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The main part of Dorney Church was built in the 12th century: the church has remained the local parish church since then. Like many old churches it has characteristics which point to its history. Over the years there have been numerous changes, changes relating to the way it is used, changes in religious practice, or sometimes changes of fashion.


The Chancel is the oldest part of the church. Both it and most of the Nave were originally built in the 12th century. At that time the Chancel of a parish church was the responsibility of the priest: the Nave was likely to have been built by the parishioners. The Nave of the church would not have any seating and it would often be used for a variety of parish activities. It was generally recognised that the parishioners were responsible for the upkeep of the Nave.

In order that the Chancel should be kept clearly separate from more secular activities rood screens were often built between Chancel and Nave. In Old English the word 'rood' meant 'cross' or 'crucifix'. At first the 'rood' would have been supported by a single beam, known as the rood beam. Later, complete screens were added, rising from the floor to the beam.

Above the screen would be the 'rood' with two statues, of the Virgin Mary and St John, flanking it. In this church the remains of the lower part of an old rood screen can be seen, with a door which could be closed to separate the Chancel from the Nave. In the top rail of the screen can be seen mortises for the mullions of the missing upper part. The upper part was probably removed when, in the 16th century, with Henry VIII's establishment of the Anglican Church, it was decreed that the rood and everything above the rood beam had to be removed. Many rood screens were removed or cut down at that time.

The floor of this church was originally lower than it is now: the original level is probably the level at the back of the Nave, west of the entrance to the church, which can be seen to be below the present ground level. The reason for the change in level is not known, but it is likely to be due to flooding in the area. The name ‘Dorney’ means the ‘Island of the humble bee’. The ‘ey’ part of the name is part of the old name for an island. This area used to be subject to regular flooding. One or more floods could, over the years, have raised the level of the surrounding ground. In an area like this it was typical for a church to be built on the highest ground, and to be used in an emergency as a shelter for local villagers. However, one or more serious floods could have raised the ground level of the whole area. The ancient font would have been difficult to move so the floor round it would need to be maintained at the original level.

Several features can be seen which relate to the old floor level. Among these earlier features still visible in the Chancel is the 13th century priest's door in the South wall. The low height of this door is an indication of the original lower level of the floor. This door is now blocked up. Above it can be seen an arch which would have been above a window which is now blocked up. The round shape of this arch is typical of early Norman architecture, and it was originally an early 12th century window. Part of this arch can be seen from the outside, in the shape of an inverted J. The outside stones are reputed to be of Saxon origin, part of a Saxon circular headed window and so they may be the oldest stones in the church.

Norman archways were generally round, but as time went on archways became more pointed and more complex - this development can be seen in various archways and windows round this church showing that there have been a number of changes through the years. It is worth looking round at the shapes of the various arches on doors and windows round the church.

The shapes often indicate the age. In the later Middle Ages it was quite usual to replace small Saxon and Norman windows with larger ones, but the remains of the original windows, now built up, can sometimes be seen.

The window over the old priest's door, which has already been described, is an example of this. The windows in the chancel probably date from the 14th century. They are in the Early English style.

To the east of the Priest's door, and probably of the same date, is a pair of trefoil pointed windows divided by a mullion and contained under a pointed arch. It is said that there was once an altar tomb in a recess under this arch which was defaced by the Parliamentary soldiers during the Civil war.

Although both Chancel and Nave were built in the 12th century the arch between them dates from the 14th century.

Seating was usually introduced in the Nave of a church in the late Middle Ages. Initially bench seats were used, but in many churches, local families paid for box pews for their own use. One such pew is still in use here. It used to be a very high indeed. The wooden side at the back of it shows the original height, but three of the sides have been cut away. This pew is still used by   the Palmer family but nowadays it is used by other members of the congregation as well. Seven of the other pews in the church date from the 17th century. Originally the pulpit was a large three-decker one and there was no room for more pews. More pews were put in when the pulpit was replaced by a smaller one in 1890.

The main doorway to the church has an old chamfered rear arch but otherwise it is relatively modern. The door is a good three panel 17th century door. The Porch outside it was built in 1661 to mark the birth of an heir to the Palmer family. It is of brick with flint panels, ornamented with brick bands and keystones which were once stuccoed. One of the stones inset has the date 1661 and the initial W, which may be that of the contemporary churchwarden.

