The Faith of the Flock

The Faith of the Flock

Somerset Religious Houses, Hospitals & Colleges c.1400
Somerset Religious Houses, Hospitals & Colleges c.1400

The bishops of the diocese, from 909, of Wells, then of Bath or of Bath and Glastonbury, and finally of Bath and Wells, gradually established a system of government under three archdeacons and other officials which became a complex web of courts, bringing clergy and people within the jurisdiction of the bishop’s spiritual authority. At the heart of the diocese was the cathedral. Robert of Lewes had in 1148 consecrated a church which succeeded the old Saxon minster­-cathedral. A new building slightly to the north was begun by Bishop Reginald about 1180. The work was financed and the establishment endowed with estates for the maintenance of worship there. The building itself, agreed by many to be the first and finest example of pure English Gothic, owes much to the inspiration of a local mason, Adam Lock, who, when he died in 1229, at least knew that his conception was nearly achieved. Bishop Jocelin, himself a native of Launcherley, near Wells, consecrated the cathedral in 1239, although the west front, ‘the richest receptacle of 13th century sculpture in England’ was not then finished. By the time of the consecration the Saxon bishops of Wells had been re-buried in the new choir under contemporary effigies and the Saxon font served, as it still serves (so it has recently been recognised), as a reminder of the old cathedral.

Building was resumed towards the end of the 13th century and continued intermittently until the cloisters were completed at the beginning of the 16th century. The cathedral was finished thanks to the generosity of bishops like John Harewell (d. 1386), Nicholas Bubwith (d. 1424) and the Somerset-born Thomas Beckington (d. 1464), and thanks also to the lesser gifts of generations of donors and pilgrims. Their money allowed masons, known and unknown, to execute the fine designs so carefully traced on the floor of the chamber above the north porch of the cathedral, before being applied to the work then in progress. There must William Joyce have worked on his ingenious scissor arches which prevented the collapse of the central tower c. 1338; there, perhaps, William Wynford conceived his design for the south-west tower. So was created the living monument, the mother church of Somerset.

Somerset also had a long tradition of monasticism by the 11th century, and by 1200 the number of religious houses in the county was more than twenty. By the time of the Dissolution, indeed, it had more monasteries than almost any other county in England. Very soon after the Conquest/Crusade new landowners established monasteries on their estates or gave property to houses in their homeland: the Mohuns founded a small house beneath their castle at Dunster; William de Falaise gave to the abbey of Lonlay in Normandy some land and tithes in and near Stogursey, and on that land a priory was soon established and Somerset’s finest surviving French-Norman church was built. The Cluniacs were introduced to Montacute c. 1102 by the count of Mortain; Augustinian canons settled at Taunton, Bruton and Keynsham; Benedictine nuns were given land and a site at Cannington. The strict Carthusians were firmly established after initial difficulties at Witham thanks to their prior, Hugh of Avalon, later St Hugh, who even after he had become bishop of Lincoln came back to the quiet of the cloister each summer. The Cistercians, seeking a solitary place, planted a colony in the Flowery Valley at Cleeve in 1198, and the remains of their house are among the most evocative and informative sites in the county. Smaller houses of the established orders, friars at Bridgwater and Ilchester, Templars and Hospitallers, as well as hospitals and colleges were all to be found.

