Cornerstones

By Simon Cotton

Different parts of England are associated with churches in particular architectural styles. County Durham has a number of early Anglo-Saxon buildings, like Escomb and Monkwearmouth, and there is a famous school of 12th-century Romanesque work associated with Herefordshire.

If you want to see early 14th-century Decorated work, especially towers bearing spires, these are most evident in Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire, but Norfolk, Suffolk, and Somerset are where you should go for 15th-century and early 16th-century Perpendicular and Tudor work. For towers, Somerset wins, due to the fine limestone used to construct them.

Resurrected Christ steps from the tomb

The Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Isle Abbots, takes some finding in its remote moorland setting above the Somerset levels south of Taunton, a general absence of signposts adding to the feeling of solitude. Forget the chocolate box sitting at the end of a lane, next to thatched cottages; you will only have eyes for the tower, an elegant design circa 1480, possibly the most svelte in Somerset with golden Ham Hill stone used for its western façade.

At 81 feet high, it is a long way from the tallest in the county, but is finely proportioned and has lovely details (giving it a “singular classicity,” Julian Orbach and Nikolaus Pevsner write in Pevsner Architectural Guides’ Buildings of England series). Prominent among those are the statues — the tower has ten niches shared among its four faces, and, quite exceptionally, those niches retain their original statues, which escaped the widespread iconoclasm of the Reformation era.

The western face has four of these statues: the apostles Peter and Paul; the Virgin and Child; and the Resurrected Christ stepping from his tomb (and stepping on one of the Roman soldiers). The windows of the belfry stage have pierced stonework known as “Somerset tracery” filling them, instead of the usual wooden louvre boards. Along with Kingston St. Mary and Staple Fitzpaine, this tower is one of three by the same unknown architect; there are a few others with rather similar designs, notably Huish Episcopi, which was honored on a British postage stamp in 1972.

The tower marked the start of a late-medieval building campaign. The church had been largely reconstructed around 1300, but then little seems to have happened for nearly two centuries. Once you step through the south door, you enter a light and harmonious interior. Facing you is the Tudor north aisle, whose altar bears an altarpiece of a Renaissance Madonna; next to the barrel organ (ca. 1835), a Norman font betrays the origins of the building.

Look east to the chancel, beautifully built around 1300, by the rectors, the nearby Benedictine Muchelney Abbey. In medieval England, the rector of a parish could be an individual or an organization. The rector would receive income from the parish (notably from agriculture) and in return would be responsible for the upkeep of the chancel of the church. A non-resident rector, or organization, would appoint a vicar to be the parish priest.

The Pevsner guide remarks of Isle Abbots’ chancel that there is “something peculiarly perfect in its proportions.” It has an east window of five stepped lancets, while the north and south walls feature two three-light windows, again with stepped lancets, below three encircled quatrefoils in their heads.  Inside are a singularly elegant piscina and sedilia.

Isle Abbots was probably building its north aisle around 1530, while nearby Ruishton church was starting its tower, and the learned and pious Richard Whiting was Abbot of Glastonbury, the greatest abbey in the west of England. Fast forward a decade, the mortar was still drying out in the north aisle at Isle Abbots, Ruishton tower was awaiting the parapet it never received, and the head of Glastonbury’s last Abbot was displayed above the gateway of the dissolved abbey. In 1895, Richard Whiting was beatified by Pope Leo XIII. As Feste remarks in Act V of Twelfth Night, “the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.”

Pevsner wrote about Isle Abbots: “outstanding among Somerset churches, both for beauty and completeness.” A.K. Wickham, the greatest historian of Somerset churches, raved about this church. It is easy to see why.

Return for a moment to the west face of the tower, and contemplate the statue of the Resurrected Christ. It bears the marks of five centuries’ exposure to the world, but still sets forth the message that the Church has proclaimed through two millennia: “Christ indeed from death is risen, our new life obtaining” [from the Easter Sequence].

Dr. Simon Cotton is honorary senior lecturer in chemistry at the University of Birmingham in the UK and a former churchwarden of St. Giles, Norwich and St. Jude, Peterborough. He is a member of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.