The earliest part of the present parish church of St Marys is reckoned to date from about 1250. The chancel is of a thirteenth century design and the stonework around the east window is an excellent example of a style that became fashionable in about 1250 and was far more elaborate than that of the early English period.
In 1921, A Hamilton Thompson MA FSA made a presentation to the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society concerning the Jurisdiction of the Archbishops of York in Gloucestershire. An account of this presentation was published in the Society’s Journal, ‘Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society’ and has been regularly referred to during this article. Hamilton Thompson wrote that in 1269/70 “…the church of Norton Superior was the parish church of the place, dedicated to St Mary…”. But although we know that Norton had a parish church known as St Mary in the mid-thirteenth century there is evidence of a much earlier church and other chapels in the village. The article by Hamilton Thompson discusses the presence of several chapels at Norton at different times. He wrote of Archbishop Murdac’s grant to the chaplains of St Oswalds of “the chapels and churchyards which had been made in the parish of St Oswald since the death of Archbishop Turstin in 1140 viz at Nortuna (Norton), Streta (presumably on Ermine Street, near Hucclecote), Periton (Pirton), Telbrigg (probably an error for Elbrigg, ie Elmbridge), and Brithelmestana (Brickhampton)”. It is believed that during the time of the civil war, when Gloucester and its neighbourhood were disturbed by the unrest between the Empress Maude and Stephen, the canons of St Oswald had taken themselves to separate manor houses on the prebendal estates and thus the five chapels named had come into being. It is unlikely that these chapels would have been licensed for services as the archbishopric was vacant at this time and licences for the chapels would have been difficult to obtain. It is thought that these would have been short lived chapels and would have come to an end with the formal establishment of the Priory at St Oswalds as a house for Austin canons. This appears to have been in 1153 when Archbishop Henry Murdac, a Cistercian, remodelled St Oswalds as a house of Canon regular.
Throughout his time in the village, Canon Evans Prosser often discussed the presence at Norton of a chapel called St Johns. It would appear that much discussion and argument had taken place over whether this chapel was the predecessor of St Mary’s as the parish church, was a building attached to the parish church or was a completely separate entity. The parish magazines written by Canon Evans Prosser over the months contained many references to this discussion but nothing appears to have been resolved. Conjecture relating to the nature of St John’s Chapel also appears in the current guide to Norton Church on sale to visitors inside the building.
The document that first brought the matter to the attention of Canon Evans Prosser recorded the purchase of the manor of Norton by a John Broxholm in 1544 and contains the following reference: “…new rent or farm of a chapel called St Johns Chapell demised to Richard Smythe, Edmund his son, John Butt, Edmund his son, and Edmund Robyns by copy of Court Roll 14 Sept 34 Hen VIII for term of their lives”.
The archives of the Archbishop of York hold a wealth of information that may well be able to throw some light on this subject. Mr Hamilton Thompson was able to research the Archbishops records to produce a most interesting article although it can be imagined that much more information is available from this source.
In his article Hamilton Thompson wrote that “…The church of Norton Superior was the parish church of the place, dedicated to St Mary; but there was also a chapel, dedicated to St John, at Lower Norton, on the high road from Gloucester to Tewkesbury”. This would confirm the presence of the chapel, confirm that it was a separate entity detached from the parish church and gives us some idea of where the chapel would have stood, presumably in what is now Bishops Norton, maybe at Cold Elm somewhere. It is also stated that this chapel would have been new around the year 1269/70.
A letter of Archbishop Giffard surviving in the registers of Archbishop Greenfield shows that in 1269/70, when the chapel was still new, the residents of “…Lower Norton…” were in dispute with the prior and convent of St Oswalds concerning the chantry - normal service at the altar - in the chapel. Archbishop Giffard’s decree of 17 March 1269/70, which was confirmed by Archbishop Greenfield on 18 April 1306, declared that divine service should be celebrated at the chapel every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday throughout the year and everyday during Christmas, Easter and Whitsun weeks.
Slightly later, on 13 June 1309, Archbishop Greenfield licensed the priory and convent at St Oswalds to celebrate divine service in the oratories and chapels built in the manors of Norton, Parton and Tulwell. It is believed that these would have been chapels attached to houses in the manors and would have been separate entities from the earlier chapels, the chapel of St Johns and the parish church of St Mary. It is further believed that the chapel at Norton was somewhere at Priors Norton, possibly at what is now Norton Court Farm which was probably the most significant property in that part of the parish at that time.
