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Monday, August 26, 2013

A Pagan Grove and Norman Church in Iffley, England

As regular readers of this blog know, we spend our Easters and summers in Oxford. one of our favorite local places to visit is just a couple of miles south of town. Heading downstream on the Isis (the local name for the Thames), and past a nice riverside pub of the same name, is the little village of Iffley.

Its main claim to fame is a fine Norman church built in the late 11th century that's is almost perfectly preserved. Early on, it changed hands from the local lord to an estate further away, and while the absentee owners paid for its upkeep, they didn't do much to change it, making it one of the most pristine Norman churches in the country.

The front is very Romanesque, and the door is decorated with the zodiac. There's also an atmospheric old cemetery and a 1,500 year-old yew tree. The local priest thinks it was part of a sacred pagan grove and that under the church there's probably an old Saxon church from the 5th or 6th century. Since early church builders liked to build in sacred groves, I'm thinking the Saxons cut down the center tree of the grove, which was probably as old then as this one is now, and built the church on top of it. You see this sort of behavior with mosques, churches, and synagogues in the Middle East depending on who won the latest war.

The surviving tree was probably little more than a sapling then, young when its religion was old, and escaped the notice of the Christians. Perhaps cutting down the central, most sacred tree in the grove was all that needed to be done to destroy it as a place of religious significance. I remember reading in some early Christian accounts where they destroyed sacred groves, and they usually only destroyed the main tree. The sole surviving sacred yew can be seen on the righthand side of both the photos of the church here.


  1. I wish for the existence of time travel specifically so I could go back and SEE these places when they were new -- when the 1,500 year old tree was a sapling, when the grove was sacred, and even the Saxon church that no longer exists.

    My family was in South Wales earlier this month and visited the Roman ruins at Caerleon. Wish I could have seen that in use, too.

  2. That one tree was lucky.
    A church that old that's unchanged is rare.

  3. The church is awesome! It's kinda sad the way Christians went all over Britain (and the Caribbean and Latin America and probably other places) and forcibly changed the older religions to Christianity. Most of the "pagan" religions only live on as superstitions now.
    Great post! :-)


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