St James the Apostle Church - The Early Days

By the time St Birinus brought Christianity to this part of Oxfordshire in 635 AD there was already a small Saxon settlement here.   Situated in a strategic spot, high on a hill, overlooking a wide marshy valley and across to wooded hills beyond, Cufa's Wood had been established by Saxon raiders.  They found their way up from the river leaving their long boats secured on the bank at a place which became known as Givete's ley. Cufa's (pronounced Coofa's) ley became Coolea, still pronounced thus as recently as 300 years ago, and Givete's ley became Iffley.

When the Saxons built their church it would have been set in the heart of the settlement on consecrated ground.   It is not recorded, but it more than possible that when the present church was built it replaced a small Saxon church which stood on this very spot.   The Norman conquerors gave us the main body of the church dedicated to St James the Apostle.   After the conquest Cowley became part of the estates of Bishop Odo of Bayeux.   He in turn made it over to Roger D'lvry and Robert D'Oilly, the Norman Governor of Oxford
who built the castle and its church dedicated to St George.   In the middle of the 12th century St George's and its endowments (including the Cowley property) were given to the new Osney Abbey.

The Norman church dates from about 1130 AD.   Architecturally it is far simpler than neighbouring St Mary's Church at Iffley, but has some interesting features dating from the very early days. One early writer describes it as "a long barn-like structure" with a stone bench running along the outer walls.

The Origins of St Francis Church 

As told by a curate who was there – Revd Alec Whye

The origins of St Francis, Cowley, lay deep in the personality of the Rev. M. H. Beauchamp, who became Vicar of Cowley in November 1928.   He had had for many years a great devotion to St Francis of Assisi, inflamed by visits to Assisi itself and by much reading.   When Beauchamp became Vicar of Cowley he saw the possibility of the fulfilment possible of his dreams.   

There was at that time a great need for a place of worship and social occasions on the ‘Bullingdon Estate’, which was then being built:  The estate fell within the Parish of Cowley, but it was at least 1 ½ miles from St James’ Church on Church Street (now Beauchamp Lane) and was completely cut off from the rest of Cowley by the golf course on one side of Hollow Way and by Cowley Barracks on the other.  

Beauchamp ceased the opportunity and soon got moving.  By February 1929 he had contracted architect Lawrence Dale to develop plans for a Church Hall and priest’s house for the Bullingdon Estate, dedicated to St Francis.  When Mr Dale’s exciting plans for the project arrived on July 1st.   It was clear that the full plan could not be implemented for many years, but that we could go ahead with a Church Hall, convertible to a Church at weekends, with a screened sanctuary which could be used for weekday services and for prayer and meditation.

One afternoon in August 1929 Father Beauchamp called a meeting on the site on which St Francis was to be built, which had been given to the Parish two months earlier by Sir William Morris, as he then was.   Appropriately the first words to be uttered publicly were the Lord’s Prayer.   Very few people turned up to support Father Beauchamp, others looked on from over the hedge, and some shouted ‘We want a school, not a church!’   (Father Beauchamp did take up this point with the L.E.A., but they turned down any suggestion of building a school or of using St Francis as an Infant School;  it was not until the outbreak of war in 1939 that the influx of evacuee children made the use of St Francis necessary.)

During the rest of 1929 and 1930 appeals were being sent out all over the country for the £3,000 which was the final estimate for St Francis, final plans for which were approved on 15th March 1930, and the contract with Messrs Kingerlee signed on 9th August.   Every batch of appeals was placed on the altar of the Parish Church and blessed before being sent out.   By the end of November £2,700 had come in.   About100 people had turned up on 16th August for the cutting of the first turf, the youngest being Margaret Sowden, aged 2 ½, now Mrs Stanley Jackson, mother of 4!

The Foundation Stone – still to be seen near the front entrance – was laid by Sir William Morris on 11th September 1930 in the presence of the Bishop of Oxford, Dr T. B. Strong, the Deputy Mayor of Oxford, and over 700 people.


Dr Randolph

Dr John Randolph (1749-1813). An Incumbent of Cowley he became Regius Professor of Poetry and Regius Professor of Divinity to the University of Oxford. First Canon, then Bishop of Oxford and subsequently Bishop of Bangor and Bishop of London until his death.

The reredos screen behind the high altar is a particularly fine example of the glass and marble art work of the craft work of the Island of Murano, near Venice.  It contains examples of every known colour of marble in Italy. It was erected in honour of Dr Randolph by his sons.



  Rt. Rev.John Randolph

Father Benson

Father Richard Meux Benson, founder of the Cowley Fathers and one of the prominent figures in the Oxford Movement at the end of the
19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Christ Church College gave him the country living of Cowley, then a small village two and a half miles from Oxford, with a parish which extended to Magdalen Bridge. No Vicar had resided at Cowley for a long time; one of the Senior Students of Christ Church used to ride out on Sundays and take two services there.

For nine years Benson - who was an embodiment of the devotion, reserve, austerity and self-effacement of the Tractarians - lived in
Cowley unobserved, in prayer and labour among the poor. He felt towards the close of the time a call to missionary work, and set his
heart on India. All his plans were made and he was on the point of leaving England, when the Bishop of Oxford intervened. He begged Benson to remain and deal with the large new suburb of Oxford which was growing up on the Cowley side of Magdalen Bridge.

His photograph is to be seen as you move into the side chapel.

Fr Benson, painted
by Lewis Carroll