(The following text is taken, with only very minimal changes of order, from Ruth Nineham’s “Church of St Mary the Virgin, Iffley, Historical Guide”, which is available as a printed and illustrated booklet for sale in the church for £2).
The church is set on the end of a spur of rising ground which stretches all the way up to Shotover; but a few metres in front of the west door the land falls sharply down to the river. Thus it is in a position of prominence in all the country to the west.
This was the plot chosen in the 1160’s -1170’s by the master mason and the lord of the manor, Robert de S. Remy, in concert with his wife. It was a fairly level site, but before they began building, the masons had to dig out the ground a little towards the east. But, as was usual at the time, there are only shallow foundations. The church’s stability rests on the density of the rock on which it sits, and on the very thick walls, which taper as they rise. This tapering is particularly noticeable inside the church at the level of the original windows, where there is a shelf all round, and the walls are much thinner above it, thus reducing their weight, and making the structure more stable. Norman builders were very extravagant in their use of stone. There was as yet no architectural theory of stresses and strains, and so the masons piled stones upon stones to a width of several feet, and bound them together with mortar. Such walls hardly need buttresses to shore them up, such as were needed in later churches. There are however very shallow projections at the corners at each end of the church and at the corners of the tower, these might be termed buttresses, but their purpose is not only to shore up the building, but also to knit together these weaker parts. The same purpose is served by the ‘string course’, which is a projecting line of dressed stone that runs all round the building and rises over each window. It is intended to stop rain driving against the walls from trickling down and wearing out the mortar, but it also acts as a binding course, strengthening and unifying the wall – rather as the Romans used lines of bricks to bind their walls together.
Norman masons relied on the practical experience of their predecessors and, despite their lack of theoretical architectural know-how, their buildings have proved to be remarkably longlasting.
The main body of the church is built of rubble, which almost certainly came from Iffley quarry. This is not good stone for carving, but excellent for a long lasting main structure. It is composed of Calcareous Grit, which is very hard cemented sandstone formed in the Jurassic geological period. There are two standing stones set in Bear’s Hedge (at the top of Woodhouse Way) which presumably came from the quarry and were put there to mark where it was. They are dark brown and hard, and the stones in the church are the same texture and colour. This may not be the impression one gets when seeing the church today, but this is because the yellowish mortar used in the recent renovation work has lightened the overall effect.
Over in Wheatley there were quarries of finer stone that were worked in the twelfth century. It seems likely that the facings and carvings on the west end of the church and around the arches in the interior came from here. It is a light coloured limestone and easy to work. The delicately carved north and south doorways may, however, have merited a more expensive, denser stone which could be brought down partly by river from Taynton near Burford. This stone is golden, whereas that in the church is slightly rose white.
The Architectural Style
The style in which the church is built is technically called High Romanesque, but also widely known in this country as late Norman. The word Romanesque implies a dependence on ideas derived from Roman remains that were still standing in many parts of the old Empire.
When the Normans came to England in the eleventh century, they built churches in a simple, controlled style, expressing the dominance of their people over the English. But by the latter part of the twelfth century, there was more security and prosperity in the country, and consequently a certain relaxation. Attention turned to decoration and carving, which was facilitated by the invention of more sophisticated tools. The S. Remy family were late arrivals in England, and were probably part of a considerable immigration from Normandy in the twelfth century. Robert’s wife was a member of the wealthy Clinton family. These factors explain how the church came to be built in a highly ornamented style of Romanesque, which will have cost more than Robert’s own resources could have covered.
How the Church Has Remained Intact
Iffley is famous not only for its sculpture, but for the fact that its main structure has stayed the same for over 800 years. Most other Norman churches have had extensive modifications made by lords of the manor, which have swamped their character. But the manor of Iffley in 1383 passed to the lords of Donnington manor near Newbury, and their interest in the church was confined to putting in larger windows and building a rood screen. We are therefore the beneficiaries of the neglect of the absentee Donnington landlords, because we have an almost completely intact late, highly ornamented Romanesque church.
Internal Decoration and Furnishings: During the Middle Ages.
The walls will almost certainly have been painted all over with patterns and pictures of the saints or biblical scenes. The colours normally used were red, yellow ochre and black and white. The floor will have been compacted mud, covered with reeds and herbs. A few benches may have been available for the elderly and infirm, but most people will have stood and listened to the distant murmuring of the Latin Mass in the chancel. The candles on the altar and the richness of the priest’s vestments will have enhanced the sense of mystery and awe. The nave will have been dominated by the crucifix on the Rood Beam. Later, in the sixteenth century, a screen was added under the beam, thus further separating the priest from the people. There were side chapels on the north and south walls up near the first arch of the nave. These were hollowed out of the thickness of the walls. One of them was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and one to St.Katherine, who was the patron saint of a Guild in Iffley. The presence of the altars in these chapels underlines the predominantly sacramental nature of medieval Christianity. We have a will that records that William Mede left a cow to the church ‘ that he may be prayed for so long as the stock and increase will endure’ and six bushels of wheat to maintain the Lady light on the altar to the Virgin.
