All Saints Church – Pre-Reformation History

All Saints Church Wing Buckinghamshire

© Alex Coles September 2013


Wing was once thought to be a tenth century church, replacing an earlier 7th century building that in turn replaced an even earlier structure. Significant archaeological evidence and the earliest written records from 16th century has challenged this. With a History as long as Wing, all the information available cannot be shown here.

Wing is an ancient community, with a history of occupation at least as far back as Roman times and probably much further. In the past the village has been called Wenge, Weowungum and Withinge. Translations of the earlier names are a “dwelling place of idols” and a “henge of knowledge” both of which suggest that the village was a pre Christian religious site, perhaps the oldest continuously used religious site in England.

The church is on a hill in the Vale of Aylesbury. The present village until recent times consisted of the village proper and three hamlets of Ascott, Crafton and Burcott. Ascott is about half a mile to the east, hence its name (East cott). Until the dissolution of the monasteries Wing priory, also known as Ascott priory, was the biggest estate in the area and the church was the priory church.

To the west of the village, was a hamlet, now one farm, known as Cottesloe. This was the centre of the ancient Hundred of Cotteslai. The name lives on in the name of a Close and the Middle School.

The church site being separate from the priory site is unusual. Normally church and priory would form a single group of buildings, but in the case of a pre-existing ancient building, it may have been more acceptable to build further away from the village and church. The south facing aspect, the presence of springs, the need for incoming monks to make a space between the village and the monastery, previous farming practices around the Village could also have been factors. This supports the view that the Church site predates any religious community. The village is on the road between Oxford and Cambridge and would have been well known in medieval times perhaps as an overnight stop between the two universities.

Seventh Century Church?

Basilican churches were standard throughout Christendom from the fourth to the seventh centuries except for those built in the Celtic church, which developed as a mixture of Roman and Anglo-Saxon styles. With only a few exceptions churches built in southern England during the seventh century consisted of an aisle-less nave and apse as distinct from the square-ended chancels of churches in Northumbria and other areas of Celtic influence.

Until the 1960’s it was commonly thought that the church in Wing had been built in the 10th century; indeed most of what is visible externally appears to be from this period. In 1925 it was suggested that although Wing Church had many features in common with the seventh century basilicas of Brixworth and Reculver; it was of comparatively late date, possibly eleventh century. The triangular headed arcading on the apse suggested that it was built just before the conquest. Other work suggested it must have been erected very shortly after the conversion of England. A Vere Woodman, who lived all his life in the village and who was an archaeologist and historian, was convinced that the present Church was erected in 975 by Aelfgifu. Woodman reviewed the church history in 1953 before many of the features that are visible today were uncovered. Dr Willis, the priest during the 1960’s, rewrote this in 1966. The structure of the church is described fully in Willen’s Royal Commission on the Monuments of Buckinghamshire.

The architectural history of All Saints’ Church was reviewed following the findings of an excavation. Excavations carried out in 1960 revealed that the underground wall line of the apse did not coincide with the structure above ground. This led to the conclusion that the outer walls of the church were re-faced in the 10th century by cutting back and by building out new alignments to coincide with the scheme of strip decoration that now exists. At the present time the stone is subject to frost erosion and a similar situation may have existed then, the face-lift probably incorporating contemporary decoration so that the appearance of a 10th century church emerged.

The Crypt

'Wing, Church of All Saints, Crypt under Chancel,' in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Buckinghamshire, Volume 2, North (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1913), http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/bucks/vol2/plate-82

‘Wing, Church of All Saints, Crypt under Chancel,’ in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Buckinghamshire, Volume 2, North (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1913), http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/bucks/vol2/plate-82


The earliest part of the church is the crypt that comprises a central confessio surrounded by an ambulatory. Almost all the crypt structure is below the present ground level. The roof of the crypt contains Roman tiles that may have come from a Roman villa that was excavated near to the site of the priory. The site must have been a source of building materials over the centuries since in-fillings in the tower, which was rebuilt in the 15th century, also contain significant numbers of similar tiles.

