Lillington Church near Sherborne

Dedicated to St Martin of Tours

It was on the 1st November 1593 that Sir Walter Raleigh and his family would have ridden out from Old Sherborne Castle and travelled 3.5 miles east towards the small village of Lillington. As to why Raleigh chose Lillington and not Sherborne Abbey is not exactly known. However, an acceptable theory is given in a write-up in the church at Lillington – at the time Raleigh needed to keep a low profile and the church at Castleton, the village by Old Sherborne Castle, was in ruins (see Figure 4 below).

Figure 2: Lillington Church from the East.

Figure 3: Lillington Church from the West – the tower was added in the 15th C.

Figure 4: Lillington Church & Tithe Barn.

 

Figure 5: Photograph of the write-up relating to Sir Walter Raleigh (in Lillington Church). Note the Wiltshire records are now in Chippenham (Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre).

 

Raleigh’s second son Wat had been born at Sherborne in the autumn of 1593. His first son, Damerei, born in 1592 had probably died in 1593. Infant mortality was high in the Elizabethan age as around one in four children did not survive to the age of ten.[1] Whilst it is known that Wat was baptised at Lillington, it is also possible that Raleigh’s wife Bess would have attended her churching service of thanksgiving there, which would have taken place around four weeks after Wat’s birth. It marked the return of new mothers to the congregation.[2]

The church structure would have looked more or less like it is today, although the north porch and south chapel were added later. Raleigh and his wife Bess would have walked through the 15th C oak, nail-studded battened door and into the nave. Perhaps the bells were ringing as they would have on Accession Day, held on the 17th November each year, to mark Queen Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne. One of the bells had been cast in the Salisbury foundry, in circa 1400, and another, dated 1590, was the work of William Warre, a bell founder from Yetminster, near Sherborne.[3]

Figure 6: The Nave – the plastered, wagon roof is late 15th C (bosses are modern).

Figure 7: Looking towards the chancel from the nave.

 

The octagonal font over which young Wat would have likely been baptised is late 15th C.[4] There are quatrefoil panels on each face, which have carvings of roses and shields alternately. The stem is octagonal with trefoil-headed panels and the structure sits on a robust, moulded base. It seems that the church had a significant rebuild in the 15th C and the tower was added. There is still some 13th C fabric such as a plate-tracery window on the south side of the nave

Raleigh had been born into a protestant family and the process of rolling out a new state Protestant religion was well underway in the late 16th C. The interior of the parish churches across England and Wales completely changed in appearance. Items relating to the Catholic liturgical practices were removed, e.g. censers, tabernacles, reredoses, altars, roods, images, stained glass, holy relics, statues, etc. Implemented were clear window glass, whitewashed walls, pulpits and poor boxes. The 3 key stages of an individual’s life were to be recorded faithfully in the parish register – baptism, marriage and burial. This register was to be regularly updated and kept in a parish chest with two sets of keys, one for the incumbent and one for the churchwarden.[5]

Figure 8: The 15th Century Font.

 

Figure 9: Photograph of transcript relating to Baptisms for 1592 to 1596 in Lillington Church. The red dot denotes the entry for Raleigh’s son.

 

Figure 10: Photography of entry for Raleigh’s son, Walter.

 

The quiet country church where Wat was baptised and witnessed by his father seems far away from Raleigh’s fateful second voyage to Guiana of 1617. Wat accompanied his father on the expedition in search of the fabled El Dorado. Raleigh had been forbidden to provoke any hostilities with Spanish colonies, outposts or shipping. Unfortunately, a detachment of his men, of which Wat was one, led a raid on a Spanish outpost against Raleigh’s orders. Wat was shot and killed.

It seems the failure of the expedition to find the gold and silver of El Dorado and the loss of his son broke Sir Walter. On 22 March 1618 he wrote to his wife, Bess:

‘May braines are broken, and tis a torment to mee to write … as Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins died heart-broken when they failed of their enterprize, I could willinglie doe the like’ (Letters, 353-4)[6]

Raleigh’s past offences and breaking of peace treaties meant James I had to rid himself of Sir Walter. He was executed in the yard at the Palace of Westminster on the morning of 29th October 1618 in. Bess took away his head, which had been placed in a red leather bag. She kept it with her thereafter. He was buried at St Margaret’s, Westminster.

The baptism at Lillington Church on 1st November 1593 would have been a simple family occasion without the shadow of 1617-18.

 

Notes

[1] Alexandra Shepard, ‘Family and Household’, in The Elizabethan World, ed. Susan Doran and Norman Jones (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), p. 360.

[2] Tim Stretton, ‘Women’, in The Elizabethan World, ed. Susan Doran and Norman Jones (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), p. 347.

[3] ‘Lillington’, in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Dorset, Volume 1, West.

[4] ‘Lillington’, in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Dorset, Volume 1, West.

[5] Brett Usher, ‘New Wine Into Old Bottles: The doctrine and structure of the Elizabethan church, in The Elizabethan World, ed. Susan Doran and Norman Jones (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014 p. 217.

[6] Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams, ‘Raleigh, Sir Walter (1554-1618)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn. Sept 2015, <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/23039> [accessed: 5 May 2019].

Bibliography

Beer, Anna, Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Raleigh (London: Oneworld, 2018)

‘Lillington’, in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Dorset, Volume 1, West (London, 1952), pp. 133-135. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/dorset/vol1/pp133-135 [accessed 20 April 2019]

Nicholls, Mark and Penry Williams, ‘Raleigh, Sir Walter (1554-1618)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn. Sept 2015, <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/23039> [accessed: 5 May 2019]

Shepard, Alexandra, ‘Family and Household’, in The Elizabethan World, ed. Susan Doran and Norman Jones (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014)

Stretton, Tim, ‘Women’, in The Elizabethan World, ed. Susan Doran and Norman Jones (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014)

Usher, Brett, ‘New Wine Into Old Bottles: The doctrine and structure of the Elizabethan church, in The Elizabethan World, ed. Susan Doran and Norman Jones (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014 p. 217