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Sparsholt - Church of the Holy Rood

There has been a Church of the Holy Rood at Sparsholt since before the Norman Conquest. The original building, probably of wood, was replaced towards the end of the 12th century by one of stone. All that remains of this Norman church is the lower part of the walls of the nave and the two lower storeys of the tower.

Extensive alterations, amounting almost to rebuilding, were carried out in the first half of the 14th century by Sir Robert Achard, who was Lord of the Manor from 1299, and his kinsman William de Herleston, who was Rector from 1312. The chancel and the two transepts were built, the nave was heightened and re-roofed and a third storey was added to the tower. Records attribute the chancel to de Herleston and the south transept to Sir Robert, but the whole was obviously planned and carried out as a single work. They both died in 1353, leaving the church complete as they planned it, a splendid cruciform building in the best decorated style. de Herleston was buried in the opening of the chancel with a fine memorial brass, and the effigies of Sir Robert and his two ladies are in the south transept. The stone monument in the "Founder's Tomb" in the south wall of the chancel is that of an earlier Achard, probably moved there from the Norman nave when the chancel was built. At the same time, no doubt, the coped stone coffin of an earlier rector and kinsman (Adam Achard) was moved to its present position in the step to the altar.

Some structural changes took place in the succeeding centuries. A vestry and some windows were added in Tudor times; at the same time, or later, the south doorway was built (see front cover) in and a new door opened into the south transept, and about 1785 the north transept was demolished and the porch and spire were built. Except for the spire (a pleasing wood-shingled structure), none of these alterations can be called improvements.

The 1988 quinquennial report showed that substantial urgent repairs were required to the church fabric, and in August of that year an appeal for funds was launched.

In 1992/3 a drainage system was installed around the foundations of the church to dry out the wails. When the trench was dug across the site of the demolished north transept, the stone effigy of a 13th century priest of the church, now resting in the Easter Sepulchre, was unearthed, together with the brass plate to Robert Loyshe dated 1605.

In 1995/6 the roofs of the Church were inspected and treated against death watch beetle and repairs made where necessary. No serious defects were found in the chancel or the south transept, but the nave roof was found to be in a dangerous condition, with many of the main trusses badly weakened by wet rot and death watch beetle, so that very major repairs were required. These trusses were strengthened with epoxy resin and stainless steel rods, whilst smaller timbers were replaced in places. The lead roofing was stripped off and new lead, of a heavier gauge, was placed above the original structure.

These repairs cost in all about £150,000 and Sparsholt Church is much indebted to:

  • English Heritage
  • The Queen's College. Oxford
  • Oxon Historic Churches Preservation Trust
  • Historic Churches Preservation    Trust
  • Vale of White Horse District Council
  • Diocese of Oxford

for their generous financial support, without which the repairs could not have been undertaken.

The plain stone font is probably the oldest feature in the church, perhaps dating from the 8th century.

Some Norman work can be seen. Note the deeply undercut hood-mould over the north doorway, the 12" century oak door with sanctuary handle and beaten iron hinges, and the nine feet deep hole in the wall for a bar to fortify the entry in times of stress. The Norman carving of the arch of the blocked south doorway can only be seen from the outside.

Special features of the 14th century reconstruction were the lofty windows with flowing tracery and the fine timber roofs of nave and chancel. The tracery of the east window is a 19th century replica of the supposed original, which had been replaced in the 16th century by a smaller window, part of which now forms the reredos.

Note the beautiful carved stonework in the chancel, the corbels of the roof and the canopies of the Easter Sepulchre on the north and of the piscina, sediiia and founder's tomb on the south wall.

The chancel was connected to the two transepts by squints, one of which was blocked when the north transept was demolished. The south transept, entered through a screen, mostly of 14th century carved oak, contains what are the church's chief treasures, the three wooden effigies of Sir Robert Achard (1353) [see front cover] and his two wives, Joanna (1336) and Agnes (1356). There are less than one hundred such wooden effigies throughout the country. Sir Robert's head rests on his tilting helmet and his feet on a lion; the Lady Joanna has two angels supporting her pillow and a lion cub at her feet, the Lady Agnes, who entered a nunnery after her husband's death, has two nuns at her head and two pet dogs at her feet. The stone coffin on which her figure lies, with its frieze of nine men-at-arms as 'weepers', was probably designed (before his second marriage) for the knight himself. When new, these effigies would have been adorned with bright colours of gold and silver leaf on a coating of gesso. Scarcely a trace of this remains and there has been some damage to the wood itself, particularly that of the knight's effigy, which suffered various vicissitudes after losing, in the 18" century, the wooden base on which it once lay. In 1947 all three effigies were found to be suffering from insect pests and fungal decay. They were sent to London for protective treatment, which it was hoped would preserve them for the future. However, during the restoration work in 1992/3 the effigies were examined and found to need attention. They were cleaned and treated with preservatives, whilst the stonework in the niches under the effigies was dismantled and treated to stop the stone powdering away, and a damp proof membrane was inserted before the niches were rebuilt.

The belfry has four bells. The earliest, dedicated to St Catherine, is undated; the others are dated 1578, 1578 and 1603. Two wall monuments are worthy of note; that in the nave to John Pleydell (1591) and his wife (1623), a good piece of carved clunch, and that in the south transept to Sir George Hyde K.B. (1623).


