Storm Damaged Church

Religion May 20, 2022

If you’ve ever wondered why St Edburg’s Church, Bicester, has no stained glass older than Victorian (apart from possibly one small window) then you might be interested to hear about the great storm of 1765.

During a severe storm on 3rd August 1765 lightning struck the church tower and travelled down through the fabric of the building. Contemporary accounts reported that the church was left “full of smoke, accompanied with a suffocating sulphurous stench”, and a note written in the back of the baptisms register details it as follows:

Saturday August the 3rd, 1765. Hear was a very dredfull thunder and litening, which took the ball of from the wether cock, and shattered the pinnacell of the same; and took some of the ruff of the tower with the lead, and tore the arch of the bell window down, and split the frame, that the great bell hangs to, and the stock of the great bell, and then descended down to the second loft, and tore the chimes all to peces, and then to the bellfree, and took every pane of glass out of the window, and patishon from the arch, and drove it down in the middle of the church, and then came down into the church, and broke a pavement under the gallery, and then ascended, and shattered most of the lower windows in the church.

The damage described is quite extensive and obviously focussed around the metal parts of the structure like the bells and the window lead. Luckily it doesn’t seem to have caused a fire though as, by that time, most of the church interior was filled with box pews, galleries, and a three tier pulpit, all made of wood, not to mention the beams and framework that supported the roof.

The destruction of the windows also damaged a lot of the medieval stone tracery. Some of it was repaired or replaced at the time, but a lot was removed and not replaced until much later. There were no funds available to replace any of the stained glass though, so it was all reglazed with clear glass in a diamond leaded design. Some of the windows still have this glass today.

Medieval glass fragments in the vestry windows.
Medieval glass fragments in the vestry windows.

The two windows near the vestry each contain a few small pieces of patterned glass amongst the diamond shaped panes, which are believed to be fragments of the old medieval glass that were salvaged. But opposite them, on the south side of the chancel, is a very small window with glass that some believe pre-dates the storm, making it the only surviving medieval stained glass window in the building.

The Angel Window, over the side door in the chancel, may be the only surviving medieval stained glass window in the church.
The Angel Window, over the side door in the chancel, may be the only surviving medieval stained glass window in the church.

But we can get an idea of what some of the windows were like thanks to local historian John Dunkin. In his ‘History and Antiquities of Bicester’, published in 1816, he writes that:

A visitor in May 1660 observed that they contained specimens of painted glass, two of which were decorated with armorial bearings, and on a third an imperfect black-letter inscription.
It is not improbable that most of the windows were decorated in a similar manner; - a relative, when nearly ninety years of age, assured me the chancel window was often admired for the painting it contained, in her youth. (Mrs Hannah Chandler, who died in 1813 aged 88)

All the other stained glass we can see today is Victorian or newer, and all were funded by private individuals as memorials for loved ones. Except for the one above the vestry which is dedicated to Major-General Charles Gordon, “Gordon of Khartoum”, and was funded by public subscription.