St Mary Magdelene

Upper Winchendon



The church of St Mary Magdalene is perched near the top of a hill looking down over a valley where sheep and cattle graze. It remains remarkable untouched since the middle ages still retaining some 17thC pews and with a distinct absence of monuments. Lacking both electricity and water, the lighting is provided by candles and a thermos flask of freshly brewed coffee along with cake is brought in for after-service refreshment. Very warm clothing is advised for the winter months, as the church has no heating. What the building lacks in physical heat the congregation makes up for in warmth of welcome.

There are occasional working parties to maintain the churchyard.


There are two services each month and occasional evening services in the Taize tradition. The annual service of Nine Lessons and Carols by candlelight, followed by mulled wine and mince pies, is the best-attended service of the year. It usually is scheduled for the last Sunday before Christmas. Arrive in good time and a torch to negotiate the unlit lane access is advised.

Harvest and Easter are two other high points in the year with the church beautifully decorated with natural material. This little church is considered an architectural gem.

2nd Sunday – Morning Prayer on Sunday

4th Sunday – Holy Communion

Recorded music is used for hymns and spiritual songs.

Please take a look at the Services page for upcoming church services.


For further information please call Jonathan Cooke: 01296 651183


St Mary Magdalene has been a place of worship for more than 800 years and is the oldest building in the parish, dating from c1120. It has not been extended since the 14th century and is beautifully unmodernised, lacking any connection to the outside world such as electricity, gas or water. Its setting and its stillness has led it to be called a ‘thin’ place as one feels closer to God here.

The Exterior

The church of St. Mary Magdalene is built in limestone rubble under a tiled roof. It lies at the northern end of the village of Upper (or Over) Winchendon adjoining the site of a former ducal mansion. It is in the Norman style of architecture (1066-1160) with thick, unbuttressed walls and would have been built originally with the nave but without an aisle. Charters in the reigns of Henry I (1100-35) and Stephen (1135-54) confirm the presence of the church at Over-Winchendon at this time.
Slightly later, as more space was required, the church would have been widened by opening up the thick north wall to form an arcade of three unmoulded round arches, the style typical of that period, and the north aisle would have been built. Such deep arches are an invariable indication that an aisleless nave preceded the existing plan. Later still, perhaps about 1150, the more ornate round-headed Norman south doorway would have been added, with jamb shafts enriched with twisted and lozenge ornament surmounted by scalloped capitals.

The original chancel was apparently reconstructed towards the end of the 12th century during that period of transition from Norman to Early English architecture. From the architectural details, the north aisle appears to have been rebuilt in the middle of the 14th century and the south porch of wood on a stone base, now much restored, was also erected at that time. The west tower with its ashlar masonry and doorway under a pointed arch would have been added about 1420. The moulded west doorway and the windows to the tower and bell chamber are of original date. There is a ring of three bells, all made by Richard Chandler in 1675, and a sanctus bell dated 1827. However, the bell case was constructed when the tower was built.

On the south side of the chancel are three ‘Mass clocks’ in the form of 24 ‘dot marked’ circles, with a central hole into which a gnomon (small rod) was placed to throw a shadow on the dial which recorded the passing of time to indicate the time to celebrate the Mass and other daily offices. There is a fourth one on the left hand stonework of the tower door.

The Nave

On the south wall of the nave, adjoining the doorway, is a holy-water stoup. This wall has two square-headed windows inserted about 1480 and at the eastern end is a late 12th century pointed recess containing a small round-headed window light with modern, c1920, stained glass depicting St. Mary Magdalene. Most of the other windows in the church contain glass of some antiquity. The upper doorway to the rood loft remains at the north-east of the nave and the principal rafters of the cambered tie-beam roof each carry interesting carved heads.

The font has a 12th century plain round bowl on a modem octagonal stem, with an early 17th century wooden cover constructed from a pulpit canopy.
The pulpit itself is the oldest in the county by at least a century and is of great historical significance. It dates from the 14th century and its three-sided frontal is cut from a single block of wood. According to ‘Medieval England’ (Davis H, 1928, O.U.P.), “pulpits hardly existed in parish churches until the fifteenth century . . . Over­Winchendon, in Buckinghamshire, has the earliest example, of the fourteenth century.”

