St Peter and Holy Cross Wherwell
Church Street, Wherwell, Hampshire, SP11 7JJ
The Church of St Peter and Holy Cross, Wherwell
Wherwell is famous for its Saxon Nunnery founded by Elfrida, wife of King Edgar, around 986 AD. The Nunnery had attached a conventual church named the Church of Holy Cross. In addition to the conventual church there was a village church of Norman origins called the church of Holy Trinity. This church was probably originally built in wood and was destroyed during the anarchy around 1141. It was subsequently rebuilt in stone sometime in the latter part of the 11th century or early 12th century. The Nunnery was closed with the dissolution of the monasteries, circa 1540 and over a period of time, with the conventual church was robbed out and destroyed. We believe the parish church, sometime in the later part of the 16th century, was renamed the Church of the Holy Cross to probably recognise and perpetuate the name of the Conventual church. Most documents in the 19th century refer to the Church of Holy Cross with no reference to St. Peter. Having said this in the Victorian County History, History of Hampshire Volume 2 there is reference to when the Abbey was rebuilt by Abbess Euphemia after the Anarchy that the conventual church was to be dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul which may explain why St. Peter was introduced into the name of the current church.
The current church on the site of the old church was built in 1858/59 commissioned by William Iremonger, Lord of the manor at that time and living in the Priory, to replace the old church which had fallen into disrepair. It included a new northern aisle, vestry and family chapel with pews increased to seat 391 parishioners, in total. The architect was the ‘Gentleman’ architect Henry Woodyer, a disciple of Augustus Pugin and with the shingled spire and bell turret was described by Pevsner as ‘lively and rather scandanavian’. The church contains a number of artefacts from the previous church including a recumbent effigy of a nun, probably an abbess of Wherwell Priory. Also there is pre conquest (7th or 8th century) cross shaped into a corbel. Additionally there are a number of encaustic tiles in what is now the vestry. Remaining church silver, including a 17th century silver chalice, is held in the vaults in Winchester cathedral.
There was a major rebuild of nave roof and spire in 2011. This cost circa £340K with £150K provided by English Heritage and £75K collected from within the local community. The church has a peal of five bells all originally cast in 1707. There is an Ellacombe Chiming Device and a group of bellringers in place with the bells rung for services, weddings and other special occasions.
Being a pre-reformation church there was a Chancel Repair Liability in place with 2255 acres around the parish with liability for chancel repair. Such liability has however not been registered and this was formally approved by the Charities Commission back in 2013.
Having enjoyed an independent existence for a thousand years the Parish of Wherwell was united with its neighbour Chilbolton by the Union of Benefices Act in 1943. In 2007 The Parish of Wherwell became one of five parishes in the newly created Downs Benefice. It was noted in the Pastoral Measures document relating to this new arrangement that under the right of Patronage that Lord Camden retains the right to be Lay Rector of Wherwell with his ecclesiastical duties carried out ‘vicariously’ by the nominated incumbent. Hence such incumbent is the Vicar of Wherwell. This is shared with the Bishop of Winchester.
A full history and legend of the parish, nunnery and church, can be found in an updated booklet prepared in July 2018 and there is a rotating information board in the church covering a number of aspects of the church.
David Etchells – 24th August 2023
Wherwell & Chilbolton History Group
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