History of the Old Church


The site prior to 1220 AD
Early Church history
Architectural points of interest
The Church becomes ‘Old’
The Old Church Trust – recent history
Refurbishing the Old Church Trust
Current usage

The site prior to 1220 AD

Long before the Old Church was built, the site was occupied by a prehistoric fort covering approximately seven acres, shaped like a pear and surrounded by a rampart. There are traces of a ditch between the church and the present vicarage.

Later, according to the Domesday Book (1086) ‘The Lee’ – “a clearing in woodland” – was a wooded swine pasture belonging to Weston Turville Manor. In 1146 Geoffrey de Turville, owner of the Manor and mother church, passed the chapel on the site to the Cistercian Monks at Missenden Abbey. It is thought that a timber structure existed at this time, but no traces remain. 

The building’s earlier foundation and its transfer are referred to in the Latin records of Missenden Abbey.

1.    An agreement was made of old between the Rector of the Church of Weston (Turville) and Ralf de Halton concerning the Chapel of The Lee (de la leia) whereby Ralf should pay 5 shillings each year on the altar of Weston at the feast of St Thomas for all tithes on the land of the Lee, which agreement I Geoffrey de Turville have confirmed in favour of the Canons of St Mary of Missenden, to whom I have given the same land as I gave to the Rector of Weston (Date about 1146).

2.    Settlement of a dispute between the Abbey and William de Turville and his brother Geoffrey, the clerk, concerning the Church of Weston.  The Abbey shall continue to posses the Chapel of The Lee (de la leia) on payment of an annual pension of 6 shilllings to the Mother Church of Weston.  The parties swore to observe the agreement in the presence of Richard, Archbishop of Canterbury. (He was Archbishop 1174-1185).

3.    Settlement of a dispute between the Abbey and Ingram of The Lee (de la leia) concerning the land of the Lee through arbitration of Gilbert, Bishop of London (1163-1189) and Bartholomew, Bishop of Exeter (1164 – 1185), appointed for the purpose by the Pope (Dominus Papa).  The Abbey conceded the land over which the dispute had arisen to Ingram.  He on his part undertook to feed and clothe the two Canons living with him.  On the death of Ingram the land is to revert to the Abbey, and his wife shall have no residence there or access thereto except to the Chapel like other honest women.

4.    Confirmation by Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln (1186-1203) of the appropriation of certain Churches to Missenden Abbey, among them the Chapel of The Lee (leia) under an annual payment of 6 shillings to be paid year by year to the Mother Church of Weston. (The Lee was then in the diocese of Lincoln).

In the 12th Century, the Cistercian Monks had laid eight foundations in the South and West of England and in Wales. They ran self supporting communities with much lay labour and the monks wore white. Pope Innocent III ruled at the Vatican and the monastic Orders begun by Benedict 800 years before, were omnipresent in Europe. 

Against this background, in around 1220 AD the Old Church was built.

Early Church history

The Cistercian Monks seem to have run a largely self supporting community based around Missenden Abbey for over 400 years. The Chapel and residences at Lee (as it became known) would have been very much integrated into that life. 

The chroniclers of the time were the writers of St Albans and Roger of Wendover, whose work ends in 1235, and his continuator and editor Matthew Parris. Services in the Chapel would have been the Mass, said or sung in Latin to Plainsong, and maybe the monks would have recited the daily offices, such as Prime through to Compline. It was a disciplined life of prayer and work.

As for ordinary folk, the struggle to grow enough to eat and keep out of trouble was paramount. It was a time of struggles – against the domination of the Papal See and against crushing taxation to provide money for the King and his Crusades. Henry III had become King in 1216 – succeeding King John and the Magna Carta (1215). He followed the general line of the Anjou-Plantaganets with qualities of greed, lust and general villainy – all upheld with pride.

As the community at Lee grew, so the first recorded priest was appointed, one Canon John Slythurst, a monk of Missenden. He was paid eight pounds per annum. However, his appointment must also have been the last as the Canon died in the 1550’s, shortly after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1547, when Lee was handed over to the Bedfords.

Lee then continued as a rural ‘hamlet’ in the parish of Great Missenden – that is as a village with its own church, but not forming a parish in its own right. 

In the late 17th century, the Plaistowe family (who still live in the area) became Lords of the Manor that included Lee and in 1832 the first minister was appointed to Lee church with a stipend of fifty pounds, the population had by then grown to 198.  Shortly afterwards, in 1847, the first resident incumbent was appointed.

