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St Mary the Virgin, North Stoke, Oxfordshire

(51°34′17″N, 1°7′21″W)
North Stoke
SU 609 862
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Oxfordshire
now Oxfordshire
  • Nicola Lowe
19 April 2015

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The village of North Stoke sits alongside the Thames, approx. 2 miles S of the market town of Wallingford. The church is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin and lies at the end of a leafy lane where the Ridgeway passes through the churchyard. Its appearance is primarily of the 13thc and consists of 3 cells: a W tower, and aisleless nave and chancel under tiled roofs. The exterior has been restored and is of flint rubble with stone dressings. Inside are the important remains of an extensive scheme of 14thc mural decoration. A 12th or possibly 11thc sundial is reset high on the exterior of the S nave wall above a blocked doorway, and a plain tub font are the only surviving Romanesque features.


North Stoke, written as 'Stoches' in Domesday, was held by Miles Crispin in 1086. It was a very large village of 43 households, taxed at 10 geld units and worth £15. No church is recorded but a settlement of this size and value is likely to have had one and some stone fragments kept in a box in the vestry of the current church are thought to belong to a Saxon pillar piscina. The Crispins were barons of Bec in Normandy and seem to have given this early church to the abbey there as it was subsequently known as St Mary of Bec. Henry II held the living in the 12thc and Henry III later gave it to his brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall. The present church appears to date from the time of of Robert de Esthall who was appointed priest in 1237, the font and sundial being all that remain of an earlier building.


Exterior Features





Pevsner suggests the sundial is 12thc work but it may be older. It resembles Anglo-Saxon examples such as those at St Michael, Winchester, and at Byland and Kirkdale in Yorkshire. Although semi-circular, rather than circular, the N country examples use the octaval system, dividing the day into 8 'tides', marking the canonical hours, and have an inscribed band round the outside edge, as at North Stoke. The Winchester sundial has a similar band, but divides the day into 12, the lines indicating the 3 most important hours being marked with a cross. A further example at Escomb, County Durham is set beneath a corbel and dripstone which may have prompted the inclusion of the head at North Stoke, perhaps during restoration. However, the head may not belong. It is not physically attached to the dial as the hands are and is carved in smaller scale with finer detail. It depicts a bearded male with prominent ears, and eyes with distinctive triangular upper lids. He has wavy hair cut high on the forehead and curling up behind his ears. The naturalistic features seem typical of the 13thc. See the much more stylised 12thc head corbel in Bedford Museum, also on this site. The stone has also weathered differently, showing less yellow lichen, suggesting that the two elements have not always been together. Pevsner describes the head as that of a priest or monk but the beard and lack of tonsure suggest otherwise. Shallow scratch dials or Mass dials are commonly found, often in groups, on the south wall of parish churches, but these tend to be later and are crudely scored into the stonework in comparison with the fine workmanship of these early examples.

Note: The fieldworker was unable to gain access to the supposed Anglo-Saxon fragments.


J.Sherwood and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Oxfordshire, Harmondsworth 1974, 723-4.

C. Daniel, Sundials, Shire 2004.

J. Aplin (ed.), The Letters of Philip Webb 1899-1902, vol 3. Routledge, 2016