The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Steeple Aston

Newton Purcell church

The church of St. Peter and St. Paul at Steeple Aston occupies a commanding position on high ground at the north-east end of Steeple Aston village. It is built of both limestone and ironstone and comprises a chancel with north chapel, nave of three bays, north and south aisles, south porch, and west tower, all battlemented. Of the 12th-century church nothing identifiable now remains except, perhaps, at the south-east corner of the nave where the 13th-century aisle is built against the quoins of an unaisled building. The font, decorated with diamond and chevron patterns, may also be of the 12th century, although apparently recut in the later 17th century. The church had a tower at the latest by 1220, when the prefix 'Steeple' was attached to the name Aston. The church was altered extensively in the 13th century when north and south aisles and arcades were built, a new chancel arch was inserted, and the chancel was extended eastwards and supported at its eastern end by low angle buttresses. In the mid 14th century the spacious north chapel was built; despite later alterations to the chapel the east window, with its fine reticulated tracery, remains, as do the arches connecting the chapel with the chancel and north aisle. The chapel contains an unusual double piscina with cusped arches decorated with a ram's head. The south aisle was rebuilt in the 14th century; the piscina, on the south wall, and the south doorway still remain. Rebuilding continued in the late 14th century and early 15th when the north aisle was widened to match the north chapel. On the south wall of the chapel a corbel depicting a woman's head wearing headdress of the early 15th century suggests that the chapel was reroofed then. To the same period belong the building of the south porch and the rebuilding of the tower, and it is possible that a clerestory was also added, although it was regarded as late work in the 19th century when it was removed. The whole church was surmounted by battlements, presumably after rebuilding was completed in the early 15th century.

The medieval church contained an altar dedicated to St. Catherine, probably at the east end of the north aisle, and there seems to have been an image of Our Lady, with a light, in the north chapel. There was also a light, its location unknown, dedicated to St. Nicholas. 

In the later 17th century the rector, Richard Duckworth, complained strongly about the church's poor state of repair. He partly rebuilt the chancel in 1686, but parishioners claimed that in doing so he had taken materials from the north chapel, leaving it open to the elements and so ruinous that it had to be propped up. Duckworth's rebuilding also reputedly destroyed a crypt, piscina, and sedilia in the chancel. The new work was remarkable for its adherence to a style of Perpendicular prevalent a century and a half earlier. The ruined chapel was taken over in 1723 for a mausoleum by Sir Francis Page of Middle Aston. The north wall was rebuilt and the arches between the chapel and the chancel and north aisle blocked, access being by small doors. Some sort of partition between the chapel and the chancel had presumably been built by Duckworth to keep out the weather, but it may have been rebuilt by Page since pieces of alabaster possibly belonging to two tombs seen c. 1720 by the antiquary Richard Rawlinson were discovered when the arch was reopened in 1842. The tombs were those of a priest, perhaps Thomas Adderbury (d. by 1362), a member of the family then lords of the manor, and of a knight and lady. The chapel was given a flat ceiling by Page, cutting off the apex of the east window. The Page monument, dominating the chapel, was commissioned from Henry Scheemakers on the death of Page's wife in 1730. It depicts Page and his wife reclining within a classical portico. Beneath the chapel floor is a large vault containing the remains of Page and his family. Responsibility for the chapel's upkeep was attached by him to ownership of Middle Aston House, and £1 a year was allowed to the parish clerk for cleaning the chapel and locking it. In 1719 Page had also erected a large gallery and private staircase at the west end of the nave and had enlarged the north doorway of the church for his own use.

The chancel roof was repaired in 1833 and the nave roof in 1835. There were further, makeshift, repairs to the church in the 1830s, and in 1842 there was a major restoration of the church to designs of John Plowman of Oxford from money raised by public subscription. Great care was taken to model the work on the existing architecture. The north aisle was completely rebuilt in Perpendicular style, its eastern window re-used and made the model for the others. The north arcade was taken down and rebuilt, the clerestory removed, and the nave given a higher roof. The west gallery was removed, the south aisle was partly rebuilt and its windows given new tracery, and the outer walls of the porch were rebuilt. The church walls were plastered. The old pews were broken up and their 16th-century traceried panels, reputedly among the finest in Oxfordshire, used as bench ends on new pews. A new pulpit similarly incorporated tracery from its predecessor. The chancel was restored in the following year at the rector's expense. The work included reroofing, restoration of the windows, and the opening up of the Page chapel. The restraint of the restorations won general approval. Work on the tower, postponed in 1842, began in 1867. Roughcast was stripped off, the walls repointed, a new belfry window inserted, and new floors built for the bell-ringing and clock chambers. In 1873 there was a further restoration of the chancel, to designs by Charles Buckeridge. A tiled reredos was erected and the chancel floor tiled. The floor tiles were later covered by black and white marble. In 1909 the Page chapel was restored and a two-storeyed vestry, incorporating a new organ, built on the north side. Page's flat ceiling was replaced by a coved ceiling of oak and plaster, a 17th-century wooden altar was installed, the walls were lined with oak panelling of the late 17th or early 18th century, and a communion rail of the same period, formerly in the chancel, was fitted. Electric lighting was installed in 1932. 

The church contains a 15th-century chancel screen said to be unique in Oxfordshire in having its lower as well as its upper panels open. The crucifix and a gilded image of the Trinity in the rood loft attracted bequests from parishioners in the early 16th century. The screen was restored in 1842 but the rood loft staircase was not discovered until 1909. An 18th-century brass chandelier in the chancel, formerly in Cuckfield church (Sussex), was given by the Revd. F. J. Brown, rector 1896–1918. The only stained glass in the church earlier than the 19th century comprises two small roses in the north-east window of the north aisle. The glass in the chancel and in the east window of the south aisle is by C. E. Kempe. Among the monuments in the church are brasses and plaques to John Fox (d. 1522) and his wife Joan, members of the Greenwood, Marten, and Watson families, and to various rectors. The church plate includes a silver chalice and paten of 1575, a silver paten of 1693 given by Richard Duckworth, and a silver flagon of 1722 given by Sir Francis and Lady Page. A fine 14th-century cope owned by the church and on permanent loan in the Victoria and Albert Museum is divided by embroidered stems of oak and ivy into panels depicting scenes from the Crucifixion and the martyrdom of saints. The cope was cut up at an unknown date for use as altar hangings. There are six bells, the earliest dated 1674. A ringers' gallery was built by Duckworth, author of Tintinnalogia, or the Art of Ringing (1668). There was a church clock in the 17th century, apparently replaced in the early 18th; in 1981 the church tower carried an electric clock.

The churchyard was extended in 1865 and 1891. At the east end there is a 13th-century slab bearing emblems which have been claimed to represent an axe and set square, possibly indicating a master builder. Opposite the south porch of the church stand the base and shaft of a cross, possibly of the 15th century.

Historical information about the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul is provided by A P Baggs, Christina Colvin, H M Colvin, Janet Cooper, C J Day, Nesta Selwyn and A Tomkinson, 'Parishes: Steeple Aston', in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 11, Wootton Hundred (Northern Part), ed. Alan Crossley (London, 1983), pp. 21-44. British History Online [accessed 21 February 2023].

The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul is a Grade II* listed building. For more information about the listing see CHURCH OF ST PETER AND ST PAUL, Steeple Aston - 1357162 | Historic England

For more information about the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul see Parishes: Steeple Aston | British History Online (