Architectural Points of Interest 

The Old Church is of early English Gothic design as indicated by the lancet windows. This sharp knife shape first appeared in the mid 12th Century, superseding the Norman or Romanesque round arch.  The windows are made of the chalky local stone Clunch which is still used today. The walls of rubble are rendered outside except for the West face which shows flintwork.

The History of Buckingham (1831) describes the Church: “The Chapel stands in a spacious cemetery (contiguous to which is a meadow nearly surrounded by woods) and consists of a nave and chancel about 40 feet long, capable of containing about 100 persons, and having on the gable at the west end a small wooden turret, supporting a little spire.”

Consecration Cross. The coloured circular feature marking the place of the act of consecration is west of the main doorway.

13th Century Glass in upper part of the east window showing the Crucifixion and the figures of St Mary and St John. 

The unusual Puritan window contains Art Nouveau design and was originally made for Little Hampden Church, hence the central figure.  It was placed here in 1902 when rejected by Little Hampden because it included the figure of Cromwell.

Piscina, or niche bowl for washing vessels, near the east end of the south wall adjoins the Sedile or priest’s seat.

Near these is a Springer stone of an arch finely carved in angelic form, perhaps part of a window elsewhere.  The battlemented string courses above the north and south walls are also of uncertain origin but may have supported a screen.

Ironwork.  Remains of ancient window ironwork are seen in hinge bases beside lowside windows in the north and south walls.  The window in the south side also has the remains of an outside grille.  In the north wall between the firstand second windows is a small rectangular Recess.  Perhaps for alms or an alms dish.

Font.  The mediaeval basin with original staple holes securing the lid, now has an oak cover made from 17th century floorboards from nearby Hawthorn Farm and a rose knob carved from wood from the ancient churchyard Yew. The staple holes would have been part of a mediaeval anti-witch device.

Commandments Board.  High on the west wall is an 18th century triple frame inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Creed. 

On the outside of the south wall, near the porch, Mass clocks (sundials for telling the time for Mass), although the gnomons are missing.  The numbers on one of them are inscribed in the wrong positions.

Wall Paintings. These are described on the ‘bats’ in the Church.  The earliest work uncovered is 14th century (earlier traces underneath cannot be revealed yet).  Painting continued for at least four hundred years.  Restoration is now complete as far as possible.  The two principal works are the Weighing of Souls on the west wall (south part) and St Christopher carrying the Christ Child on the north wall facing the door.  Roses are seen in many places; Tudor roses above the Sedile and the south door.

The Porch appears to have been added in the 18th century.

Originally there were three Bells made by MICHAEL DE WYMBIS in about 1290. The remaining bell of this group now hangs at the top of the new church. To mark the ‘Millenium’, the roof of the old church was extended westwards forming a canopy to house a ‘new’ bell weighing one cwt. It came from a church in Kent which had been severely damaged in the 1987 great storm.

Memorials.  Two families are commemorated:
The HAWTHORNES date from the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1
The PLAISTOWES owned the Manor from the 17th century and members of the family survive in the area. 

The Georgian tablets are particularly interesting.  The Latin inscription on that to Thomas Plaistowe on the south wall was popular at the time, 

‘What you are I was, what you look upon you will be.

The Church becomes ‘Old’

By 1865 the Old Church had become too small for the growing population and, in any case, was by then in bad repair. After a meeting between the Vicar and the painter William Callow, a new church was therefore planned. The new church, dedicated to St. John the Baptist was completed in 1867. It was built adjacent to the ancient chapel, which was retained and for a while became a school.

The Parochial Church Council found the upkeep of the Old Church increasingly difficult and its demise might have come much earlier, were it not for the arrival of Mr Arthur Liberty at the Lee (having purchased the Manor and estate). In 1898 he set about the restoration of the Old Church, including restoring the piscine, sedilla and wall tablets.    

Over fifty years passed and the condition of the Old Church continued to deteriorate until the roof became due for retiling in the early 1970’s. The Parochial Church Council continued to find the upkeep of the two churches increasingly burdensome and there was a suggestion that the Old Church might become redundant.

So begins the story that was to lead to the formation of The Lee Old Church Trust.  

The formation of The Lee Old Church Trust  (1976-84)

In 1976 the Parochial Church Council met to review the situation. We can picture the dilapidated roof tiling, a dark interior, old panelling dado masking damp walls, little artificial light, an old coke stove, dingy ceilings, doors in a poor state of repair inadequate seating…

So! What was to be done? It was clear that the Church could not undertake the major work needed, nor was the State stepping forward to do something. Clearly it would be up to the people of The Lee.

