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St Nicolas' Church history

St. Nicolas' and Abingdon Abbey

Abingdon abbey
Image from the Abingdon Missal

St Nicolas' church is one of the few remaining parts of the great Benedictine Abbey of St. Mary at Abingdon, and was the final part of the rebuilding, of the abbey in the twelfth century, largely associated with Abbot Faritius (1100 - 1117) and his successor Abbot Vincent (1121 - 30). The rebuilding was completed towards the end of the century, and this small church was built by the gate, partly within and partly outside the abbey precincts for the numerous lay officials and servants attached to the abbey, and for visitors. The earliest reference to the church, or chapel, of St Nicholas is in a ruling by Pope Alexander III to the prior and brothers of Abingdon in 1177 that the yearly income from the chapel be assigned to the care of the poor.

The original church had no tower and the only parts of it now remaining are the lower part of the west wall with its magnificent Norman doorway, and the north wall of the nave. The church is on a constricted site and when, in the fifteenth century, a tower was added it had to be built inside the nave. For the same reason there was no churchyard or burial ground until 1797. The Stert stream then, as now, passed under the nave.

Edmund of Abingdon

A chronicler of the thirteenth century recorded that St Nicolas' church housed the tomb of Mabel 'le Rich', mother of Edmund Rich. Edmund and was born in Abingdon about 1175 became, first a master at Oxford, then Treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral, and finally Archbishop of Canterbury from 1233 to 1240. He was a firm and fearless Archbishop who opposed the corruption of the court of Henry III and died at Pontigny on the borders of Burgundy and Champagne on his way to present his problems to the Pope. His mother died about 1198 and was buried in St Nicolas', but after her son's canonization in 1247 her remains were transferred to a special chapel within the abbey precincts. A memorial tablet commemorating Edmund's links with the church and town was placed on the west front of the church in 1964.

Parish of St. Nicolas

In 1327 the Abbey was sacked, and St. Nicolas' burned by the people of the town, who resented the Abbey's dominance and its inability to pay its debts. The church was quickly restored, and the south wall dates from that time. The poverty of the church, caused by the sacking of the Abbey and the Black Death of 1349, led to petitions to the Bishop of Salisbury to regularize the income of the incumbent. As a result, in 1372, certain portions of the parish of St. Helen forming granges or farms belonging to the Abbey were taken to form a new parish of St. Nicolas'. As a separate parish, St Nicholas had its own registers and Churchwardens. It appointed overseers to administer civil responsibilities such as Poor Law and highway maintenance, until these duties were taken over by civil authorities in the 19th century. It had its own Parochial Church Council after these began in the 1920's.

The main portion of the parish was the abbey precinct itself, together with granges at Fitzharris, Northcourt and Bayworth, and the Ock Mill on the Marcham Road. These scattered pieces of land formed the parish of St. Nicolas' until the creation of a Team Ministry and the present single parish of Abingdon in 1989. The Bishop's award caused considerable bitterness since it reduced the income of St. Helen's, and the tension between the churches continued for many centuries.

Rectors and Vicars

Initially an incumbent, known from the earliest times as the Rector although possessing no tithe or glebe, was appointed by the Abbey. Later, as elsewhere, the post of Rector was often a sinecure; although he received the major part of the income, he appointed vicars to be responsible for services.

Despite the Bishop's award of 1372, the parish remained poor, and in 1410 the posts of Rector and Vicar of St. Nicolas' were combined and the Vicar, Henry Crumpe, became also Rector. However, the joining of the posts of Rector and Vicar was not to prove a permanent solution. By 1508 Thomas Randolph, who was a prebendary of St. Paul's Cathedral, pleaded to be released from the spiritual cure which belonged to the Vicar, and to be left with simply the sinecure rectory. From then onwards the Vicar of St. Helen's, Henry Leshman, became Vicar of St. Nicolas' also, an arrangement which continued under his successors, although the sinecure Rector obtained the greater share of the income.

