lord of the Manor of Denham in 1541.

After Henry VIII's dissolution of the Roman Catholic monasteries between 1536 and 1541, the abbess of Sion Abbey, Agnes Jordan, fled to Southlands Manor in Denham for sanctuary. She died there in 1545. A brass remembering her can be found under the carpet in front of the communion table.


A memorial which carries with it a story of the same religious turbulence of the Reformation is that of a Franciscan Friar on the south wall of the sanctuary [9]. The inscription identifies him as Johannes Pike, who died in 1440. It is thought to be the only brass to a Franciscan friar in existence.


This memorial owes its survival to the fact that it is a palimpsest, a recycled artefact. The Franciscans were bitterly opposed to Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and it seemed to Sir Edmund Peckham advisable to hide the image of a friar from view but he reused the reverse of it for a brass of his daughter Amphillis. Thus the friar’s image was hidden and survived until it was discovered by accident. When the church was renovated in 1861, the brass was thrown out and nearly lost, but a church member found and rescued it.


While the many memorials around the church largely tell the stories of people of influence and considerable income, it is the kneelers in the pews that tell the stories of others in the village community, commemorating anniversaries, special roles in church, a life well lived, as well as particular events in the life of the nation.



Special artefacts


The communion table and reredos (wooden panelling behind it) [10] were given by the King’s Royal Rifle Corps after they returned from the war in 1919. A battalion of this regiment were trained at Higher Denham during the early years of the First World War and took part in Sunday services. They were one of the pals’ battalions, groups of young men who signed up together. The high casualty rates they suffered left a lasting impact on the towns and cities they came from.


The 16th Battalion, which trained in Denham, was formed from Church Lads’ Brigades and in 2019 a service at St Mary’s marked the 100th anniversary of their return. Many members of today’s organisation (now called Church Lads’ and Church Girls’ Brigade) from all over the country attended. The reredos displays a certificate given at the service. There is more about this here.


In the south-east corner of the nave is our children’s corner [11], underneath the youngest stained glass window, given in memory of Elizabeth Bickerton, who died in 1953 at the age of 14. The window shows a young girl (identified as St Mary by her blue dress) with her mother, who is teaching her to read. Tradition gives her the name Anne.


I was helped to identify the two figures in the Bickerton memorial by a visitor from Germany, who was part of a “Midsomer Murders” tour. St Mary’s has been the location for various films and TV programmes (try the Midsomer episode “Death in Chorus”)


Another TV series which premiered exactly 50 years ago, was set at St Mary’s, although its title was “Our Man At St Mark’s”, starring Leslie Phillips (and later Donald Sinden) as the Rev’d Andrew Parker. Sadly almost all episodes of it have been lost, but You can watch a short clip here and for more about Denham's connection with the film industry and Denham Film Studios click here.


The brass lectern [12] is unusual. Most church lecterns are in the shape of an eagle, while this one is a vine, taking its inspiration from Jesus’ words “I am the vine and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…”.


Standing behind the lectern and looking out into the nave we can imagine the congregations through the centuries, how they have prayed and celebrated and mourned. St Mary’s Church is in the shape of a cross and the centre of the Christian faith is expressed in Holy Communion (Eucharist, Lord’s Supper) where Jesus’ death for us is remembered.


The letters engraved in St Mary’s communion table bear the first three Greek letters of his name (IES, with the Greek letter for E looking like our letter h). The goal of the architects, artisans and worshippers of St Mary’s has always been to point to Jesus, the founder of the Christian faith.



St Mary’s Church is not of course a museum, but the home of both a vibrant church family and a resource for the local community. Today the people of St Mary’s are doing their bit to ensure that this will still be true when the building celebrates its 1000th anniversary in 2123, and when their stories will be told by a future generation.


Footnote


St Mary's has a YouTube Channel on which five short video tours of St. Mary's Church are provided by Christoph. They can be viewed here.



Sources


One Thousand Years In A Village Church by Hazel Harries published by Pentland Press Limited © Hazel Harries 1998

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