History of Elsfield
Elsfield is a small village about three miles to the northeast of Oxford with a long history. Below is a collection of the history of Elsfield and the church. Over time we plan to add to the local history and information of Elsfield.
- Thomas Becket
- The Collect
- John Buchan
- Elsfield Today
- 21st Century
- Arts & Crafts
The Parish Church of St Thomas of Canterbury, Elsfield is in the Benefice of Marston with Elsfield, a delightful village just outside the Northern Bypass.
In 2002 we carried out extensive work to reorder the church and build an extension to provide a village room, kitchen and toilets for community and church activities. The church itself retains its fine acoustics, and a deep sense of peaceful quietness in which God can speak to our heart.
The Salviati mosaic has been restored, and was rededicated by the Bishop of Oxford at a special service in October 2011. You can read more here about the restoration of the church and the mosaic and how the funds were raised through years of community effort.
This church has stood here for nearly 800 years. It was built mostly between 1200 and 1250, and in 1273 was consecrated and dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury. Thomas Becket was one of the most popular saints of the middle ages. He was Chancellor to Henry II, and a friend and companion of the King in many secular pursuits. But when the King appointed Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, thinking that he would have the powerful Church in his pocket, he underestimated the power of God.
Becket experienced a kind of ‘conversion’ which convinced him that from now on his duty was to God, rather than his former friend. He adopted a lifestyle of prayer and austerity. He stood up for the rights of the Church and soon found himself in opposition to the King. The King’s well-known outburst, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” led to the Archbishop’s murder at the hand of some of the King’s knights, within the very walls of Canterbury Cathedral.
His murder on 29th December, 1170, sent a tremor through the Christian world. Becket was immediately acclaimed a martyr for the faith. The King was forced to make a public and humiliating act of penance, Becket was canonised within 3 years, and his shrine at Canterbury became the most popular pilgrim centre in Britain. Chaucer’s Canterbury Talesbears witness to its continuing popularity over 200 years later.
Our little church in Elsfield also represents part of the martyr’s continuing appeal. It continues to bear witness that the claims of God are above those of any earthly power or ruler.
On visiting the church, we invite you to use it as a place of peace and prayer. You may like to look at the mosaic behind the altar. It was made in 1860 by Salviati, who also made the reredos behind the high altar in Westminster Abbey. It depicts the Last Supper, in the image made familiar by Leonardo da Vinci.
The stained glass in the East window is a visual commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, depicting four central moments of the Jesus story: his birth, his death on the cross, his resurrection, and his ascension into heaven.
The Collect for the Feast of St Thomas Becket (29 December)
who gave grace to your servant Thomas Becket
to put aside all earthly fear
and be faithful even to death:
grant that we, disregarding worldly esteem,
may fight all wrong,
uphold your rule,
and serve you to our life’s end;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
We hope you will also take time to visit the grave of John Buchan, 1st Lord Tweedsmuir (1875-1940), who bought the Manor of Elsfield in 1920, and formed a deep attachment to the village and the church. As well as being the writer of thrilling adventure stories (Prester John, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle) Buchan was also a serious historian and biographer (Julius Caesar, Montrose), and a statesman: he was Governor-General of Canada from 1935 until his death. When he died in 1940, there was a spontaneous upsurge of public grief, and tributes flowed from people of all countries and conditions.
The John Buchan Society, which exists to promote a wider understanding and appreciation of the life and works of John Buchan, can be contacted through the Secretary, Kenneth Hillier, Greenmantle, Main Street, Kings Newton, Melbourne, Derbyshire DE73 1BX; telephone: 01332 865315;
Today Elsfield is a tiny village community, with a population numbering fewer than 100. We have no village shop, school, pub or meeting place. But thanks to a lot of hard work in the village and grants from various trusts we have been able to restore and transform the church making it not just a place of worship, but a living centre for the community.