Opposite the entrance to the church there used to be another door of the same design as the entrance. The window which has been set in the wall which now blocks up this door contains new stained glass showing a dolphin.

Externally this blocked door has a segmental pointed chamfered arch enclosing a smaller pointed arch, similar to the one over the existing door.

The Tudor West Door to the church was fully restored in 2008 by Lillyfee Wood Carving Studios in Wooburn Green.It was rededicated in 2009.


The Norman font dates from the 12th century. It has columnar compartments which have been described as being sculptured with a cross flory and rose cinquefoil within a lozenge fleur de lis. However, it is possible that the ‘fleur de lis’ are really doves. The Revd. J. Archer, a previous vicar of Dorney, thought the font may have been placed in the church by Ralph de Alvin. It dates from the time of the Danvers family's tenure of Dorney, which was between the Norman Conquest and the end of the 13th century.

Pamela Cunningham tells us that fonts of this time had to be provided with locked covers: baptismal water was blessed at Easter and kept for the whole year and there was a fear that it might be stolen for purposes of witchcraft. There is still a cover on the font but it is no longer locked.

Medieval Wall Paintings

During the Middle Ages the walls of churches were covered with wall paintings. These helped to tell the bible stories to people who could not read.

In 1547, the year of Henry VIII's death, an order was made for the removing of all images in wall or window: at the time of the Reformation some people were afraid that any kind of image was idolatrous. As a result the wall paintings were limewashed over. However, this limewashing had the effect of preserving the paintings. Some medieval stained glass was also lost at this time. Three medieval paintings which have been restored can be seen in this church. Two, depicting the Annunciation, are on the North side of the Chancel on either side of the door opening into the North Chapel (the Garrard Chapel), which can be seen at the side of the altar. The Angel Gabriel is on the left of the entrance to the chapel and the Virgin Mary on the right. These two paintings remained hidden until 1926 when they were noticed by Col. C. H. D. Palmer. They were examined and treated in 1932 by Mr E. C. Rouse, who considered that the work was simple, but characterised by a wonderful sense of line and dignity. He thought the work was probably executed in the second quarter of the 14th century. Some fragmentary painting which was restored in 1987 can also be seen in the Gallery to the side of the tower arch.

More recent changes

The original three-decker pulpit was replaced in 1890 to make room for more pews. This pulpit was itself replaced by the present one which was made up locally out of panels from Somerset, probably 17th century Dutch work. It was installed in 1910.

On the walls there are 18th century plaques which contain the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. Such plaques used to be common in churches. At a time when most people did not have books they provided a useful teaching medium.

The main East window was probably one of the 'images' lost in the 16th century. The present window, inserted in the memory of the Revd. Henry Palmer, is 18th or 19th century. It is said that this window formerly contained ancient stained glass with a small figure in the middle of a man praying. The large windows in the Nave were inserted by the Revd. Henry Palmer in the 19th century to allow more light into the Church.

In the Chancel, the choir stalls with the poppy heads were made between 1913 and 1918 out of old oak. The 20th century Altar is made of old oak from Dorney Court. The candelabrum, probably made in the 17th century, came from Huntercombe Manor and was presented by Mr E. T. Bartlett in 1916. The glass in the window behind the Priest's pew in the Chancel was found in Dorney Court in 1920. It depicts St Paul.

The small window in the South West corner of the Nave was inserted in accordance with the will of Lieut. J. H. Moriarty, R.G.A. It contains a figure of Charles, King and Martyr, and was dedicated in 1920.

The small stained glass window in the North wall (the "dolphin window") was donated by Mrs Brigit Ames and dedicated in 1991 in memory of her late husband, Lt. Col. W. A. R. Ames, OBE., who died in 1962. The window depicts a dolphin, a starfish, fish and shell in swirling waters and is inspired by the "Benedicite, Omnia Opera":

“O ye whales and all that move in the waters,

Bless ye the Lord.”

The window was designed and made by Mrs Lyn Clayden and replaces an earlier window depicting St Philip which was stolen in 1989.


The gallery at the West end of the Nave was put up in the 17th century. On the centre panel, just above the font, is the faint inscription: "HENRY FELO, 1634", referring to Henry Fellows who built the gallery. Such galleries often used to be found in rural parish churches. They were generally used either by the servants from any nearby big house, or by musicians playing for the services. In this gallery original coat hooks can be seen on the walls.

