St. Mary’s Church at Lower Swell
St. Mary’s Church at Lower Swell is really two churches in one. The original, 12th Century church was extended twice in the 19th Century. Archaeological evidence suggests that there was an earlier, Saxon church on the site and, before that, a Roman crematorium. There are prehistoric burial mounds nearby. The area has thus held religious significance for about 6,000 years.
The oldest part of the church building is the Norman nave and chancel, built around 1100. In 1852, the old North wall was demolished and replaced by a pair of open arches, giving access to a lofty new aisle designed in Early English style by J.C. Buckler. This aisle became the nave of the church in 1871, when it was extended Eastwards, to form a new, larger chancel. The Norman nave then became the present South aisle.
Norman doorway. The church doorway, opening into the South aisle, is Norman. The tympanum (semi-circular space between the lintel of the doorway and the arch above it) is constructed of ten blocks, closely wedged together to resemble a single stone. The carved Tree of Life, with a bird pecking at a branch, is thought to be unfinished.
Norman chancel arch. The church’s most noteworthy feature is its Norman chancel arch, as illustrated on the cover. The band of 26 carved stones, surrounding the outer edge, is unique. The Rev. David Royce, vicar at Lower Swell from 1850 to 1902, interpreted its spiritual lesson: “On 18 of these stones…are carved…the first chapter of the sacred history of mankind (such as the apple, the serpent, symbols of the Trinity and of baptism), and on the central stone, a man, defaced…approached by a line of creatures…may be representing the dominion of man over creation.” Although Royce’s interpretation is open to question, it has not been superseded. The primitively carved capitals, of the three pillars supporting the arch on the left, show man overcoming evil; a serpent represents evil and a woman fosters evil, by clutching the serpent to her breast.
Norman chancel. In the 12th Century chancel there is a deeply splayed Norman window on the South side, with non-matching carved bases and capitals to its jamb shafts. Originally there was another window of similar size on the North side, but it was removed in the 19th Century when a recess was made to hold the organ. The 13th Century low side window on the South wall retains its original wooden lintel. At some stage it was blocked up, and was not rediscovered until the 19th Century. It is thought that the 15th Century two-light Perpendicular window on the East wall was
the first to be installed there. The stained glass, like all of the church’s stained glass, is 19th Century. It is the work of Clayton & Bell, a London firm. The left light shows the Virgin and Child, and the right shows the arms of Christ Church College, Oxford, patron of the benefice.
15th Century alterations. In the 15th Century the roof of the Norman nave was raised, and the three-light Perpendicular window (the Victorian stained glass now shows Moses, St. John the Baptist and Elias) with image bracket on the South wall, and the three-light West window (the Annunciation, the Nativity, and shepherds in their fields) were inserted, greatly increasing the natural lighting of the church. A rood-loft was built above the chancel arch, with a stairway in the South wall, of which both the upper and lower openings remain. A short transept was built out on the South side, but by the end of the 17th Century it was ruined and was pulled down. The 15th Century porch was originally too narrow for the doorway, but it was later widened, so that the Norman carving could be seen. The font is also 15th Century; the octagonal bowl has quatrefoils with flowers in the centres.
19th Century additions. The church was often neglected during its history, until Royce arrived in 1850. He decided that the Norman church, with a few large pews in the nave and a gallery extending along the North wall from the West window to the chancel arch, was too small to accommodate a parish of over 400 inhabitants. He master-minded the church’s enlargement, in order as he said “to secure more convenient and seemly worship”. The enlargement was in two stages, as outlined above.
Victorian nave. There are three single-lancet windows (Christ in three guises) in the North wall, and a two-light window (Adoration of the Magi and Christ in the Temple) in the West wall of the 1852 addition. A single-lancet window (Adoration of the Shepherds) in the South-West wall provides the link between the stories told in the two West windows.
Victorian chancel. A new, larger chancel was added in 1871, funded by Alfred Sartoris of Abbotswood. Mr. and Mrs. Sartoris made many gifts to the church, including the series of five wall paintings (also by Clayton & Bell) in the chancel depicting Christ’s Passion, and the windows on its North wall (Christ carrying the Cross) and the South wall (Christ’s Resurrection). Brass tablets on the North wall and the dates on the windows explain the occasions for these gifts. The three-light East window shows Christ on the Cross, flanked by the Virgin and St. John.
Organ. The organ with its blue, red and gold painted pipes, made by Nicholson & Co. of Malvern, was acquired in 1872 due to the efforts of Mrs. Royce. The large “squint” or hole, made in the West wall of the new chancel at about this time, enabled worshippers in the Norman nave to see the new altar.
20th Century. The bell turret was rebuilt in 1901, and the old bell of 1883 was re-hung, with the addition of two new ones, in honour of Royce’s half-century ministry at Lower Swell. His ministry is also commemorated by a brass tablet to the left of the Norman arch.
Early in the 20th Century the interior of the church was painted with patterns, after the mediaeval fashion. A contemporary writer complained that this made the church dark, and the paint was later removed. Traces of paint can still be seen on the pillars in the nave. At this time the lighting was by acetylene gas, which sometimes failed during services. Electricity was not installed until the 1950s. The finely made wooden rood screen in Gothic style, and the pulpit with its delicate base, were given in 1925 by Mark Fenwick, the then owner of Abbotswood, in memory of his wife.
Exterior. The early part of the building is of cut ashlar, with the later part of rubble. The roofs are tiled with Cotswold stone. Both East and West ends have double-chamfer string courses. There is a row of corbel heads on the South wall, and some of those from the North side of the Norman part were re-sited on the new North side. There are indications in the masonry of the South wall of the position of the 15th Century extension, notably a blocked, round-headed arch.
History. The church was probably founded by Simon Poyntz, an Anglo-Norman who was awarded land at Lower Swell after the Norman Conquest in 1066. In its earliest years, the church was referred to as a “chapel”, denoting its dependence on another church or monastery. The first recorded vicar was appointed in 1282. By then the chapel and its endowments had been granted to Notley Abbey in Buckinghamshire, whose abbot appointed the vicars until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The abbot’s possessions then passed to Christ Church College, Oxford, which became and remains the patron of the living. In 1927 the benefices of Upper and Lower Swell became one, and in 1978 the two ecclesiastical parishes were united as the parish of the Swells.