St Oswald’s is probably the oldest of Durham city’s parish churches. Pointers to a pre-Conquest foundation include the Anglo-Saxon sculptured stones discovered in the walls of the church and churchyard, the circular shape of the churchyard on the earliest maps, and, taken together with these, the dedication to St Oswald (7th-century Northumbrian warrior king).
The earliest visible parts of the structure date from the late 12th century. In the mid-14th century the chancel was extended and the north aisle widened. In the late 14th-early 15th century the two western bays of the nave arcades were reconstructed with octagonal pillars and the tower was remodelled. Around 1415 a clerestory was added to the nave, which was given a fine hammer-beam roof.
In the 1830’s, following subsidence problems, the church was extensively reconstructed (architect, Ignatius Bonomi). The walls of the chancel, south aisle, and western part of the north aisle were taken down and rebuilt, the positions of the north and south entrances were moved to the back of the aisles from two bays further east, the clerestory and nave parapet were remodelled with loss of the hammer-beam roof, and the present choir vestry was built (replacing an earlier vestry).
In 1864 the tower was restored, the eastern end of the chancel again had to be rebuilt, and an organ chamber was added between the vestry and the north aisle. In 1883 the clergy vestry was added and the choir vestry extended, the west gallery was removed, and the nave and aisles were re-seated. The architect of the 1864 and 1883 restorations was C. Hodgson Fowler.
Following arson in 1984, the chancel and organ chamber were repaired, and the church was significantly reordered: a new organ gallery with new choir stalls was installed at the west end of the nave, the font was moved from under the tower to the bottom of the north aisle, the north porch interior lobby was remodelled, and a nave altar was introduced.
Notable interior features
- 14th/15th-century carved roof brackets (angels and grotesque masks) re-used from the medieval hammer-beam roof
- 15th-century choir stalls and parish chest
- 15th-century choir stalls
- Brightly coloured royal arms, made in 1660 for £6
- Sculpted stone grave covers, 12th-15th century, displayed under the tower.
- The pulpit and pews in the nave and aisles were designed by C. Hodgson Fowler, 1883. The font is Victorian.
Stained glass: Two small medieval fragments (in the window at the west end of the north aisle). Window by William Morris & Co., 1864-6, with panels designed by Ford Madox Brown telling the story of the life of St Oswald.
Other windows by Clayton & Bell (1860’s, 1912), Kempe & Co. (1919), James Clarke (1924) and Wippell Mowbray (1976, a colourful depiction of the account of the creation of the world in the Book of Genesis).
Two windows and a photograph commemorate John Bacchus Dykes, well-known hymn tune composer, vicar here in the 19th-century, whose grave is in the park across the road. A window in memory of the architect C. Hodgson Fowler includes a recognisable portrait of him.
Monuments include a fine Renaissance wall tablet in memory of Christopher Chaiter (Chaytor) of Butterby (d.1592), and another commemorating George Smith (d.1756), editor of Bede and bishop in the Non-Juring church.
The parish World War II war memorial, designed by Cordingley & McIntyre (Durham architects), is inset in the interior west wall of the tower, below the Morris window. The World War I war memorial, designed by W. H. Wood, stands in the churchyard, near the north entrance.
Organ: Fine organ by Peter Collins, 1988; organ case by Henry Moss with carvings by Siegfried Pietsch.
Bells: The tower contains a ring of 8 bells cast by John Taylor & Co., Loughborough, 1977. Two of the previous ring of 6, cast by Christopher Hodgson/Hodson of London in 1694, are preserved and displayed at the back of the north aisle; bellframes from the 1694 ring still survive in the tower.
The church has stood at the heart of the Elvet community for over 8 centuries, and much of the community’s history is embodied in its fabric, monuments, memorials and records. Its earliest personal records of the individuals who have formed that community are the medieval grave markers, the oldest of which probably dates from the 12th century. In the churchyard it has a fine collection of 17th-19th century gravestones. Its registers (deposited in Durham Record Office) go back to 1538.
Monuments in church and churchyard encapsulate some of the story of the major crises in faith and life experienced by the community down the centuries. Christopher Chaytor (north aisle monument) died in 1592 aged 98, having lived through the Reformation, the return of the old religion under Mary, and re-establishment of Protestantism under Elizabeth. Registrar to Bishop Tunstall, he was a reluctant convert to some of the new reformed ways, as his replies to one of Thomas Cromwell’s spies in 1539 make clear, but he went on to accommodate himself to the Elizabethan church settlement, and continued in diocesan service. Facing his monument across the church is one in the south aisle to Gerard Salvin of Croxdale (21st of his name, d. 1664), whose son and heir was killed fighting for Charles I in the Civil War, but who himself survived it to save the family fortunes and line (mainly Recusant and Catholic) which still continues. Left of the Salvin memorial is one to the scholar George Smith (d.1756), who could not in conscience take the oath of loyalty to a Hanoverian monarch and so was excluded from ordination and preferment in the Church of England. William Green (d. 1858, north aisle monument) served the poor as physician to the Durham Infirmary and pioneered public health measures in the city to combat cholera. The later 19th century’s divisions over ritual are reflected in the life of John Bacchus Dykes (vicar and composer, commemorated in windows in the south aisle and chancel),who endured bitter disputes with his bishop over the high church liturgical practices he wished to follow at St Oswald’s. To Dykes is owed the church’s strong musical tradition which continues today, as well as his legacy of much loved hymn tunes, some named after local places. The impact on the local community of the 20th century’s two world wars can be traced in the two war memorials.
Recent decades have brought large changes in the balance of the community around the church. As houses have been sold for renting to students, the rooted local community of permanent residents has shrunk greatly, giving the parts of the parish closest to the church a very high proportion of students and elderly people, while new housing in the more distant areas of Potters Bank, Merryoaks and Farewell Hall includes some of the most expensive in Durham. Only about 40% of people on the electoral roll live within the parish, many of the other 60% being drawn to St Oswald’s primarily because of its traditional style of worship and fine organ and choir. The church’s relationship with St Oswald’s School continues to be important, but most of the children come from outside the parish.