Oxfordshire’s Five-Star Church

In Simon Jenkins’ monumental tome, England’s Thousand Best Churches, the author identifies just thirteen five-star churches across the country. Only one of them is in Oxfordshire and it is barely five miles from the Wychwoods – the Anglican Church of St John the Baptist in Burford. Jenkins introduces his section on this Cotswold ‘wool church’ as follows:

‘Burford is queen of Oxfordshire, a paragon and museum of the English parish church.’

What is it that attracts thousands of visitors each year to this five-star church? Built in a meander of the River Windrush, this Grade 1 listed building is really an amalgam of structures, having been added to and altered significantly over three centuries. Beneath a spire that arrows above the town, the main structure was laid down in the twelfth century, the Norman west door being one of the first parts to be completed. 

Inside, the visitor is usually struck by the sheer size of the church; “It’s like a cathedral,” is an often heard comment. While the nave is vast and high-roofed, the chancel is as big as most rural churches on its own. 

There are many features to which the visitors’ eyes are drawn. Following the imprisonment of over 300 Levellers – a rebellious section of Cromwell’s army – in the church in 1649, one Anthony Sedley scratched his name plus ‘prisner’ on the font, surely one of the earliest examples of ecclesiastical graffiti. Further along the north wall is the tomb of Edmund Harman, the surgeon/barber to the court of Henry VIII. Along with intricate carvings of his multiple children, what makes the tomb so significant is the depiction of South American Indians, the first known showing of New World indigenous people in England, and therefore of national import. 

The south transept features a magnificent Arts and Crafts window created by Christopher Whall in 1907, depicting the Revelation of St John the Divine on the Island of Patmos. Other windows in the church include eight by Charles E. Kempe, each with his logo of a small sheaf of corn in the bottom corner. 

One puzzling feature, evident high above the nave tower wall, is the so-called ‘ipona stone’, a mysterious stone carving of three figures and an animal, but depicting what? Nobody is too sure, but there are several plausible and fascinating suppositions. 

Returning to Simon Jenkins, in one particular way, he was mistaken. This is no museum. St John the Baptist Church is also a vibrant place of worship, not just a feature on the tourist trail, but a fully functioning church often full on Sundays, sharing the Good News far and wide. 

It has to be seen to be believed. 

Bob Forster

February – March 2022