English Church Architecture -
BISHOP'S LYDEARD, St. Mary (ST 168 298) (March 2005)
(Bedrock: Triassic Sherwood Sandstone Group, Otter Sandstone Formation)
During the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Somerset was one of the wealthiest areas of England, growing rich on the wool trade, and this former prosperity is witnessed today by the quality of its churches, and of their towers in particular. Rising nobly in Perpendicular style in almost every other village, they comprise between them one of the greatest corpora of mediaeval art to be found in western Europe, so it is hardly surprising they have attracted the attention of tourists and writers down the decades, and not only since Pevsner's whirlwind circuit of the county in the summer of 1957. The more methodical of these visitors have naturally looked for connections between these buildings - for example, in date or style - and a few have attempted to categorize them. Pevsner's system, however, which sought to classify towers by the arrangement of their windows, adds very little to an understanding of the provenance or sphere of influence of their rich and multifarious designs, and it is telling that after explaining his methodology at length in the introduction to the Somerset volumes of The Buildings of England (pub. Penguin, 1958), he never made use of it once in the main body of the text. A far more revealing, though also much more limited scheme, was originally set out in Dr. J.F. Allen's book The Great Church Towers of England (pub. The University Press, 1932) and later refined by A.K. Wickham in The Churches of Somerset (pub. Phoenix House Ltd., 1952). This focuses on five (originally eight, in Dr. Allen's work) groups of churches which are sufficiently homogenous to suggest that while not necessarily the conceptions of individual masons, they are at least the work of distinct schools of artisans who remained in close artistic contact, even when working simultaneously on separate projects. It also makes it possible to recognize other churches which, though not part of these groups in the strict sense, appear nevertheless to have fallen under their influence.
The largest and most important of these groups is the so-called Quantock Group (the others are the Cathedral, West Mendip, North Somerset and South Somerset Groups), which is rather misleadingly named since most of its members lie south and east of those hills. A.K. Wickham described this group as being defined by a "wealth and delicacy of detail; rich embattled crowns; exuberance of pinnacles; frequent niches, gargoyles and heads; bands of quatrefoils; a predominance of ogee curves". All these are certainly features of St. Mary's, Ile Abbots, St. Mary's, Huish Episcopi and St. Martin's, Kingsbury Episcopi (which are all examined in these notes), besides the present church, and of these, Wickham placed Bishop's Lydeard, together with St. James's, Taunton, first in date order, in or around the 1450s, though this is speculative. St. Mary's, Bishop's Lydeard, is most conspicuously distinguished from the other churches in this group included here, in the building stones it employs, which set the local red Otter sandstone (from the Sherwood Sandstone Group of the Triassic System) against golden Ham Hill stone (from the Lower Jurassic Series) for the dressings. (The more usual combination of blue lias with Ham Hill stone is no less strident, yet equally attractive.) The tower has great nobility and rises in four stages supported by set-back buttresses, to openwork battlements and crocketed pinnacles at the corners and midpoints of the walls. An octagonal stair turret at the northeast angle, projects slightly higher than the tower itself, the buttresses terminate in more crocketed pinnacles at the level of the bell-stage, and smaller, flattened, crocketed pinnacles rise from each of the three tiers of set-offs below, all carved in Ham Hill stone. The two, three-light bell-openings per wall are transomed and have crocketed pinnacles on either side and between, trefoil-cusped lights above and below the transoms, and alternate tracery containing subreticulation. The main W. window is transomed with cinquefoil-cusped lights above and below (ogee-pointed in the first case), alternate tracery filled with subreticulation, and supertransoms in the centre. The W. doorway has a complex profile and traceried spandrels in Ham Hill stone beneath a label. Inside, the tower arch is very tall and formed of two orders bearing wave mouldings separated by a sunk chamfer, which continue all the way around without intervening capitals.
The rest of the church consists of a four-bay aisled nave, a two-bay chancel with one-bay aisle extensions forming shorter chapels, a S. porch, and a semi-octagonal rood stair turret to the south, rising higher than the aisle (shown above). The nave arcades - which are entirely built of Otter sandstone - differ greatly in height yet are both composed of arches bearing two rolls with fillets, springing from semicircular shafts with capitals and separated all the way round by deep hollows. Perhaps the shorter N. arcade (shown in the thumbnail below right, viewed from the aisle) is somewhat the earlier, but whether it is or not, the windows in the N. aisle - which, curiously, can be seen externally to be roofed at a higher level than the S. aisle (sic) - are certainly dissimilar from their southern counterparts, suggesting the work was done not only at a different time, but also by a different mason. They are formed of three trefoil-cusped lights with supermullioned tracery in the N. wall, and the same with the addition of a transom in the W. wall, whereas the S. aisle windows are more typical of the West Country and are formed of three cinquefoil-cusped, ogee-pointed lights with alternate tracery containing subreticulation, with the W. window here differing only in the shape of its subreticulation units. The arches from the aisles to the chapels are similar to the nave arcade arches but the arches from the chancel to the chapels now seem essentially Victorian.
The church contains some important woodwork. The N. aisle and N. chapel roofs are scissor-braced, the S. chapel roof is collar-braced, and the others are of wagon type, ceiled above the S. aisle and chancel but not above the nave. However, more important than these is the rood screen (left) that crosses the nave and S. aisle (but not the N. aisle), in five and three bays respectively. Though not quite as fine as the one at nearby Halse, it is nevertheless elaborately painted to the west in red, black, blue and gold, and most excellently carved on the dado. The sections are four-light with alternate tracery, subarcuation of the lights in pairs, and through reticulation. The cornice is elaborately carved and supported by fan vaulting with carved bosses at the nodes, springing from groups of three narrow shafts with capitals attached to the wooden piers between the bays. Above, on the nave roof, is a Canopy of Honour consisting of a series of elaborately enriched, attached panels. The nave bench ends are Tudor and mostly carved with two tiers of little blank arches below variants of leaf patterning, although the subjects also include windmills and ships. There is yet more carving on the backs of the westernmost benches to the blocks of seating east of the S. door, where some of the designs are picked out in red and black paint. The pulpit (right) is seventeenth century work and carved with complex floral patterns inside the standard Jacobean arches, with the addition of leaf scrolls down the sides and between, a frieze of rectangular panels beneath, another of flowers in circles above, and carved angels separated by consoles below the cornice, the detail painted here in red, blue and gold.
Finally, the church contains a number of wall monuments in the S. aisle, very high up, of which one only need be mentioned. Featuring two women bending over an urn, this commemorates Thomas Slocombe (d. 1801), and is the work of Thomas King the Elder (1741-1804), other examples of whose art can be seen at St. Mary's, Tetbury in Gloucestershire.