Wonersh Church History: The First 500 Years

 Exodus 35:35
He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as craftsmen, designers,embroiderers in blue, purple
and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them master craftsmen and designers.

This account of the history of our church acknowledges and has drawn heavily upon information provided in the following:-
 Wonersh History Society
Parishes: Wonersh - British History OnlineVictoria County History 1911.
  History of the Church by Revd A L Brown.
  The History of Antiquities of Surrey, Manning & Bray 1811 (Manning visited
Wonersh Church
shortly before the alterations of 1793/4.)
  John Aubrey Perambulations of Surrey, (part of Antiquities of Surrey) , visited Wonersh circa 1690.


 Pre-Conquest (Saxon)

The nave north wall may have been part of a pre-Conquest church, or at any rate before the close of the 11th century, in which traces of a double splayed round-headed window finished in plaster of Saxon period was discovered in 1901. The tower was found to be built against the north wall (not bonded into it) and that in doing this the Normans destroyed the Saxon window. The traces of the early windows could not be preserved at the restoration but the conclusion is that the nucleus of the church is a chapel built around 1050 if not earlier. The carved gritstone base of the font, discovered in 1901, is also considered to be pre-conquest.


1066 to 1200 

Church_12th _centuryS t Johns 12cThe church of St John the Baptist was one of three churches in the Manor of Brunlei or Bramley mentioned in the Domesday Book built shortly after the Norman conquest by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, half brother of William the Conqueror. The first recorded church was a Norman Chapel of the Hamlet of Wonersh or Woghenersh, when it formed part of the parish of Shalford (or Scandeford). It probably consisted of a simple nave and small sanctuary of a rustic and unpretentious style. The line of the nave roof of this period can be seen by the inner of the work lines visible on the north wall. 

For most of our history, until 1927, the Parish has been in the See of the ancient Diocese of Winchester in the Deanery of Stoke

The font is a reconstruction of the original plain Norman cup-shape bowl, and the earlier stem and base, using fragments of pieces found buried beneath the floor in 1901. The archaic band of ribbed work on coarse grit stone of the stem may date to pre-Conquest times.


1200 to 1536

The Incumbents of this Parish during this period are recorded as being-:

1307 Richard Royling(de Roylling)  The last Norman Rector
1308 Geffrey de Berton First under patronage of Convent of St Mary.
1333 John de Wodeford
Register 1345-1366 lost

1367 William Brown
Williams Wase
1388-96 John Appleton Exchanged with Chipsted
1396-97 Henry Greene Exchanged from Chipsted
1396-98 Richard Wrask
1396-99 Thomas Cleming
Register 1415-1446 lost

1455 John Markewyke
1456-71 William Smith
1471 John Brown
Register 1492-1500 lost

1500 No information
1536 Robert Russell   The last Rector - patron Prior of Convent of St Mary.


St Johns 14cIn 1224 Wonersh is spoken of as a chapelry in the Patent Rolls of Henry III. The tower was added around this time (although the tower is usually dated around 1180) and the chancel rebuilt on a large scale (the eastern foundations of which were used in the rebuilding in 1901). The present chancel roof originates from 1901 but follows the line of the original roof as was indicated on the wall over the chancel arch. There were three lancet windows on each side of the chancel, evidence of which can be seen today. There were probably also three lancet windows in the east wall, but these were replaced by a single traceried window during the 14th C. The tower opens into the nave by a plain square edged pointed arch possibly dated around 1180. The tower was probably finished with a low wooden shingled spire, some of the beams of which remain inside today’s belfry. 

In the Patent Rolls of Edward 1 of 1295 and again 1304/5, Wonersh is mentioned as an “ecclesia” or parish church. It would therefore appear that Wonersh constituted a separate parish sometime before this date (see the ancient parish boundary). In 1307/8 Edward I granted the Rectory and advowson (patronage) to the Hospital of St. Mary without Bishopsgate, calling it a church in his charter.

Opening from the north side of the chancel was the sacristy or crypt, considered by some as the most interesting feature of the church still existing. It was originally a single storey, roofed with a low stone span just above ground carried on a tunnel vault running north/south (the line of which can be seen today), and it had two little dormer windows (lancets under gables) on its east side. When the north chapel was added in the late 14thC, its east wall was built across the middle of the crypt. The eastern half remained as a lean-to outside the chapel. This curious and rare roofing was destroyed in 1793. Its floor, paved with 14th century encaustic tiles, is some 5ft below the present level of the church (originally the church floor was some 18ins lower than today), and the approach is down modern steps from the sacristy, through a door opening of late 14th century character. Writing circa 1690 (Perambulations of Surrey) John Aubrey describes this crypt as “A vault strongly barricaded with iron, which no doubt was to preserve the copes, plate, and sacred utensils from sacrilege.” It is unlikely that a chamber for this purpose would have been built underground and it is more likely to have been a storage location for irregularly used items, or else a charnel house or chamber for relics. 

