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St John the Baptist, Stone, Buckinghamshire

(51°49′19″N, 0°58′42″W)
SP 705 142
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Buckinghamshire
now Buckinghamshire
  • Ron Baxter
14 March 2008

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Stone is a good-sized village in central Buckinghamshire, 2 miles SW of the centre of Aylesbury. The village stands on a ridge on the S side of the Thame valley, and extends for a mile along the A418, the main road between Thame and Aylesbury. The church is at the centre of the village. St John’s is a cruciform church with a nave with N aisle and S porch, N and S transepts, a chancel with a 19thc N chapel and a W tower. The S nave doorway is 12thc, although it was moved six feet to the west in the late 19th. The N nave arcade is of four bays of which the first three date from the late 12thc, which the west bay was added in the 13thc, reusing the W respond and inserting a new pier 3. Above the arcade may be seen traces of 12thc clerestorey windows that were blocked in a late-19th restoration. The N aisle windows and the N doorway are 15-16thc, as are the S nave windows, except for one plain pointed lancet. The transepts are 13thc, with a triple lancet composition on the S facade and a double lancet with an oculus above on the N, indicating a date after the middle of the century. The N transept is in use as a chapel, while the S has been converted into a vestry. The chancel is 13thc too, but was rebuilt in 1843-45, and its roof has been heightened by six courses. The W tower is of c.1300 with Y-tracery bell-openings and W window, and a square bell-stair on the SE angle, but its saddleback roof is 19thc. The highlight of the church is its font; one of the finest, and certainly the most enigmatic, in the county today, but it does not belong here. It was originally from the church of Hampstead Norreys in Berkshire, whence it was brought in 1845. This, the N arcade and the S doorway are recorded below.


In 1086 Stone contained two manors, each of 7 hides. The first, later known as Bracey’s Manor, was held by Gilbert from Robert de Tosny, lord of Belvoir (Leics) and had been held before 1066 by Ulf, a housecarl of King Edward. The overlordship remained in the Honour of Belvoir throughout the Middle Ages. By the reign of Henry I the tenancy was held by William de Bracey, who granted thechurchofStoneto Oseney Abbey. The Braceys held the manor until the mid-14thc. The second, later called St Clere’s manor, was given to Odo, Bishop of Bayeux at the Conquest, and was held from him by Helto, probably his steward. Before the Conquest this manor had been jointly held by two brothers; one a man of Ulf, the other a man of Eddeva. When Odo was deprived of his lands they passed to the Munchesney family, while the tenancy was in the hands of the St Cleres by the early 12thc and remained with that family at least until the beginning of the 15thc. Further details of the history of the two manors is given in VCH. The parish is now part of the Wychert Vale benefice.


Exterior Features


Interior Features






The S arcade includes ball volute capitals as well as scalloped and fluted ones, pointing to a date around 1170-90. Ball volutes may also be seen in the S arcade atNorth Crawley, but the similarities are not so striking as to imply a workshop connection. The S doorway must be similar in date to judge from the waterleaf capital and keeled angle roll.

The main attraction here, however, is the imported font, and it should be said from the outset that no parallels for its curious decoration are known inBerkshire, the county of its origin. It is carved with interlace and knotwork patterns, Anglo-Saxon in origin, but here treated with great looseness and boldness. Especially notable are the departures from the basic geometry on the W face, where a variety of terminals including Staffordshire knots appear, and the treatment of the terminal loops as scallops, with cones to carry them, where the design overlaps the edge of the bowl. Extra interest is added by the addition of masks and beasts around the interlace patterns and within their loops. In some cases, as with the fish to the R of the basketweave design on the NW face, there is evidence of accurate anatomical observation. Similarly the human figures on the N side of the font are shown with prominent ribs and kneecaps. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the carving is found in the tiny human heads within the loops of the knotwork. The relief is deep, showing the fleshiness of cheeks and chins, and hairstyles are at once fantastical and classicizing. The latter tendency is also well seen on the two figures in the scene on the N face.

Pevsner (1960) attempted no dating closer than Norman, and no interpretation of the scene on the N face. According to the VCH the font dates from c.1140, but “the smaller details of carving, heads of beasts, &c., worked into the knotwork patterns, are so unlike ordinary 12th-century work that it must be concluded that much of the carving has been re-worked.” Close examination of the font, however, makes this argument difficult to sustain, and however stylistically inconvenient this might be it must be accepted that the carving is all of a piece, which makes the 1140 date improbable in the extreme, and a date in the last quarter of the 12thc more likely.

As for the scene on the N face, the two naked men beset by fierce beasts are Christian souls engaged in the battle against the forces of the devil, represented by the dragon to the R and perhaps a wolf to the L. Both souls appear to be succeeding in their struggles, but one who has not is shown in the despairing figure behind the dragon. The references to Christ in the central figure are unavoidable; the pose with outstretched arms recalls the Crucifixion, while the asp on which he tramples recalls Psalm XC, 13 in the Vulgate (XCI, 13 AV), invariably interpreted as prophetic of Christ. In this interpretation it is worth noting that the lost soul behind the dragon is on the negative side where Hell is normally shown. The relevance of this to the protection offered by the sacrament of baptism is obvious enough, and it may be significant that the dragon here is attacked by a bird, perhaps to be equated with the dove of the Holy Spirit associated with the sacrament in scenes of the Baptism of Christ.

An interpretation of the iconography in terms of Gregory's Moralia in Job by Mary Curtiis Webb is well worth seeking out (see bibliography).

Parallels for this extraordinary font are difficult to find, but one worth exploring is at All Saints, Braybrooke (Northants), which also includes guilloche borders, beaded interlace, knotwork, a figural scene of a siren with a fish, and a cross on a stepped pedestal. The Braybrooke font is square (with angles chamfered later), but the similarities are numerous enough to suggest a connection at the workshop level.


N. Pevsner, Buildings of England: Buckinghamshire. London 1960, 248-49.

N. Pevsner and E. Williamson, Buildings of England: Buckinghamshire. London 1960, 2nd ed. 1994.

RCHME, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Buckingham. Volume 1 (south).London 1912, 290-93.

Victoria County History: Buckinghamshire. II (1908), 307-11.

M. C. Webb, Ideas and Images in Twelfth Century Sculpture, Revised ed. 2012, 84-122. Only available online, via https://lib.ugent.be