For more than 850 years, Bicester people have worshipped God in this church, and gone out from it renewed to serve him in their lives; and this is still the building’s function today. Details of Sunday and weekday services and of other activities can be found on the church noticeboard by the drive and in the monthly magazine.
As the oldest building in Bicester, it is a crucial part of the town’s history and a beautiful landmark in the countryside. The visitor enters through the North porch, to find on their right the Baptistery. This has a plain 13th century font with a cover of 1757. Its position just inside the building symbolises the spiritual entry to the church conferred by Baptism. Passing into the nave, they are at once impressed by the size of the church and the height of the oaken roof. Two long vistas, one looking towards the altar from the West end and the other seen from the altar steps with the wide chancel arch framing the tall narrow one leading to the tower, will reveal to them the noble proportions of the nave and its arches.
Foundation and Building
There was almost certainly a stone church on the site in late Saxon times, although there is no mention of one in Doomsday Book. Some people think the triangular-headed arch in the North aisle was the doorway of this building; the remains of a zigzag dripstone between the arches of the North aisle imply that this was the outside wall of the Norman church built by Gilbert Bassett about 1120. The great central arches that once supported a tower also belong to this period.
By the 13th century the church had been given to Bicester Priory which stood roughly where Old Place Yard is now. The priory supplied the vicars and at intervals of about a century enlarged and improved the church. The chancel was extended in the Early English period (13th century) and the priest’s door made in its South wall; four arches were cut in the South wall of the nave and the South aisle was added; the fine arch between this aisle and the Lady Chapel was built then. So was the South doorway. In the Decorated period (14th century) the North chapel and the North aisle were built, three arches being cut in the North wall of the nave. The North chapel is now used as the choir vestry; a wooden screen leading from this to the priest’s vestry is painted with a design of flowers, birds and insects; dated 1882, it is a good example of its period.
The Perpendicular Period (15th century) was the one that gave the building its present appearance. The central tower was taken down, its West arch removed and the crossing thrown into the nave. The nave was heightened, the clerestory added and the nave roofed with timber supported on twelve fine stone corbels, carved heads of beasts and grotesques. The West tower was built with a splendid perpendicular arch opening into the nave. Parapets were added to the outside walls and the porch was built.
Storm of 1765
In 1765 a great storm damaged the church. Lightning struck the tower, damaged the belfry and the bells, broke into the body of the church, tore up part of the floor in the South aisle and smashed most of the lower windows throughout the building, leaving it “full of smoke, accompanied with a suffocating sulphurous stench”. This explains why there is almost no mediaeval stained glass left. The damaged chimes were mended in 1766 at the cost of £47.
A print of 1849 shows the nave and aisles filled with boxed pews and a three-decker pulpit opposite the Grantham memorial. There were galleries across the West end and between the arches over both aisles. This “chaos of uplifted boxes” was removed in a thorough restoration of the church carried out in 1862-3 under the Reverend J. W. Watts, vicar from 1843-81. Roofs, walls and the floor were all repaired or renewed and the present pews were put in. The church was heated and gas lighting installed. C. N. Beazley in consultation with G. E. Street carried out the restoration at a cost of £3,214; they put in the existing window tracery and the stone and marble pulpit.
The fabric had not been altered in the last century. In 1910 the high altar was given. Made of oak, it is carved with the Lamb of God, the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. The organ, a fine one made by William Hill and Son, was bought from St. Peter’s in the East, Oxford, in 1968.
As part of the Reordering Project started in 2008, the interior of the church has been completely repainted giving a much fresher and “cared for” appearance. The building has been re-wired, new lighting and audio-visual systems installed all of which help to enhance the vitality of the church and making it more usable by the community as a whole. Regular events such as concerts and exhibitions take place bringing the church back into the centre of the Bicester Town community. More recently, the floor in the vestries has been replaced; damp was discovered during the initial redecorating work and for months we had the “swimming pool” (a large hole in the floor) as a feature of this area until the money could be accumulated to repair the damage and construct a new drain outside. We want to make the church more usable for the future and are continuing to fund raise for the Reordering Project to enable us to do this with toilets and kitchen facilities being the most urgent needs.
The church has a ring of ten bells, eight were recast in 1913. Two were installed as a gift to celebrate the Millennium. There is also a sanctus bell.
The outside of the church is worth examining. The porch was at one time two-storeyed. In the upper portion the muniments were kept and in the 17th and 18th centuries the chained library was housed there. In the left jamb of the West window are the initials W.T. and the date 1750. On the North side of the church near the East end is a doorway and a stair turret. The North chapel to which they led (now the vestry) once had an upper chamber and was used in the late 17th and early 18th centuries as a grammar school run by the vicar and curate; it was to this school that the chained library, whose catalogue still survives, belonged. An 18th century picture shows a chimney at this end of the building. The rainwater pipes on the North side are old; the hopper of one bears the date 1674.