St Mary Magdalene Church History and Information

St Mary Magdalene Church History and Information

The presence of an Iron Age enclosure [around 1000 BC] to the East of where Clatworthy reservoir is now situated is the earliest evidence of settlement in the area. Before 1066 AD, the parish was divided into two estates: the manors of CLATWORTHY and SYNDERCOMBE. In the detailed record of the people and wealth of England, commissioned by William the Conqueror, [The Domesday Book of 1086, CLATWORTHY MANOR had 7 plough teams and 23 workmen. It also boasted one of the 250 Somerset water mills of the time. In 1831, the population was 280, falling to 117 in 1931; roughly the same as today.

According to the ‘Victoria History of the County of Somerset’ there was probably a priest at Clatworthy by 1189 and the original church building of local stone is thought to date from the 12th century – making it Norman. The walls are extremely thick, a precaution taken by the Norman builders to ensure that the roof would not be so heavy as to collapse. Authorities vary on the age of the tower [at the west end]; the Department of the Environment says it dates from the 12th century and was altered between 1860 and 1883. The Victoria history dates it in the late Middle Ages and has the chancel [the middle section] and nave [at the east end] as 12th century, lengthened in the late Middle Ages to accommodate the increasing congregations. Other new work at that time included windows in the nave and the rood stair to the rood loft, which would have been over the chancel [only the stair remains].

The church was valued at £5 in 1291, £80 in 1668 and £310 in 1831. The last valuation [for insurance purposes] was in 1997 and was £500,000!

Two important restorations, completed in 1865 and 1888 were financed by a £220 bequest from the patron family the Trollope-Bellew’s. This saw the addition of the vestry [on the North side], the unblocking of the rood stair [the loft having already gone] and the replacement of the [probably box] pews by open benches.

In the late 1970’s/ early 1980’s, it was noticed that the main walls were moving outwards and there was a threat that the building might collapse. However, tremendous support from the parishioners kept the church open and tie bars and a buttress were installed to prevent further movement. In severe gales [in January-February, 1990] many roof slates were blown off and the opportunity was taken not only to re-slate the nave and chancel roof but also to undertake a wholesale restoration of the roof timbers. In 1998, the west stained-glass window was removed and re-leaded and the stonework tracery repaired. In 2001, work was undertaken to counteract damp in the tower [which was previously decorated in 1984] and to restore the font and churchyard cross

By 1321, the priest’s living was described as a rectory and was in the gift of the Lords of the Manor of Clatworthy. After mostly following family lines for 200 years, the estate was bought by the Carew family of Crowcombe in 1582 and their successor [Mr Trollope-Bellew] is still joint patron with the Bishop of Bath & Wells [in their responsibility for appointing incumbents]. Clatworthy had its own priest until the 1950’s but was then combined with neighboring small hill parishes to share the clergy. In 1993 [largely due to the shortage of ordained clergy], Clatworthy [and other hill parishes] was included with Wiveliscombe and Langley March into a combined benefice.

The porch, nave and chancel are paved with what Kelly’s Directory describes as “handsome encaustic tiles made by the Architectural Pottery Company, Poole Dorset”. In the porch, the timbered ceiling is notable for its bosses.

The font [just inside the west door] is a circular stone tub with a lead lined basin and is in the shape of a chalice. It is very ancient, possibly older than the church itself. It has 2 rounded moldings at the bottom, above a splayed and circular base, resting directly on a square tiled section of floor. The cover is of polished wood and has wooden cross-straps with arrow tails and 2 plain Greek crosses laid flat, one on top of the other and above the straps. The font is still used for baptisms; it is intriguing to think how many children have been christened there over the last 800 years!

In the bell tower, some of the timbers from the original bell frame are still embedded in the walls. The walls themselves are grooved to allow the swing of the bells in their original positions, though they now hang on an iron frame. Though the frame could take 5 bells, there are only 4 actually installed. Although there is no resident bell ringing team, the bells are rung from time to time.

