The church of St Mary at Houghton-on-the -Hill is possibly one of the most important churches in England. In it are found some of the earliest religious wall paintings still existing in the country.
There has been a settlement at Houghton-on-the-hill since Roman times – a Roman villa has been identified on the site from crop marks in a nearby field. It is believed to be a church on the site since Saxon times and a church was certainly in existence at the time of the Doomsday book survey in 1086. Shortly afterwards a Norman church was built on the site of the Saxon one, incorporating some material from the earlier church and the nearby Roman ruins.
In the 12th century, a south aisle was added to house the remains of Sir Robert de Neville, a local landowner, who was executed for ‘having a criminal conversation with a lady’ which probably meant having an affair with a married high-born woman. This was later demolished in the 14th or 15th century.
In the 15th century the original round tower collapsed and was replaced by a square tower. From the 16th century, the village began to go into decline as people moved away. In the 18th century, the medieval chancel was demolished and was replaced by a much smaller one.
By the early 19th century only a few cottages remained around the church and changes in the management of the estate in the early 20th century further added to the dispersion of the local population. The last service was held in the late 1930s and it was subsequently abandoned. It remained a ruin until a local resident Bob Davey began a campaign to restore the church and it was early in the restoration work that the 11th-12th-century wall paintings were discovered and the importance of the church fully recognised.