The Dissolution of the Abbey

The dissolution of the Abbey in 1538 had surprisingly little consequence for St. Nicolas', although the patronage rights of the church passed to the crown. The Abbey farms which formed the parish had already been leased to others, and the spiritual cure was in the hands of the Vicar of St. Helen's, though he probably hired curates to attend to the needs of St. Nicolas'. A number of endowments for masses for the dead were swept away in 1547.

Blacknall memorial

The Blacknall Family

The Abbey site was bought in 1553 by William Blacknall, whose family were for the next three generations the most important inhabitants of the parish. The death of his grandson John and his wife "at one instant of time" in August 1625, perhaps of the plague, brought the line to an end, and the property passed to his daughter Mary who married Ralph Verney of Claydon, Buckinghamshire, in 1629. The Verney family gradually sold the abbey property but the memory of the Blacknall family lived on in Abingdon. The tomb now in the quasi-transept of the church was erected in about 1684 on the south wall, beside the pulpit, and was moved in the restoration of 1881. From the tomb a weekly distribution of bread to the less well-off was made under the terms of John Blacknall's will. Also under the will a Reader, already appointed to carry out the cure of souls which had been neglected by the Vicar of St. Helen's, was given an augmented income.

Links with Roysse's School

From the earliest years St. Nicolas' seems to have been associated with the grammar school which grew up outside the abbey gateway, and early incumbents may also have been Head-masters of the school. The school was refounded in 1563 by John Roysse, and from the restoration of Charles II in 1660 the Blacknall Readership was held by either the Head-master or the Usher of Roysse's school, continuing the link which had developed in the early years of the church. The Readership became dormant when the school moved to Park Crescent in 1870, and the office passed to the Vicar of St. Helen's. Since 1913 the Head-masters have been laymen rather than men in orders as in earlier centuries.

Civil War and Commonwealth

The clash between King and Parliament between 1640 and 1660 brought fighting to the streets of Abingdon and an intense conflict of loyalties to the town. In 1643, Anthony Huish, Head-master of Roysse's school, became Reader and continued the Church of England services Even after the capture of Abingdon by Parliamentary forces under General Waller in May 1644. A group of loyal Anglicans gathered round Huish, most notable among them being Peter Heylin the Royalist apologist who lived at Lacy's Court in the town. He supported the lengthy and ultimately successful attempts to prevent the church being united with St. Helen's. After Huish's retirement in 1655 the services were continued by Heylin and others until the Restoration of Charles II brought happier times to St. Nicolas', with the general restoration of Anglican worship.

Bowles Readership

The eighteenth century saw a continuation of the system by which sinecure Rectors played little part in the affairs of St. Nicolas', and the Vicars of St. Nicolas', who had pastoral charge of the parish, left the taking of services to the Blacknall Readers. This complicated system was bound to lead to trouble, and in 1796 the Vestry complained to the Bishop that the Reader, John Lempriere, was not fulfilling his obligations - preferring more lucrative employment as curate of Radley. The dispute led to the closure of the church from 1799 - 1801. Then William Smith, Usher of the school, became Reader on Lemprieres appointment as Vicar of St. Helens. The Rector at this period, Richard Bowles, lived in Abingdon at Waste Court, and showed considerable interest in the church. In 1790 he helped to purchase the small burial ground to the north of the church. After the dispute of 1799 Bowles made yet another attempt to provide for the Sunday services of the church and founded a Readership by which a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford was to preach every Sunday morning. The Bowles Readership has often been delegated to deputies, but six times a year the Chaplain of Trinity college still preaches in this church.

Modern Times

In 1836 Berkshire was removed from the diocese of Salisbury, in which St. Nicolas' had always been, and transferred to the diocese of Oxford. In 1845 the sinecure rectory came to an end, and since then the Vicars of St. Helen's have been Rectors of St. Nicolas'. In 1881 the church was drastically restored and Blacknall's tomb transferred to the north side of the church, and in 1953 the chancel had largely to be rebuilt after a disastrous fire. Statutes of 1882 and 1894 brought to an end the civil parish of St. Nicolas', but the ecclesiastical parish remained as it was created in 1372 until 1992. St Nicolas' now forms part of the Parish of Abingdon-on-Thames with St Helen's and St Michael's and All Angels'. The Parish, and Church, are active members of The Church in Abingdon.