Walking around Bruton, particularly down by the riverside, one can get the feeling of medieval Somerset. The single-span bridge would have seen trains of packhorses and mules, laden with woolsacks, woollen cloth, and silken cloth making their way through Bruton and southwards towards the port of Poole in Dorset.
Bruton has an intriguing history which initially centred initially on the river Brue. Nearby was where the church and priory were built. To the north of the river the land rises steeply to the high street. The river Brue originates in Kingswood Warren in the parish of Brewham and flows westwards for nearly 34 miles, to empty into the sea at Burnham-on-Sea.[i]
Settlements established themselves around rivers and this area of the Brue had something that attracted possibly Celtic and then Saxon folk. St. Aldhelm (d. 709/10) is associated with the establishment of a Christian Church at Bruton (no physical evidence remains). Aldhelm, may have come from an aristocratic Wessex family. He was born in Wessex at a time when it was being converted to Christianity by Birinus (d. circa 650).[ii]
Aldhelm was Latin author, producing prolific poetry and prose. He became abbot of Malmesbury Abbey, & bishop of Sherborne.[iii] William of Malmesbury wrote of Aldhelm and recorded that there were two churches in the area of Bruton, but not their location.[iv] It is maybe that an original Saxon minster church existed where the current stone one is, or in the surrounding area.
Medieval ‘bartons’ run between houses on the high street, down towards the river, enabling access between the two areas of the small town. The houses in the town in the upper part, along the high street, appear to be 17th, 18th, or 19th C. But behind the updated facades many have earlier origins. Walking down the bartons reveals some of the earlier evidence of timber framing perhaps from 15th or 16th Cs.
The name of the town is derived from the river Brue, which may derive from Welsh, meaning brisk and vigorous. In 1984 a flood barrage was installed on the north east as the town was often flooded. The river has changed its course at least once.[v]
At the time of Domesday (1086) Bruton had a recorded population of 3.75 households. This size made it in the largest 20% of settlements recorded in Domesday. Prior to Domesday it had been under the lordship of King Edward. After the conquest Count Robert of Mortain, King William, Robert (son of Gerald) and Serlo of Burcy held the tenant-in-chief of Bruton. It had 6 mills, which were likely along the Brue.[vi]
In the 17th C, the intrepid traveller and writer Celia Fiennes was on her way from Queen Camel to Newton Tony via Bruton in or before 1682-1696. She wrote:
‘… we came by Bruton a very neate stone built town, from it we ascend a very high steep hill and all in a narrow lane cut out of the rocks, and the way is all like stone steps; the sides are rocks on which grow trees thick, their roots runns amongst the rocks, and in many places fine cleare springs buble out, and run a long out of the rocks, it smells just like the sea; we were full an hour passing that hill, though with four horses and a Chariot, my Sister self and maid…’[vii]
There is a steep hill along which the main road runs on the southwest side of Bruton. I imagine that this may have been the hill in question. Fiennes must have spent all her energy and observation on the hill that took an hour to ascend and did not say much else about the town itself. Presumably happy to be on her way.
The River Brue & Arthurian Legend
It is the Brue that fed the legendary watery landscape of Avalon and Glastonbury. In 1542 the antiquarian and traveller John Leland pursued his itinerary in Somerset and wrote:
‘The River Brue flows to the western part of Glastonbury from Bruton ten miles away, and continues for another two miles into the Meare. A mile before it reaches Glastonbury it comes to a bridge of four stone arches which is known as Pontperlus [Pomparles], and it was here, according to legend, that King Arthur cast his sword into it.’[viii]
The bridge supports a causeway that links Street to Glastonbury. The current reinforced concrete bridge was built in 1911 (designed by Edward Stead, Assistant County Surveyor). During excavations at the time remains were uncovered that were thought to be from a 12th C version of the bridge.[ix]
Bruton & John Leland
After Glastonbury Leland visited Bruton town. He often observed rivers and bridges on his travels. Of Bruton he wrote:
‘As I approached Bruton from the north-west the whole town stood on the nearer bank of the river Brue. One street runs from north to south, but a much finer street runs east to west. At present clothmaking is the major occupation in the town. The eastern bridge has three stone arches, and Bruton parish church and the abbey stand together on the further bank next to it. In the market place there is a new cross of six arches, with a pillar in the centre for the market traders to stand in. It was begun and brought up to roof level by Ely, the last Abbot of Bruton.’[x]
There are two key crossings of the Brue in Bruton still in existence today. One that is now called Church Bridge (very near the church) on the east of the town, and the other Bow Bridge, which linked the medieval abbey to the town. I am always amazed how historic bridges like Church Bridge get adapted to take modern, hefty traffic!