The crypt was opened in 1878 by Scott who came to the conclusion that the two passages in the ambulatory opened into the church aisles. Unfortunately for his conclusion the church aisles do not correspond with the passages and if the ambulatory was accessed from the church then it must have done so at either side of the main arch and in front of the Chancel steps. Scott also suggested a fenestra or hagioscope into the confessio somewhere in the central part of the church. This conclusion had been reached when there had been a subsidence of the chancel floor and investigation of this had revealed a space under the floor. Again no account was taken of the position of this subsidence, which was some feet to the west of the confessio, before a hagioscope was proposed and once proposed became “fact”. If a hagioscope had been present then movement between the apse and nave, would have been impossible due to the ambulatory steps being either side of the proposed hagioscope. The floor collapse may have been caused by the crypt originally extending further westwards than it does today possibly by the linking of the north and south sections of the ambulatory on the west side of the confessio.

The Apse

© Alex Coles September 2013

© Alex Coles September 2013


Most early basilican churches have a semi-circular apse and a polygonal apse is most unusual although many semicircular apses have the same arrangement of six buttresses allowing for a heptagonal shape. By the standards of the time the apse is very large with dimensions of 21 feet across the chancel arch at the west side and measures twenty one feet east to west. During the nineteenth century the rough cast facing of the church was removed and this exposed a number of Saxon features which could not be taken into account when a tenth century date was assigned. These included Saxon arched windows in three of the apse walls, which were almost obliterated by the insertion of the existing windows. Three windows high up in the apse walls were also revealed The decorative stone work has similarities to churches at Repton, Corhampton in Hampshire, and triangular headed blank arcading which although similar in style to that in the nave at St Mary Magdalen, Geddington is different in execution.

The continuous stonework revealed, by the excavations in 1960, demonstrated that the crypt and apse were built at the same time and if this is the case then the nave is contemporary to the apse and crypt.

In the fifteenth century the windows in the Apse wall were replaced but it is still possible to see the original tile arching over the original Saxon windows in the north east and south east walls. These windows appear to have been supplemented by small windows high up which have a shape similar to the Saxon “windows” in Geddington church nave and it seems likely that these were blocked up in the tenth century and simply remained as part of the decoration.


The Nave

The main Saxon features of the nave are the separation of the aisles from the nave by arcades rising from plain rectangular pillars, the use of unworked stones and sometimes Roman bricks as voussoirs in the arcade, two upper stage arches at the west end of the nave which were uncovered in 1954, the form of the window above the chancel arch and the east doorway in the north aisle.

The nave dimensions are 21 feet, the same width as the widest part of the apse and 61 ft long. The walls in the nave are entirely covered with plaster but it is possible to discern the Roman tile voussoirs and there is a general correspondence with the non radial work at Brixworth. The rectangular pillars are massive and much thicker than the walls of the tenth century church at Geddington but not so thick as those at Brixworth where they probably needed the additional thickness to enable early builders to obtain the additional height of that church. The stepped imposts on the piers follow a simple corbel design; the north pillars contain two corbel stages whereas the south side contains three. Closer inspection of the north side corbel stages however reveal that a third stage has been present but the upper stage has been trimmed out either at the time of building or more likely in some subsequent alteration.

© Alex Coles September 2013

© Alex Coles September 2013


The walls of the nave are stepped below the clerestory windows and the upper walls were constructed at the time the windows were put in during either the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. The roof apex probably did not change during this addition but the slope of the roof was altered by the construction of the beautifully carved roof beams, supporters and panels. In all there are thirteen beams 11 of which have back to back angels with outstretched wings carved on the roof trusses. Each supporting beam has a different figure carved in it and the panels between the figures have angels carved into them.

The arches at the upper level in the nave walls that were discovered in 1954 were probably doorways onto an upper gallery that extended across the west end of the nave. There is clearly an indentation in the south aisle west wall were a staircase would have been but there is no equivalent in the north aisle.

The doorway in the north aisle was thought by Woodman to have been an original entrance to an external ambulatory as at Brixworth and during the construction, in his view in the tenth century, the idea was abandoned and the doorway blocked up. It makes more sense for the doorway to have been a seventh century entrance to the church which was blocked up during tenth century alterations.

During the thirteenth century the arcades nearest to the chancel into both aisles were altered and the Saxon masonry was replaced with early Gothic arches.

