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CREWKERNE, St. Bartholomew  (ST 422 095),

SOMERSET. 

(Bedrock:  Middle Jurassic, Inferior Oolite Group.)

 

A major, late Perpendicular church, designed and erected under the direction of William Smyth, master of Wells Cathedral from 1475-1490

and a member of A.K. Wickham's so-called 'South Somerset' group of churches.

 

 

 

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 South Somerset Group considered here, comprises churches distinguished by stately bell-openings extending through the two upper stages of the tower, divided by heavy, ornamented transoms, and notable for their employment of contrasting  steely blue-grey Blue Lias and golden Ham Hill Stone, both from the Lower Jurassic Series, laid down approximately 201-198 Ma and 177-174 Ma respectively.

 

 

 

Among its many exceptional features, this church must surely boast one of the most comprehensive and rigorous little guidebooks written for any parish church in England (Simon Andrew, Saint Bartholomew's Church, Crewkerne, Crewkerne Parochial Church Council, 1993) and except, perhaps, in the matter of photography, it is quite impossible to equal that here, much less add to it.  Anyone seeking a full account of the history and architecture of this building should, therefore, obtain a copy.  The note below, by comparison, can provide only a summary.

 

St. Bartholomew's is a large, important, all-embattled Perpendicular church, constructed entirely of Ham Hill stone, which can be approximately dated to within a decade or three because its architect is known.  He was William Smyth, master of Wells Cathedral from 1475 until his death in 1490, who was considered by Dr. John Harvey (The Perpendicular Style, London, Batsford, 1978, pp. 202 & 204) to have been the foremost mason in the west of England at that time.  Smyth was responsible for work at Sherborne Abbey as well as at Wells and St. John's, Glastonbury, while here at Crewkerne, at least the W. front, S. transept and S. porch, are attributable to him.  He is also likely to have been the man recorded as having taken up the freedom of the city of Wells in 1475, where he received an annual retainer of 1.6s.8d and a house, rent free, in addition to his fees.  His work shows the frequent use of the ogee arch in window traceries and he was responsible for some important fan vaults at a time when the construction of these still lay .

 

Smyth adopted for the building a cruciform plan for the reason that it was raised on the twelfth or thirteenth century foundations of an earlier church, for which the only surviving evidence above ground today is some of the lower stonework of the crossing tower, including the single, blocked, Early English window, visible internally to the north.  The tower's Perpendicular replacement (shown above left, from the southeast) probably represents the earliest of A. K. Wickham's 'South Somerset Group' and was probably the inspiration for the others.

 

The church consists of a crossing tower with a projecting southeast stair turret, a short three-bay nave, four-bay aisles running beside the nave and crossing, transepts extending beyond the aisles (one bay deep to the south and two to the north), a tall S. porch, and a chancel with inner and outer N. chapels (but no S. chapel).  The chancel and inner chapel are each three bays long, as defined by their windows, but because the chapel bays are narrower, the chancel still projects beyond the chapel to the east.  The outer chapel consists of a single bay tucked into the angle between the N. transept and inner chapel, where it is responsible for the best internal perspectives of the building, which are obtained when looking northeast from the nave. Externally, the church appears at its most impressive from the west (see the photograph, right), where between the nave and aisle on either side, a projecting stair turret rises above the nave in three and a half stages. 

 

A detailed description of some of this work follows:

1. The chancel windows to north and south, and the (probably re-set) N. windows to the inner chapel, are each formed of four two-centred lights, with alternate tracery and subreticulation (as shown top right).  (See the glossary for an explanation of these terms.) The chancel E. window is similar but scaled up for five lights.  This could still be late-fourteenth century work.