Internal Decoration and Furnishings: At the Time of the Reformation
By the sixteenth century great changes were afoot. The Bible had been translated into English, and a new Prayer Book in English had been introduced, first by Edward VI and then by Elizabeth, involving the participation of the whole congregation. This was based not primarily on the Mass, but on Matins, the Litany and Evensong. The problem for the Clergy and Churchwardens was how to convert a church designed for worship in the middle ages into one where the new Prayer Book could be heard by everyone, and where long sermons were going to be preached. The authorities therefore took the radical step of removing the existing roof, and building a much lower one, with a plaster ceiling under it. This acted as a sounding board, so that the people could hear every word of the service. Since sermons were so long, some box pews were built for comfort and shelter from draughts. Some of these were set in the chancel, and what seems very strange to us, people sat with their backs to the altar, so that they could have a clear view of the preacher.(see picture overleaf) The pews were tall, and this necessitated an even higher pulpit, so that the preacher could be seen. To crown it all, the pulpit itself had a sounding board.
The pictures of saints on the walls were whitewashed over, because the Reformers considered they had been treated improperly as objects of worship. In their place biblical texts may have been inscribed. On the walls on either side of the altar were hung boards on which the Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer were written. The hooks on which they hung have only recently been removed.
The nave chapels were bricked up, and plastered over. The crucifix and rood beam were removed. The screen, however, remained; this was in order to make clear the distinction between the nave, where most services took place, and the chancel where the occasional communion services were to be held. A wooden Holy Table replaced the stone altar.
Thus transformed, this ‘auditory’ church had many of the features of Wren’s city churches in London.
Internal Decoration and Furnishings: During the Nineteenth Century
This was a time of medieval romanticism, and a change in liturgical ideas away from the wordiness of the Reformation back to the symbolism of the medieval world. The Oxford Movement, which was responsible for promoting these ideas, wanted to place the Book of Common Prayer into a setting of awe and veneration such as there had been in the services in medieval times. It seems that the vicars of Iffley were in sympathy with this movement, and they rearranged the church furnishings in accordance with it.
They transferred the focus of the church from the pulpit to the altar, the most sacred object in the church. The screen, which partially obscured the altar, was removed in 1825. At various times during the century further radical changes were made.
The box pews were taken out and replaced with rows of regular pews all facing the same way – towards the altar. Rows of pews were set even in the baptistery, to accommodate the increasing population of Iffley. To draw the eye even more certainly toward the altar, an ornate reredos in glowing colours was built behind it, and the Ten Commandments and Creed were removed.
The tall pulpit was taken out, and a less prominent one installed. The plaster ceiling in the nave was taken down, and the roof was raised to its original height, with new roof beams – all these changes were made with the intention of reintroducing a sense of mystery and splendour in worship. Happily, the nineteenth century restorers (Bliss, Hussey and Buckler) showed a sensitive appreciation of the architecture of the church, and did not indulge in a wholesale reconstruction, as happened in many other churches.
Internal Decoration and Furnishings: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
Refurbishments of the church in 1995 and 2011 have concentrated on emphasizing the Romanesque character of the building. The church and especially the chancel can now be seen in their full glory, and the baptistery area has been reinstated with seating facing and surrounding the font. The magnificent North door has been re-opened for greater ease of access.
The narrowness of the church and the way the piers supporting the tower arches jut out have always made positioning a fixed pulpit a conundrum – the question had not arisen when the church was built because sermons were not a feature of worship. The movable lectern-pulpit solved this problem. This, together with portable oak benches in the chancel, has given enhanced flexibility for worship.
In the sanctuary an aumbry or cupboard has been installed for the Reserved Sacrament. The work of Nicholas Mynheer, it has been sculpted in limestone with an oak door and depicts the angels at the empty tomb, although here the “tomb” contains the bread and wine of the sacrament. This is the first figural sculptural addition to the church since the twelfth century.
Iffley church, like many others, has responded to pressures from outside.
Throughout its history there has been a striving after the best conditions for worship most suited to the times.Both outside and in, Iffley church has endured many changes. But they have proved to be superficial. The bare bones and the ornate carving of the original high Romanesque church remain.
Accidents of history such as the late arrival of the S.Remy family in Norman England and the absence of a resident lord of the manor over many generations help to explain why a small village like Iffley should have such a grand, imposing, highly sculptured church. The restraint of the nineteenth century restorers ensured that the original remained largely intact.