Domesday Book mentions a chapel in Harwell, and it is convenient at this point to look at the church, which was almost completely built in its present form during the period 1190 - 1310. It was the hub of village life for several hundred years. In 1074 the granting of a dwelling and certain tithes in Harwell established a link with the Chapel of St. George in the newly built castle at Oxford. In 1149, these and similar tithes elsewhere were transferred to Osney Abbey near Oxford, and this Augustinian monastery influenced the design and architectural details of the early part of the church; later, in about 1190, Stephen, the chaplain of Harwell, was an important administrator at Osney Abbey. At first the church was dedicated to Our Lady, later to St Matthew; its size indicates a considerable population in the village; Harwell then was on the main highway to the west, for the causeway and bridge had not yet been built at Culham. The church has rubble walls of clunch with plaster inside and roughcast outside; it has been suggested that the rubble stone came from the pit adjacent to the Holloway. The church stands on a small eminence next to Upper (Prince's) Manor, and near the Chilbrook, a stream which rises nearby at Wellshead. Wellshead Farm, which no longer exists as a farm, was the early rectory.
The interior of the church, constructed at this time, is described as follows:
In the eleventh to twelfth centuries there was a chancel and aisleless nave. Some clunch foundations of the nave, which include stones set in herringbone style, were found in 1963. The present building exemplifies the evolution of ecclesiastical architecture from Transitional Norman, through Early English, to Decorated, and appears to have been constructed as follows:
1190 - 1220 Transepts, Tower, Nave arcades, low Aisles. 1290 - 1310 Chancel. 1280 - 1320 Aisles heightened, Porch.
There are several interesting features of medieval craftsmanship in stone and wood.
Of the Stained Glass, P.S. Spokes, in some unpublished notes dated December 1962, writes:
"The upper parts of two windows on the north side of the chancel contain various fragments of medieval glass which were reassembled in 1959. The windows in the north aisle also contain medieval glass. The shield in the east window is that of Piers Gaveston (beheaded 1312), who was created Earl of Cornwall in 1307 and Lord of the Upper Manor from 1308 - 12; (his widow Margaret was subsequently granted the Manor). It was recorded by Ashmole when he visited the church in 1667, that this window also contained shields of the King (Edward I, d.1307), the Prince of Wales (later Edward II, b.1284, created Prince of Wales 1302) and Edmund, Earl of Cornwall."
Probably there had been a decision to put in more shields over a period. That of Gaveston is the only one remaining.
The will of John Harewell (d.1386), Bishop of Bath and Wells, and Counsellor to the Black Prince and Richard II, records that he left vestments to this his native church: his family name was atte Halle, and his brother was the first of the Harewells of Wootten Warwen, Warwickshire.
"The stone coffin with cross coffin lid, noted by Walker (Berks. Arch. Jn1.36 (1932), 21) as having been found beneath the floor of the north side of the nave during the restoration of 1867, was again uncovered on 16 October 1963 during work by Mr D. Jordan for the installation of underfloor heating. It lay under the easternmost bay of the north arcade with the head of the coffin pointing to the west."
This was the last resting place of a priest, who had been buried, according to the custom then, with a pewter replica of his chalice; the tomb was probably of the late twelfth century. Another early rector of Harwell was Roger de Marlowe (1292 - 1310). He and his successor kept a letter-book, and from the correspondence we can learn a little about the life of Harwell in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth centuries: the parish included the two manors, Bishop's and Prince's; Bishop's manor had belonged to the Bishops of Winchester since Stigand in the eleventh century; so although the Rector of Harwell was subject in church matters to the Bishop of Salisbury, about half his parishioners were tenants of the Bishop of Winchester, whose servants could at times prove thoroughly troublesome, as this letter shows:
"To the Archdeacon of Berkshire... It is my duty to tell your discretion that last Sunday, the morrow of St Margaret's day, H...C..., the Bishop of Winchester's harvester in Harwell, summoned or caused to be summoned all the tenants of the said Bishop in the said vill, ordering them to come to the park of the said Bishop immediately after nine o'clock to cart hay. For this purpose, while we were at breakfast he called them up to work by blowing a certain great horn through the whole village, as he is wont to do on working days. And this seemed to me unbearable, so I immediately sent Sir Thomas my colleague, the chaplain of the parish, to prevent such work upon that day, but they would not listen to him or desist from their work. So I warned them three or four times to stop and afterwards threatened them with excommunication if they went on, but I laboured in vain, for the said H... answered me mockingly that he was going to cart hay whether I liked it or not, nor would he cease work, or permit others to cease, for my threats or warnings... Wherefore I beg your discretion to give them a suitable sentence. . . "
A stone nearly ten feet long, placed centrally on the floor of the Chancel, having on it the matrix of a large cross, commemorates this defender of Sunday peace, in whose time the Chancel was built.
We can imagine that by the early fourteenth century, in a peaceful and reasonably prosperous Harwell, the church looked very much as it does today.