  1. In the opening of the chancel. William de Herleston in chasuble, in the head of a cross. 1353:
  2. Near Easter Sepulchre. ?Thos Bathe (half effigy) in civil costume with two children. c. 1495.
  3. At entry to vestry. Unknown woman. c.1510
  4. Near sedilia. John Fettiplace in civil costume with Latin inscription. 1602


The three windows on the south, and the window over the door on the north side were re-leaded in 1964 by Mr Dennis King of Norwich, and what was left of the ancient glass was cleaned and re-set under his care.

The work on the window over the north door was undertaken by the family of Mr A.G. Shirreff in his memory. The glass in this window is of c.1500. The west light shows the figure of a female donor kneeling at a prayer desk and holding a rosary. Above the donor there seems to have been a figure of St. Katharine, this being indicated by the letters STA KA and above them a portion of her spiked wheel emblem. In the centre light there are remains of a similar donor and, above that, a pavement with a portion of a dragon and the cross of St Margaret, who is often represented with St Katharine. The letters 'bs' for (anima) bus and the word 'ecclesiae' at the foot of the two lights are probably parts of votive inscription relating to the two donors. In the right hand light the letters form portions of a repeated motto, 'Dominus michi adiutor' (The Lord is my helper) from Hebrews 13.6. This was the motto of Cardinal Wolsey, and the glass may be part of the '46 bends' which, according to Anthony A Wood, were made for the Cardinal by James Nycholson in 1525 and placed in the hall of Christ Church, Oxford, and, no doubt, removed from there by Henry VIII. The bordering of all three lights was collected from this window, and tha onthe opposite wall, and some similar glasswas brought from Hazely Court, Hampshire, and added. The quarries with leaf and floral pattern spaced throughout the left and centre lights also came from the south window.

The 14th century glass in the tracery of the window on the south side shows the figure of Christ in Majesty. The canopy fragment in the left light, together with the borders (which include the Achard and Delamere arms), are also 14th century, but some rounded portions with ivy and flower motives at the top are insertions of earlier 13" century grisaille glass.

The eastern window of the north wall contains a square of 14th century glass with the head of the Virgin Mary on a background of roses. This was probably from a 'Coronation of the Virgin' in the same window when it stood in the east wall of the north transept, demolished about 1785.

It should be noted that most of the plain glass in all of the nave windows is ancient and deserving of careful preservation. One quarry has been scratched with the words 'Joseph Tuff cleaned some of these windows and that's enough'. This ancient glass is worthy of better treatment.


On the north wall of the chancel, on one of the stones that form the jamb of the priest's door, and between it and the Easter Sepulchre, there is a roughly cut design for the game of Nine Men's Morris. This is a game between two players who move their respective nine men (counters or small objects such as pebbles) one by one in turn on the points of meeting or crossing of lines, The players begin by placing their men singly and alternately on any vacant point. The object is to get three men in a line together, which permits the removal of one of the Opponent's adjacent men. The game is won when an opponent is reduced to two men.

It is obvious that the design here, if intended for playing the game, must have been made when the stone was in a horizontal position and before it was placed in the wall in the first half of the 14th century.

Though little known today, the game was popular in the middle ages. The discovery of the design in castles (e.g. at Norwich, Scarborough and Dover) suggests that soldiers played the game at leisure time, whilst its appearance on the benches of the cloisters at Salisbury and Gloucester would indicate that schoolboys played it between lessons. There is a reference to the game in Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. (These notes are based on an article contributed to the Berkshire Archaeological Journal Vol 53.1952/53) by the late Mr A.C. Shirreff, a former churchwarden of Sparsholt.)

See the Church of the Holy Rood gallery by clicking the image stack:-


c.1066-1086   (or later) Edred (Domesday Book)
c.1221 Adam Achard, Rector
1312-1353William de Herleston, Rector to 1342, when the advowson was sold to Queen's College, Oxford; thereafter Vicar
c.1337   Walter de Wulfrichiston (Woolstone), 'perpetual Vicar'
c.1353-c.1380   William de Wulfrichiston (may be the same as the preceding)
c.1380-1387   John Strykelond
c.1481   Thomas Smytson (Mythson in Ashmole)
1515-1534  John Pantre (Provost of Queen's)
1534   William Hutton
1584-1603  Nicholas Cooke
1603-1627  Thomas Todhunter
1627-1633 John Williamson
1634-1674   Richard Edmondson
1674-1697Robert Scaife
1697-1731   John Bell
1731-1769William Noble
1769-1798  Philip Brown
1798-1804John Taylor
1804-1841   Thomas Pearson
1841-1869   Henry Alison Dodd
1869-1887   Oswald J Reichal
1887-1890 John Richard Magrath (Provost of Queen's)
1890-1899Henry A Redpath
1899-1917Francis Archibald Shirreff
1918-1931Agnew W C Giffard
1932-1971  Edward Walker
1971-1976   Edward Vogel
1976-1986 Peter A Edwards
1986-1990Ivor F Marsh
1991-2011Alan Wadge
2012-2021Leonora Hill