John Wesley, the evangelist and leader of methodism, took Evensong and preached his first sermon after ordination in this pulpit in 1725. He was a scholar of Christ Church, Oxford and a newly elected Fellow of Lincoln College when he was ordained by the Bishop of Oxford in September 1725. His diary for Sunday 26th September is blank but on 3rd October it shows that he took Matins at Fleet Marston and Evensong at Upper Winchendon, preaching on both occasions the same sermon, which still survives in MS.
There are some 16th century oak benches with carved traceried ends towards the west end of the nave which would, no doubt, have been used by the humbler members of the community. The more exclusive family box pews at the front of the church have been replaced by Victorian pine pews.
The organ is a 19th century American reed instrument with foot pedals to provide the necessary air supply.

During redecoration in the early 20th century, a helmet and crest which were once displayed above the chancel arch were found among the rafters. They were sent to the London Museum for conservation treatment and then returned to the County Museum where they are now held. The helmet was identified as being made about 1610 in the Royal Armoury at Greenwich and adapted for funeral purposes by the removal of the visor and substitution of a set of curved metal strips to give it the appearance of a helmet as used in heraldry. A tall spike was also attached to the crown to carry the funeral crest. The crest, bearing a bull’s head erased above a marquis’s coronet, confirms that it related to Thomas, first Marquis of Wharton. A colour photograph of the helm and crest hangs in the nave.

At the chancel arch are the plaques in honoured memory of those members of long-standing Winchendon families who gave their lives in the two great wars.

The Chancel

The chancel is lit by two narrow, round-headed lancet windows of c.1200 in the east wall and three in each of the north and south walls. The north wall contains a wood-lined aumbry, a medieval church safe, which would have contained the sacred vessels. The south wall bears a stone corbel cut out to receive the end of a wooden beam for the Lenten veil, which would have been suspended in front of the altar from the first Sunday in Lent until Thursday in Holy Week. The corresponding corbel on the opposite wall has now disappeared under the Victorian plaster.

Also on the south wall are a priest’s seat under a plain pointed head, a round-headed piscina for washing the sacred vessels and a blocked priest’s doorway. Below the south-west lancet are the remains of a low- side window, often inserted in this position to give more light for reading and to assist ventilation, originally being fitted with a grating and a shutter but without glass. It would be at this position that the sacristan or altar server would ring the sacring-bell, a small handbell, at the elevation of the Host during Holy Communion, when no doubt it would be heard through the open window by anyone standing outside in the churchyard.

A ‘squint’ or hagioscope has been pierced through the wall in the north-west corner of the chancel to allow a view of the main altar from the aisle. The restored chancel arch is of late 12th century date, below which is the 15th century panelled oak screen. It is believed that the screen originally had a drape over it (note the peepholes in the solid part of the screen).

There is a stone bracket on the east wall, sited above the former stone altar slab, which would have supported a simple cross or sacred image until a Parliamentary decree of 1543 demanded the demolition of altars and the destruction of images.

The communion table dates from the 17th century, as do the rails which were installed following the edict of Archbishop Laud that all churches should have rails at the sanctuary to prevent dogs from getting in. From the Civil War until at least 1886, there were rough benches around the communion table continuing the tradition of the Puritans to receive the Sacrament seated around the table rather than kneeling at the rails, but this was another of the historic features of the church which disappeared in the name of restoration, despite the pleas of the county archaeological society.

The wooden dossal posts supporting the ornamental cloth behind the altar table (the ‘dossal’) and the carved standard candlesticks were the work of Canon Vernon Staley, the remarkable wood-carving rector of Ickford. He filled his own parish church with his work and presented these pieces to Upper Winchendon in 1928.

There are two brasses, one on the sanctuary wall covering part of the north-east window commemorates John Goodwin of Wooburn, granted the lordship of the manor by Henry VIII after the disgrace of Cardinal Wolsey, and who died in 1558, also his wife Katherine and eighteen children. The other, on the chancel floor beneath the carpet, is a fine brass effigy to a former priest, John Stodeley, canon of St. Frideswide’s and vicar here between 1471-1502, buried with his mother.

The North Aisle

The aisle is lit by two traceried windows in the north wall, each of two lights, a similar one on the west, and one of three lights on the east, all dating from the 14th century reconstruction, as is the moulded north doorway. At the western end is a 13th century plain wooden chest.

The church featured in the film ‘Les Miserables ‘ and a coloured photograph which hangs in the aisle shows Sir John Gielgud, as the bride’s father, approaching the west door.