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'The Passing Years' a short history

A History of St. Michael's Church, Chenies

Author - Lionel Timmins 

The first church known to have been built on this site and dedicated to St. Michael is believed to have been built in the latter part of the 12th century by Alexander de Isenhampstead.   Isenhampstead was the original name of the village that later came to be known as Isenhampstead Chenies and by the 19th century simply as Chenies. We cannot place an exact date on the building of the first church but in 1086, when the Doomsday Book was compiled, it made no mention of Isenhampstead; it did however refer to Alfsi, who held four hides (about 480 acres) at Chesham, a similar area in Shortley and two hides in Shipton (Lee): it  is believed that Alfsi’s holding listed under Chesham covered the Chenies area.

The earliest mention we found of Isenhampstead as such was in “The Victoria County History of Buckinghamshire” which records that “in 1165 Isenhampstead was held for a knight’s fee by Alexander de Isenhampstead”.    From another source we learn that by 1180 the Manor (not to be confused with manor house) was in the possession of the Cheyne family but because implicitly Alexander was a Cheyne this doesn’t necessarily indicate a change of ownership.  Since it is believed that it was Alexander who built the first church at Isenhampstead the probable date of building was between 1165 at the earliest and about 1200.

The first recorded Rector was John de Chednuit (another variant spelling of Cheyne) in 1232; he is believed to have been a descendant of Alexander. We have from that earlier church a font, one of the Aylesbury fonts, which date from the end of the 12th century. Its excellent condition suggests a continuously protected housing throughout its life and adds weight to the view that the first church dates from the last part of the 12th century.

It has been suggested that that church was probably built of wood but we do have, apart from the font, two pieces of carved stone that are believed to have survived from that first church, which must therefore have been, at least in part, stone built.  

It’s hard to visualise the world when John de Chednuit, our first Rector, was appointed.   The Church was Roman Catholic, its prelates were much involved with the governance of the country.   Francis of Assisi had died only six years earlier and was canonised two years after his death; Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, had been murdered 62 years earlier in 1170; in 1230 Pope Gregory IX had given the Dominicans major responsibility for the inquisition; Henry III was on the English throne and he and many of the English magnates claimed territories in France as well as their English dominions.   Henry III lived until 1272, during his reign there were to be three more Rectors of St. Michael’s, Eustachius de Offul who was also appointed in 1232, Symon de Wycombe succeeded in 1264 and Johes de London in 1267.

Eleven more Rectors served the parish in that first church.  John de Falde was presented in 1326 and his ministry lasted until 1359.    He was therefore the incumbent in 1348 when the Black Death (bubonic plague) reached the south coast of England and during the ensuing years when its terrible effects halved the population.

John Langeporte, was appointed in 1418.   His ministry lasted until 1461 and covered the period when the present building was commenced, around 1450.   Also during the ministries of those eleven early rectors; the Jews had been expelled from England in 1290; the papacy had been exiled to Avignon in 1309,  it remained there until 1377;    William Wycliffe translated the bible into English in 1380 and the Great Schism saw rival popes in Rome and Avignon from 1378 to 1417.

In 1479, when Edmund Molyneux presented Thomas Weldon as the new incumbent, a decision was taken to make a substantial reconstruction of the church, in particular to the chancel roof and the south arcade (or aisle).   The work continued for thirty years and when Sir David Phelip, who was resident at the Manor House, died in 1506 he left £4 in his will to “fynyshe my building of the parish church of Chenies”   Sir David was buried in the parish church of Stamford and when his wife died four years later she too was probably buried at Stamford.    She, unlike her husband, is, as we noted earlier, commemorated by one of the memorial brasses; Sir David on the other hand is probably the donor figure in the east window.

Thomas Wheeler became Rector in 1461 but resigned in that same year and was replaced with Richard Challoner.

David Phillip’s wife was a niece of Dame Agnes Cheyne and it was because of her family’s ownership of the Manor and much of the surrounding land that the village’s name was changed from Isenhampstead to Isenhampstead Cheyne.   Around the middle of the 16th century ownership of the Manor and lands passed to the Russell family, the family of the Earls and Dukes of Bedford with whom the village and Church’s history has been inextricably linked.   Ownership of the village and surrounding land continued until 1954 when it was sold to meet death duties but the family connection with the Church remains to this day (writing in 2004).

Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509; Thomas Eldon had become Rector in 1479; John Cooper in 1483; Richard Newland also in 1483 and Robert Leffe in 1504.   During that turbulent period Peter Calcot became Rector in 1527; William Burham in 1530; Nicholas Smythe in 1534 (not the Nicholas Smythe commemorated by the brass by the south door but probably a son);  finally William Quarton in 1547 the year  Henry  died.  

