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      The Church of St Mary the Virgin

The Church of St Mary the Virgin, Fawley

The church is in the Diocese of Oxford which includes the Bishop of Oxford, the Bishop of Buckingham and the Bishop of Berkshire. Part of the Hambleden Village Group of six churches and five parishes, the church is opened daily for quiet reflection for all. Generations of residents have deep connections with the church resulting in both the church and its grounds being lovingly cared for to retain their quiet beauty.

On its present site, for over 800 years, this historic C13 Grade II church with captivating architecture and important memorials is the finest feature in the hamlet of Fawley. The Parish of Fawley (the name means ‘a clearing frequented by fallow deer’) is in the south west corner of Buckinghamshire, about two and a half miles from Henley-on-Thames.

A long history

In 1231  Richard, Earl of Cornwall, second son of King John, was married at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Fawley.

Richard (5 January 1209[2] – 2 April 1272) was an English prince who was King of the Romans from 1257 until his death in 1272. He was the second son of John, King of England, and Isabella, Countess of Angoulême. Richard was nominal Count of Poitou from 1225 to 1243, and he also held the title Earl of Cornwall from 1225. He was one of the wealthiest men in Europe and joined the Barons' Crusade, where he achieved success as a negotiator for the release of prisoners and assisted with the building of the citadel in Ascalon.


Marriage to Isabel, 1231-1240

In March 1231 he married Isabel Marshal, the wealthy widow of the Earl of Gloucester, much to the displeasure of his brother King Henry, who feared the Marshal family because they were rich, influential, and often opposed to him. Richard became stepfather to Isabel's six children from her first husband. In that same year he acquired his main residence, Wallingford Castle in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire), and spent much money on developing it. He had other favoured properties at Marlow and Cippenham and was a notable lord of the manor at Earls Risborough, all in Buckinghamshire.

In the 1600's the Whitelocke family bought nearby Fawley Court. James Whitelocke was a judge and there is a substantial monument to him and his wife in the south transept. His son Bulstrode became ambassador to Sweden during Cromwell's years. The Freemans bought the Fawley estate, including Fawley Court, in 1679. John Freeman built the Freeman mausoleum in 1750 which is found in the churchyard grounds. This is (loosely) modelled on the tomb of Caecilia Metella on the Appian Way in Rome. In 2013, the museum circuit of the Baths of Caracalla, Villa of the Quintilii, and the Tomb of Caecilia Metella was the twenty-second most visited site in Italy, with 245,613 visitors and a total gross income of €883,344. The Freemans acquired new furnishings from Cannons, the home of the Duke of Chandos in 1747. These include the font, chancel panelling, lectern and pulpit, the latter ascribed to Grinling Gibbons.


Henry Almack was rector for almost 40 years from 1846 to 1884. He did much to enhance the church. His son Walter served in the Royal Navy and was a lieutenant on HMS Briton. The ship was dispatched from India to the Red Sea to support the British Army in Sudan fighting the Mahdist forces. This was the era of General Gordon who was in overall command. Walter was in charge of a gun battery and the guns were removed from the ship (sail and a small propeller) and transported across country, presumably using mules. Walter was killed in battle (Tamai) in 1884 and a gun was taken by the enemy but was recaptured by his troops. A private soldier, Private Edwards, won the VC as part of that action.


Both Henry and Walter Almack died in the same year in 1884. The beautiful west window above the front door is a memorial to Walter and was created that year by the Almack family. It is a lovely stained glass window and the colours are best seen from inside looking outwards. There are allusions to Walter and his naval life and the sensitivity that comes through indicates how deeply his family grieved at his loss. Henry is commemorated by the construction of the lytch gate.

The village school was built in 1850 and was running until 1960. The churchwarden predecessor, Harry Sloper was educated there before the second world war.

In 1853 the Mackenzie family bought Fawley Court. William Mackenzie was a Scottish engineer who's work included canals, tunnels and railways on the continent as well as in the UK. The Mackenzies built the family mausoleum located in the grounds of the church, in Aberdeen granite, a formidable looking building!

Exactly 100 years later, in 1953, Fawley Court house and surrounding grounds with it's exceptional river frontage on the Thames were purchased by the British province of the Polish Congregation of Marian Fathers, in answer to the demand from the post World War II newly settled Polish community, for use as an independent educational establishment known as, Divine Mercy College and as a religious house. The house was severely damaged by fire in 1973, but was rebuilt with the help of donations from the Polish community in Britain and abroad. The school finally closed in 1986 due to falling rolls of students of Polish origin, and the Marian Fathers converted Fawley Court into a 'Retreat and Conference Centre'.

The church bells and stained glass window
There are three bells in the tower the oldest of which dates back to 1450. The wooden bell frame that holds the bells is remarkably ancient and our architect commented in his 2018 five yearly report that "The Bell Chamber contains an extraordinarily beautiful timber bell frame (probably dating from the later 15th Century) constructed as a cruck frame with three bells, one of which is reputed to predate the reformation. The bells have at some time recently been re-hung from new head stock trunnions and end bearings as a swing chime".

The John Piper stained glass window Tree of Life (see below) was installed in the church in 1977. Today, the Church of St Mary the Virgin is undergoing a regeneration project to bring community life to the village. Not only, serving as a place of worship it will also provide an excellent place of gathering, community activities, and events.



Source: Information provided by David Napier, Sarah Ronan, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia for reference dates and historical information.


The Tree of Life


Modern stained glass window design by John Piper, 'The Tree of Life' can be found in the church of St. Mary the Virgin, Fawley.

John Piper
(1903–1992) was one of the most prolific and versatile artists of the twentieth century. From his home and studio at Fawley Bottom, on the edge of Henley-on-Thames, he constantly experimented, collaborated, and explored new ways of working. John Piper and his wife, the librettist Myfanwy Piper, were notable long-term residents of Fawley Bottom Farmhouse in the 20th century, from the mid-1930s to the rest of their lives.

The John Piper Gallery at the River & Rowing Museum, the only gallery dedicated to Piper in the UK, showcases work from his extraordinarily varied career, which traversed theatre design, ceramics, fireworks, painting, textiles, prints, art and architectural criticism, and stained glass; work that justifiably earned him a reputation as a 'master of diversity'.

'People think it dishonest to be chameleon-like in one's artistic allegiances. On the other hand, I think it dishonest to be anything else. Not only must one change one's spots or stripes or other outward markings according to the influences one truly experiences, within oneself, but surely one's whole nature, aesthetic-sensually, as it were, should be susceptible to change.'
John Piper

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