THE CHURCH OF ST MARY THE VIRGIN at Aldermaston is the second church. The first, mentioned in the Domesday Survey, has disappeared, no part remains and the site is unknown.
The present church was probably started around AD 1150 and like so many village churches was built close to the Manor House. The eastern portion of the north wall of the nave and the fine western doorway (probably originally situated in the south wall of the nave) are good Norman and are part of the original structure. The capitals of the pillars of the west door depicting birds are unusual.
Soon after 1250 the church appears to have been partly rebuilt and extended towards the east. It is interesting to note that the roof of the chancel does not continue the line of the nave, but is one or two feet to the north. The width of the chancel is also irregular. The east window and two lancets on the north side of the sanctuary and chancel are early English in style. In the head of the western lancet are some Roman tiles. Towards the end of the thirteenth century the nave was enlarged to the west and the transept or chapel on the south side added. There is the possibility that a similar transept also existed on the north side.
The tower with its west window dates from the middle of the fifteenth century, although the upper part of the tower is as late as 1500. The wagon roof in the nave is also of this date, but the massive beams are of the earlier structure. The vestry was added as a memorial chapel about the middle of the seventeenth century and is reached by a fine brick archway of the same period. At this time the south wall of the chancel seems to have been taken down and rebuilt.
Early in the nineteenth century framework was fixed to the internal walls which, with solid deal battens covered with lath and plaster heavily coated with whitewash, reduced the width of the church by three feet. A gallery projected from the west end some distance into the nave and within the arch between the nave and the chapel was the Squire’s Pew approached by a staircase in the wall. These with the framework have been removed and the original surface brought to light.
In 1952 the tower was found to be in need of repair and some of the massive oak beams had to be replaced by brick piers. A steel support for the spire was also found to be necessary. Three years later the ravages of death watch beetle, furniture beetle and fungal rot necessitated the treatment and repair of the roof of the rest of the church.
There are many interesting features inside the church. The two roundels of stained glass in the north wall of the sanctuary and chancel, representing the “Annunciation of the Birth of Christ” and “The Coronation of the Virgin” are probably early fourteenth century and are the only examples of this period in the County of Berkshire. On either side of the west end of the chancel are a low and a high side window, a very rare feature in English churches. The high side windows were used for lighting the Rood – a crucifix, set in a raised position on a beam or screen which separated the nave and chancel. Traces of its original colour and decoration can still be seen on the underside of the high cross-beam above where it originally stood. The lower windows may have been used by lepers or excommunicated persons so they could see the Rood and take part in services although still outside the church. In the north wall of the nave is a window containing eight shields representing alliances of the Forster family who were Lords of the Manor from 1490-1711. On the supra-altar is a late fifteenth century triptych attributed to the Flemish painter Adrian van Orlei.
The Lady Chapel was probably originally a Chantry dedicated either to the Blessed Virgin Mary or to St Nicholas. The mural paintings have been recently restored and are of considerable interest. The masonry patterns and the large figure of St Christopher holding the Christ Child and surmounting a ship, a mermaid and a fish are early fourteenth century, but the others, of St Nicholas and perhaps of the Virgin, are about 150 years later. St Christopher and St Nicholas were very popular saints in the Middle Ages. As patron saints respectively of travellers and sailors their intercessions were much sought after by reason of the perils attending most journeys at that time. This may account for their being brought together in this chapel. Traces of further ancient wall paintings have recently been exposed at the west end of the north wall of the nave. All the monuments in the chapel commemorate members of the families who have owned the Manor of Aldermaston and a few of the brasses remain. The large, very fine, alabaster tomb under the arch commemorates Sir George Forster KB. and Elizabeth, his wife. Although damaged by the falling of the arch above the figures are well preserved, Sir George’s armour and his wife’s dress being very accurately and beautifully portrayed. Originally it would have been coloured and gilded. The little dog tugging at Lady Forster’s skirt is interesting and is said to be a sign of fidelity. Below is a series of figures. These may represent the children of Sir George and his wife and possibly other members of the family, or may be simply “weepers”. Traces of colour are still visible here. On a beam above is a funeral helmet and crest, the latter being a hind’s head, which is the origin of the name of the village Inn. The banner of St George hangs on the screen between the vestry and the sanctuary. The table tomb in the chapel is that of Ralph Congreve whose wife Charlotte was the last surviving member of the ancient family founded by Sir Robert Achard in the twelfth century, members of which had owned Aldermaston in unbroken succession since that date. Relatives of Ralph Congreve, however, continued to possess Aldermaston until 1853. Here also are the flags carried by the Aldermaston Troop of the Berkshire Yeomanry Cavalry in 1803. The window on the west side of the chapel contains some old armorial glass with modern additions representing the coats of arms of the Lords of the Manor from 1115 to 1939.
The pulpit and sounding board of the Jacobean period, excellently carved, were placed in the Church in Jacobean times. The boss of the
sounding board probably came originally from the roof. The font, erected in 1856, replaced a wooden one, but some remains of what may have been an earlier stone font were dug up in 1952 in the churchyard and are now resting in the chapel. The lectern is a memorial to those of the parish who died in 1939-45 war. High on the west wall is a fine Charles I Coat of Arms and there are five Hatchments of the Congreve family hung on the south and west walls of the nave.
The modern wall paintings were all executed by Mr P.H. Newman, FSA. at the turn of the nineteenth century. They represent “Our Lord in Majesty” on the east wall of the sanctuary and the “Dedication of the Temple” on the north wall of the nave. The stained glass of the same period is the work of Kempe in the chancel and Newman in the nave.
There are eight bells, two dating back to 1681 and the others later. On the south-west corner of the tower is a rude scratch dial.
The church is rich in plate, possessing three chalices and covers, three alms dishes, two flagons and a wafer-box. Some of this plate is housed at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford for safe keeping. The earliest chalice dates back to 1576. The wafer-box is modern, of striking design, and is a memorial to the late Reverend F. Newham, vicar from 1930-1953. The others were gifts by Lords of the Manor and represented high class craftsmanship of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
An unusually complete list of incumbents, dating from 1297 can be seen on the wall of the nave above the font just inside the west door. There is also a list of churchwardens dating from 1560. This hangs in the vestry.