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BISHOP'S LYDEARD, St. Mary  (ST 168 298),


(Bedrock:  Triassic Sherwood Sandstone Group, Otter Sandstone Formation.)


One of A.K. Wickham's so-called 'Quantock' group of churches

with exceptional towers, dateable to the mid-fifteenth century.




During the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Somerset was one of the wealthiest counties in England, growing rich on the wool trade, and this former prosperity is witnessed today in 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, added very little to the understanding of their provenance or the 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 (republished New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2003,pp. 34-43), he never referred to it again in either of the volumes.  However, a far more instructive, albeit more limited scheme, had earlier been set out in Dr. J.F. Allen's book The Great Church Towers of England (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1932), and this was subsequently refined by A.K. Wickham in The Churches of Somerset (London, David & Charles, 1965).  In this, Allen identified five groups of churches within the county (reduced from eight in Dr. Allen's work) which are sufficiently homogenous to suggest that while not necessarily built by the same master masons, they are at least the work of distinct schools of artisans in close artistic contact, and these he named 'the Cathedral Group', 'the West Mendip Group', 'the North Somerset Group', 'the South Somerset Group', and 'the Quantock Group', among which, the Quantock Group considered here, is probably the foremost in terms of grandeur, expense and ornamentation, distinguished by a 'wealth and delicacy of detail, rich embattled crowns, exuberance of pinnacles, frequent niches, gargoyles and heads, bands of quatrefoils, and a predominance of ogee curves', and notable for the colourful display of Somerset's geological riches, most esppecially in the use of red Otter Sandstone from the Triassic Sherwood Sandstone Group (laid down from around 247 million to 237 million years ago (Ma)),  steely blue-grey Blue Lias from the Lower Jurassic (laid down approximately 201-198 Ma), and golden Ham Hill Stone, also from the Lower Jurassic (laid down about 177-174 Ma).  These factors between them ensure that Somerset's mediaeval churches are among the finest in the country.




Nevertheless, after all this, the Quantock Group is rather misnamed 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 (all of which are featured on this web-site) besides the present church, and of these, Wickham placed Bishop's Lydeard, together with St. James's, Taunton, first in date order, at or around c.1450.  St. Mary's, Bishop's Lydeard, is most conspicuously distinguished from the other churches in this group in the building stones it employs, which set the local red Otter sandstone against golden Ham Hill stone dressings, from about twenty miles away.   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 (better seen in the photograph of the S. aisle below).  The main W. window is transomed with cinquefoil-cusped lights above and below the transom (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 (rectangular drip-stone).  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 (as illustrated 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 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 (that is with both the main mullions andthe supermullions rising from the heads of the lights, continuing to the top of the window arch), 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 (where only the supermullions reach to the window head) containing subreticulation (i.e. subsidiary tracery).  The arches from the aisles to the chapels are similar to the nave arcade arches but the arches from the chancel to the chapels seem to be 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, which consists 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 also 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 (shown 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.   


[Other Somerset churches in the 'Quantock Group'  featured on this web-site are to be found at

Huish Episcopi, Ile Abbotts and Kingsbury Episcopi .]