We hold one service a month, on the 4th Sunday of the month, alternating between Morning Prayer at 10.00 a.m. (odd-numbered months) and Evensong at 6.00 p.m. (even-numbered months). Services are usually taken from the Book of Common Prayer, and all are welcome to come and join us. Holy Communion is celebrated at Christmas, Easter and Whitsun.
For more information please contact the Churchwarden, James Plunket, tel 01865 358170.
St Thomas of Canterbury, to whom Elsfield church is dedicated, was one of the most popular English saints of the Middle Ages, and his shrine at Canterbury Cathedral was for centuries one of the leading pilgrimage centres for Christian pilgrims from all over Europe.
Thomas Becket (1120-1170) was a well-connected Norman who became a member of the household of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. After studying Law on the continent, he was promoted by his patron to the position of Archdeacon of Canterbury. Before long he was head-hunted by King Henry II, who made him his Chancellor. The two men were great friends, and enjoyed hunting together, and living the good life. Becket even joined in military expeditions in France, and played an active part in the fighting there. Under Archbishop Theobald, the Church had been asserting its power and authority against the secular power of the State. So when Theobald died in 1161, Henry saw his chance to try to curb the Church’s opposition by making Becket Archbishop.
Becket quickly proved the truth of Jesus’ words, “No man can serve two masters” (Matthew 6.24) In spite of the strength of his friendship with Henry, he saw that in his new role, he must put his allegiance to God first, before every human loyalty. This soon led to tension between him and the King, and years of exile during which Becket was forced to flee to France. It was on the occasion when, following an attempt at reconciliation, Becket had returned to Canterbury, that the famous final rift between them occurred. Becket had again refused to give in to the King’s wishes, and in an outburst of fury Henry cried, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four of his knights heard him and, hoping to curry favour with the King, hurried to Canterbury where they burst into the Cathedral, fell upon the Archbishop and slaughtered him in front of his horrified clergy.
The shock waves from this foul deed of murder and sacrilege, spread throughout Christendom. Becket died on December 29, 1170. Within 3 years, on February 21, 1173, he had been fast-tracked for canonisation, and declared a saint by Pope Alexander III. On July 12, 1174, his old friend and enemy the King did public penance at his shrine on Canterbury. Becket had won, and the Plantagenet monarch was forced to acknowledge that God is indeed ruler over the kings of earth.
Martyrdom of Thomas a Becket
Many English churches of the late 12th and early 13th centuries were dedicated to the new saint, and so it was in Elsfield, where the present church was dedicated on July 7, 1273. This was the Feast of the Translation of St Thomas, the anniversary of the day in 1220 when Becket’s remains were moved to their splendid new resting place in the choir of the Cathedral. Reginald, Bishop of Cloyne, consecrated and dedicated the new church on behalf of the Bishop of Lincoln, whose diocese at that time included Oxford.
And so to this day the church stands as a holy place, the centre of Elsfield’s community, and a witness to the priority of God over every other loyalty.
It is thought that the mosaics were installed behind the altar in the 1860s or 1870s. The central panel on the east wall depicts the Last Supper after Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the same subject in Milan. The mosaics are by Antonio Salviati (1816-1890), the founder of a glass making and mosaic company based at Murano near Venice, who installed mosaics in a large number of churches and cathedrals in Great Britain.
In 1994, a decision was taken by the village of Elsfield to alter the church to allow it to become a focus for the whole community. In the years immediately preceding this decision, the building had been little used and damp was causing the fabric to deteriorate. It was felt that greater use of the building would justify the cost of repairs and the installation of (badly needed) heating. The plans also included the creation of a community space and the building of an aisle-like extension to provide a kitchen, toilet and storage facilities.
A programme of fundraising began which brought the whole community together and, with the support of various grant giving bodies, a total of £225,00 was raised. The re-ordering was completed in 2003 when the Village Room was opened. In addition, repairs and improvements have been carried out to the external envelope of the building, particularly the east wall. The restoration of the mosaics, the crowning glory of the building, could not take place until the fabric of the building had been given time to dry out. Satisfactory environmental conditions have now been achieved so that the project to conserve the mosaics can be put in hand.
