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KINGSBURY EPISCOPI, St. Martin  (ST 437 211),

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 fine church, in its tranquil position by the River Parrett, is another with a tower built entirely of Ham Hill stone which contrasts beautifully with an aisled nave of blue lias, and it is impossible to understand why A.K. Wickham was so sniffy about it...

'At Kingsbury the [tower] buttresses are too shallow, have been placed too far from the tower angles, and cease before the last stage;  the result is that the pinnacles resting on them do not appear in the outline when the tower is seen diagonally; further the plain part below the battlements is too wide.  These factors render the crown far too heavy, and vitiate the design.'  (The Churches of Somerset, p. 46.)

for while it is true that, especially in silhouette, the battlements and pinnacles do look over-wide for the bell-stage below, yet these are pettifogging details when the merits of this noble building are considered.  Indeed, for sheer richness of detail, St. Martin's is arguably not only equal but superior to most other members of the Quantock Group, including St. Mary's, Ile Abbotts.  A detailed description of the building follows. 

 

The tower rises in four tall stages divided by bands of blank quatrefoils, including one around the base, to a final band of quatrefoils at the top, followed by surmounting openwork battlements formed of quatrefoils in lozenges below the embrasures and pairs of little trefoil-cusped arches in the merlons.  There are pinnacles rising from the mid-points of the walls 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 the projection of the battlements over the bell-stage is such that the pinnacles at the wall mid-points and the outer pinnacles of the groups of three, appear as if corbelled out beyond the parapet and tied in by braces.  (See the photograph, below left, taken from the south.)  The set-back buttresses have tall crocketed shafts set diagonally on the three tiers of off-sets and the pair of two-light, transomed bell-openings in each elevation of the bell-stage, have reticulated and Somerset tracery and more shafts between and to either side.  The third stage (below the clock) has a four-light transomed opening in each wall, again with Somerset tracery, but here with tracery in the window head featuring subarcuation of the lights in pairs, bisected by through-reticulation, and on either side of these openings, there are canopied niches supported on tall shafts, which retain their original carved figures.  The two lower stages of the tower have no windows to the north or south but instead, on the S. side, there is a large canopied niche in the lower stage and two slightly narrower ones on short shafts in the stage above.  The W.  doorway has continuous mouldings around it and spandrels filled with leaf carving, and the five-light transomed window above has outer lights subarcuated in pairs, a central light separated by strong mullions (mullions that rise all the way from the base to the top of the window arch with no diminution in thickness), and latticed supertransoms above the central light and across the reticulation units beneath the subarcuations above lights 1b-2a and 4b-5a (as seen in the photograph below right, where the lights are numbered from left to right).  There are also large niches with crocketed canopies either side of the W. door, containing statues which are now headless, and a frieze of quatrefoils in lozenges, containing Tudor roses above.  The date of the tower is probably c. 1500.  The stair turret at the northeast angle rises only to the same height as the tower itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The rest of the building consists of a four-bay aisled nave and a chancel with dissimilar chapels, although the two-bay chapel arcades are identical within.  The S. chapel - now the organ chamber - continues the line of the nave S. aisle eastwards, but the N. chapel is cross-gabled and it is this and the chancel that are architecturally most important.  Walking clockwise around the church, the N. chapel is a splendid piece of work, distinguished by the wide, embattled rood stair turret to the north, which projects above the adjoining roofs, and by a handsome five-light transomed N. window and a similar four-light E. window (shown below left), each with double-trefoil-cusping of the lights below the transom, subarcuation of the lights in pairs, and through reticulation.  (See the entry for Dartington for an explanation of some of these terms.)  The transomed five-light N. window to the chancel sanctuary beyond, like the S. window opposite (illustrated below centre), presents another grand design, composed this time of ogee lights below and above the transom, subarcuation of the outer lights in pairs, and original and elaborate subreticulation forming pairs of little quatrefoils above lights 1b & 2a and 4b & 5a, and a latticed supertransom above the central light.  The sanctuary E. window (shown below right) is similar but its effect is diminished by the mediaeval vestry in front, notwithstanding that like the chancel above and behind, it has an excellent openwork parapet.  The aisle windows are three-light with alternate tracery and two tiers of subreticulation.  The embattled S. porch, which was formerly two-storeyed, has a two-light window above an outer doorway with two continuous flat-chamfered mouldings.

 

Inside the church, the tower is again remarkable, this time for the extraordinary way it has been joined to the nave, for besides its own deep arch with panelled soffits sandwiched between slender semicircular shafts of the type to be seen in the same position at Hinton St. George, Long Sutton and Norton-sub-Hamdon, among other places in the region, there is also a second, wider and still deeper arch in front (i.e. towards the nave), also with panelled soffits, which appears to have been inserted in the space between the tower's internal (east) buttresses, which must have been constructed for reasons of structural necessity.  The leading edges of these buttresses are still visible however, in the northwest and southwest corners of the nave, where they are adorned with two tiers of canopied niches, set between crocketed shafts and with tall crocketed pinnacles rising on top.  The tower has a fan vault inside, above the W. window, with a central circular opening to permit the passage of the bell-ropes.

 

The nave arcades are formed of double-flat-chamfered arches springing from octagonal piers.  This is fourteenth century work that, to judge from the capitals, looks scarcely later than c. 1350 and so older than the aisle and clerestory windows.  The clerestory consists of four pairs of two-light windows with alternate tracery, positioned over the apices of the arches below.  The chancel, in Pevsner's words, is 'gloriously lit' (The Buildings  of England: South and West Somerset, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1958, p. 212), for the windows to the sanctuary and N. chapel, as has been described, are all very large, and except to the east, the glass is entirely clear.  The chancel arch is tall and reminiscent of the N. arcade at Ile Abbots, for  its capitals are similarly decorated with leaf carving that goes all the way round the responds.   This is also the style of the two-bay arcades with four-centred arches to the N. and S. chapels, which strongly suggests the same master mason was responsible for the work in both villages. 

 

Finally, as in many Somerset churches, the furnishings fail to live up to the splendour of the architecture, but the rood screen is a fine piece of carpentry, formed of five, four-light sections, each with lights subarcuated in pairs and a central mullion reaching up to the apex in between.  A transom runs across the whole screen, just below the level of the springing, the dado has tracery that includes quatrefoils set diagonally at the top, and there is a double frieze of leaf carving on the cornice.  (See the photograph below.)  Almost all the other woodwork in the church appears to date from the restoration of 1840.

 

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

Bishop's Lydeard, Huish Episcopi and Ile Abbotts.]