A Brief History of St Andrew's Church
“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God,
and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:17)
It is not known when the first church was built on this ancient site but archaeological evidence of tile-working in Roman times offers the fascinating possibility that this first became a place of worship more than 1700 years ago. Mediaeval Oxford, that ‘other place’ which appeared later in history, was carved out of the royal domain at Headington by the year 912. The earliest known mention of the (royal) village of Headington is in a deed of King Ethelred, dated St Andrewstide (7 Dec) 1004. It was a seat of royalty during the reigns of the later Anglo-Saxon Kings. King Ethelred is thought to have been christened here. Henry I (died 1135) was perhaps the last king to reside in the parish. According to an eminent historian, by the time St Frideswide founded her church in Oxford the nearest centre of government was Headington. The first reference to the church is in a Charter of Henry I in 1122.
Saint Andrew’s Headington has had a number of patrons through the centuries. Until the suppression of the priory in 1542 the benefice of Headington was in the gift of the Prior and Canons of the Priory of Saint Frideswide. Thereafter the patron became successively Cardinal College, King Henry VIII College and finally Christ Church College. In 1545 the patronage was sold to John Browne who was by then lord of the manor of Headington and it remained with the manor until it passed into the hands of Keble College in 1928.
The early stone church consisted of Nave and Chancel; the Nave ended a few feet beyond the present tower arch and is shown by the change in texture of the wall.
The South Aisle was added in the mid-thirteenth century to create the Lady Chapel in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Above the Lady Chapel altar is an interesting window which was purchased by the pennies of the poor. It refers to a smallpox epidemic in the parish, which was avoided by those who could afford to move away but claimed the life of a faithful priest, the Revd John Robinson, who stayed behind to care for the poor. Below it the statue of Our Lady and Child is by the sculptor Ulrica Lloyd and was given to the church in 1980. Although a modern work it is in Romanesque style and is cast in metal-filled polyester resin.
In the wall separating the Nave from the Lady Chapel is still the opening with steps which led to an ancient gallery or Rood Beam. This would have stood above the Chancel Arch bearing a figure of Christ on the cross often shown with Mary his mother and John the disciple on either side.
Before the Victorian restoration of this chapel in 1864 the jambs of the two lancet windows in the Lady Chapel were still decorated with thirteenth century wall-paintings. They depicted a popular legendary account of the Flight into Egypt by the Holy Family to escape Herod’s murder of boys in Bethlehem. In the corner of one of the panels was portrayed a kneeling female donor who is presumed to have been Philippa, widow of Henry, Earl of Warwick. She was sometimes called Countess of Headington and was Lady of the Manor from 1220-1265. Luckily the paintings were recorded by the son of the then architect, Mr Buckler.
The glory of this church building is the Norman Chancel Arch. Even now, green, blue and red pigments from the Middle Ages painting appear on the stone of the Norman Arch when it is lit by the sunlight. During some remodelling of the church at the end of the fourteenth century a pointed arch was inserted about the Norman Arch to relieve it of the weight of the gable wall.
At the end of the fourteenth century the chancel was reconstructed with larger windows, paved with patterned tiles and given a new timber roof with its principals resting on the carved stone corbels which you can still see.
The East Window is a Victorian depiction of the Visit of the Wise Men to the Holy Family (the Adoration of the Magi). It was designed by Henry Holiday and given in memory of the Revd E.F.G. Tyndale who was Vicar from 1870 to 1889. A plaque commemorating him has been re-located to the wall opposite the window. In addition to the three kings there is a fourth figure dressed as a knight and carrying a crown. This may be a reference to one of the kings connected with Headington.
The Chancel north window depicts St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). He was a Dominican priest and an immensely influential scholar and theologian. His influence on Western thought is considerable, and much of modern philosophy was conceived as a reaction against, or as an agreement with, his ideas.
The south window has two legends of St Margaret of Antioch as its subject. Having embraced Christianity Margaret was disowned by her father (a pagan priest), adopted by her nurse and lived in the country keeping sheep. Olybrius asked to marry her but with the condition that she renounce her Christianity. Upon her refusal she was cruelly tortured, during which various miraculous incidents occurred. One of these involved being swallowed by Satan in the shape of a dragon, from which she escaped alive when the cross she carried irritated the dragon's innards.
A member of the family of Sir High Pluggenait, a knight from Brittany who was lord of this manor in 1142, was miraculously cured of blindness, deafness and paralysis in his right arm. Sir Hugh bestowed a lamp to burn perpetually before the altar in thanksgiving. A lamp still burns today to mark the place where the Blessed Sacrament is kept (to the left of the High Altar). At the top of a window on the south side, are fragments of Twelfth Century glass.
The small medieval door, which was uncovered in the 1997 restoration of this area, is known as a priest’s door and now gives access to the priests’ sacristy. There are several floors beneath the Chancel. The work in 1997 revealed a floor composed of tombstones of the Civil War period beneath two later tiled floors.
The tower which was completed in 1500. The exterior underwent some restoration in 1679, 1972 and in 2015.
The ringing chamber in the tower was restored and the six bells re-hung in 1967. The oldest bell, from the mid fifteenth-century, bears the inscription “Sancta Margareta, Ora Pro Nobis” (Saint Margaret, pray for us). Two bells date from the mid seventeenth century and one from 1624 which was the gift of Sir Thomas Whorwood (then Lord of the Manor). Two more were acquired in the eighteenth century and in 1974 the ring was increased to eight. Two of the bells were replaced in 2000 to mark the millennium.
The font was moved to its current location in 1961 from the back of the north aisle. The oak font cover was commissioned in 2013. The hand carved panels of fish and nets recall that St Andrew was a fishermen and echo the logo of our church primary school. The window near the font commemorates the “Fish” Good Neighbour Scheme which was begun here by the Vicar and parishioners in the middle of the Twentieth century and spread across the world.
The Organ is at the west end of the church. It was built by Kenneth Tickell Organ Builders in their Northampton workshop in 2008 and was installed in St Andrew’s in early 2009. The Key and Pedal actions are mechanical, with electric stop and combination action. It replaced a J.W. Walker & Sons organ which had originally been built for Merton College. When it was refurbished and installed in Saint Andrew’s in 1967 it blocked the west window.
The fine west window by Archibald Nicholson was erected in 1932 in memory of an only daughter, Vashti de Montfort Wellbourne. The window depicts the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Anne, and underneath, Simon de Montfort, founder of the English Parliament, and Vashti, Queen of Persia. Lower still are the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey, where the parliament was convened, and Barton Manor where Vashti and her mother lived. The design of the new organ revealed the window once again.
The lists of Vicars is incomplete. While it does not begin until long after the first mention of the church, the list does continue without a break through the Reformation Period.
As you will have discovered Saint Andrew’s, like many ancient churches, is not an architectural whole. Over more than 1000 years the building has been adapted and modernised in the way that all working buildings need to be. As well as being built to the glory of God and the honour of Saint Andrew (the first disciple called by Jesus), the building also serves the needs of a twenty-first century community of Christians.