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ILE ABBOTS, St. Mary  (ST 352 210),

SOMERSET. 

(Bedrock:  Lower Jurassic, Blue Lias 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', while, like all Somerset churches, they are notable also for their colourful display of Somerset's geological riches, most notably 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.

 

 

This church is the defining member of A.K. Wickham's Quantock Group' par excellence.  The tower - which is constructed entirely of Ham Hill stone to the west, show side, but of blue lias with Ham Hill dressings on all the other sides - is not especially tall, but for what it lacks in height, it makes up in richness of detail, such that for A.K. Wickham the building was 'the innermost shrine, the heart and core of so much beauty' (The Churches of Somerset, p. 38), while for Pevsner, more prosaically, it was 'outstanding among Somerset churches, both internally and externally' (The Buildings  of England: South and West Somerset, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1958, p. 204).  No doubt its rather remote position in the Somerset Levels lent it additional romance, as it does still, especially, as when these photographs were taken, on a wet winter's day with the roads partially flooded, but it is certainly a very fine example of late fifteenth century architecture at any tie of the year.  The tower rises in three stages as seen from the west (or four viewed from the north or south), supported by set-back buttresses to the height of the bell-stage, with detached crocketed pinnacles rising from the off-sets and with an octagonal stair turret projecting at the east end of the N. wall, and reaching higher than the tower itself.  The tower is surmounted by openwork battlements with pinnacles at the wall midpoints and groups of pinnacles at the corners, each formed of a large pinnacle in the centre and three small ones set at 120° around it, and linked to it by flying buttresses. The four-centred W. doorway is set in a finely moulded rectangular surround with traceried spandrels, while the large, transomed W. window above (the top of which is shown below), is formed of four ogee lights, subarcuated in pairs, with alternate tracery with subreticulation and through-reticulation.  The second stage (or the third from the north or south) is lit by a transomed two-light window in each wall, with alternate tracery above and 'Somerset tracery' filling the main lights instead of wooden louvre boards, and the bell-stage has a pair of transomed bell-openings in each wall except to the north where there is room for one only one, placed between demi-pinnacles attached to the wall to either side, and again featuring both alternate and Somerset tracery.  However, much more striking than the windows are the tiers of elaborate canopied niches, of which there are three to the west (on either side of the windows), two to the north and south (in the second and third stages), and a single tier to the east (above the nave roof), most of which retain their mediaeval statues, carved in a conspicuously different stone (Doulting?).  These depict: (i) to the west (as shown in the photograph, right, in clockwise order from the bottom right), the Risen Christ, the Madonna & Child, St. Paul and St. Peter;  (ii) to the north, St. Michael; (iii) to the south, St. George mounted on a horse, St. Catherine and St. Margaret;  and (iv) to the east, St. John and St. Clement. Pevsner was not impressed with these, saying merely that they 'only serve to prove that the strictly sculptural value of such Late Perp. sculpture in England was [as] a rule low' (The Buildings  of England: South and West Somerset, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1958, p. 205), but they are a remarkable survival.

 

The rest of the church consists of a late thirteenth/ early fourteenth century nave and chancel without battlements, a remodelled S. porch, and an excellent N. aisle of  similar age to the tower (i.e. early sixteenth century), yet not seemingly of the same building phase.   To begin with the chancel, this is lit by two three-light windows to both the north and south, formed of stepped trefoil-cusped lancets with three encircled quatrefoils in the heads.  (The photograph, left, shows a S. window.)  The E. window consists of five lancet lights set within a single two-centred arch.  However, the chancel is most notable for the sedilia and piscina of elaborate and unusual design (illustrated below right), recessed in the S. wall inside.  The piscina is set in a cinquefoil-cusped arch also containing a recessed credence shelf, in the central bay of a five-bay double arcade formed of two tiers of cinquefoil-cusped arches, supported on the narrowest of shafts and with crocketed gables above.  Further west, the triple sedilia has only rather bland cusped arches behind, set in a square frame with little shafts between the bays, but here the interest lies in the seats below, each with a back and arms shaped to fit the sitter in one continuous curve.  The date of this work can hardly be earlier than c. 1310.

 

The S. porch in its present form represents the Perpendicular remodelling of what appears to have been a porch that was originally contemporary with the nave, to judge from the double-flat-chamfered outer and inner doorways and by the little stoup cut away in the E. jamb of the latter.  The most conspicuous modification is found in the battlements added above, composed of openwork quatrefoils enclosing shields and Tudor roses, and the fan vault inserted within (illustrated right), featuring a central circle with blank tracery and a long pendant.  The trefoil-cusped recess high up in the E. wall, probably once held a statue.

 

The N. aisle (shown at the foot of the page, viewed from the northeast) also has openwork battlements, formed this time of quatrefoils in squares below the embrasures, again containing shields and roses, and of cusped diagonal crosses alternating with pairs of trefoil-cusped arches in the merlons, with the latter positioned between the bays and above the intermediate buttresses, in such a way as to allow crocketed pinnacles to rise between them. The aisle windows are four-light and four-centred, and have just enough room above the springing line for a little alternate tracery and the subarcuation of the lights in pairs, while on their internal faces, they prove to be surrounded, in turn, by a narrow roll, a casement moulding, and a hollow chamfer.  (Note - the casement moulding is distinguished from the hollow chamfer in this description by its much greater width.)  The N. arcade (seen left, from the west) does not take the form that one comes to expect in this part of Somerset (as exemplified at Curry Rivel, Martock or Hinton St. George, among many other places), being formed instead of four very depressed arches, bearing a flat chamfer, a hollow and a wave moulding, supported on piers composed of four semicircular shafts with very tall semi-octagonal bases, separated by wave mouldings, and with capitals decorated with leaf carving that continues all the way around.  The massive tower arch bears two wave mouldings separated by a hollow. The chancel arch has a panelled soffit of the type that can be seen at the places just mentioned, and many others besides, albeit that here, less usually, the panelling is only one bay wide.  An elaborate squint looks through to the sanctuary from the N. aisle, through the intervening rood stair in the re-entrant between aisle and chancel.  The nave roof, like many others in the county, is of wagon construction, and panelled, with the ribs here painted blue and the floral bosses painted red.  

 

Finally, of furnishings there is little to say, for there are no monuments in the building and Somerset is not a great county for wooden church furniture, in which St. Mary’s is no exception.  The font is Norman and of very rustic design, with a square bowl displaying roughly-executed, almost indecipherable carvings that include, however, a fleur-de-lys to the west.  The pulpit is Jacobean, with three tiers of panels, of which the uppermost features the conventional round arches.

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

Bishop's Lydeard, Huish Episcopi and Kingsbury Episcopi .]