The church is listed Grade II* and stands in a conservation area within the green belt.
Antonio Salviati (1816-1890)
A native of Vicenza, Salviati trained as a lawyer, but became interested in glasswork after becoming involved in restoration to the mosaics of St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. He opened his first glass business in 1859 in Murano with Lorenzo Radi (1803-1874) an expert glass technician, who had invented an economical method of producing metallic mosaic tiles and also achieving colours not previously available.
Murano had been a centre of fine glasswork since the Middle Ages, but the pieces were lavish and expensive. Salviati changed the face of the business by becoming the first glass factory owner to employ a large number of skilled workers to pre-fabricate mosaics intended for export. This re-established Murano as a centre of glass manufacturing.
In 1862, Salviati participated in the London International Exhibition and shortly afterwards opened a shop in Oxford Street to promote his products. With the support of Sir Austen Henry Layard, a wealthy British archaeologist, diplomat and MP, Salviati was awarded a number of prestigious commissions in Great Britain starting with the ceiling and walls of the portico of the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore. Subsequently he was commissioned to provide mosaics for the Wolsey Chapel at Windsor and the Albert Memorial. His work was also installed in St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, the latter a representation of the Last Supper designed by John Richard Clayton, which differs from the Elsfield design as Christ is shown standing and two apostles are seated in front of the table. A similar design of Last Supper to that at Elsfield was installed at St Bridget’s, Wavertree though in the latter case it fits into a curved apse rather than being installed on a flat wall.
In 1866 Venice joined the fledgling Kingdom of Italy. Salviati saw an opportunity to expand his business and attracted a number of British investors including Layard to support a significant expansion of capacity in Murano. The business seems to have been very successful. In 1867 Salviati wrote: “Already in more than fifty Catholic and Protestant Churches in England, there are Venetian mosaics that I have installed on the altars, the walls, the choirs, the pavements, the baptismal fonts etc.”
He also installed mosaics in other countries such as Egypt, Italy, Germany, France and the USA. Of particular historical interest is the mosaic portrait of President Abraham Lincoln (see below), which is now in the Senate in Washington DC. Although he split from his British backers in 1877, he set up on his own and following his death in 1890 his children continued to be active in mosaic manufacture. In particular, in 1900 the firm was commissioned to install the extensive mosaics at the Stanford Memorial Church in Palo Alto, California. The mosaics at Elsfield have thus been described as ‘a significant example of an international body of work’.
The state of the mosaics at Elsfield
The mosaics were constructed in six sections, with the figurative design of the Last Supper forming the altar reredos. Below the reredos, a central panel with fish-scale decoration is flanked by panels of diaper work to north and south. Decorative borders of gold mosaic and winged cherubs’ heads are set out above the diaper panels and set to each side of a 14th century limestone hood moulding, positioned across and to the side of the reredos.
A 1997 report on the mosaics by Cliveden Conservation identified iron fastenings behind the mosaics and the limestone moulding. A recent survey by Michael Eastham, a specialist conservator of sculpture based at Steventon, Oxfordshire, indicates the presence of a considerable amount of ferrous metal in the form of frames to each section and the fixings holding the back of the mosaics to the wall. The north side diaper panel is bulging dramatically (75 mm forward of the line of the wall) and other disruption to the mosaics may be the result of a combination of metal corrosion and expansion, compression force upon the tesserae from a distorting metal frame, failure of the wall fixings, or a combination of these factors.
The mosaics are currently supported in a number of places by specialist adhesive sheets (Eltoline tissue and 20% Paraloid B72 in acetone, an acrylic resin with good surface strength) applied in 1997 by Cliveden Conservation to prevent collapse in the event of further movement.
