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Listed Building
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Ordnance survey map of CHURCH OF ST HELEN
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Statutory Address:

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Vale of White Horse (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SU 49694 96775



I Predominantly late medieval, but the church has origins dating back to the C7. The earliest fabric is very late C12 or early C13 (the tower, parts of the N and outer N aisles), but most of the church dates to the C15 and C16. The interior was refurnished in the C17, C18 and C19, and the whole restored in 1869-73 by Henry Woodyer.

MATERIALS: Rubble and ashlar limestone, red tile roofs.

PLAN: An enormous rectangle, said to be the second widest church in England, largely the result of later medieval rebuilding and extension. Nave with double N and S aisles continuing, except for the outer S aisle, into the chancel and E chapels without an internal structural division except for screens. NE tower and adjacent to it a two-storied structure said to have been a priest's house and a 2-story N porch. Also S and W porches and SE vestry or treasury that is narrower than, and separated from by solid walls, the outer S aisle.

The plan of the C13 and earlier church is unclear. The outer N aisle is said to have been the nave, putting a lost chancel under the road, but this does not make sense with the tower buttresses. One possibility is that the outer N aisle stands over the site of an older nave and chancel, with the tower to the N of the chancel. The inner N aisle would then have been the S aisle, and the Lady Chapel an E extension to that aisle. Another possibility is that the E end of both N aisles is the remains of a N transept, and the nave where the present nave is, again with the chancel under the road.

EXTERIOR: Early C13 tower at NE of 4 stages, with pairs of pointed lancets in the bell stages. Octagonal spire probably of the C15, but rebuilt in the C17 and in 1883. Main, N door to church at the base of the tower with C13 Early English doorway with shafts and stiff leaf capitals flanked by blank arches. Abutting the NE tower of the corner a late C16 classical gateway into the churchyard. To the W of the tower, a large two storied, gabled porch (the upper room perhaps a priest¿s lodging). Beyond the porch, the N wall of the outer N aisle has 3 C14 windows. Harmonious W front with 5 gables, the central nave gable rising above the flanking aisle gables. Each gable with large, traceried, windows of the late medieval period except for the nave W window, which has been altered from 7 to 6 lights and a transom removed, probably in the C19 restoration. Single storey Perpendicular W (as known as the Wedding) porch to nave. Ashlar outer S aisle of 1538-9 with porch of c.1550, all Perpendicular. E front, 5 gables with tower to N, all standing against street frontage, the chancel E window of the C19. The N and outer N aisles have small, chunky late C12 or early C13 buttresses in the centres of their E faces.

INTERIOR: The interior of the church was heavily remodelled in the C15. Nave with double aisles to N and S, each of 7 bays except the outer S aisle which has 5 bays plus the vestry. Perpendicular arcades with concave-sided octagonal piers, concave-sided capitals and moulded depressed arches, generally similar but not identical throughout. From N to S: North (or Jesus) Aisle, partly late C12 or early C13 and extended or rebuilt in the C14. Next the Lady Aisle. The Lady Chapel at the E end of the Lady Aisle was built in the mid C13 by the Guild of Our lady, remodelled and extended in the very late C14. The chapel roof is panelled and has a very fine painted scheme of c.1390 with foliage and figures depicting the Tree of Jesse with a painted inscription recording the chapel's commissioning and repair. The rest of the aisle has an early C15 roof. The central nave and chancel, with a clerestory to the nave, are C15. The inner S (St Katherine's) aisle is early C15, the outer S (or Reade) aisle 1539, the roof dated and with the initials I.A and K.A. for John and Katherine Audlett. The chancel interior was refitted in flamboyant Early English style in 1869-73 by Henry Woodyer, who inserted a new E window, sedilia, tiled floor and wooden rood screen.

PRINCIPAL FIXTURES: Very fine painted roof of c.1390 to the Lady Chapel.

Pulpit of 1636, moved from the nave and cut down in 1849. Organcase of 1725 by Abraham Jordan, mayor's seal of 1706, 3 large brass chandeliers, one perhaps C16 the others 1710 and 1713. White marble font, a copy of that at Sutton Courtenay, by H P Peyman of Abingdon, shown at the Great Exhibition in 1851. Font cover dated 1634. The old font is said to be buried beneath the present font.

Good monuments including brasses of the C15-C17, including at the E end of the outer N aisle, a paneled altar tomb of 1571 for John Roysse and monuments to Dr John Crossley (d. 1753, monument 1790) by J Nollekens, and to Mrs Hawkins, 1782 by J Hickey. Chancel sedilia, tiled floor and wooden rood screen of 1869-73. Very rich reredos by G F Bodley of 1897, and alabaster altar and marble floor in Lady chapel by him in 1898. Lady Chapel screen by C R Ashbee's Guild of Handicrafts c.1905. Glass includes several late C19 and early C20 windows by C E Kempe.

The interior, previously reordered in the C18, C19 and probably the C17, was re-ordered in 2003-4, with the pews repositioned to face the centre of the church where a low platform of the altar has been introduced. The body of the church was refloored with simple grey tiles.

SUBSIDIARY FEATURES: St Helen's ancient origins and complex structural history make it likely that considerable archaeology of interest survives below the floors and in the surrounding churchyard. The uncertainty over the position of the early church also means that the area under the road to the E of the church may also cover archaeological remains related to the church.

HISTORY: St Helen's is Abingdon's parish church. The earliest visible fabric is the late C12 or early C13 E end of the N and outer N aisles and the early C13 tower, but there has been a church on this site for much longer. Abingdon Abbey to the E of St Helen's was founded in the C7 and refounded in the C10, and the town was an important Saxon site. St Helen's itself is first mentioned in the late C10, but it may have been earlier. It appears to have been linked to the abbey from an early date, as it paid money to the abbey's infirmary by the late C12, and the rectory was appropriated to the abbey in the mid C13. The relationship between the abbey and the parish church was difficult for much of the middle ages, with the abbey taking the majority of the parish church's revenues. The town of Abingdon was made wealthy in the Middle Ages by trade and markets facilitated by the proximity to the River Thames and by Abingdon Abbey. In part to counteract the abbey's influence (and the exaction of heavy dues), a local guild, the Fraternity of the Holy Cross, was formed. This fostered a spirit of civic independence, and invested in St Helen's. The guild also built the 3 sets of almshouses around the edge of the churchyard and a small S churchyard outhouse (all listed Grade II), and in 1416-17, built a new stone bridge across the Thames.

SOURCES: Lambeth Palace Library ICBS File 07105 Murray, C, Exploring England's Heritage: Oxfordshire to Buckinghamshire (1994), 17-18 Page, W and Ditchfield, P H, The Victoria History of the Counties of England: Berkshire 2 (1907), 511-62 for the abbey and ibid, vol 4 (1924), 430-51 for the parish church. Pevsner, N, Buildings of England: Berkshire (1966), 51-3

REASONS FOR DESIGNATION: The church of St Helen, Abingdon, is designated at Grade I for the following principal reasons: * An outstanding medieval town church, the second widest in England, preserving excellent medieval fabric. * Good medieval roofs, including a truly outstanding Jesse roof of c. 1390. * Excellent C19 fittings, including Bodley's sumptuous reredos and screen in the chancel, which entirely compliment the medieval architecture. * Also has very good fittings of other periods, including some good tombs and a C17 pulpit and font cover.


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This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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Date: 20 Jul 2001
Reference: IOE01/03691/20
Rights: Copyright IoE John S. Sambrook. Source Historic England Archive
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