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St Michael, Stewkley, Buckinghamshire

(51°55′36″N, 0°45′44″W)
SP 852 261
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Buckinghamshire
now Buckinghamshire
  • Ron Baxter
03 August 2006

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Stewkley is in the E of the county, in the ancient hundred of Mursley. It is a substantial settlement extending for 1½ miles along the road from Buckingham to Leighton Buzzard and Dunstable, 10 miles SE of Buckingham and 3 miles from the Bedfordshire border. The suffix “ley” in its name suggests a woodland settlement and the presence of a North End and a South End are typical indications of the original extent of the clearing, but there is little continuous woodland surviving now, and the landscape round the village has the low rolling character of the Vale of Aylesbury. The church is alongside the main road in the centre of the village, and is an important example of a complete Romanesque parish church with a central tower and lavish sculptural decoration.

It consists of a nave, central tower and chancel with no aisles and no external signs of there having been transepts. The tower has a N stair at the E end of the N wall, slightly projecting from the wall face. The stair rises to within 2 metres of the top of the tall lower stage of the tower, and above it are traces of a blocked arch in the masonry. The tower has round-headed lower windows to N and S, and the bell-storey is decorated with intersecting blind arcading enclosing a single round-headed bell-opening in the centre of each face. The tower masonry consists of irregular small pieces of limestone rubble including some local iron limestone, with some attempt at coursing. The upper part of the tower, including a plain parapet, has been rebuilt in ashlar blocks with gargoyles. When it was seen by the RCHM in 1913, the church was coated in Roman cement except for the E wall of the chancel and the W façade. The windows and blind arcading have chevron decoration, and there are chevron stringcourses at the level of the lower window sills.

The nave has 12thc N, S and W doorways and an elaborate W facade with blind arches alongside the W doorway. The nave windows are decorated with chevron, and there is a chevron stringcourse at sill level and a carved corbel table on the N and S sides. The S porch is 19thc, in a neo-Romanesque style. The chancel is square ended with 12thc lateral windows decorated with chevron and an E window flanked by blind arches, also chevron decorated. It has the usual sill-level stringcourse and lateral corbel tables like the nave. The E angles of the chancel have 19thc angle buttresses with neo-Romanesque chevron decoration. The S chancel doorway now gives access to a free-standing vestry built in 1910. Inside the church, carved decoration is found on the two tower arches, the internal faces of the windows and the ribs and supports of the vaulted square chancel. The church also contains a plain 12thc tub font. The church was reseated and a W gallery added by J. Ball of Aylesbury in 1831-35. In 1844 the chancel vaulting was rebuilt, with the exception of the ribs. It was repaired and again reseated byG. E. Streetin 1862-63. Repairs to the exterior plasterwork were carried out by C. M. O. Scott of London in 1937-38, and further repairs to the fabric were carried out by D. W. Harrington (1961-68) and T. Rayson of Oxford (1974-75).


The Domesday Survey records two holdings in Stewkley. William held 3½ hides with meadow for 8 ploughs as a manor from the Bishop of Coutances in 1086. This was held by Wulfweard Cild before the Conquest. The bishop’s nephew and heir forfeited his lands in 1095, and Stewkely is said to have passed to King Henry I’s natural son Robert, later Earl of Gloucester. Robert married the daughter of Robert fitzHamon, lord of the Honours of Gloucester andBristol, to which Stewkley later belonged. The second Domesday manor, of 3½ hides with meadow for 9 ploughs, was held by Nigel from Miles Crispin in 1086, and by Beorhtric, a thegn of King Edward before the Conquest. This was later attached, with Miles Crispin’s other lands, to the honour ofWallingfordand later passed to the Earls of Cornwall.

The lands later known as the Manor of Stewkley consisted of lands from both of these holdings that were given to the abbey of Fontevrault and attached to Grovebury Priory (Beds), its English cell at Leighton Buzzard, founded in 1164. The date of the gift is not known, and neither is the name of the donor, but VCH suggests that the transaction had taken place by 1167. This manor remained with Fontevrault until 1338, when, owing to the Hundred Years War it was given to Maud de Burgh, Countess of Ulster.

The parish is now in the benefice of Stewkley with Soulbury and Drayton Parslow.


Exterior Features



Exterior Decoration

String courses
Corbel tables, corbels

Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches

Vaulting/Roof Supports


Interior Decoration

String courses




Pevsner dates the building to 1140-50, describing it as “the most splendid piece of Norman architecture in Buckinghamshire, and in addition exceptionally complete and unaltered.” RCHME dates it c1160, and McAleeer c1150. McAleer also notes that it is one of the few surviving parish churches with towerless facades to have received any enrichment beyond a W window and doorway, and compares it in this regard to Iffley, Castle Rising and Much Wenlock. Fernie compares the arrangement of central tower and rib-vaulted chancel to the Oxfordshire churches on Iffley and Cassington. Raspi Serra, as ever, attributes the sculpture to a late and popular diffusion of theComotradition, and finds the motif of the mask with foliage issuing from its mouth “coarser and more simplified” than the more Italianate work atSt John’s, Devizes. Her assertions can safely be ignored. The cusped tympanum of the W doorway is uncommon. Most examples are trefoil cusped, often following the example of the Monks’ doorway at Ely Cathedral. Examples are are Bibury (Gloucs), Climping (Sussex), East Dereham (Norfolk) and Nately Scures (Hants). The Stewkley example is double-foiled, and must always have been, even though the central stone has been replaced. Zarnecki, in English Romanesque Art, compares a segmental tympanum stone fromSt Augustine’s,Canterbury, also carved with a dragon, to the tympanum here, and the comparison is useful although the two tympana could not have had the same form.


G. Zarnecki in English Romanesque Art 1066-1200. Exhibition catalogue, Arts Council of Great Britain, Hayward Gallery,London, 1984, cat. no. 160.

E. C. Fernie, The Architecture of Norman England. Oxford 2000, 223, 225, 270, 286.

W. A. Forsyth, “The Church of St Michael, Stewkley,” Records of Buckinghamshire 9 (1909), 120.

C. Keyser, A list of Norman Tympana and Lintels.London 1904 (2nd ed. 1927), 53.

K. Mayne and W. G. Capp, Stewkley, Bucks: a brief history of the church and village. 1955.

J. P. McAleer, The Romanesque Church Façade in Britain. New York and London 1984, 713-15

RCHME, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Buckingham. Volume 2 (north).London 1913, 275-77.

J. Raspi Serra, “English Decorative Sculpture of the Early Twelfth Century and the Como-Pavian Tradition.” Art Bulletin, 51 no 4 (1969), 352-62, esp. 355-56.

C. H. Travers, “StewkleyChurch, past and present,” Records of Buckinghamshire 3 (1865-69), 77-82.

Victoria County History: Bedfordshire. I (1904), 403-04.

Victoria County History: Buckinghamshire. III (1925), 420-26.