2. The tower and aisles have two-centred lights to the bell-openings and windows, suggesting they too predate the involvement of William Smyth, though probably not by much.  The tower is surmounted by a pair of narrow crocketed buttresses at each angle, except to the southeast where the turret has a single pinnacle rising from each of its eight corners.  The two-light bell-openings continue through two stages to extend the full height of the tower above the nave roof.  The aisle windows (which are separated to the north by buttresses now rising to nineteenth century crocketed pinnacles) are each formed of no less than six lights, subarcuated in threes, with supertransoms between the subarcuations.  (See the S. aisle window illustrated middle right.)

3. The S. transept and, what is, effectively, the end of the S. aisle, have dissimilar four-light windows to the east, while the S. transept S. window - in what appears to be an indication of a slightly later date - is five-light with outer lights subarcuated in pairs, and an inner light set between strong mullions and with a supertransom above.  The W. window to the nave is then probably contemporary with this, with its seven ogee-pointed transomed lights, subarcuated above the outer pairs and central group of three, and with strong mullions between the groups. The W. doorway bears a complex series of mouldings within a highly ornate ogee arch, set between triangular side shafts and - beyond these - ogee crocketed niches topped by the carved figures of a king and a bishop;  the spandrels are decorated with daggers and large double-cusped quatrefoils with floral motifs in the centres.  The very tall and windowless S. porch (shown below left) is decorated above the outer doorway by a tall canopied niche (now containing a Victorian statue of St. Bartholomew) set between three tiers of trefoil-cusped blank arcading, while, inside, an elaborate fan vault displays an arrangement of encircled quatrefoils.

4. Last, but by no means least, the excellent, translucent N. transept, which may not have been completed until c. 1530, has particularly large three-centred, transomed windows that seem to occupy almost all the wall space, formed of five lights to the east and west (see the W. window, bottom right), and six lights to the north, with - in both cases - outer lights subarcuated in pairs and latticed supertransoms above the central light or lights, which are again set between strong mullions.  Beneath runs a frieze of quatrefoils containing shields.

 

Inside the church, the four-centred arches of the nave arcades spring from very tall piers composed of four narrow shafts with capitals, separated by wave mouldings and deep hollows that continue round the arches.   The similar but naturally heavier crossing arches have especially thick shafts to north and south however, showing where Perpendicular detailing has been applied to earlier masonry as already described.   The nave clerestory, formed of five pairs of two-light windows, is completely discordant with the arcades below.  The best perspective within the building, again as previously mentioned, is provided by the little outer chapel, as a result of the way in which the four-centred E. arch from the N. aisle to the inner chapel and the similar N. arch from the same aisle to the transept, provide views through to the narrower, less depressed arches between the outer and inner chapels and the transept and outer chapel respectively.  This also has the effect of isolating the column at the northeast angle of the aisle, which throws out arches in all four directions, across the aisle, transept and both chapels.

 

The best roof in the church is the panelled N. transept ceiling reminiscent of the nave roof at Martock. The very high but low-pitched nave roof is supported on large carved stone figures, which themselves sit on shafts rising between the clerestory windows.   The sloping wooden galleries above the W. ends of the aisles are all that remains of a larger gallery of 1811.  The wooden vault beneath the crossing, like the nicely-carved chancel reredos, dates only from 1903.

 

Finally, perhaps surprisingly after this, the church is not rich in furnishings, but it does contain three monuments which were mentioned by Gunnis (Dictionary of British Sculptors: 1660-1851, London, The Abbey Library, 1951, pp. 170 & 373), the first commemorating Samuel Sparks (d. 1813), by Samuel Gibbs of Axminster (fl. 1773 - 1821), whose 'work is well above the average of the contemporary small-town statuary of the period', and the other two dedicated to the Hawkesley family, c. 1830, and to Samuel Wills (d. 1833), by Joseph and William Stephens of Exeter (fl. 1810-33), whose work, unfortunately, was not.  The large square font in the S. aisle, with six incised arches on each face, is probably Norman.

 

 

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

Curry Rivel, Hinton St. George, Norton-sub-Hamden and Shepton Beauchamp.]