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Church of St Peters

The impressive church of St Peter's, Langley Burrell, incorporates elements from before 1200. The suffix 'Burrell' derives from the family name of Borel or Burel, who owned the estate from c.1086-1300 and were the likely founders of the church. The rest of the structure is mainly from the mid-thirteenth to the mid-fourteenth century. The south tower dates from the fourteenth century, possibly built by John Delamare, whose tomb lies in the churchyard. The Cobham arms (a chevron with three stars) are located on a wooden boss in the nave roof. The family (owners of the estate from the mid-fourteenth century) are likely to have enlarged or renovated the church. A battlemented chapel to the southeast dates from the late fifteenth century.

There are several peculiarities about the church interior. Local tradition holds that Thomas Webbe (rector c.1647-1651) defaced the tablet in the chancel that commemorated the death of his predecessor's (Henry Norborne's) first wife, Rebekah. By erasing the word “Reverend” and altering “Bat. in divinite” to read “Bad in divinite”. During renovations 1898-99 the remains of three fonts were found. Subsequent newspaper reporting suggested the fragments of a further two fonts had previously been found during the 1870s. A Latin inscription was also discovered in the nave's north wall, the meaning of which has been conjectured. Another singularity is the fourteenth-century trefoiled squint or 'hole' on the south side of the chancel arch, which the seventeenth-century commentator John Aubrey, suggested could have been used as a confessional.

During the English Civil Wars, parliament ejected the rector, Henry Norborne, from his living and tried to install a Mr Martyn. However, Martyn was denied access to the parishby parishioners and Thomas Webbe, who had instead established himself as the new minister. The career of Thomas Webbe is infamous. According to the testimony of a former friend Webbe 'came as an Angel of Light, into those parts, with a great form of godlinesse in sheeps clothing' through which he secured the living, cementing his affections with parishioners by further refusing to collect tithes (the local taxes that provided for his income). Webbe's preaching rejected the trappings of organised religion and instead emphasised the importance of personal spiritual experience. He also encouraged 'liberty and freedom' in sexual relationships among his brethren, whether male or female, married or not. His personal sexual conduct, which included a same-sex affair and relationship with Mary White, the wife of the lord of the manor, brought him to the attention of Parliament and the courts. Although acquitted for the capital offence of adultery, Webbe was successfully ejected from the living in 1651. Writing a few years later, Aubrey observed "There was such blasphemy and uncleanness… in after ages 'twill scarcely be believed."

After that, until the late nineteenth century, the association between the rectors of Langley Burrell and the estate owners was brought closer by the fact incumbents were primarily the patron or a member of the Ashe family. Samuel Ashe became rector only two weeks after being ordained in 1777. He is mentioned in Francis Kilvert’s diary from the testimony of an old parishioner who recalled Ashe had tried to stop village boys playing football, hockey and other ball games on a Sunday by puncturing their ball. Samuel Ashe may not have been popular amongst parishioners, on his own report, the congregation at his services was only 7 or 8 (whereas the next rector attracted about 100).

Robert Ashe was rector between 1807 and his death in 1855. He facilitated the construction of the church of St Paul's, Langley Burrell, through his gift of land for the new edifice and churchyard and a £50 a year endowment. Robert Ashe was replaced as the rector by Robert Kilvert, whose wife Thermuthis had a familial connection with the Ashe family. Kilvert's son, Francis, was appointed his curate in 1872. Francis Kilvert's diary published several decades after his early death in 1879, depicts a nuanced picture of the life of mid-Victorian rural society that incorporates his descriptions of Langley Burrell during the 1870s. Unfortunately, this includes few descriptions of the church. One these one reads: -

I went to the church early, soon after ten o'clock, across the quiet sunny meadows. There was scarcely anyone about- only one boy loitering by the stile in Becks by the road under the elms. The trees are in their most exquisite and perfect loveliness… I went into the churchyard under the feathering larch which sweeps over the gate. The ivy-grown old church with its noble tower stood beautiful and silent among the elms with its graves at its feet. Everything was still. No one was about or moving and the only sound was the singing of birds. The place was all in a charm of singing, full of peace and quiet sunshine. It seemed to be given up to the birds and their morning hymns. It was the bird church, the church among the birds.

The structure of St Peter's Langley Burrell consists of a chancel with chantry, nave of three bays with north aisle and to the south the porch and tower. It is grade I listed.

 

Church of St Peter,
Swindon Road,
Langley Burrell

 

NGRef: ST 92767 75794
Historic England 1199423 

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