Alternative ways forward were suggested and much paperwork was produced. Various possible courses of action were discussed:

  1. Close the building, declare it redundant and let it be maintained by the Redundant Churches Fund or possibly the Friends of Friendless Churches (a last resort most felt).
  2. The Roman Catholics to take over the church for celebration of the old Tridentine Mass.
  3. Allow the church to decay into ruin.
  4. The people of the Lee to come to the rescue.

The 1976 PCC meeting begat the next stage – a Public Meeting in 1977. This begat a Committee of Inquiry which begat a Report, in 1978, which begat a Steering Group. 

The Public Meeting was well attended and expressed unequivocally a desire that the Church should remain as a place of worship.  Considerable interest had been aroused; it had become an important local issue. A committee of enquiry was elected with representatives from the Parochial Church Council. Encouraged by the direction the debate was taken, the PCC financed emergency roof repairs in May 1977 at a cost of £650.

The 1978 report recommending a plan for restoration and the creation of a Trust was accepted by the P.C.C. 

In deciding on a Trust a main factor was the involvement of the community. The relationship between, on the one hand a body of folk, not necessarily worshippers, but taken with the concept of this local focus of interest; and on the other hand the congregation. This was and still is an exercise in communication.

All this took time, as things do in the country. Six whole years after that first meeting, the Trust formed in September 1982 and was registered at the Charity Commissioners in 1983. During these years of ‘formalities’, folk were not idle in raising funds. An Appeal was launched in June 1979. A Midsummer Carnival was held in 1979 and an auction of valuables in 1980. In fact by 1982 a total of nearly £14,000 had been raised … and £12,500 spent! The fund raisers are legion and we will mention no personalities with one exception, the late Arthur Stewart-Liberty. He started the fund-raising ball rolling.

A small band of volunteers were at work firstly to arrest weather penetration, attending especially to roof tiles. This considerable effort was largely unsung but shows the regard for the building. It was a pioneering labour of love, not without risk of injury and a precursor of the working parties that followed later.

In September 1982 The Lee Old Church Trust was established.  At the first AGM in 1984 officers and Trustees were appointed – representing Church, parish and the community; a management committee was appointed. The Trust Deed sets out the purposes of the Trust (in brief):

  • to promote the preservation, adornment and maintenance of the building
    and the churchyard 10 metres to the East
  • to promote its use for worship or other charitable purposes.

The Old Church Trust – recent history

Since the creation of the Trust, fund-raising has continued and significant sums have been raised, invested and spent on restoration and improvement.  Principal repairs and improvements have been stonework restoration, glazing restoration and renewal (the north and south windows are of handmade glass), uncovering the important wall paintings, new electric heating and lighting, provision of water supply and drainage for a kitchenette and a lavatory in old outbuildings. Trust members also meet regularly to clean and maintain the buildings.

Below is part of a talk given by John Glanfield, RIBA, President of The Lee Old Church Trust, to the AGM of the Trust in 1996. He recalls both the serious business and the fun side of the Trust’s work over the previous 20 years.

“Now with money in the Trust, the second phase of rescue got underway. The roof was completely retiled, the ceiling insulated and plastered, the crown post roof structure overhauled. The years from 1979-1983 saw attention to electrical wiring, new gas heating and inner doors to enclose the hot air blower, removal of rotting dado paneling, the floor sanded and a start made on revealing the wall paintings.

What can befall an old place can never be foretold. In 1985 the entire east wall and window stonework started to disintegrate, let’s face it, alarmingly. The cause or causes are conjectural, I have my ideas. The roof tends to thrust the walls over, viz massive buttressing, now some 200 years old. Foundations in the modern senses are absent, graves dug too close to walls, disturbing subsoil. Droughts dry out external ground leaving subsoil under the building damper, causing clay shrinkage and uneven movement. Heads were put together, experienced in this field. A massive repair was made to the window stonework and the 3 foot thick wall, which consists of a loose rubble core faced with flints and local chalky stone called ‘clunch’, plastered in and outside.  These old walls were set and bonded in soft lime mortar, still the authentic way. Such buildings tolerate much vagary but there is a limit. To consolidate the masonry enormous amounts of cement grout were poured into the core of the wall which was sagging and bulging. Stainless steel rods driven through and plates, corseted the wall and were plastered over. In good conservation practice nothing is visible at the end and people then say “What’s been done for the money?”