This gallery is no longer the preserve of servants, but it is still used by musicians. A 2 Manual, 9 Stop Pedal Organ, built by Messrs J. S. Bishop, London, with electric blowing apparatus, was installed to celebrate the coronation of H. M. Queen Elizabeth II. The musicians still use the gallery occasionally when a music group plays for services.


It is worth noting the list of clergy which hangs in a frame opposite the main door. The first known incumbent was a man named Rowland, who had charge of the parish from 1265.

A list of this kind tells us something of the history of the parish. 'Rector', used for the first of those on the list, was the name given to an incumbent who received the full income from the parishioners’ tithes and was responsible for the upkeep of the chancel of the parish church.

From 1361 the incumbents are listed as Vicars. This name is derived from the Latin for ‘substitute’ and a vicar was originally the priest of a parish where the tithes were appropriated by a monastic house. The monastery thus became the rector of the parish and appointed a vicar to perform the parochial duties. The vicar only received part of the parochial tithes but enjoyed the same spiritual status as a rector. This situation lasted until the dissolution of the monasteries but the incumbent was still described as a vicar after that.

Also reflected in clergy lists is the Black Death in the fourteenth century.

This is reckoned to have killed about a third of the population. The plague reached this country in 1348 and was raging over the whole of it by 1349.

There were further national outbreaks in 1361, 1369, 1371, 1379 and 1390 but those of 1348-1349 and 1361 were the most severe. It is significant that three new clergy seem to have been needed during 1361. There were plenty of other diseases around, as is indicated by the two new rectors in 1343. We cannot know whether the Black Death or some other disease was the reason why yet another incumbent was needed in 1350. It is noticeable that several clergy at this time had a short tenure.

The clergy had another period of uncertainty during the reigns of Henry VIII (1509 - 47), Edward VI (1547 - 53), Mary (1553 -8) and Elizabeth (1558 - 1603) because of the changes in the official religion of the country. Our list of clergy in this church show a number of changes then.

It looks as if Augustine Cross could have been a Catholic, who was replaced during Henry’s reign but returned during the time of Mary, for example.

NORTH CHAPEL (Garrard Chapel)

The North Chapel is a mortuary chapel built late in the 16th or early in the 17th century.

The position of the wall paintings already described indicates the existence by the 14th century of an earlier chapel on the present site. There is a good 17th century wooden gate at the entrance to the chapel.

Garrard Tomb

The tomb of Sir William Garrard, Lord of the Manor of Dorney, who died in 1607, and his wife Elizabeth, is typical of the period. The building of the tomb probably started in the early 17th century. Sir William and his lady, Elizabeth, nee Roe, kneel in pious attitudes.

Elizabeth wears widow's clothes. Their fifteen children are depicted beneath them. Five hold skulls which tell us that they died before the monument was completed. Because of this some names have been used twice. There is some interesting heraldry. The two diamond shapes, called 'lozenges', apply to two of Sir William's daughters and they bear the Garrard coat of arms as they died unmarried.


The brick Tudor tower contains a peal of six bells. The engravings on them show their dates. The oldest, now the fifth of the peal, is Elizabethan and bears the trade stamp of Roger Landon of Wokingham. It was hung in 1582. The next oldest was made by Henry Knight of Reading in the reign of Charles I and hung in 1631. The third was cast by William

Eldridge in the reign of William III and is dated 1698. The tenor bell was made in the reign of George III: it has the medallion of Thomas Swaine who formerly lived in Taplow. In 1961 the bell frame was renewed and the tenor bell recast by Mears and Stainbank of the Whitechapel Bell

Foundry. The same year two additional bells were presented to the Church - the treble by the Provost and Fellows of Eton College and the second by Lt. Col. P.S.D. Palmer, thus making an excellent musical ring of six. The weights of the bells range from 3 cwt 0 qrs 22lbs (162 kg) for the treble, to 7cwt 2 qrs 13 lbs (387 kg) for the tenor.


  • Royal Commission on Historical Monuments: Buckinghamshire (South)

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica

  • 'How Old is that Church', Pamela Cunnington

  • ‘Church and Parish’, J H Bettey

  • Article on Plague and Disease by Peter Earle in Parnell’s part-work publication of Churchill’s History of the English Speaking peoples.

Published by the Parochial Church Council of St James the Less, Dorney, Buckinghamshire

Copyright 2009

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