DORCHESTER ON THAMES, OXFORDSHIRE

Grid Ref: SU 568 947
21 June 2003

Abbey spacer Nave
The Abbey Church of St. Peter and St. Paul   The nave and People's chapel
Wall painting   Nave
The 14th century wall painting in the People's chapel   The Nave
Font   House
Font of 1170   Timber framed house
Coach   Cottage
Coach in front of the George Hote   Thatched cottage with hollyhocks

Dorchester on Thames in Oxfordshire has an Iron Age hill fort, it became a Roman town then an Anglo-Saxon settlement. The reintroduction of Christianity into the central region of England came in 635 when Oswald, King of Northumbria and a Christian, met the pagan King Cynegils near Dorchester on Thames, which was then in Wessex. As a result, Cynegils was baptised into the church by Birinus and Oswald married Cynegils' daughter. Birinus became a bishop with his seat at Dorchester on Thames and a cathedral was built. Birinus was buried at Dorchester in 650. In the 660s, the threat of war between Wessex and Mercia led to the see being relocated in Winchester. Dorchester was incorporated into the see of Leicester until the invasion of the Danes. Dorchester then became the centre for a Mercian diocese stretching from the Thames to the Humber and covering what are now nine counties. After the Norman Conquest, William I decided that all his cathedrals should be in fortified cities. The first Norman Bishop of Dorchester was Remigius; he moved the seat to Lincoln in the 1070s. Dorchester continued to operate with secular cannons until it was refounded by Alexander of Lincoln in 1140 as an Augustinian abbey. A new church was then built, the west end of which survives as the current nave.

A similar story relates how Elfleda, daughter of King Oswy of Northumbria, married Peada, son of King Penda on the understanding that he became a Christian and was baptised by Finan, Bishop of Lindisfarne. Peada became the first Christian King of all of Mercia. Peada and Oswy then founded a monastery dedicated to St. Peter at Medehamstede, modern Peterborough.

Birinus was created a saint and Dorchester became a pilgrimage site after 1225 when the tomb of Birinius was opened. The church was enlarged in the 13th century with the addition of the north aisle between 1220 and 1250. In 1320 a south aisle was built. This latter was towards the west end in about 1340 an area to be used as the parish church and is now the People's Chapel, shown in the photograph. In 1340 the chancel was extended to produce the sanctuary. The tower was rebuilt in 1602, replacing one of about 1370. At the Dissolution, in 1536, the shrine of St. Birinus was destroyed and the Abbey Church was bought for the town by Richard Beauforest. The domestic buildings for the Abbey were destroyed. As a parish church, it is far too big for the town and has consequently been difficult to maintain. In June 2000 an appeal for £5 million was launched by the Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire. A new heating system, installed in 2002, has made the abbey suitable for a variety of uses including concerts. The shrine area in the south aisle was refurbished in 2001 and archaeological investigations are being carried out in a 4-year programme. .

The Norman font is a rare survival; many richly decorated fonts were destroyed either at the Dissolution or during the English Civil War.

Sources:

Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire, text by Rosalie Bloxham, pictures by Frank Blackwell, printed by Severnprint, Gloucester, a booklet available in the abbey.
Encyclopaedia Britannica on CD ROM
England in the Early Middle Ages, three lectures by James Bond at Wedgwood Memorial College, Barlaston, Staffs, Autumn 2002.


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