Then a dramatic storm we all remember devastated the churchyard. George Dines, the master mason, a Highland Scot with extra Celtic perception, found himself without electricity chiseling away by lantern and sensed masons who had worked on the church before him were standing around watching. He looked around in alarm and said “I’m only continuing the work you did, I’m not destroying the place.” He came back to us for a strong cup of tea both shaken and stirred! This instances the need for a contingency fund for unforeseen emergencies in ancient building, so as to avoid crisis. Well, by 1986 this was behind us but even now, last year’s drought effects are seen, the south east part took a minor lurch outwards as cracking demonstrates. These cracks will have to be monitored in case action becomes necessary.

In the years 1987-1990 more improvements were made. Spotlights were donated in memory of a former resident. The rotting wood blocks abutting the walls were exchanged for a Portland stone margin. Then following a chance meeting at the garden centre, donors enabled the reglazing of side windows with hand-made glass and the inscription commemorating the Appeal. Cost – going on £1000 – and what a difference it makes. The original 13th century glass may have been of horn or a greased waxy stuff; glass had only been in general use 40 years before the church was built; although the Greeks had discovered the fusion of sand and alkali such as soda as early as 350 BC. The glaziers for the worked turned up in snow. Their names Bowman and Archer.

The triple lancet east window (the Puritan window) was intended for Little Hampden church who didn’t want it, so the Liberty family brought them here for us. The priceless 13th century crucifixion at the very top is some of the earliest stained glass that we have in this country and the roundels below are a century later. Originally painted and burnt in, they were restored, cleaned and protected 8 years ago.

The blacksmiths at Looseley Row rescued ancient iron bars from ruin by backing them up with wrought iron in the window near to the porch.

The Trust’s largest undertaking has been the wall paintings. This saga began with a report by Professor Clive Rouse in 1963. The uncovering of traces of the giant St Christopher (bearing the Christ Child) by removal of the Plaistowe Hatchment from the north wall started it all. You see the hatchment is now over the door. Six further reports recorded progress by the conservator Ann Ballantyne, all in stages as funds allowed and completing by 1989. The paintings, including the Consecration Cross, range from 14 century onwards. All that can be done, has now been done in the light of modern techniques. The main scenes are the Weighing of Souls on the West Wall where earlier painting of the scene exists underneath, also the George and Dragon Legend is on the West Wall. As to the Christopher, he was  a Canaanite – originally named Reprobus. He was 12 cubits high and “of fearful aspect”, the stories are lyrical. Asleep in his hut a child’s voice cried “Christopher come out and carry me across the river. Wonder not that you bear not only all the world but He who created the world”. Many churches show this legend facing you on entering. Ann found working in winter very cold as she and her assistant scraped and pricked and brushed and filled with infinite care. She and Margaret got well acquainted.  Margaret’s wooly combs from the North Canada years on the Indian Reservation she bequeathed to the conservator, and then – there was baby-sitting. Ann’s children were very young. “Laura Ashley at the Lee” was uncovered, it’s all the roses you see. Denzil Walker’s artistic bats were the fruit of much research. To complete all, a working party lime washed the walls four times in areas delineated by Ann. During mixing the lime in an iron bath tub Margaret’s engagement ring was lost, despite a parish search including metal detector – no luck.  It’s probably under the storage huts. 

This was not quite the end.  By the late 1980’s the porch doors were donated by Audley Humphreys, the monuments were cleaned and repaired, the West door stonework conserved and the boundary wall undertaken. A big improvement was making the kitchenette and toilet with water supply and drainage.

As to interior decoration fortunately through the centuries only lime wash has been applied. Ghastly mistakes have been made elsewhere – over painting with emulsion, oil or cement etc and obliterating heritage art work.

Over and above all this, in the way of additions and improvements, much of which being by voluntary contribution we record:

  • wooden and stacking chairs, 
  • an acoustic grand piano followed by the clavinova with its quilted cover, 
  • the silk frontal designed by Margaret / Alice Stewart Liberty and made here, 
  • altar linen.
  • brass candlesticks, 
  • altar rails re-fixed 
  • new removable oak font cover with oak from Hawthorn Farm, 
  • steps to the priest’s door, 
  • new tables, carpeting, spot lighting, a brass lantern, 
  • a standard lamp and the artwork kneelers.
  • The commandment Boards renovated.

This amounts to quite a deal of tender loving care.

An important aspect is the Records. Now deposited with the Archives including nationally, county and our own, we saw in 1993 an accurate set of drawings made of the building by Nuremberg architectural students as a thesis. The Germanic precision is admirable and stands the church in good stead forever, whatever the future holds. It took the Czech, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, to record in written detail every noteworthy building in this country. It took the Germans to do this in graphic detail for us here, they were led by an English student from Lee Common, Sharon Hawken. Then, NADFAS made a written record of our two churches with their contents. No building can be better recorded than is the Old Church now.