Woodman considered that the south aisle was widened during the fourteenth century because of the presence of a window in the upper light representing the coronation of our Lady as Queen of Heaven and containing the arms of John de Warenne and places the date of reconstruction between 1328 and 1331. There are some inconsistencies in the structure which have to be explained if the aisle was widened at this time. Firstly the width of the north aisle is 12′ 6″ whereas the width of the south aisle is 13’6″. Assuming that there was some symmetry in the original structure it seem unlikely that anyone would have rebuilt the aisle for an additional foot of width and it is more likely that the difference in width has existed since the original structure was erected. Fourteenth century builders would have used dressed stone and it seems unlikely that the rubble used in a seventh century building would have been recycled. The introduction of a rood at the entrance to St Katherine’s chapel in the south aisle was accompanied by the construction of a spiral staircase to the rood loft. The wall thickness in the south aisle wall was insufficient and the widening to accommodate this staircase can be seen in the south wall. If the aisle had been widened and rebuilt then the thickness of the wall would have been increased to accommodate this staircase. It seems likely, therefore, that the window was inserted into the original structure and the rood loft stair case knocked through the existing wall where necessary and this was then re-faced on the outside. The change in the type of stones used as this point is consistent with this view. The upper courses of both aisles contain dressed stones and perhaps the rebuilding was simply to increase the height of the aisles walls at the same time as the clerestory windows were inserted. This explanation would make more sense and would preserve the vertical proportions of nave and aisles.

Entrance Porch and Tower

During the fifteenth century the other additions and alterations were made to the church. The south porch was built during the reign of Henry VI since the cornice bears his heraldic beasts a lion and an antelope. The corbels of the doorway probably represent the Bishop of Lincoln and John de Mowbray Duke of Norfolk who was Lord of the manor of Wing at that time.

The north porch © Alex Coles September 2013

The north porch © Alex Coles September 2013


During the fifteenth century the existing tower was built almost certainly to replace an earlier perhaps smaller structure. The dressed stone masonry contrasts with the rubble structure of the earlier building, and at this stage the present chancel steps were put in place. There are nine steps between nave and altar said, in medieval times, to represent the nine orders of angels. During the tower reconstruction an elegant arch was inserted between the nave and tower which provides and space for the present organ which prevents the base of the tower for being used to good effect. The stone used for the tower and chancel steps is identical and is a limestone containing fossils. Considering the use of this stone one is forced to question the age of the south porch. This is built of similar material to the earliest part of the building and perhaps only a new doorway with the Henry VI beasts was renewed.

Apart from the “renovations” carried out during the nineteenth century when a porch was added to the north aisle attempting to balance the south porch the church has not changed in external appearance since before the reformation.

Inside it is a different story. The church wardens accounts during the sixteen century provide a great deal of information on the alterations which were carried out and it is possible to extrapolate backwards to the pre reformation appearance.

Pre-Reformation Internal Appearance

The central part of the nave and the aisles would not contain any furniture other than a wooden bench which ran around the walls. Neither of the tombs which clutter up the apse would be present and it seems likely that benches on which the six adults and six scholars who formed the choir would have been sited here.

There were three stone altars. The high altar in the chancel, and two others at the east ends of the aisles. In the north aisle the chapel was dedicated to Our Lady and in the South aisle to St Katherine. The chancel and nave were separated by a Rood screen which contained images of other saints. All the walls were painted and the space over the chancel arch contained a “Dome” painting

The accounts speak of money received from the lightmen of a number of gilds and as each gild would have had an image of their patron saint it is possible build a picture of the appearance of the church.

The Chancel arch was dominated by a rood screen, the bottom panel of which is still present. The remains of the Rood Screen at Brixworth church is painted in bold red green white and gold and it is possible that a similar decoration was present on the screen at Wing. There are no traces of colour on the woodwork but the Victorian “restoration” would have removed all traces. At either side of the Rood stood figures of Our Lady and Saint Mary Magdalen. The Rood over the entrance to Saint Katherine’s chapel probably contained only a cross but inside on two pedestals one either side of the east window would stand statues of St Katherine and another saint. The options were St Thomas, St Margaret or St John the Baptist since gilds of all three were functioning in the early sixteenth century.