In 1532, William Gylford, the Prior of St Oswalds, was the receiver of the barony of Churchdown which appears to list the chapel of St John’s amongst its assets:
“(a) Spiritualities consisting in tithes and oblations from the following churches… Chapel of Norton, net value £11 12s 2d…
(c)Temporalities… Rents and farms of the manor of Norton £10 14s 81/2d…”
The spiritual jurisdiction for Norton passed, along with the churches themselves, into the King’s hands and was included in the new Diocese of Gloucester when it was founded in 1541. Unlike most of the rest of this part of Gloucestershire, Norton never was in the Diocese of Worcester and until the formation of the Diocese of Gloucester was in fact in the Diocese of York. Until that date the rectory and advowson of the Vicarage of Norton along with the responsibility for the services in Norton church “…did likewise belong to the Priory of St Oswald and were granted to the Dean and Chapter of Bristol, 34 Henry VIII”. That was 1533. Thus when the Priory was abolished at the time of the Reformation the parish was handed over to the Dean and Chapter of Bristol who henceforth have appointed the vicars. The rectoral tithes for Norton passed to Edmund Thame and his wife Katherine in November 1542.
As well as the chapel of St Johns there was certainly still a parish church in the village during the 1500s and it was still St Mary’s by name. Several parishioners who died during this period in the 1500s have left Wills which confirm this by making mention of the parish church by name such as the following taken from the Will of Thomas Ederyge of Norton dated 2 October 1545: “…my soul to God, to Our Lady Saint Mary… to be buried in the churchyard of Our Lady of Norton…”. In August 1591 there is a reference to a license from the surrogate of the vicar general of the province of Canterbury as follows: “William Davies to perform the office of curate at the parish church of Bishops Norton, Gloucester Diocese”. This is the only reference that has been identified mentioning a parish church at Bishops Norton. This may refer to the chapel of St Johns or more likely was referring to St Mary’s and the description “…of Bishops Norton…” was an error.
It is not known what happened to the chapel of St Johns or when it ceased to exist but by 1712 when Robert Atkyns published his history of Gloucestershire he says that “…Bishops Norton is about a mile from the church…” This must surely refer to St Mary’s and as he makes no mention of any other church or chapel in the village it must be assumed that St Johns chapel had vanished without trace by this time.
It is possible that the chapel was built of wood and there is some documentary evidence to support this theory.
Although the priory looked after the spiritual wellbeing of the villagers a bailiff was installed as a temporal officer. On 30 May 1290, William le Fauconer was created bailiff of Churchdown, Norton and Shurdington. Trees and the wood they produced were a vital part of the possessions and economy of the priory and convent of St Oswalds at this time and Hamilton Thompson makes various mentions of problems with maintaining the woodlands in the various manors. In 1301 Archbishop Corbridge had ordered trees felled in the churchyard at Norton to provide fuel and timber to the convent and prior of St Oswalds “…on their complaint that such trees were being carried away by other people contrary to previous ordinances…”. Under the instruction of Archbishop Romeyn of 5 June 1289 the people of Churchdown had already been forbidden to “…dispose of or meddle with trees and herbage of the churchyard, seeing that the administration therein belongs not to them, but to the prior of St Oswald, who is the rector of the same place…”. This was extended to include the people of Norton as well on 13 June 1289. The prior himself was also warned about the use of the woodlands. It was common at this time for woodlands to be used carelessly with wasteful destruction of young trees taking place for the benefit of short term financial gain. The prior was forbidden to fell trees that were still in growth but was permitted to use “…barren and useless trees, which could better be torn up than allowed to cumber the ground, while he might do what he liked with trees blown down by the wind…”.
This facility proved to be wide open for misinterpretation and during a visitation to the local manors Archbishop Greenfield found that the Prior had taken advantage of this and “…had caused as many as 200 trees to be felled at various times, disposing of them as he pleased, and making no use of them for the repairs of the chapel or of the rectory house at Norton…”. Greenfield tightened up the constraints on the use of the woodlands and decreed that “…. when the chapel was in need of repair, they [the Prior and convent] were, under such supervision, to deliver some trees to the parishioners; and they might apply some in moderation to the necessary repair of the rectory house…”.
