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North Moreton
Warriors & Witchcraft

North Moreton - © Nash Ford Publishing

The mid 13th century North Moreton church has been described as the most perfect medieval church in Berkshire. It is particularly notable for its south St. Nicholas or Stapleton Chapel, remodelled in the decorated style in 1295 at the foundation of a chantry there by Sir Miles Stapleton. Its east window contains a superb series of late 13th century stained glass showing fifteen colourful scenes from the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary, St. Peter, St. Paul & St. Nicholas. It is among the earliest in the county, certainly it is the finest. Sir Miles, who had married his Berkshire lands, served with King Edward I in Scotland and took on the education of the young Prince of Wales. Unfortunately, he was killed (with his two sons) at the Battle of Bannockburn and never buried in his North Moreton chapel. 

The medieval manor house, where the Stapleton family lived - on occasion - once stood to the east of the church within the old moat which still survives in part. Their chantry priests lived at 'Stapleton's Chantry', a 15th century building which once had its own chapel, priest's hole and secret underground passage. Many other ancient houses and cottages have also happily survived, despite the devastating fire of 1807 which destroyed one side of the main village street. Old Manor Cottage is of late 13th century date, whilst the North Moreton House (alias the old Rectory), though mostly a 17th century building, has a cross wing dating from about 1500 (or perhaps the 14th century). It was only used by the rector until 1562 when the Archdeacon of Berkshire leased it out to tenants. One of these was Brian Gunter, a member of the old Kintbury family of that name who has been immortalized by the famous North Moreton witchcraft case.

The whole affair started with an innocent football match (one of many informal street games, but the first recorded in Berkshire) of which the parish register for May 1595 says:

Gunterís son and ye Gregorys fell together by ye years at football.
Old Gunter drew his dagger and both broke their heads,
and they died both within a fortnight after.

During the game, Gunter's son had apparently stepped in to break up a fight when he was attacked by the Gregory brothers. His father intervened and hit them both, rather too hard, with the butt of his knife. Their unfortunate deaths led to a long family feud which resurfaced in a very public manner a few years later. Gunter's daughter, Anne, became sick while he was away at Oxford. Upon his return, he found that she fitted continuously and even sneezed pins! During the fits, she babbled about Elizabeth Gregory, the dead boys' sister-in-law, and other Gregory relatives, Agnes Pepwell and her daughter, Mary. Agnes had long been reputed to be a witch and so the story quickly arose that poor Anne Gunter had been bewitched by the vengeful Gregorys. The situation continued for several years. Gunter failed to get a conviction against the Gregorys at the Abingdon Assize Courts, but would not let the matter drop. Friends at Exeter Collage filed a suit at the Court of Star Chamber in London. The Bishop of Salisbury took a great interest in the case and, in 1605,  so too did the King. Brian Gunter was, eventually, locked up in the Archbishop of Canterbury's London home at Lambeth Palace, when his daughter admitted that he had bullied her into feigning all her attacks and given her potions to make her ill. The case dragged on but seems to have never reached a conclusion. No-one knows what happened to poor Anne. Lets hope the rumours that she found happiness with one of the Archbishop's servants are true. 

Gunter returned to North Moreton where he remained litigious and even physically aggressive into his eighties. Accompanied by a mob, wielding pikes and staves, including his widowed daughter, Susan, he had a pitched battle with the vicar over a tithes dispute in 1620, and he again found himself in the Star Chamber. Susan Gunter had been the wife Thomas Holland, Regius Professor of Divinity and Rector of Exeter Collage, Oxford. He was one of those who translated the Bible for King James, working mostly on the Old Testament. The two were married at Moreton in 1593 and all their children were christened here. Anne had stayed with them at Oxford during her 'illness'.

While the villagers seem to have been clearly focused on the witchcraft case, North Moreton had become the centre of a local epidemic of the plague. In August 1603, the church wardens accounts record that the village was visited with a "great sickness" which killed ten people "all out of one house where the plague did first begin".  The villagers were at a loss to know where it had come from, but the vicar suggested they had drunk bad water. The normal death rate at the time was five a year, but thirty-nine people died in that month.

During the Civil War, the sympathies of the people of Moreton may have been for Parliament, as the manor lords, the Dunch family of Little Wittenham, were Cromwell's cousins. The King tried to get the villages to contribute to the support of his garrison at Wallingford Castle, but it is unknown whether they complied with his demands. During the Commonwealth that followed, there was certainly a supporter of the new government at the Rectory. The parson had been given a rare special license to perform marriages in the local area. Five times more people than normal came to say their wedding vows at All Saints' Church, from as far away as Wallingford or Abingdon.

In the 1850s and 60s, the village was influenced by the Oxford Movement in the church. Rev. Albert Barff arranged for many of its leading figures to preach in the church on several occasions. It has seen Edward King, Henry Liddon, John Kebel and Edward Pusey all pass through its doors. It was around the same period that Moreton's very ancient Cricket Club was founded, in 1858.

 

    © Nash Ford Publishing 2004. All Rights Reserved. This location is now administered by Oxfordshire County Council.