Finances: Apart from countless contributions including visitors from all over the world, as the visitors books show, several family trusts have donated, some regularly, very substantial sums in three and four figures.
Seven authorities have granted to the Trust, namely: Chiltern District Council; Bucks Historic Churches Trust; The Historic Churches Preservation Trust; The Society of Antiquaries; Bucks Villages Enterprises; The Glaziers Company. These official grants have exceeded £3000 in total.

Not only money but volunteer labour plays a part. Over the past five years, 16 people  have given their time and skill to the building and the garden around the walls. This represents well over 200 hours labour. The working party in spring and autumn is a cheery Saturday morning for anyone interested to help with cleaning, decorating, odd jobs , gardening. We value the care of the churchyard by Nigel and Mary Dwight over the years. It’s a large undertaking now shouldered by our churchwarden, Bill Pearce.

As I see it, to attempt to list names contributing to the Old Church would be invidious, impossible. Looking through the records it’s the sheer number of folk who have, and do now put love into this old place, that’s what impresses one. They say ancient buildings are impregnated by the human spirit. If the Trust measures 20 years, small wonder there’s a ‘feeling’ here after almost 800 years.

A considerable part of what has gone on here these 20 years has been, let’s face it, FUN, and I include committee meetings. As to events; to try and list these now at six each year, will only delay the wine. It is a cultural venue with shows ranging from Latin mediaeval musical mystery plays, to Dowsers discovering lay lines which converge on this very altar table, through to the National Film and TV school mounting a costume musical drama – (I shan’t forget that one in a hurry) – Beowulf, acted in Anglo Saxon by Julian Glover – amazing!

Alternative use of the church is now quite extensive. As well as the treasured 8 am monthly communion on the 1st Sunday, there’s the children’s church, PCC meetings, summer cream teas, Quiet Days, Lighthouse, Carnivals and chamber music. You name it, and they are all as we say appropriate. The Old Church is an institution, long may it remain so, in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Refurbishing the Old Church Trust

The world has changed a great deal since the Trust was established, and the committee managing it has reviewed its role and status, as one significant thing that has changed is charity law.

In 2014, it became possible to register a trust as a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO). This brings benefits in protecting the trustees from personal liability for costs properly incurred by a trust. We discovered, having instructed lawyers specialising in charity law, that the original Trust Deed and Constitution had not aged well and were in need of some improvement and maintenance. Those who manage trusts are deemed to be the trustees of that trust. So it was that the committee had, unwittingly, been trustees all along. We decided that it was necessary to apply to become a CIO.

We have achieved this, and are happy that the Trust is now not only in a healthy state, but also in a form that can be handed on to our successors, set up for those generations. It has simply been a continuation of what our predecessors had begun

We are conscious that the Trust is unknown to many who have moved into The Lee in more recent years. We want to bring it forward into the community’s awareness and aim to attract more people to become involved in the marvellous events, mainly held in the Old Church, but also to feel that they have a share in this invaluable community asset. You don’t have to be religious to enjoy all that the Old Church has to offer; more than anything the Trust provides friendship, sociability and the chance to enjoy the performances of worldclass artists and speakers.

We want more people to become a ‘Friend of the Old Church Trust’. It costs £10 per year per Friend, and that will attract a discount on the tickets for the events that are often oversubscribed. We are mixing our events as we go forward; some music, some talks on a diverse range of subjects, and always the knowledge that you are contributing towards the rich weave of history that accompanies this old place going back at least 800 years…

Looking through the door of the Old Church towards the font

We look forward to welcoming you to the Old Church. Please contact Jilly Carleton-Smith (telephone icon 01494 837205) or Pam Garner (telephone icon 01494 837501) to become a Friend of the Old Church and discover the gem in the heart of The Lee.

There is also the monthly 8:00 am Holy Communion Service in the Old Church. The language of the Book of Common Prayer used in the simple, allspoken short service is just as will have been used since the 16th Century in services in the church; another tradition we help to perpetuate.

Current usage

The Old Church remains consecrated and continues to be used for regular services, including Holy Communion, Sunday School meetings, Quiet Days, Recitals, Talks and summertime cream teas. 

The church is now a listed Grade 1 building and is the oldest building in the Chiltern District.

Information is based on a talk given to The Lee Old Church Trust by John Glanfield and on a leaflet produced by the Trust. Additional information from a newletter article by Jon Swain.
Photographs appear by permission of The Lee Newsletter and The Chiltern Society Photgraphic Group.