The Prior of the Convent of St Mary was the rector and patron for the benefice or rectory of Wonersh for some 250 years until the Dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1536/7. He appointed a Vicar to conduct the business of the parish, and was also responsible for the maintenance of the church chancel and other buildings. In return he received an endowment from the income (known as the Great, or rectoral, Tithes) from corn and hay with rents and services of the tenants of the rectory (parish). The Vicar was remunerated from the small Tithes, derived from mortuaries, obventions, oblations and minor parish activities. The income from the Great Tithes was used to support work of the asylum and to provide a pension for the Rector. Almost all the church building took place during their Rectory. 

Soon after the chancel was rebuilt late 12th C, the church was enlarged by the addition of a chapel at the south-east corner, probably dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. A squint may have been cut in the chancel south wall at this time. Of this chapel nothing remains as it was destroyed in the 18th C, but an old engraving of the church of this period shows its east end with two double lights underneath a circular traceried Marygold or Rose window. 

In the early 15th century the nave was apparently re-roofed and the floor area almost doubled by the addition of a south aisle under a separate high gabled roof, but again nearly all traces have disappeared. This aisle was about 10ft broader than the present nave, and was divided from the nave by three arches (which survived until the 1793/4 reordering). One small fragment of this wall survives, a capital engaged stone, and this now lies on the floor of the tower. The line of the nave roof of this period can be seen by the outer of the work lines visible on the east nave wall. It was probably open through to the south chapel as the eastern end was known as the Tangley Chancel (or Chapel). The south chancel arch was cut through to the chapel at this time (early 15th century), originally including a dwarf stone screen but this was replaced later in the 15th C by a wooden parclose screen. 

The “leper squint” in the chancel north wall probably dates to this period, before the north chapel was built, to give sight of the altar from outside for those with antisocial diseases.


 St Johns 1710

 The Chapel to the north of the chancel was added in the mid 15th Century, opening into the chancel with a wide richly moulded arch. The original mouldings on the east side of the arch (preserved owing to their having been built into the chimney of the fireplace in the squire’s pew at the end of the 18th C) indicate the arch was executed circa 1420? with a wooden parclose screen of the same period. A plain arch of the same date was cut through the east wall of the tower. The east chapel wall was built across the old sacristry (this part being filled in) and the old roofwork continued outside as a lean-to.

It is not known to have had an original dedication, nor has it ever been a burying place, however it may have been a Guild Chapel for the weavers of Wonersh. The graceful old perpendicular niche and image bracket is thought to have contained an image of the Virgin Mary. In his will dated 1488 Robert Risbridge of Wonersh bequeathed “one cow for the upkeep of the light of St Mary of Wonersh.” thus giving credence to the dedication of the chapel being the Lady Chapel. 

Part of a painting c1710 showing Wonersh Church largely unchanged over 3 centuries from the 15th century church.  

The existing screen to the south of the chancel is made up of the remains of two 15th century parclose side screens that were incorporated in the lath & plaster partitions constructed in the 18th C and discovered in the 1901 reconstruction. 


A central feature of many a 15th C church was the screen and rood-loft (dividing the chancel and nave). The height and position of the ancient screen and its loft can be clearly traced. The underside of the chancel arch is grooved for boarding showing that the 15th C screen had a solid “tympanum” at the back of the rood-loft, only the lower part of the screen being open work. The tympanum was probably richly painted and must have formed an effective background to the great Clavary group upon the rood-loft which formed the central feature of every church until the changes of the 16th century. One of the ancient tie-beams in the chancel (not now in its original position) is mortised and grooved on the underside, showing that there existed about this time a second partition across the church in addition to the rood-screen, or in connection to it. Above the arch to the tower may be seen evidence of what was the passage to the rood loft, accessed probably by a ladder in the tower. It may have continued across the chancel arch through the southern wall of the nave into the south aisle, and there may have been a passage through the east wall to the south chapel. Manning reported the presence of a grave stone in the nave adjacent to the screen, lost in the reordering of 1793, which bore the inscription “Hiv jacet Willielmus Viner qui obit xxxi de Maii 1431.  Qui istam trabem fieri fecit. Cujus a’i’e P’picietur Deus.”  William Viner may have been the ancient benefactor who gave the rood loft.  

In 1536/7 the Dissolution of religious houses by Henry VIII removed the patronage from the Prior of St Mary’s and also the Rector became secularised: the Reformation had begun. 

References to Wonersh in the Patent Rolls may be looked at online