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St Andrew, Great Rollright, Oxfordshire

(51°58′51″N, 1°31′31″W)
Great Rollright
SP 327 315
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Oxfordshire
now Oxfordshire
medieval St Andrew
now St Andrew
  • Janet Newson
  • John Blair
  • Sarah Blair
08 October 1994, 27 August 2014

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Feature Sets

Great Rollright is situated 3 miles NE of Chipping Norton in rolling countryside close to the Warwickshire border. The church probably dates from the mid-12thc. It now comprises a chancel, nave and S aisle. The chancel arch and S aisle date from the 13thc., and the chancel from the 15thc. The church was restored by G.E. Street in 1852. The Romanesque S aisle doorway features fine mid-12thc. carving, with a lintel and tympanum of chip-carved motifs and roundels, and a unique type of beakhead around the arch. It must have been reset when the S nave aisle was built. There is also an exterior pointed N nave doorway with a slightly pointed rear-arch decorated with chevron on both face and soffit.


St Andrew's is in the benefice of Hook Norton, with Great Rollright, Swerford and Wigginton.


Exterior Features



It is interesting that Great Rollright displays roundels or medallions on the S doorway, because there are other churches where they are also associated with beakheads. The nearest is at St Nicholas, Kenilworth (Warks), on the W doorway, outside the round-headed arch decorated with beakheads but within its outer rectangular frame (see entry on this website). And at All Saints, Lullington (Somerset), four roundels occur on the gable above the N doorway, that has beakheads on the arch. Malmesbury abbey (Wilts), has roundels on the exterior S wall at clerestory level. They are considered to be a West Country motif, particularly associated with Bishop Roger of Sarum (Stalley, 1971). The association here is not clear, unless it was possibly with Geoffrey de Clinton, who was active and resided in this area, notably at Cassington, just NW of Oxford. He was royal Chamberlain and treasurer under Henry I and therefore a colleague of Bishop Roger.

Beakheads have been defined as 'an ornament taking the form of a head of a bird, beast or monster, the beak or jaw of which appears to grip the moulding across which it is carved' (Clapham, 1934). Here there is an unusual situation, where the whole grotesque beakhead is carved on a shallow wide roll. This is unique for beakheads in this area (Newson, 2013). There are conventional beakheads in plenty nearby at Barford St Michael, probably from c. 1150, that could have served as a model. Possibly these were carved at an earlier date, or perhaps the mason wanted to create something unique.

The figures on the tympanum may represent the whale or fish that swallowed Jonah, perhaps the two human heads suggesting his birth and resurrection.


J.C. Buckler, Bodleian MS. Top.Oxon.a. 68 No.423 (drawing of S doorway).

A.W. Clapham, English Romanesque Architecture after the Conquest, Oxford 1934, 130.

C.E. Keyser, Notes on the Architecture of the Churches of Great Rollright, Hook Norton and Wigginton, Oxfordshire, JBAA n.s. xxv (1919), 1-23. Illustrates S dy and N rear-arch.

J. Newson, Beakhead Decoration on Romanesque Arches in the Upper Thames Valley, Oxoniensia, 78 (2013), 71-86.

J. Sherwood and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Oxfordshire. Harmondsworth 1974, 623-4.

R.A. Stalley, 'A Twelfth-Century Patron of Architecture, the Buildings of Bishop Roger of Sarum, 1102-1139', Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 3rd series, 34 (1971), 67.