The bells are:-

  • the tenor [dated 1599] and inscribed “HIS”, “Draw near to God” and was cast by George Purdue of Taunton
  • the second [dated 1648] was cast by William Purdue [Taunton] and shows the names of the Churchwardens at the time.
  • the third and fourth were cast in 1635 by Robert Austin, probably of Dorset.

Both the West and East window are described by Kelly’s as “of handsome” stained glass but take a considerable amount of buffeting from the wind. The window depicts: [at the top] 4 figures from The Revelations, labeled with the names of the Gospel writers: an angel [St Matthew], a winged lion [St Mark], a winged ox [St Luke] and an eagle [St John]. On the main panels [from left to right] are: St Peter, St Mary Magdalene [the Church patron saint] and St Paul.

Also at the West end [beside the tower embrasure] are slate tablets, reproducing the 10 commandments. They were made by “John Toombs Decorator” and dated 1854.

On the North [left] side of the aisle is the foot-pumped harmonium which was built by John C. Guest of Exeter. It was acquired in the 1990’s to replace the old, hand-pumped organ in the chancel which became unusable due to damp and dirt. This organ was described by an expert as a “gem” and dates from about 1800. It is made of mahogany at the front and oak elsewhere.

The raised pews date from the 19th century.

The war memorial [on the North wall] lists 3 Privates from the Somerset Light Infantry who gave their lives in the Great War [1914-18] and include WILLIAM BRANFIELD, a surname still to be found in the parish. Farming, the principal occupation still today was a ‘reserved occupation’ during the Second World War [1939-45] which exempted people from National Service and which may explain the absence of a plaque for that war.

The nave is up a step which can be a hindrance for the elderly or disabled. However, it was put there so that the alter is higher than the rest of the church and the worshippers are always looking up at the alter.

The pulpit is accessed from the vestry.

The 3 memorial tablets on the North [left] wall of the sanctuary commemorate 3 former rectors: JAMES HAY [died: 1718], JOHN WARRINGTON CAREW [a forebear of our present joint Patron and who served as Rector for 40 years in the late 19th century] and EDWIN JOSEPH CORLETT [his successor, Rector for 26 years in the early 20th century].

The large panels at the east window [behind the alter] depict [from left to right]: the transfiguration, or the ascension [or indeed both]; the crucifixion, with 2 female mourners [probably Mary Magdalene and Mary, the Mother of James & Joseph [Matthew 7:56] and the resurrection, again perhaps including Mary Magdalene. The 4 smaller panels at the top show figures carrying a sickle, an orb, a key and a scroll.

On the South side of the sanctuary, the east window is in memory of WILLIAM BERNARD, Rector for 46 years [in the first half of the 19th century] and consists of 2 panels. One entitled “Jesus wept”, a reference to His reaction to Mary and Martha’s mourning of the death of their brother, Lazarus [John 11:35] depicted along with 2 young kneeling figures; and the other – the raising of Lazarus.

The neighboring window is in memory of CHARLOTTE MATILDA BERNARD and shows Jesus with Mary and Martha, one washing his feet and the other bearing food.

The stairs curving up to a small red-stained window are the rood stairs which once led to a rood loft above the sanctuary. On sunny days in winter, the light through the window throws a wonderful red shadow onto the pews, wall, floor and indeed the congregation opposite!

The broken tablet at the foot of the stairs is a further memorial to RECTOR BERNARD and his son HENRY [who died aged 24 in 1845, while serving with the QUEEN’S 15TH HUSSARS]

The stained glass at the top of the large, otherwise clear South window is thought to be of 15th century Flemish origin.

The church lighting is by oil lamps, standard, wall bracket or suspended and candles are needed for daytime services on dark days. A particularly lovely light is produced by dozens of candles at the only night-time service we have – on Easter Eve.

The barrel-vaulted wooden ceiling of the nave is divided into 24 panels, decorated with gold-painted bosses.

The main features of the churchyard are the beautiful miniature daffodils in the Spring and the probably 14th century stump of a cross [to the left of the path on leaving the church]. The cross is of red sandstone on a slate stone base; the cross-piece was probably removed at the reformation [in the 16th century]. Before then, the church was Roman Catholic.

St Mary Magdalene Parochial Church Council, Clatworthy, Somerset © January, 2002.