Michael Eastham proposes that the mosaic panelling should be taken off the wall and transported to his workshop. All existing metal fastenings will be removed and the east wall made good. At the workshop, the mosaics will be cleaned and re-backed with epoxy resin and then fixed to Hexlite board, a composite of aluminium honeycomb encased within skins of glass-fibre and epoxy resin. These lightweight boards, which are rigid, strong, flat and ready made, are used extensively in the aircraft industry, because of their extreme rigidity and strength. These qualities make them an ideal support for heavy items such as mosaics.
The mosaics will be taken back to the church and re-fitted to the east wall with stainless steel fixing points anchored in resin attached to similar points in the wall. A lead strip across the bottom of the mosaics will provide protection against rising damp. The rear of the panels will be protected by the Hexlite and by the inclusion of an air gap. The limestone hooding will also be repaired with new moulding where necessary.
It is estimated that the project will take at least four months to complete.
The remedial work will cost about £50,000 plus VAT.
The Church has already received generous gifts or pledges of £9,500 towards the project , so about £50,000 (including VAT) is needed to complete the project. The intention is to approach grant giving trusts as well to raise money from events in the village itself.
Arrangements for significantly improving the value of any gift by way of Gift Aid are available.
- Oxfordshire; Jennifer Sherwood and Nikolaus Pevsner (Yale University Press 2002)
- Venetian Glass Mosaics 1860 – 1917; Sheldon Barr (Antique Collectors Club 2008)
- On Mosaics; Dr Antonio Salviati (Wertheimer 1865)
It is highly likely that there was an earlier church building in Elsfield. The Augustinian canons of St Frideswide’s, one of the great monasteries which owned so much of the land around Oxford, claimed that Elsfield had been granted to them by King Ethelred in 1004, along with Marston and Headington, but this has been disputed as Elsfield is not actually named in the deed. The first indisputable mention of a church here is in 1122, when King Henry I granted it (or confirmed that earlier grant?) to St Frideswide’s. Throughout the 12th century, it is referred to as a chapel.
The earliest surviving parts of the present church building are the chancel arch, dating from 1170-80. The plain, tub-shaped Norman font, set on a square base, which faces the door, also dates from before 1200. The major rebuilding took place in the early 13th century, prior to its rededication in 1273. What remains from that rebuilding can be seen in the greater part of the walls, and the trefoiled piscina on the S. side of the sanctuary, where the sacred altar vessels were washed.
The lancet windows on the N. and S. of the chancel, and the low-side window on the S., are faithful restorations of what was there before. In the latter, the sill was made into a book-rest to provide natural light for the priest at prayer.
At one time there was an additional aisle on the N. side of the nave, whose blocked arches were still visible in the N. wall in the early 19th century when further restoration work was done. The restorations of 1849 and 1859 were “quite severe”, but it is thanks to them that the general Early English appearance of the church is so clear-cut.
The pulpit is Jacobean, made in the early 1660s. The altar rails are dated 1672, and the altar and credence table are from the same period. The mosaic behind the altar, depicting the Last Supper, and inspired by the painting of Leonardo da Vinci, was made in 1860 by Salviati, the Venetian developer of ‘mass-produced’ methods of mosaic production.
Elsfield has always been a very small parish, and its church life faithful rather than dramatic. Until the Dissolution of the monasteries, it belonged to St Frideswide’s and was part of the manor of Headington, which also included neighbouring Marston. When the monasteries were dissolved, the living passed first to Cardinal College, and then to Henry VIII’s College (what is now Christ Church). Later the advowson passed to the lord of the manor, and this was the situation until the 20th century.
For much of its history, Elsfield was served by stipendiary curates or other non-resident clergy. One of these, in the 18th century, was Francis Wise (1726-1767), whose memorial, in Latin, is on the N. wall of the chancel. Wise was a noted scholar and eccentric, and a friend of Dr Samuel Johnson. Boswell tells us that in 1754, on a visit to Oxford, Johnson walked out to Elsfield three or four times and was greatly impressed by Wise’s library and his gardens, which he had fitted up “in a singular manner, but with great taste.” These gardens form what is now part of the grounds of the Manor House.