There had been severe opposition from the church hierarchy to allowing the common people access to the bible in the native tongue but by 1535 they were being smuggled in and were becoming widely available, by 1538 it was decreed that every church in the land should have a copy accessible to all.

In 1547 Cranmer prepared the Book of Common Prayer and in June1549 it came into use in churches throughout the land.

In 1556 the Bedford chapel was built by Anne Countess of Bedford in accordance with the instructions in her late husband, John Earl of Bedford’s, will.

In 1553 John Knox preached a sermon in Amersham stirring up Protestantism but in that same year Queen Mary returned England to the Roman Catholic faith.   By 1558 Queen Elizabeth had reversed this and in 1563 the Church of England was established by the adoption of the 39 articles.   John Hambleton succeeded as Rector in 1558 and John Yeoman in 1560.  

One can only wonder about the effect of those troubled times in the church on the Rector of a small country parish and reflect on the brevity of some incumbencies.

Humphrey Roberts became Rector in 1573 and was succeeded two years later in 1575 by John Cawador.   Master Peter Alibond became Rector in 1592 and served for 36 years until 1628.   Peter Alibond seems to have been something of a rebel.   He was rebuked for not wearing a surplice and hauled before the church court for trespass and for keeping five unringed pigs.   During his time it is recorded that there were “The usual entries for dereliction and non payment of tithes.”    In the wider context anti catholic legislation had been increased in 1605 after the gunpowder plot and in 1611 the Authorised Version of the Bible had been published.

George Jay was Rector for a year only from 1628-29; his successor John Whiting lasted two years 1629-31; he was followed by William Sparke in1641 and John Jemmatt in that same year.   In England the first civil war started in 1642; Charles 1st had raised his banner at Nottingham and on 23rd October the battle of Edgehill was fought.   In 1643 the long parliament convened the Westminster Assembly, a body of clerics and laymen, whose object was to reach a settlement that would replace the Church of England.   In 1644 the civil war continued and the Globe theatre was burnt down by the Puritans.  In 1645 Archbishop Laud was beheaded for treason.   In 1646 the first civil war ended with defeat of the Royalists at the battle of Newark. Negotiation failed over religious issues.   In 1648 civil war flared up again and the Royalists were finally defeated at the battle of Preston.   Charles was executed the following year and the interregnum lasted until 1660.

In 1517 Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittemburg.

The term “Protestant” was first heard at the diet of  Speyer in 1529.    In 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers, seeking religious freedom, had landed in America.   By 1633 the first Baptist congregation had been formed in Southwark and in Isenhampstead Chenies the Baptists led the way and the Presbyterian thinking Rector of St. Michaels, Benjamin Agas, was ejected in 1662

He was followed by George Potter and in 1663 and by William Burroughs in 1667 who reported that there were no dissenters in the parish, a statement that he must have known to be untrue.   Another William Burroughs became Rector in 1704.   It was to be a century of dilapidation for St. Michael’s although whether sometimes through poverty or always through wilful neglect we don’t know.   Certainly one incumbent only visited twice a year for the fishing and it is recorded that his five hour sermons might be curtailed by the verger’s whispered advice “ Hurry up, they’re rising.”   We don’t know who that Rector was but George Jubb, who was appointed as Rector in 1751, was a pluralist who held livings in Toddington (Beds.) and Cliffe (Northants.) as well as Chenies.   A later, and reportedly saintly Rector, described Jubb as “ a wolf in sheep’s clothing”.   The chancel roof became derelict and the chancel itself was boarded off and abandoned.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       IfSt. St. Michael’s was suffering during the 18th. century the Baptist Church was growing in strength.  In 1705 James Newton became a Licensed Dissenting Minister and two cottages in Green Street, which was outside the Bedfordholding, were licensed as meeting houses.   James Cannon also became a Licensed Dissenting Minister in 1708.  Largely as a result of his dissatisfaction with George Jubb, a Mr Davis, who was the Duke’s Steward of the Manor, announced in 1775 that he was leaving the Anglican Communion and joining the Baptists; this resulted in a rise in their numbers from 21 to nearly 90.   Mr Davis was held in high esteem by the Duke who was persuaded to sell him the plot of land upon which the Baptist Church  (inaugurated in 1778) was built.   It stands, not far from St. Michael’s, just beyond the Bedford Arms and the Red Lion, and an opportunity to visit it should not be missed.

The Rectors during the 18th century were Edward Daynell 1749, George Jubb 1751, Francis Randolph 1788, William Morris 1795 and then John Wing in 1827. 

At the age of 25 Lord Wriothesley Russell was appointed Rector in 1829; in later years he was also chaplain to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.    He was to remain in office as Rector of St Michael’s for fifty-seven years and that period and that of his successor Reginald Shann (Rector from 1886 to 1920) was to be a golden age for St Michael’s and through the benevolence of the Russell family, for the village also.   Adeline Marie Bedford recorded in her book, “Chenies’ Church and Monuments.” that it was “A period of great agricultural prosperity.”