Hamilton Thompson also wrote of the financial responsibilities when the chapel at St Johns needed repair or rebuilding, “…the repairs were to be assessed on the number of yardlands in the township, the prior and convent contributing at the rate of two yardlands. On subsequent occasions, their contribution was to be reduced to the rate of one yardland. The prior and convent were also to see to the proper enclosure of the chapel-yard, and were to hold in peace for ever the endowment of the chantry as assigned to them by the parishioners for the payment of a chaplain, viz, sixteen acres of arable land, and three portions or parcels of meadow included in the yard, the trees and herbage of which were also to be theirs…”
There is further evidence of commercial woodland in the village during this period although not appearing to have any direct relationship to the church or chapel. Particulars for a grant to Thomas Bell of Gloucester of 4 June 1543 (35 Hen VIII) detailed:
“Priors Coppice in the Manor of Norton, Co Glos, late belonging to the Priory of St Oswalds contains 2 ½ acres thin set with underwood of 10 years growth, rated at 6s 8d an acre and 2 acres set with oak and ash of 40 and 60 years growth values at 40s an acre. £4 16s 8d
The springs of the abovesaid 2 ½ acres rated yearly at 8d an acre viz 20d in the whole amounteth at 20 years purchase to 33s 8d
Total £6 10s”
The Grant was eventually passed the following year and dated 27 August 1544.
Should the chapel have been largely constructed of wood as has been suggested previously, and its maintenance have been such an issue, it is quite possible that over the years it was left to fall into a state of disrepair and was eventually demolished leaving no trace. The following records indicate the state of the parish church during this period and may have been indicative of the chapel as well:
“1563. Robert Hobbes and John Snowe, churchwardens, Robert Symons and Thomas Browne parishioners, present as follows: That John Davys clerke is curate there and saithe service and ministrith twise in one day. Also they saie that the bodie of there church is ruinouse in coveringe in the defaulte of the whole paryshe. Item the church yeard is not sufficientlie enclosed as it ought to be in the default of the paryshe”.
“Jul 1572. The ruffe of the church is decaied, the churche yard walles are in decaie and lye open – to be repared by the feast of St Andrew”
It appears that these references are to St Mary’s and would suggest that much money needed to spent to conduct the work necessary to restore the church to a respectable condition that was no longer “…in the default of the whole paryshe…”. Perhaps at this time it was beyond the means of the village to support both a parish church and a chapel and it was decided that the chapel should go.
Another possible reason for the demise of the chapel may coincide with the dissolution of the monasteries at which time St Oswalds Priory lost all of its possessions in these villages. If the chapel was no longer under the sponsorship of St Oswalds this may have been another reason why villagers had to choose between the chapel or the parish church. Earlier it was stated that the parishioners of Norton had assigned to the priory and convent “…sixteen acres of arable land, and three portions or parcels of meadow included in the yard, the trees and herbage of which were also to be theirs…”. As the priory was forced to sell off its possessions could this be the same land that John Broxholm was purchasing in 1544 as a “…new rent or farm of a chapel called St Johns Chapell…” ?
Of course all of this is purely conjecture and at this time no evidence has been found to either detail the reason for the chapel’s eventual demise or to give any clues as to when this actually occurred.
During his research for the Norton entry in the Victoria County History, Dr John Chandler came across a number of records that suggest he had been able to pinpoint the chapel. He wrote the following describing his reasoning;
“Medieval Norton was one of a group of parishes, centred on Churchdown, which belonged to the archbishops of York, and much information about them is found in the archbishop’s registers. Shortly before 1270 a chapel-of-ease was built to serve Bishop’s Norton (the medieval church is at Prior’s Norton), and it was endowed with 16 acres of arable land and three pieces of meadow within its graveyard to support a chaplain (Reg. Greenfield, Surtees Soc. 145, 1931, 204-5). At the reformation this little landholding was sold, and subsequently it seems that the chapel was used as a church house. It is referred to in 1663 (GA, D142/T1) but I have not found it any later, and the building does not survive.
So where was it? Fast forward to the Norton inclosure map and award of 1807, and there are three small closes, called Prescroft [the priest’s croft], Prescroft Orchard and Churches [church house?] Close, and next to them is Prescroft Orchard Field of just under 16 acres. So now I can be pretty sure where it was, in what is still an orchard next to one of the sharp bends in Wainlode Lane (at SO 848 248).
The county’s Historic Environment Register was aware of this medieval chapel, but the site was only plotted by hearsay, and in the wrong place (Glos HER 7282). Thanks to the persistence through more than five centuries of names and boundaries we can now pinpoint it more accurately and, if any remains survive below ground of the chapel or its graveyard, they could be given statutory protection”.
In the final version of the Victoria County History this location is recorded as being a ‘possible’ site for the chapel as unfortunately there is not enough clear evidence to be sure beyond doubt. Indeed, some of the evidence that does point to its location to my mind is conflicting.