The church of High Ongar
St Mary’s church building has served the local area of High Ongar for over 800 years.
History of St Mary’s church
Records suggest it is 800 years old, being built around 1181.
The earliest recorded Rector Robert de Cern in 1216 obtained a licence from King John to hold a market fair in the churchyard.
The church, which is 30m x 10m, consists of a 12th century nave and a 13 century chancel built of flint rubble with walls 1m thick. The bell-tower, though in the 13 century style, was added in 1858 replacing a wooden tower with tall, shingled spire, which stood at the west end of the nave. The present tower contains a ring of six bells, the oldest was cast in 1610 and the most recent in 1933 when all the bells were restored and rehung.
The main south doorway is original 12th century and considered to be one of the best south doors in Essex, having Norman dog-tooth ornament. There was a belief that the Devil was on the north side of a church therefore, the best workmanship went into the south door.
The old inscription over the door read: “This is none other than the House of God and this is the Gateway to Heaven”
Above the altar is the 13th century east window, it shows Christ on the cross and in each of the flanking lancets is a small shield surrnounted by a crown. The left shield bears the arms of the third wife of Henry Vlll, Jane Seymour, with the initials “l.R.”, the right one the arms of King Henry VIII with the initials “H.l.” (Henry and Jane). The date assessed as 1536. the time when the English Church declared its independence from the Roman Catholic church of Rome. It has been said that the “High” in High Ongar comes from the fact that Henry VIII used to stop here on his journeys to Jericho Priory at Blackmore.
Stained Glass was an effective way of teaching the Faith in mediaeval times. However none of the church‘s ancient glass remains, those you see mostly date from the 19th century and 20th century, showing biblical scenes and characters in some of the windows. The subjects represented in the chancel south window are “Our Lord giving sight to the blind” and “Peter and John healing the lame man at the Temple Gate”.
The area behind the 17th century communion rail is known as the sanctuary. This is where in Anglo-Saxon times the English medieval Church Law provided refuge against arrest for fugitives for 40 days. In the corner of the sanctuary is a 13th century piscina, this would have originally been used for carrying away the water used in rinsing the utensils of the communion service. There is another piscina, of late 15th century, below the small square window in the south wall of the Nave.
The chancel divides the nave from the sanctuary, and in early history a rood screen would have been erected at the chancel step to separate the clergy from the congregation. The clergy would then have entered through the priest’s door in the south wall, this was originally a 17th century door but was later restored in 1883.
The main body of the church where the congregation sit is known as the nave and around the walls are several plaques with rnemorials to people who in the past have been associated with the church. The memorial inscriptions are worth reading as they enable you to discover a little more about these local people from a bygone age.
The Stane family were leading landowners in the parish for a number of years and there are several memorials to them. Above the north door is the funeral hatchment to the last of the line, John Bramston-Stane of Forest Hall.
The Hatchment in the 18th and 19th centuries formed part of Britain’s heraldic tradition. On the death of a person of social eminence, his hatchment of arms would be displayed, first at his house, then after a year of mourning would be hung in the parish church.
Close by the south doorway is a 17th century oak church chest (coffer). Originally this stored the records and valuables of the church, the coffer could only be opened with three keys, the Rector had one and the two church wardens each keeping one.
The Parish Registers are complete for High Ongar from 1538 to the present day, except for a gap between 1623 and 1653. The earlier registers along with other historic papers, are archived at the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford. The most recent baptism, marriage and burial records are held by the Rector.