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Wesley's elm and the story of religious observance in Stony Stratford

Stony Stratford: Wesley's Elm and Religious Observance
The present church of St Giles
Wesley's Elm: Seen in full bloom during the last century

In Stony Stratford, until recently in the Market Square could be seen the stunted remains of an aged elm tree, beneath the branches of which John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, is supposed to have preached on at least one occasion.

Having been ravaged by not only Dutch elm disease but also two fires, the remains of the tree have now been removed, but a plaque, placed alongside the recently planted oak sapling, notes the significance of the site.

As recalled by a previous plaque, John Wesley came to Stony Stratford on five occasions, including July 30 1777, when even the large and commodious barn prepared by Mr Canham could not accommodate all those who had gathered to witness his preaching.

"However, all without, as well as within, except one fine lady, were serious and attentive."

In fact, his words seemed to have been well received, for he again found an attentive audience on a return visit on November 27, at which he noted that those attending "need no repentance".

Despite the inadequacy of the barn, which was situated off the High Street, it would remain as the Wesleyan Chapel until 1844, when new premises were built in Silver Street.

Ordained in 1725, John Wesley was descended from a long fine of gentry and clergy, but he became increasingly convinced that the Christian faith was not "a mere acceptance of orthodox opinions but a habit of soul by which man enters into living union with Christ".

He therefore dispensed with tradition and, dismayed by the ungodliness of contemporary England, took to open-air preaching, as a means to circumvent the ban which barred him from most pulpits.

During 50 years, he would travel some 250,000 miles throughout the country, and preach 40,000 sermons.

As for traditional religion, at the time of the Norman Conquest, Stony Stratford as such did not exist, but since the increasing numbers of travellers passing along the Watling Street offered obvious opportunities for trade, the location attracted commercial enterprise from the nearby manors of Calverton to the west, and Wolverton to the east.

So began the origins of the town and, to provide a spiritual influence, chapels of ease to the mother churches of Calverton and Wolverton were soon built.

From these chapels would develop the churches of St Giles, on the west, and St Mary Magdalene, to the east, but both were severely damaged by a fire in 1742.

The tower of the church of St Mary Magdalene, on which scorch marks can still be seen.

Despite some remedial attention by the noted 18th century antiquarian Browne Willis, this brought about the disuse of St Mary Magdalene, and only the tower is now apparent, with scorch marks still to be seen on the upper stonework.

However, many aged tombstones remained in the churchyard, including one to commemorate the wife of a London architect, which reads: "Reader, beneath this awful tomb Lies Virtue cropt in early bloom."

As for the original church of St Giles, having become a "too small and ancient and decayed building", an extensive rebuilding took place in 1776, for the purpose of providing accommodation for the combined congregations.

Since then much further work has of course taken place - but that is another story.