On 6 January Living Stones volunteers found themselves being greeted as they arrived at Teddy Hall by a herald blowing a trumpet. The herald was Henrike Laehnemann, professor of Medieval German Literature and Linguistics at Oxford, Fellow of St Edmund Hall, a keen musician and occasional worshipper at Iffley church, and we had come for a tour of the church of St Peter in the East.
In its present incarnation as the Library for St Edmund Hall this church is almost impossible to visit. Henrike was our exuberant and extremely generous hostess. While Geoffrey Tyack explained the architectural features of the 12C church, Henrike scampered up a formidably long ladder leading to the roof of the tower (we meekly followed) and blew a fanfare on her trumpet over the secret pinnacles of Queen’s College, All Souls, the Bodleian, New College and the heart of our spectacular university spread out below. She kept us quiet inside the church/library and escorted us down into the crypt. She even managed to bathe us and some early snowdrops in sunshine for a few minutes, as well as reviving us with warm coffee in the Old Library.
On the roof of the tower
St Peter in the East was built just a few years before St Mary’s Iffley. It is festooned with beakheads very like ours. If, as seems likely, they were carved by the same group of craftsmen, it is significant that there are no other iconographical parallels between the two churches. One slightly intriguing detail is that John de Bermingham, vicar of Iffley from 1218 to 1225, owned the land to the south of St Peter’s churchyard. This land is now the front quadrangle of St Edmund Hall, named after Edmund of Abingdon who taught in the university in the early 13C. John de Bermingham may have been involved in the founding of the 13C academic hall there. Iffley’s links seem to spread not just to some great 12C churches that still stand in Oxford (St Peter’s and St Frideswide’s – now known as Christ Church Cathedral) but to the intellectual origins of the university.
Can you tell which of these beakheads belongs to St Mary’s Church, Iffley, and which to the church of St Peter in the East?
Those of us who were lucky enough to take part in the tour felt privileged in many ways. One of the group remarked, ‘the tour exceeded my expectations, and I do not refer only to the musical flourishes. We penetrated some of Oxford’s secrets, the slightly hazardous tower, the crypt, the library, amazing and thrilling survivals.’
One of the capitals in the crypt
As for understanding St Mary’s Church, Iffley, another of our volunteers summed up our experience. ‘It’s amazing how much more sense everything makes when you can see more of the jigsaw!’