Wise used to conduct two services on Sundays, catechised in Lent, and celebrated Holy Communion three times a year, at which there were around 20 communicants. There were no nonconformists in the parish, just one farmer’s wife was “a papist”, but Wise recorded that she was bringing her children up in the Church of England.
Later in the 18th century, the parish was served by Dr Gilbert Parker (d.1795). He complained in a report to the Bishop of three newcomers to the parish, brothers who rented a farm, and were rigid Anabaptists, though they showed their faces in church from time to time. Worse than them, however, were two masons who absented themselves incorrigibly, and the wardens did not care to prosecute them. Parker wrote, “Their motive seems to be chiefly stupid obstinacy and perverseness. There are too many more, in this tiny hamlet, like them.” The tradition of churchwardens not prosecuting non-attenders continues to this day; but the clergy have given up bad-mouthing the lay officers of the church.
Change came in the 19th century with the Revd Richard Gordon, who was Vicar of Elsfield from 1832 to 1877, and also of Marston from 1849 to 1872. He lived in Elsfield and paid it more attention, preaching twice a Sunday, celebrating Holy Communion six times a year, catechising on Sundays and sometimes weekdays, and visiting the village school which had been built by 1833. During the 1850s there were about 25 communicants, and the number attending church was about 80, which Gordon reckoned to be a good proportion of the population. This hard-working and popular incumbent is commemorated in the stained glass in the E. window, depicting the major events affirmed in the Apostles’ Creed: the birth of Christ, his Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension.
In 1919 the last private owner of Elsfield Manor sold the manor and lands to Christ Church, together with the patronage of the parish. The College in turn sold the manor house to John Buchan (1875-1940), the famous Scottish diplomat, historian, biographer and novelist. It is chiefly what Buchan considered his “shockers” – The Thirty-Nine Steps and the other Richard Hannay novels – that are still read today. Buchan loved Elsfield, which was for him “the fulfilment of a dream” [Buchan, 1982:11], and it was his home for the rest of his life. On his appointment as Governor-General of Canada in 1935, he was given a peerage with the title of Lord Tweedsmuir. When he died in 1940, mourned by admirers all over the world, his ashes were brought home to be buried in Elsfield churchyard.
During the 20th century, Elsfield was served by a number of popular and long-serving incumbents, especially William H. G. Elkington (vicar 1899-1939) and Walter Mayo Aste (1939-53) whose memorials are in the chancel. But with the many changes in the finances and clergy numbers of the Church of England, the parish was eventually linked with neighbours in multi-parish benefices. On June 18, 1995, the Archdeacon of Oxford, the Ven. Frank Weston, inaugurated the new Benefice of Marston with Elsfield. This renewed the link that had existed 150 years before under the Revd Gordon.
During the 1990s the retired Dean of Christ Church, Eric Heaton, who was living in Elsfield at the time, suggested using St Thomas’ Church as a community resource for the whole village, in which there were no other public buildings. After several years of hard work in fund-raising, involving the wardens and the whole village, the work was carried out in 2002. Pews were removed from the W. end of the nave, and an attractive screen built to convert the area into a village room, together with the addition of an extension where much of the earlier N. aisle had been, providing a kitchen, toilet and storage area. With this reordering, Elsfield Church is ready for the 21st century Church’s mission to its community. It is home to a small worshipping congregation, which featured in BBC’s South Today programme in January 2003. And its special atmosphere of centuries-long prayerfulness and worship make it well suited to be part of the Oxford Diocese’s “Quiet Spaces Still Places” network, providing a haven of peace and quiet for busy modern people seeking time with God.
We hope you will enjoy your visit, and feel closer to God as a result of it.
A.C.E. (Arts and Crafts in Elsfield) is a community event held several times a year in the community room in the church. The next event will take place in 2022 – details will be published here.
Your local churches at the heart of the community of Old Marston in Oxford and Elsfield village in Oxfordshire.