Believed to have been begun in the last decade of the 7th century, Stoke D’Abernon’s church contains an astonishing collection of monuments and furnishings from the subsequent centuries and is well worth a visit. It’s a little hard to find: the manor house is now a private school, and so the church is within the school’s grounds.
The church is believed to have been found in the 690s as the church of a local Saxon Lord or Thegn. The south wall of the nave dates from this period and, at first floor level, contains a door the Thegn would have used to access his private gallery (via an external staircase). The church was enlarged in the 1190s by the addition of a north aisle, and the present chancel was built around 1240 to replace the original Saxon apse. On the north side of the chancel a chantry chapel was built in 1485 by Sir John Norbury as a thank offering for his safe return from the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
The church underwent restoration and modification in 1852 and 1866. The 1852 work included replacing the original Saxon chancel arch with a pointed arch, on the original piers, but worse was to come in 1866 when all was swept away to erect the present wide arch – a tragic loss. The later work also included extending the church to the west, adding another bay to the arcade and erecting the present rather incongruous bell-tower.
From the outside, first appearances are deceptive: the tower and the restored walls of knapped flint make the church look almost Victorian: but the windows of the Norbury chapel are clearly original Perpendicular Gothic work. On entering, the Saxon doorway is visible high on the south wall. The easterly two arches of the arcade are original Transitional work, resting on circular piers, the original (east) pier bearing a faint original image of the Crucified Christ, along with two later pilgrim crosses scratched into the surface. The east chancel wall bears the remains of a mediaeval wall painting of the adoration of the lamb.
It’s hard to know exactly where to start with the fittings and furnishings, but pride of place surely goes to the two large brasses in the chancel floor, to Sir John D’Abernon (d. 1325) and his son, also Sir John (d. 1335-50). The oldest military brass in existence, the older D’Abernon is clad in chain mail and carries both a lance and sword, whereas his son is in later plate armour. There are 6 other brasses around the church, dating up to the Tudor period.
The nave does not miss out either: there is a large late 12th century Crusade Chest (used to collect offerings for the crusades), a fine 17th century eagle lecturn, a stone statue from Italy the Madonna and child, still with its original paint, dating from around 1500; and finally, a magnificent late Elizabethan walnut pulpit, heptagonal in shape, and superbly carved with geometric patterns, soldiers, angels - and some very peculiar half-human monsters which act as brackets for the legs, which were possibly carved in central America, from hackberry wood.
Moving into the Norbury Chapel, there are more magnificent memorials, this time from the 17th century and with life-sized painted effigies. Sir Thomas and Lady Vincent (d. 1613 and 1613) lie together (he on the upper level and in full armour) on the north wall, while on the east wall, their daughter-in-law Sarah Vincent (d. 1608) lies in a splendid Jacobean outfit, with her five sons and two daughters depicted as mourners below. Her husband, who remarried, is buried with his second wife.
Next to Lady Sarah is a late 17th century wall monument to Sir John Norbury (d. 1521). This was a replacement for the original monument, which lay under the arch between the chapel and chancel, and was probably destroyed during a Puritan purge. Above hang his crest, funerary helmet and tabard. Below is the monument to Sir Edgar Vincent (d. 1941), the last of the Vincent line. He was British Ambassador to Berlin in the 1920s, and his monument contains a Roman funerary casket from the 2nd century AD.
After these riches, the final task is to look at the impressive collection of mediaeval and renaissance glass, dating from the 13th to 17th centuries. Although little is original – most was brought here in the 19th and 20th centuries – it is an important collection in its own right. The baptistery window has original 16th century glass from the Norbury chapel and includes St Mary being taught to tread by her mother Anne.
The church has regular services and is also open for visitors limited hours on summer weekends.
Stoke D'Abernon, Cobham, Surrey. KT11 3PX