The Augustinian Priory that became an Abbey (then a Tudor house & later the King’s School of the 20th C was built on it)
It is probable that the Saxon origin of Bruton originates when a priory was founded, on the south side of the river Brue. From the medieval period the street, south of the river, that runs from the church and alongside the priory enclosure has had a few names. It was known as Gye Street by 1406, Silver Street by 1654, and later as Plox. The western extension of this, was known in the late 14th C as Lusty or Lysty.[xi]
Leland wrote of the abbey in his 1542 visit:
‘The original abbey was for monks, and was established by Algar, Earl of Cornwall. But after the conquest it was refounded as a house of canons by Mohun, and several of his family were buried there. More recently a prior of Bruton whose name was William Gilbert travelled to Rome, and secured permission to change the designation of the house from a priory to an abbey. This Gilbert became abbot, and spent a large sum of money on the fabric of Bruton Abbey, practically rebuilding it.’[xii]
Leland is telling us that the original abbey was for Benedictine monks. But in 1142 it was re-founded by William de Mohon, 1st Earl of Somerset as an Augustinian priory. By the late 13th C, it was a popular stop off place for travellers on the road from Mere in Wiltshire to Ilchester in Somerset, and in 1301 William of March, Bishop of Bath and Wells, gifted the canons of Bruton the church of Chilthorne Domer to provide extra income to cover the increasing hospitality debt.[xiii]
Prior Gilbert, later to become Abbot, made a pilgrimage to Rome for permission to elevate the priory. The status of the priory becoming abbey occurred in 1510. In 1539 the abbey was dissolved. It was bought by Sir Maurice Berkeley (d. 1581), who set about converting the abbey buildings into a manor house.[xiv]
Church of St. Mary
It is possible that when the Augustinian house was founded in the 12th C the ancient church was divided into two. Effectively one church for the canons and one church for the parishioners. The latter was the north of the present building.[xv] Curiously the north porch is capped with a separate tower, which may relate to this historic divide.
The dedication of the church became at some point in the latter medieval period the church of St. Mary and St. Aldhelm. Nowadays it is just the church of St. Mary. The original dedication is lost. A 1319 record relating to Sir William de Montague stated that he bequeathed his body to be buried at the church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Bruton. That may have been the original dedication.[xvi]
At the rear of the church is a chest tomb of early 15th C with quatrefoil designs. It is possible that it was a prior of that time. Sometimes founder tombs were placed before the sanctuary steps. Then in later centuries they were put somewhere else out of the way. On top of it is the remains of a 12th C Purbeck Marble font, with similarities to the Tournai-type found at Winchester cathedral and other churches in the Hampshire area. Probably the font was from the parish church that existed in the 12th C.
King’s School at Bruton was cofounded in 1519 and endowed by Richard Fitzjames (d. 1522), who was Bishop of Rochester, Bishop of Chichester, and Bishop of London. His roots were local to Bruton. In his early career he held benefices in the West Country such as vicar of Minehead and Aller. He was made a fellow at Merton College, Oxford in c. 1468 and subsequently held the office of bursar and then warden at the college. He was chaplain to King Henry VII from 1489 enabling him to progress his career as well as gain prominence in preaching.[xvii]
I wonder if there is a link to Poole, with the port’s arms containing a dolphin? Fitzjames’s arms are also on Bow Bridge. The shape of the bridge follows the line of the arching dolphin. The bridge is possibly 15th C and could well have received an upgrade at the time Bishop Fitzjames was founding the school.
I mentioned in the introduction about the possible trains of packhorses or mules crossing this bridge. It may be that the bridge itself linked the previous gatehouse of the abbey and the Court House in the High Street (Nos 34 and 36).[xviii] The packhorse train may have crossed at the ford just west of Bow Bridge across steppingstones instead. Although, in winter the river would not be passable easily as the steppingstones are submerged.
[i] ‘River Brue’, Somerset Rivers, < https://somersetrivers.uk/somerset-rivers/south-somerset-rivers/river-brue/> [accessed 30 January 2023].
[ii] Michael Lapidge, ‘Aldhelm [St Aldhelm; Ealdhelm] (d. 709/10)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, 10 February 2022, <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/308> [accessed 30 January 2023].
[iii] Lapidge, ‘Aldhelm [St Aldhelm; Ealdhelm] (d. 709/10)’.
[iv] John Bishton, St Mary the Virgin, Burton, (Bruton: Friends of St Mary the Virgin, 2011), p. 14.
[v] A P Baggs and M C Siraut, ‘Bruton’, in A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 7, Bruton, Horethorne and Norton Ferris Hundreds, ed. C R J Currie and R W Dunning (London, 1999), pp. 18-42. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/som/vol7/pp18-42 [accessed 6 February 2023].
[vi] Anna Powell-Smith, ‘Bruton: Land of Count Robert of Mortain/King William/Robert son of Gerlad/Serlo of Burcy’, Open Domesday,https://opendomesday.org/place/ST6834/bruton/ [accessed 7 February 2023].
[vii] Christopher Morris (ed.), The Illustrated Journeys of Celia Fiennes 1685 – c. 1712 (Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1995), p. 43.
[viii][viii] John Chandler, John Leland’s Itinerary: Travels in Tudor England (Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1993), p. 415.
[x] Chandler, p. 415.
[xi] A P Baggs and M C Siraut, ‘Bruton’, in A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 7, Bruton, Horethorne and Norton Ferris Hundreds.
[xii] Chandler, p. 415.
[xiii] ‘Houses of Augustinian canons: The priories of Bruton and Burtle Moor’, in A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 2, ed. William Page (London, 1911), pp. 134-139. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/som/vol2/pp134-139 [accessed 6 February 2023].
[xiv] ‘Augustinian priory, later abbey and associated pillow mound, at King’s School’, Historic England List Entry 1020015 (2001), https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1020015?section=official-list-entry [accessed 29 January 2023].
[xv] ‘Houses of Augustinian canons: The priories of Bruton and Burtle Moor’, in A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 2.
[xvi] ‘Houses of Augustinian canons: The priories of Bruton and Burtle Moor’, in A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 2.
[xvii] S. Thompson, ‘Fitzjames, Richard (d. 1522), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, 24 May 2012, <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/9612> [accessed 5 February 2023].
[xviii] ‘Bow Bridge, Plox’, Historic England List Entry 1176195 (1961), <https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1176195?section=official-list-entry>, [accessed 6 February 2023].