Oxhey Chapel (A brief history).

Extract from book by Marjorie Bray.

Situated between the mid-twentieth century vicarage and its associated church, All Saints, in South Oxhey, is agem of Stuart architecture, the small Oxhey Chapel.   Offa, King of Mercia (758 – 796) anf founder of the monastery at St. Albans, is said to have given the land now known as Moor Park, which adjoins Oxhey, to the abbot in expiation of a sin of his wife in the year 790; and because he had murdered a man at his court he also gave to the abbey the adjoining Oxangehaege, including the land on which the chapel was later built.  (One wonders whether there was a connection between the two events.)   The estate was later seized by “wicked men who were in power” and was acquired by Leofsige until his banishment about two hundred years after the original gift.   The then Abbot of St. Albans  offered to purchase the estate to supply the needs of the monastery, but when King Aethelred heard of this he ordered the purchase price to be returned and gave to “Aelfric my faithful Archbishop and Abbot Leofric his brother” what was really already church property by the deed of Offa, many years before.

The original charter of 1007 bestowing the land “which is commonly called Oxengehaege” a second time on the Abbey of St. Albans, is now in the Bodlian Library but facsimiles can be seen in Oxhey Chapel and in the church of St. Matthew, Oxhey.   It seems probable that the monks who farmed this land would have had a place of worship, however small, near at hand, but no trace of this nor of any monastic building has been discovered, despite the amount of pipe laying and deep digging that must have occurred during the construction of the neighbouring LCC estate.   If there even was a place of worship in the vicinity before 1612 – which is conjectural – it was most probably on the spot where the Stuart chapel now stands.

In the later middle ages the Abbey Allowed the land to be farmed by tenants (Dissolution Accounts, 32-33 Henry VIII), and at the time of the Reformation it passed to the Crown.  It was sold to a local family, and passed through several hands until in 1604 it was bought by the founder of the chapel, Sir James Altham, serjeant at law, Baron of the Exchequer, who was knighted in that year.  Francis Bacon who lived at Gorhambury near St. Albans, a pleasant ride from Oxhey, referred to him as “one of the greatest and most revered judges of the kingdom”.   This is the man who decided to build a chapel, finished in 1612, close to his home which was then known as St. Cleeres or St. Clowes.  This decision is understandable since the nearest places of worship at the time were the churches of St. Mary, Watford and St. James, Bushey, both uncomfortably far away in bad weather.

On the outside, the chapel as it stands today must look very much as it did when first built.  The sketch by ‘H.H.T.’, which was published in 1860 in ‘The Twelve Churches, or Tracings along the Watling Street’, shows the chapel without the porch which was added later, and depicts very clearly the original west window, and the wooden door at the entrance which has since been moved forward to become the door of the porch.  The chapel was placed in the scheduled buildings list in 1951, when it was described as having “chequerboard walls of squares of knapped flint and red brick, stone in-and-out quoins, mouldings in flint rubble plinth, window dressings, cyma recta cornice with brick blocking course, hipped old tile roof with sprocket eaves (i.e. the eaves raised by a triangular piece of wood fastened onto a rafter), three and four light stone mullion windows with Tudor drip moulds.  Seats forty.  Grade B”.

The inside of the chapel has suffered more alteration than the outside.  Originally it must have been much lighter than it is today, for now the east window is almost completely obscurred by an enormous reredos of fine woodcarving topped by a gold flame representing the Holy Spirit.  it is thought that the oak from which the reredos was made probably came from St. Cleeres which was pulled down in 1688, and therefore dated it about 1690.  One can wel imagine a bewigged, snuff taking divine, clad in fusty black, conducting services in front of it.  It is recorded that the reredos was whitewashed in the eighteenth century but this disfiguration was removed in the nineteenth.

The font, built in 1712, is delightful.  It stands – without its shapely cover – 42 inches high.  It is carved in floral design, and lead lines, and could well be considered the most beautiful object in the place.  The pews, now facing north and south as in a college chapel, were at one time facing the altar, as appears from two prints showing the chapel before and after the restoration work in about 1852.

Sir james Altham’s memorial on the south wall depicts him in his judge’s robes, kneeling with his third wife by whom he had no children.  Above are the Altham arms.  Also on the south wall is a memorial erected by his relations to John Bucknall who died in 1796 at the age of 78, a connection of the Bucknall who had purchased the estate in 1668.

On the death of the chapel’s founder in 1617 the property passed to his son, another James Altham, who died six years later.  A daughter married an Haydon and the land was sold to the Bucknalls in 1668.  Twenty years later the original St. Cleeres was pulled down and another built, itself demolished in 1799.  Ixhey Place was the third dwelling.  The chapel has outlasted all three.  It was unused after 1790 till 1852, although the last two burials took place, one in 1823 of the Rev. Harbottle Grimston, and the other in 1826 of his sister the Hon. Sophie Elizabeth Grimston.  A nephew whose mother had married an Estcourt and who was Member of Parliament for Oxford succeeded to the property and restored the chapel a year before he died, apointing as achaplain Henry Bethune Sands.  The Right Honourable Thomas Sotherton Estcourt succeeded in 1853, and six years later became Home Secretary.  In 1854 the Rev. Mr. Cameron became chaplain, followed two years later by Richard Lee James, who was holding this office when the property was bought by W.H.Smith, better known for his connections with bookstalls than as the owner of Oxhey Chapel.

When the Oxhey Estate was sold in 1866 the chapel was included, but its sale was subject to certain conditions :

“The purchaser of this Lot 1 is to keep and maintain in perpetuity the Chapel and vaults in good repair and not allow them to be used for any other purpose than the celebration of such Divine Service as aforesaid (i.e. the established church) and other rites of the said church”.  The vendor also stipulated that he was to retain the right to travel by carriage or on foot twice a year to see the chapel and its monuments and that workmen were to be allowed to enter the chapel for their repair.  It is interesting to note that Cussans, writing about sixteen years later, records that “the chapel is unapproachable on foot during or after wet weather”.  Today, under the same conditions, it is still inadvisable to take a short cut over the playing fields.

Astley Roberts was appointed chaplain in 1868, to be followed by the Rev. Newton Price who became the first vicar of St. Matthew’s, the church in which the (1704) John Walker bell from the chapel now hangs.  In 1877 the estate was sold to Mr. Blackwell of Crosse and Blackwell fame, who financed the repairing of the pews with teak and the restoring on the outside of the Tudor windows, in 1897.  Anthony Blackwell was killed in the second world war and is commemorated by a stone in the west wall.

This place of worship, described by Pevsner as the best individual building in Oxhey, is thirty feet long and fourteen feet wide with seats for only forty, too samll for the population around for which All Saints church has been built.  However it should be preserved for future generations not only for its architectural value but also for its historical significance – a proprietary chapel erected on land which has been associated directly or indirectly with Christianity for some eleven centuries.

This page was added on 09/11/2018.

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