Those houses were home to only a few hundred monks, canons, friars and nuns, but their influence as centres of learning, hospitality and spiritual counsel, as patrons and owners of churches, as employers of labour, skilled and unskilled, and as landowners of vast acres/ha, gave them great influence in the affairs of the county. The abbot of Glastonbury could rival the bishop in power, and as landowner and patron had no equal. The fame and wealth of the house was still on the eve of the Reformation a spur to recruitment, a claim which could be made for few other houses in the country. The Carthusians at Witham and Hinton still led a strict and spiritual life, but others had long since fallen short of the standards of their founders. In 1276 official visitors at Montacute found that all 20 monks were regularly leaving the house to socialise with outsiders, that the house was heavily in debt, and that some of its buildings were ruinous. Bishops in the 15th century found scandalous behaviour among the Augustinians at Keynsham, Bruton and Taunton, and debts piled up at Muchelney, Stavordale and Cleeve, where building schemes and the need to keep friends both in the king’s government and among the local gentry cost them dear. Fees to lawyers and politicians cost Montacute over £28 in 1538-9, more than a tenth of its total outgoings, but dwarfed by the huge sum of £44 13s. 4d. paid to Thomas Chard, the former prior, who also received £27 16s. 4d. as prior of the daughter house of Carswell in Devon, a sum which was to cover stipend, repairs and hospitality. The only clear reference to alms giving was 53s. 4d. in cash for the poor at Christmas, and a sum for an exhibition for a scholar at Oxford. Glastonbury, on the other hand, supported two almshouses in the town and a school in the abbey. Cleeve, many people hoped, would be spared when most of the smaller houses were dissolved in 1536 because of the great hospitality it provided in that remote part of the county. In the event it was not spared but, between February and September 1536, 53 sheep and an ox were paid for by the govern­ment to continue the tradition so abruptly ended by the expulsion of the monks.

Spirituality and learning are not easy to assess in the daily round of worship in cathedral, monastery and parish church. One of the reasons for John de Villula’s transfer of the see from Wells to Bath was its nearness to the houses of high intellectual standing in Gloucestershire, and the bishop’s introduction of educated monks there was followed by his encouragement of a local youth, whom he sent for further study to his own native city of Tours c. 1100. Adelard of Bath became one of the most prominent scholars of his day, translated learned works from Arabic into Latin, and thus introduced Arabic science to Europe. And yet a man of such intellectual achievements could include among chemical formulae instructions on how to make boiled sweets from sugar cane.

Theological lectures were given at Wells in the 14th and 15th centuries, and in Bishop Beckington’s time such canons as Thomas Chaundler, a native of Wells, Thomas Gascoigne and Andrew Holes like their bishop were men interested in the new humanism of the Renais­sance. The library begun with a gift from Bishop Bubwith created probably the largest medieval library building in the country. The services at the cathedral were in the later Middle Ages undoubtedly influenced by three nationally-known composers, Henry Abyndon, Robert Widow, and Richard Hygons.

Learning is easier to record than holiness. Sanctity of life was recognised in Bishop William Button (1267-74) and offerings at his tomb in the cathedral not only helped the fabric fund but often produced relief from toothache. Bishop William was never officially canonised, but another Somerset man, Wulfric, born at Compton Martin in the 1080s, became an anchorite at Haselbury Plucknett. There his fame as a counsellor attracted many, including the great St Bernard. His powers of prophecy drew visits from Henry I and Stephen. When he died the monks of Montacute claimed his body, thinking to make capital of possession, but its resting place was kept a secret known only to the parish priest. Haselbury remained a place of pilgrimage until the Reformation.

But objections to traditional religion were voiced from the late 14th century by followers of John Wycliffe. The Lollard, John Yonge of Bristol, claimed that pilgrimages were neither necessary nor meritorious, and Agnes Cole of Norton St Philip in 1460 asserted that offerings to the Trinity at Bath, one of the popular cults in that part of the county, were ‘but waste’. Yet the same bishop who tried Agnes was also concerned about the spring at Wembdon in 1464, and sent officials to enquire into its healing qualities and to discover whether offerings made there were truly efficacious. There were no such doubts at Glastonbury, which had catered for pilgrims ever since the ‘discovery’ of the bones of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. The tablets telling the story of the abbey which hung from the nave pillars must have been among the earliest tourist guides. James Hadley of Withycombe, when he drew up his will in 1532, remembered the pilgrim centres he had not managed to visit during his lifetime—his local shrine of Our Lady at Cleeve, and then the shrines at Culbone, St Saviour at Taunton, Bradford and Bridgwater. The shrine at Cleeve was particularly popular, and as late as the 1540s a hostel for pilgrims was built beside the chapel where the venerated statue stood.

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The beauty which survives in so many Somerset churches is the best argument for the strength of religious life, notably in the years before the Reformation. Conventional piety accounts for a good deal, and the example of neighbours created a rivalry between parishes which can be traced throughout the county. How else did the towers which rise so nobly come to have such close similarities? The wardens of Yatton sent three men in 1447 to Easton in Gordano to see their new roodloft gallery and find out its cost, and sent another man to Bristol to see some carving or painting called a ‘tabylment’.