There is another pedestal on the west side of the first pillar on the south side of the nave and a niche in the south aisle on the second pillar and near the position of the fifteen century font. Did this niche contain a statue of St John the Baptist or another saint who was not represented by a gild. It was common for the images of saints to be painted on Rood screen panels and the gilds may have chosen this as an alternative way of illustrating their patrons, and the pedestals and the niche were filled with other saints. The dedication of the church to All Saints follows naturally.

Saxon patrons and builders

If as seems likely the church was largely constructed in the seventh century then it would have been carried out on the instruction of someone of note simply because of its huge size. The manor of Wing was certainly owned by the king of Wessex in late Saxon times and there is no reason to suppose that this ownership did not extend backwards to the seventh century. Birinus is one possible contender since Dorchester is only thirty miles away and he was known to have built a number of churches in his diocese. Wilfrid the Celtic bishop is also known to have built churches in the area and his possible contribution has to be considered as well.

Birinus would have been familiar with basilican churches but because of his origins would have more likely have designed a basilica which was semi-circular and the irregular shape of Wing’s apse cannot be described a semicircular.

Towards the end of the seventh century Wilfrid was designing churches in the north-east of England which had rectangular chancels and it is difficult to find compatibility with this design in the apse. Perhaps the shape of the apse had been determined by an earlier structure and that either Birinus or Wilfrid, or perhaps both influenced the rebuilding of the church. Both Bishops founded monasteries as they travelled around the countryside and it is possible that either one or the other would have been responsible for the foundation of the monastery which came to be known in pre-reformation times as Wing or Ascott priory. Fletcher came to the tentative conclusion that Wilfrid was the more likely contender for the building since in this period only his churches are known to have crypts.

Woodman concluded that the tenth century building was carried out under the patronage of Aelfgifu who was the sister of King Edgar of Wessex and his idea that the crypt was constructed to contain the relics of an unknown saint. In her will Aelfgifu asked that her body and the relics of the saint should be transferred to Winchester, a decision which seems incompatible with all the effort of constructing a place for the relics to be seen and provides additional argument for an earlier than tenth century origin for the church. Aelfgifu may well have been inspired to provide the money for refurbishing the church perhaps on condition that the saints’ relics were transferred with her body to Winchester on her death.

Post Conquest Patrons

Remnants of medieval paintings in All Saints Church Wing © Alex Coles September 2013

Remnants of medieval paintings in All Saints Church Wing
© Alex Coles September 2013

The earliest records after the Conquest show that the Prior was also the priest in charge of the church. The ownership of Wing Manor passed to the Norman kings after the Conquest and evidence for this is found on the list of vicars of the church. (Appendix). Maud, daughter of Henry I and wife firstly of Henry Emperor of Germany and secondly of Geoffrey of Anjou, gave the manor, church and priory to the monastery of St Nicholas Andavagensis at Angiers in 1130 and one must presume that it formed part of her dowry. The abbey of St Nicholas had had tenure of the priory since the time of the Doomsday book, and also two and a half hides at Crafton, and the gift seems to confirm the status quo of ownership. This connection with the abbey in Angies continues for around three hundred years until, at the end of the Hundred Years war, Henry IV decreed that no land in England could be owned by the French and the ownership of the priory and manor passed to the Priory of St Mary Praxis in St Albans. The prioress was the effective owner until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536. The Lincoln Episcopal register shows that Wing had a vicar in 1154 which is some years before these were approved by the Lateran council of 1179.

The Pre-Reformation Church

During the early 1980s the inside walls of the church were lime washed and in preparing for this loose lime was chipped away and revealed the remains of the medieval wall paintings. The only colour in evidence is brown and the remnants appear to be only outlines rather than complete pictures. The Churchwarden’s accounts for 1551 show an entry of 16 pence for washing out the dome over the Rood loft. Presumably the other wall paintings were washed out at the same time but at no cost to the wardens. Only the high painting would have required payment. Washing the paint off before the lime was applied would have been necessary to stop the underlying paint “bleeding” through the lime-wash.

One of the first entries in the accounts in the year 1527 is an inventory of vessels ornaments, vestments and other church items. This list demonstrates that the church was well endowed.

This essay originally appeared on the former Wing Village website (currently archived at http://robgodfrey.github.io/archive/wingvillage.org.uk – it is not known by whom or when it was written.