History of St Mary's Church

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ST MARY'S CHURCH

(This is a Grade 2 listed building - more details can be found at the following website:-

http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/en-84707-church-of-st-mary-abbotskerswell-devon#.VuBzU8d8uf4

 

The earliest Church is likely to date from the late 10th century soon after the foundation of Hornton Abbey in Dorset to which the Manor of Abbotskerswell had been granted. Probably built on the site of the present Chancel, it would have been a small wooden structure of which no trace now remains.

Soon after the beginning of the 12th century, Horton was taken over by Sherborne Abbey which, in the following century, built a new church in stone with the Chancel and Nave. By the time of a visitation in 1342, various defects were reported and in particular the Chancel was described as “too dark” and the Nave “dirty with its roof in a bad state”. Of that Nave, nothing now is identifiable but the Chancel has an Early English lancet window dating from the 13th century so that at least part of its walls must be original.

A major reconstruction took place in the 15th century when the Chancel was altered, the Nave rebuilt and the massive three-stage 60 foot (18.3 m) high West Tower added with its demi-octagonal stair turret, diagonal buttresses and red sandstone battlements. All walls were of local limestone or sandstone.  At the end of the century or early in the next, the North Aisle was added, the work being completed by Sherborne before the Dissolution in Henry VIII’s reign, since when the living has been in the gift of the Crown.

Constructionally, nothing much altered thereafter until the 19th century. By then the fabric had evidently seriously deteriorated.  The Chancel was described as “entirely neglected” and whitewash had been used in parts with ‘a lavishing and usurping hand’.  The Victorians called in the architect William Butterfield (1814 to 1900) in 1881 to put "restoration" (really, reconstruction) in hand.  It involved rebuilding some walls together with new wagon-roofs and some repairs to the granite piers.  There were losses; the rood loft was dismantled, the Jacobean alter rails removed as was the West Gallery (said to be unsightly) and the room over the porch which was then rebuilt. The granite mullions in the windows were mostly replaced by Beerstone or Bathstone.  By the time the church was redecorated in 1884, the total cost had come to £1,609 most of which was borne by Mrs. Marcus Hare of Court Grange in memory of her husband Captain Marcus Hare who had drowned when HMS Eurydice capsized in 1878.

Minor, and some fairly major, repairs have been carried out in the 20th century, for such an ancient structure requires constant and expensive maintenance if it is to remain in the centre of parish worship as it and its predecessors have been now for just on a thousand years.

POINTS OF INTEREST

CHANCEL

Note the Early English (13th century) single-light lancet window in the north wall surrounded by zigzag moulding.  The glass in it dates from the 1930s. In the south wall a Perpendicular style three-light 15th century window with volcanic stone mullions, built into the splay of which is a remarkable, more than life size, statue of the Virgin.   Unfortunately, it was seriously damaged in Butterfields restoration before it was realised it was there. The theory has been put forward that it had been thus plastered over to hide it from the iconoclastic emissaries of the Duke of Somerset in Edward VI’s reign.  When examined in the 1880s, it was found to have traces of paint, now vanished, and to be hollowed at the back so that it is nowhere more than 4 inches (10cm) thick.  Below it is the lower part of the former 13th century lancet, and to its right a priest’s door.   The east window is three-light Perpendicular with old glass in its uppermost part and 19th century by Gibbs in the rest, placed there in memory of Thomas and William Kitson, the father and son vicars here from 1774 to 1847. The altar rail is Butterfield’s own design and replaced the fine Jacobean one.  The altar  is also by Butterfield. The striking oak reredos and screen were erected in the 1930s in memory of Arthur Thomas Dence.

SCREEN. 

Dividing the Chancel from the Nave is a typical Devon 15th century screen with a beautiful Vine moulding frieze running along the cornice and through the paintwork is an unauthorised early 20th century addition.  The original coving has been replaced by flat panels and the groining on the spandrels removed.  The turret that gave access to the rood loft remains with its three lower steps. The parclose screen that divides the Chancel from the north aisle chapel (used as a priest’s robing room) is also restored 15th century or early 16th century one.  The height of the piscina in it indicates some alteration of floor level here.

NAVE AND NORTH AISLE.  

The two are divided by a Beerstone arcade of four bays with foliage sculpture on the capitals of the clustered columns of Dartmoor granite.  All were repaired in 1884.  Butterfield also reconstructed the wagon roofs throughout with their plastered ceilings.  The windows of the native are 15th century though two have had their original granite mullions replaced in freestone, while those of the North Aisle are late 15th century or early 16th century with the mullions on all four replaced by Beerstone or Bathstone in 1884.  The west window is four-light, 15th century, as is the west door with its four-centred arch, approached through the Tower arch, yet another 19th century innovation.

The pulpit is from the 1880s whilst the eagle lectern was given by J. W. Palk in 1908. The plain octagonal granite font  is probably 14th or 15th century but the base, perhaps, later. Beneath the south door was once a limestone arch doorway that gave access to the room above the porch until 1884.  A number of memorial tablets to members of families once prominent in the village adorn the walls, and it will be noted from the ones just to the left of the south door, that eighteen men lost their lives in the 1914-18 war but only one in the 1939-45 one.

BELLS. 

The ringing chamber is situated in the second stage of the Tower and contains a ring of six bells.  The treble, second and third were cast at the Whitechapel foundry in London. The 4th is a recast from the same factory of an earlier bell by John Pennington I of Exeter which bore the names of the 1664 churchwardens John Tull and John Gotham.  These four bells were given in 1924 by Hilda Hare in memory of her mother who in 1906 had the then existing bells rehung and a new floor put it.  The 5th dates from 1705 and was cast by Thomas Pennington III and bears the names of Richard Scobel and Mary Shars as wardens. The tenor from 1637 is the oldest, being by Thomas Pennington II with the names of Peter Yeabsley and John Pope the churchwardens. These three old bells must themselves have been replacements for the ‘iil belles ynye towre’ recorded in 1553. The Tower also contains the mechanism for the clock given by Mrs Hare in 1908 to replace an earlier one that struck the hours but had no face.  It strikes on the tenor bell.

SOUTH PORCH.

It was entirely reconstructed by Butterfield when the room over was removed. Some of the exterior ornaments remain, most prominent of which is a quatrefoil of uncertain date and origin.  (It does not figure in a 1770 description of the porch). Above it is a very worn Courtenay shield that once showed an angel and a cross with the letters   S P R, and below it on either side of two rose bosses.  Running up the left side of the doorway’s surround is a carved inscription that can now scarcely be made out but which once said ‘The stone that the builders refused is become the head…’

LYCH-GATE.

Believed to be the oldest dated wooden one in England.  There is carved on the crossbeam FEARE.GOD. T.R. 1603. S.R. HONOR. YE. KNG. S.Y., the initials probably being those of the Churchwardens and donor.  It was restored in 1899 in the memory of Rev Vesey Hine, vicar here from 1865 to 1897 and again in 1989 in memory of A.K. (Peter) Judd.

J.V.S.C 1989