Dorset Churches

Dorset Churches

In any county, and particularly in one like Dorset where good building stone could be had, parish churches are among the outstanding monuments of local history. No complete Saxon church, and very little Saxon work of any kind, remains; but of the widespread rebuilding which took place in the century after the Norman Conquest there are many traces. Studland is an example of a still intact Norman church rebuilt on Saxon foundations, and the cracks in its arches and unfinished tower show that these proved too slight for the heavier Norman masonry. In plan it shows a common type of the period, with a central tower dividing the chancel from the nave. Larger Norman churches were frequently cruciform or cross-shaped in plan, with transepts north and south of the central tower; and though no complete genuine example survives in Dorset, there is an unusually successful modern copy at Melplash which also includes the semi—circular apse common in Norman chancels. Cattistock once had an apse, and no doubt there were several, but they left little room for the more elaborate ceremonial of the later Middle Ages and were destroyed to make way for longer square—ended chancels. There are several other Norman churches near Studland — St Martin’s at Wareham, Worth Matravers, and St Aldhelm’s Chapel — and a number of places including Maiden Newton, Powerstock, Wimborne, Lyme, and Broadwindsor have surviving Norman work.

The first stage of Gothic or pointed—arch architecture, known as ‘Early English’, is represented for example by the chancel at Buckland Newton, the little church at Bincombe, and the lancet windows of Whitcombe. By this time the walls were thinner, Windows larger, and more of the roof weight was taken by projecting buttresses. South Perrott was origin— ally built during this period, though its windows were afterwards widened and its diagonal buttresses (sign of the ‘Decorated’ style) were later additions. Here is an example of a typical late-medieval chantry chapel, built on south of the chancel about 1500 for the saying of masses for the dead.

Prosperity came to much of Dorset, along with Somerset and Devon, in the later Middle Ages with the development of sheep—farming and cloth—manufacture; and this, as well as growth of population, caused much rebuilding or enlarging of churches. The popularity of processional worship on feast-days was an added reason for having aisles on either side of the nave, and the body of Yetminster church is a typical fifteenth century example. So is the west-tower, for which Somerset is famous and of which Dorset has several fine examples at Beaminster, Dorchester, Charminster, Piddletrenthide, Cerne Abbas, Bradford Abbas, and Whit— church Canonicorum. At the west end a tower could rest on four solid walls, which was impossible in the centre, and so it could stand higher and take a full peal of bells without danger of collapse. By this time spires had gone out of fashion, and Dorset has only two notable ones -— at Iwerne Minster andWinterborne Steepleton.

Wherever funds were suflicient the old work was replaced with new in the ‘Perpendicular’ style, which is by far the most common in the county. Some places, however, were so poor and remote that they never had the money to rebuild or the need to enlarge. Hillfield, between Sherborne and Sydling, was one such, and its small rectangular nave-and—chancel plan is a type which goes back to the Celtic missions in Saxon England.

The later Middle Ages saw the erection of screens to cut off the chancel. Most of these were of wood, and vanished after the Reformation, though Trent still has its rood-screen and loft: but Cerne Abbas and a few other places had screens of stone which still survive. Tarrant Hinton has its ‘Easter Sepulchre’, Where the consecrated Host was ceremonially entomb- ed on Good Friday and brought out again on Easter Day to symbolise the Resurrection. The timber roof at Bere Regis, given by Cardinal Morton about 1500, is a famous example of the work of late-medieval carpenters and carvers. ‘

One of the vicars of Bere Regis was tried for Protestant heresy in 1414, and two other cases of suspected ‘Lollards’ are on record. One early Puritan at Wimborne St Giles got into trouble in 1516 for saying that St Giles’ image was ‘but a piece of wood’ to which it was absurd to burn candles, but he had second thoughts when faced with the possibility of burning himself. The religious changes of the sixteenth century seem to have been passively accepted in Dorset, though Poole showed some opposition to Mary’s attempt to revive Roman Catholicism. On the other hand, several leading families remained Catholic during and after Elizabeth’s time: in 1591 ‘recusant’ centres were listed at Swanage, Corfe, Wimborne, Can- ford, Hampreston, and Chideock. The Arundels at the last place built a priest—hole in the castle to hide Jesuits, and a raid in 1594 found one there: he was executed With three other local Catholics.

Parish churches, of course, followed the new order of the Elizabethan Prayer Book. Much that was regarded as superstitious was whitewashed or removed, and the old distinction between the priest’s chancel and the laymen’s nave was broken down. Henceforth morning and evening services were taken by the parson from a reading—pew in the nave, and laymen entered the chancel to receive Communion. This change, and the order of 1603, to provide pulpits where none existed, led to much refurbishing of church interiors. Many fine oak Stuart pulpits are to be found in Dorset, and at Puddletown the pews, reading desk, and altar-rails of Archbishop Laud’s time remain intact inside the earlier medieval church.

Far more emphasis was placed on the sermon, while Communion was celebrated only once a month (or less). As a result, when new churches came to be built after the Civil War they showed a complete break with the old plan. The main object was to provide a large room or ‘auditory’ in which everyone could see and hear the preacher, while chancels often became mere recesses or disappeared altogether. The church at Castleton is an example of this lay—out, and also contains a gallery for the musicians described in the novels of Thomas Hardy. Gothic gave place to the Classical Revival style, based partly on ancient Greek and Roman models, and a good example of this was put up at Blandford when the town was rebuilt after the fire of 1731. After the Restoration of Charles II and of the Established Church, the Puritan tradition produced Nonconformist or Dissenting congregations throughout Dorset. The Declaration of Indulgence (1672) allowed these to apply for licences to hold services, and such applications came from a long list of places large and small: Beaminster, Bettiscombe, Bothenwood, Bradford Abbas, Bridport, Broadwindsor, Cerne Abbas, Dorchester, East Morden, Hawkchurch, Lyme Regis, Marshwood, Milton Abbas, Morden, Motcombe, Over Compton, Stalbridge, Shaftesbury, Stour Provost, Tar- rant Monkton, Thornhill, Wareham, Weymouth, Wimborne, Winter- borne Kingston, Winterborne Zelstone, and Wootton Fitzpaine. In many of these places chapels were erected, and in the towns they were sometimes similar to the ‘auditory’ churches of the period. Quakers too were once widespread: evidence of their meeting-houses and burial grounds comes from Bridport, Cerne Abbas, Corfe Castle, Dorchester, Evershot, Hawk- church, Lyme, Marnhull, Poole, Ryme Intrinseca, Shaftesbury, Sherborne, South Perrott, and Weymouth.

Shaftesbury saw a good deal of John Wesley, as he travelled to his mission work at Bristol or in Cornwall, but it does not seem to have benefited greatly. In 1771 he noted that he ‘scarce knew a town in Eng— land where so much preaching has been to so little purpose’. His great- grandfather Bartholomew had been a Puritan minister at Charmouth, and his grandfather John at Winterborne Whitchurch during the Commonwealth.