There has been a church on the site of St Peter’s, Brackley’s parish church, since Saxon times. It would originally have been built of wood but perhaps, by the time the Normans arrived, there might have been a small stone church. No trace of this Saxon church remains as it was almost completely rebuilt by the Normans in about 1100. We can still see their handiwork in the archway over the south door and the walls at the east end of the nave which were only later pierced by low arches. The blocked up window above the south door suggests it was once a two story porch; the priest would have lived in the upper room. Sometime between 1200 and 1300, the tower and the south aisle were added. A bit later in the 13 century, the Norman chancel was removed, the nave lengthened and a new chancel built. In the 14th century, the South aisle and the Lady Chapel and the crypt were added and the present church was virtually complete apart from some minor Victorian alterations.
The stained glass windows in the Lady Chapel were created in the 19th century either by Charles Kempe himself or his studio. Charles Kempe was a fashionable Victorian creator of stained glass and there are examples of his work in many cathedrals and also here in St Peter’s. He always put his trademark in a small corner of the window – a golden garb or wheatsheaf. After his death, his successor Earnest Tower, used as his trademark a black tower above a golden wheatsheaf.
The east window here is one of Tower’s and it is a beautiful annunciation scene with St David on one side and St Patrick on the other. But the right hand window is Kempe’s own.
The tower itself has a very elaborate exterior and it is that part of the church that faces the bit of Brackley that we would now call the centre but in the 13th century was probably still known as the New Town. Perhaps it was made so elaborate in a deliberate attempt to impress and call attention to itself.
Above the doorway are two original carved figures, one of St Peter and one of St Hugh of Lincoln. Brackley children used to believe that at midnight, these two statues would come to life and come down to drink at the Golden Spring or St Rumbold’s well.
St Hugh did exist. He was born in France, most of which at this time was part of the empire ruled by Henry 11, King of England, and became a monk. He was sent to England and came to the notice of Henry 11 who made him Bishop of Lincoln and Brackley at that time was part of the diocese of Lincoln. Apparently in 1200, it seems that St Hugh was in Troyes in France when a very agitated man threw himself on his mercy. This man had been a servant of the Earl of Leicester in charge of several manors including Brackley – which did indeed belong to the Leicesters at this time. As Reeve of Brackley, he had had to decide what to do when a thief claimed sanctuary in Brackley church. What he did, was to lure the thief out of the church by some form of trickery and then hanged him. This was a direct challenge to the privileges of the church and St Hugh who was the bishop in charge at the time, issued a general excommunication against all concerned. This in the Middle Ages was a very terrible punishment. It meant that you were no longer a member of the church and therefore cut off from the forgiveness of God for only through the church, could men speak to God. No member of the church would have anything more to do with you so you were an outcast whilst alive and doomed to go to hell when dead. However Hugh was prepared to rescind this judgement but only if the culprits accepted the truly horrible penance he devised for them. They had to strip naked down to their trousers, dig up the decaying corpse, carry it to all the churches in the Brackley deanery and be beaten at each one by the clergy, then bury the corpse again using only their bare hands and then walk barefoot from Brackley to Lincoln in the winter, being beaten at all the churches they passed. Such was their fear of excommunication that they all accepted the penance except for the Reeve but he lived to regret it. He lost his job, found that everyone turned against him and in time, his life became an intolerable burden. Eventually he decided that the only thing to do was to track down the Bishop, St Hugh and ask for a second chance. Apparently, the Bishop heard him out and lifted the excommunication but almost certainly imposed a penance which was probably even worse than the first one had been.
There are a number of other stories associated with St Peter’s. One derives from the fact that the church is unusual in that the main entrance is through the doors at the bottom of the tower; often in churches it is through a door in the north wall. There is one in St Peter’s but it is blocked up. One story has it that this is because one day, the Devil got into Brackley church but he was driven out through the north door which was then hastily filled in so that he could not return.
Not very far from the Tower doorway, is a tomb in the graveyard of a man wearing priest’s clothing. In 1539, a man called John Leland visited Brackley and he was told by the townsfolk that this was the grave of a priest of Brackley who had quarrelled with a nobleman of the town, one of the Neville family, over the payment of a mortuary fine. The priest grew tired of waiting for his dues and took a horse from the family in lieu of payment. The nobleman was so annoyed that he strode off to the church, with his henchmen, seized the priest, dressed him in his vestments and buried him alive. This, in those days, was not just a crime but an act of appalling sacrilege against the church and the thought of what punishment God would impose would have scared the young lord almost witless. He was so worried that he journeyed all the way to Rome to seek absolution from the highest earthly authority and spent the rest of his life repenting of his crime. Apparently the choirboys at St Peter’s were entranced by this story and up until the 1960’s, insisted that any newcomer to the choir must go through a re-enactment of the murder before becoming a full member of the choir. However, they stopped short of burying the unfortunate probationer in the ground; they just pushed him under the yew bushes in the churchyard from where he no doubt emerged in due course, a trifle dishevelled but not seriously hurt. Another version of this sorry tale is that the priest had a dog which jumped into the grave with him and so was buried with his master. In corroboration of this version, there is a carving in the stone leaves around the tower doorway of two faces, a man and a dog.
In Medieval times, St Peter’s was not the only parish in Brackley. The lower end of Brackley, down where the new Fire Station now stands was the parish of St James, centred on the Church of St James which was originally the chapel belonging to the Norman Castle. As times became more settled and the threats to Norman rule diminished, the castle disappeared but the Church of St James survived and its grave stones can still be seen in the shrubbery. The church was demolished in 1834 because it was in such a poor state of repair but its font dating from medieval times is preserved in Magdalen College Chapel. A smaller mortuary chapel, also known as St James, replaced the castle church and survived until the 1930s. After the church of St James was demolished in the 19th century, the two parishes were merged and this explains why the official title of Brackley parish is now St Peter with St James.
But St Peter’s isn’t just the building and the past, it’s the people who meet here today to worship God and to serve community of Brackley. Everyone in Brackley is welcome to join in for worship, for regular groups or for social events. More details are available on the website (www.stpetersbrackley.org.uk) and the Facebook page: search for ‘St Peter’s Church Brackley’. It is a very special place with a wonderful history and an enduring feature of Brackley’s heritage.
With thanks to Rosemary Leeper and Brackley History Society