Craftsmen seem to have been available to put hope into effect. William Wynford, one of the most distinguished mason-architects of his day, probably came from the Mendip village of Winford, not far from the great quarry of Dundry, and his work at Wells and Yeovil influenced local work in style and technique. John Gryme, who made the fine porch at St John’s, Glastonbury, in 1428, John Mareys of Stogursey, builder of Dunster’s tower from 1442, and John Harrys, who built the north aisle at Halse in the 1540s demonstrated how skilled were the craftsmen of Somerset. John Carter of Exeter, who made the figure of St George at Croscombe in 1508-10 was brought in from outside, and Exeter and Bristol provided Robert Norton and the Jefferies family, founders whose bells are still found in towers in the county, until Roger Semson of Ash Priors began production in the 1540s. Gilbert Stayner (St Michael’s, Bath, 1460), John Glasier of Shepton Mallet (1493) and John Wakelyn (Yatton 1514-28) were a few among many who contributed so much of the colour and light in churches large and small. Robert Hulle, who was paid £12 for the ‘kervaynwork’ of the new screen at St John’s, Glastonbury, in 1439-40, was one of many carvers whose benchends, screens, pulpits, and lecterns still survive to reveal their quality and their imagination.

Benchend carvings illustrate well how religion was part of everyday life. The fuller at Spaxton or the miller at Bishops Lydeard might be donor portraits, just as the initials R.B. on many churches record the free-spending of Abbot Richard Bere of Glastonbury. The Bluet arms at Chipstable or the Hastings knot at North Cadbury might be politic gestures of a local craftsman to the lord of the manor or neighbouring squire, but the drinker at Milverton, the night watchman at Bishops Hull, the cat and mouse at North Cadbury and the courting couple at Lyng are drawn from daily life.

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When the Reformation came to Somerset there was so little open opposition that it might be thought religion was of little consequence even though so much money was being spent on its outward trappings. The threat of legal action must have discouraged people from expressing their opinions too openly, and the only martyrs in the county were Abbot Richard Whiting, John Arthur and Roger Wilfred, who suffered death on Glastonbury Tor in 1539—and not for any real opposition, but as a cruel act of a vindictive government against one of the most powerful monasteries in the country.

But many of the underlying changes in religion had been taking place for many years. Henry VIII’s claim to govern the Church was the logical conclusion of lay employment of chantry and brotherhood priests who were paid by families or parish groups to say Masses as and when required. The Protestant view of religion which emphasised the importance of each individual in his approach to God can also be traced back to similar groups in each parish, banding together to build and maintain their own aisle or chapel, set apart by screens, and providing a much more intimate and personal experience of religion.

Still, for many people the liturgical changes of the Reformation were shocking, as chantries were dismantled and the Mass abandoned under Edward VI, and as married clergy were humiliated and the Mass restored under Mary. Few, then, were prepared to commit themselves too heavily to the Church under Elizabeth, for who could see what was to come? On the whole Somerset folk were Protestant in sympathy, and under Mary people from Kilmersdon and Chew Stoke, Winford and Cameley, Horrington and Wells, West Pennard and Othery were singled out for their opposition. On Saturday, 26 August 1553, the queen’s proclamation was published in Wells ‘which day Mass was solemnly sung in the parish church of St Cuthbert according to the old use. About this time one Thomas Lygh was sent to goal for coming into church and saying to the priest just after the second lesson at Mattins, “What the devill have we here, are we going to set up idolatry again”, be seeing the picture of a cross and two candlesticks and two tapers in them on the high altar’. Thus was the Mass restored for a few years, and thus one man protested. Many more sought refuge in a State church which fined men for not attending church, forced a few who clung to the Old Faith underground, and a few others to a dour if learned Puritanism whose emphasis on preaching was for long to take the place of the liturgy for which the county’s churches had been built.

Richard Bluet and his wife, Kittisford church
Richard Bluet and his wife, Kittisford church