Over the period 1835-6 St Michael’s was restored and repaired, it was reopened for public worship 23rd June 1836.   Two sermons were preached for the occasion, the texts were John III 3 and Luke VIII 3.

In the village, the school was built in 1846 by Anna Maria wife of 7th Duke of Bedford and in the 1840-50s high quality cottages were built by the Russell family for the benefit of the villagers.   Lord Wriothesley was the son of 6th Duke; who had presented him to the living; he persuaded his father to allow him to use part of the armoury wing of the Manor House as parish rooms.    This was, at the time, a great innovation; two large apartments at the west end were remodelled for this purpose and the Rector made use of them for village, particularly church, activities.   Through the generosity of the present owner, Mrs. Mcleod-Matthews, the long room is still used for parish meetings.  

A great deal of work was done on the church in the period 1861-1887.   Several references describe the church as having been built originally of flint and stone, certainly the flint facing was reworked during this period but there is a sketch extant from about this time, certainly before 1864 which appears to show a brick face with stone corner work, it may be conjectured that the sketch was made after an original flint face had been stripped off and before it was replaced.   In 1864 the porch battlements turret and flagstaff were added.   The early sketch shows a weathercock in place where the turret now is. An even earlier 18th century sketch shows some much smaller crenellations which predated the level balustrade as it was just before 1864 

In 1885 the Bedford Chapel was extended westwards towards the tower.

The wooden screen that you pass through immediately after passing through the main door was erected in 1891 at a cost of £68:15s:4d of which £50 was contributed by 11th Duke of Bedford.   The screen that separates the bottom of the tower from the nave to form the vestry is also from the 19th century but the exact date is unknown.

In 1886-7 the roof was raised and the present day hammer beam roof installed.   During the 18th century the original 16th century windows, with one small exception, had been removed to Woburn and are now lost.   Only the small “Donor” panel in the bottom centre of the east window was left.   We have no record of the first replacements that were there in the interim but between 1895 and 1898 new windows were installed as we see them today.

Also in 1895 a faculty was granted for the construction of an organ chamber, the installation of an organ and other considerable changes to the south aisle.   To make provision for the organ chamber the south aisle was extended eastward by thirteen feet.    The window, originally in the east end of the aisle was moved to the west end and a window in the chancel was moved to replace it.   The window from the west end of the aisle was moved to the south side of the newly created organ chamber.   Modifications were also made to the arches in the south aisle, the chancel arch was installed and seating in the south aisle was rearranged.   The corbels upon which the original roof rested are still in place but appear to be improbably placed so that in some cases they lap over the edge of the arches, a circumstance explained by the reshaping of the arches at that time.   The whole cost of these changes was born by Lady Ela Russell and His Grace 11th Duke of Bedford.

Charles Francis Clark became Rector in 1920,   R.V.G. Tasker in1928 and Frederick Harold Smith in 1934.

In 1906 the Bedford Chapel was further extended.   In 1931 the altar rail was replaced by the present oak kneelers , and the stone footpace upon which the altar still stands was   installed.   The belfry chamber was installed in 1933.   Prior to that date the ringers were to be seen at the base of the tower on the same level as the nave.

Electric light was installed for the first time in 1936.

John Trevor Jones became Rector in 1947 and Robert M.V.Stapleton in 1964.  

In 1959-60 the original organ was destroyed by storm damage and was replaced in 1960 by the present organ at a cost of £2363.  The new organ console was placed at the south east corner of the nave where it still stands.

In 1990 the organ loft was created in the tower and the vacated space was separated off to form the Preston room, so named in memory of Bert Preston whose bequest paid for the work which cost £10,847:65.

David Lambert became Rector in 1993 and after he took up a ministry in Turkey in 2001 David Allsop was installed as the new incumbent in 2002.

There is of course much in the history of St Michael’s that has been lost but one other source at least can be tapped.   The record of births marriages and burials is still extant from 1592 onwards.   A review of the number of burials per year gives some approximate indication of the size of the local population and consequent congregation over the years.  It also reveals some years when sickness took an above average toll.   The numbers have been averaged over decades to smooth the effects of normal variability.  From 1592 to 1684 the average number of burials per year was around 4 to 6.   From then until 1714 the average increased to around 6 to 9 It then dropped back to 4 to 6 until the decade ending 1764 where it jumped to around 8 to10 per year until 1804.  

The years 1643 to 1647 appear to have been a particularly sickly period and again from 1698 to 1704.   The years 1710, 1753 , 1767, 1778-9, 1802 and 1804 were all significantly higher than the average for their decades.