St Mary, Ewelme, Oxon

You’re into Midsomer Murders countryside around here, and there’s a murder in this story. But there are also links to medieval England. The greatest English writer of the Middle Ages, Geoffrey Chaucer, was also an important public servant.

His son Thomas became Speaker of the House of Commons, acquiring the manor of Ewelme through marriage, and Thomas’ daughter Alice’s second marriage was to William de la Pole. William became Duke of Suffolk in 1448 but was murdered two years later; his widow outlived him by 25 years. Alice and Thomas founded the almshouses and school under royal license in 1437, and they rebuilt the church then too.

Their East Anglian connections show in the architecture of the church, with the flint and stone chequering on the E wall. Inside the door, the 15th c. font cover recalls medieval Suffolk too (though it is telescoped compared to Ufford or Worlingworth), as do the continuous nave and chancel, with wooden screens the only structural separation. The S chapel of St John retains medieval splendour with its original angel roof, 15th c. glass in the E window and restored diapering of IHS on the walls; Ninian Comper’s riddel-posted altar and reredos (1902) are just right for the setting.

But the highlight of your visit lies between the chapel and the chancel, the canopied tomb of Alice, Duchess of Suffolk; the tomb chest is surmounted by her recumbent alabaster figure, one of the greatest medieval sculptured effigies in England (1475). Four angels support the pillow under her head, as she lies with her hands pressed together in prayer for all eternity.

Reflect: it is conventional to decry medieval religion as individualistic and pietistic. Yet how much more would God’s kingdom be advanced if we spent more time with our mouths shut and with our hands together in prayer?

Map reference SU646914