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English Church Architecture.


ILMINSTER, St. Mary  (ST 360 147),


(Bedrock:  Lower Jurassic, Charmouth Mudstone Formation.)

A large and very proud Perpendicular church for which the inspiration was Wells Cathedral.


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 in the quality of its churches, and of their towers especially.  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 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 (Harmonsdworth, Penguin, 1958), he never once made use of it 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 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1932) and later refined by A.K. Wickham in The Churches of Somerset (London, David & Charles, 1965).  This focused 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, nevertheless seem to have fallen under their influence.


The most predictable group from among these five must surely be the Cathedral Group (the others are the so-called West Mendip, North Somerset, South Somerset and Quantock Groups), which takes its inspiration from the central tower of Wells Cathedral.  That was constructed c. 1320 and partially remodelled externally around 1440, whereas Wickham's Cathedral group of churches were all built between 1380 and 1540, but their towers share with Wells the principal feature of three, or sometimes two, 'tall compartments on each face of the upper chamber [i.e. the bell-stage], separated by bold shafts, and each formed of two lights continued downwards to the next stage in the form of panels:  thus each compartment and light, despite transoms, seems to continue as one long window and member through both top stages (The Churches of Somerset, p. 41). 


St. Mary's, Ilminster (shown above, from the southwest), is a big and largely fifteenth century church of cruciform plan, almost certainly built on earlier foundations like St. Bartholomew's, Crewkerne.  The affinity between its broad crossing tower (shown right, from the southeast) and the central tower of Wells, is especially striking here:  its three, two-light bell-openings on each side do indeed continue as panels in the stage below, and, also like Wells, it punctures the skyline like a crown of thorns, with tightly packed clusters of crocketed pinnacles at each corner, rising from the buttresses, and further pinnacles at the ⅓ and ⅔ positions in between. Other features of the tower have unsurprisingly been adjusted to fit the reduced scale of the work but, save for the stair turret rising at the northwest angle, topped by an ogee spirelet, these seem mere matters of detail by comparison.   Neither here nor at Wells does the name of the master mason appear to be known, but there can be no question that the work at Ilminster is an unashamed act of artistic copying and is responsible for giving this otherwise architecturally very ordinary little town, a proud church of distinction.


As for the rest of the church, this consists of a chancel with a low E. vestry (sic), N. & S. cross-gabled transepts of similar length to each other but set out in two and three bays respectively, and an aisled nave with N. and S. porches.  The N. transept (illustrated left, from the east) is by far the grandest of these constituent parts and may have been added as a result of a bequest left by Sir William Wadham, who died in 1452.  It is surmounted by a parapet with elegant carved decoration and pinnacles, in contrast to the rest of the church which is embattled throughout except above the S. transept gable, but it impresses particularly by walls that seem to be made almost wholly of glass.  The E. and W. windows are only three-light but they are large and set close together, with transoms, strong mullions, double-trefoil-cusping of the lights below the transoms, and cinquefoil-cusping of the ogee heads above. The huge N. window is five-light and transomed, with outer lights subarcuated in pairs and an elaborate circular arrangement of daggers in the space above and between which Pevsner thought might be 'a fanciful design of c. 1300'  re-se (The Buildings of England: South & West Somerset, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2003, p. 208).  That is probably misleading, however, and it is, perhaps, rather more likely that the nineteenth century had a hand in bringing it to its present form.


The S. porch doorway is set inside a large ogee arch, suggestive of a late date (early sixteenth century?), with blank cinquefoil-cusped arches above the spandrels.  The aisle windows are three-light and very tall on both sides of the building, with alternate tracery and subreticulation (see the glossary for an explanation of these terms), and the S. transept windows to east and west, and the chancel windows to north and south, are all similar, although the chancel windows are transomed. The W. windows to the aisles, S. window to the S. transept, and E. window to the chancel (which looks out above the vestry), are all five-light.  The N. porch lacks windows and is only very shallow.


After all this, the rather bland interior of the church comes as something of a disappointment.  The crossing tower, however, is supported to east and west on magnificent, tall arches with panelled soffits, from which springs an impressive fan vault (shown right), with carved leaf bosses at the nodes.  The N. transept is separated  from the crossing by a seventeenth century screen with two tiers of square panels below and two tiers of open squares above, between turned balusters.  The nave arcades are built of three extremely wide, very depressed four-centred arches, as a result of 'disastrous alterations' (The Churches of Somerset, p. 29) made in 1825, and of piers composed of the almost standard south Somerset four-shafts-separated-by-four-casements section. The arch between the N. aisle and transept springs from responds formed of two semicircular shafts separated a casement, and further casement mouldings can be seen around the aisle window splays.  Rather more striking, however, are the large squints opening from the transepts to the chancel, which are big enough to walk through.  Finally, the church contains no furnishings of note apart from the transept screen described above, but two monuments in the N. transept must be mentioned, the first dedicated to Sir William Wadham (d. 1452) and his wife, and the second to Nicholas and Dorothy Wadham (d. 1609 and 1618), co-founders of Wadham College, Oxford.  There is, according to Wickham, 'no finer post Reformation brass in England' than that featuring this couple here (ibid., p. 65), set on top of its large tomb slab and between black marble columns with Corinthian capitals rising to an entablature with a surmounting achievement.