Parish churches in Somerset appear to get an overhaul during the Perpendicular period from c. 1360 to c.1540. This coincided with the rise of wealth in the county. The woollen cloth trade produced a new class of aspirational and wealthy families. Although my evidence is observation on a few churches, it appears that the towers of churches and their porches became a focus of donor-related works in the parish church. There is a pride and competitiveness amongst these works. Running in parallel is the rise in skill of the masons and organised workshops to produce the building works.
There are approximately upwards of 60 Perpendicular towers in Somerset from the late-medieval period.[i]They appear to occur in stylistic groups but far from being the same. The stones used include Doulting, Ham, and Lias. Sometimes Ham stone is used for dressing the main features. The tower features include carved parapets, crocketed pinnacles, decorated string courses, decorated carved bell windows, windows, niches & statues, stair turrets, hunky punks, gargoyles, and different approaches to buttresses. Work has been done on analysing and grouping the towers. However, this varies. Peter Poyntz Wright has done an analysis is book, The Parish Church Towers of Somerset. This has been challenged by John H Harvey in his article in The Ancient Monuments Society.[ii] In the Observer Book of Churches by Lawrence E. Jones (1965) there is another grouping analysis.
This blog post seeks to introduce some of the towers and some of the considerations. My feeling is that there is a lot of work still to be done on understanding the impressive towers of Somerset. Tackling the subject of the Perpendicular towers in a blog post is only scratching the surface.
Positions of Towers
Towers were often built at the west of the church, attached to the nave. This helped particularly in the initial building as the work could start from the east end with the chancel and nave being ready before the tower needed to be worked on. Some larger and wealthy churches had towers positioned centrally between the chancel and nave (at the crossing), the plan being cruciform.
In a cruciform-plan church the tower is known as a ‘crossing tower’. If there are no transepts, then a tower positioned between the chancel and nave is known as an ‘axial tower’.[iii] Towers may occasionally appear to the north or south of the centre of the building. At Barton St. David in Somerset there is an octagonal tower sited between the north transept and the chancel. In some places they were separate to the church. For example, at St. Peter’s Church at West Walton in Norfolk. These detached bell towers are known as campaniles.
At least fifteen cathedrals and abbeys were known to have had a campanile. The one at Chichester still survives. Thirty freestanding towers survive at parish churches, the majority being in the south and east of England[iv]. At Salisbury Cathedral in hot summers the marks on the grass highlight where the campanile stood.
Salisbury building foundation marks in hot summer a few years ago (2019) – campanile demolished in 1790[v]
SOMERSET PERPENDICULAR TOWERS
Shepton Mallet Church Tower (Church of Sts Peter & Paul): The earliest maybe Shepton Mallet. It dates from 1380.[vi]
- The parapet is of a pierced-lozenge design with no battlements.
- Below are 3 windows group together. The middle one is pierced with openings to enable the sound of the bells. Ornate carvings forming the belfry windows is a Somerset feature. Often louvre-boards are found elsewhere.
- The 2-flanking windows of the belfry window are blind with the same tracery. All have cinquefoil cusping arches of the two lights with small trefoil-headed lights above.
- A larger window with the same tracery is found on the stage below. There is now a clock set in front of it.
- There are pinnacles with crockets that spire upwards, as on many Somerset Perpendicular towers.
- Defaced statue of the Virgin, flanked by statues of St. Peter (keys are just visible) and St. Paul.
Gloucester Cathedral (Benedictine Abbey prior to Dissolution) – prototype for the Perpendicular elaboration?
Innovative use of Perpendicular details starts at Gloucester in the 1330s. The tower was rebuilt c. 1450.[vii]
Possibly the prototype for the later ornate Perpendicular towers of the latter part of the 15th C & early part of the 16th C. The lace-like parapets and soaring pinnacles are possibly derived from the tower of Gloucester cathedral.
The most ornate parapet and pinnacles occur on St Mary Magdalene, Taunton, Somerset. Built between 1486 and 1515.[viii]
Size, Position and Shape of Towers
The size of towers varies in terms of the dimensions and height. At Hardington Bampfylde in Somerset there is a small, unbuttressed tower. A sort of mini-Perpendicular tower.
In Somerset the late-medieval towers are mainly replacements or upgrades to the west-end Norman or Early English towers. There are some crossing towers such as Ilminster, Crewkerne, and Axbridge.
The height and decoration could vary even within the same vicinity (churches at Western Zoyland, Middlezoy & Other).
The church tower was a prominent feature in the landscape and could prove particularly useful in coastal parishes for ship navigation. For example, Minehead from the Bristol Channel. From the River Parrett across from the town of Langport there a view of the towers of Langport Church tower (on higher ground than the low lying town) & Mulcheney as standing features in the Somerset Levels.
Towers as Fortresses?
Theoretically towers offered a place of protection in case of attack, particularly in the borders of Wales and Scotland. However, in early 12th C the Pope had decreed that parish churches were not to be used as fortresses.
COMPARISON: ISLE ABBOTS & KINGSBURY EPISCOPI TOWERS
To illustrate how church towers may look similar but are in fact different in ornament I have looked at Isle Abbots & Kingsbury Episcopi.
Both have 2 belfry windows. However, the tracery is different. Isle Abbots has cinquefoil arches as headers, whereas at Kingsbury Episcopi the headers are trefoil with an ogee arch.
At Kingsbury Episcopi the pinnacles are particularly ornamented with ‘flying’ pinnacles attached at the parapet. They also occur at Isle Abbots but on a smaller scale.
The crockets on pinnacles link back to the crozier or pastoral staff of a bishop or abbot. The crozier is symbolic of a shepherd’s crook. Crockets appear on the handle of the crozier, which represents the guidance and role of shepherd of the bishop or abbot in looking after their flock.
There is pinnacle pilaster-type ornament too. At Isle Abbots there are three, one between the belfry windows, and one each side. There are larger pinnacles in pairs on the corners of the tower at this height. At Kingsbury Episcopi the pilaster-type pinnacles number five at the belfry window stage with no corner pinnacles. At this church there is also a frieze of quatrefoils with decoration in the centre part of each section.
The battlements have pierced-quatrefoil design on each church. However, at Isle Abbots the centre part of the quatrefoil has a decorative carving. The merlon double arches (pierced) is longer that at Kingsbury, coming to the top of a quatrefoil carving.
These observations are based on just looking at the upper stage of the towers to illustrate that at first glance there look similar but are in fact quite different.
PATRONS OF TOWER BUILDING/REMODELLING PROJECTS
With the wealth of the woollen cloth industry contributed to a wealthy merchant class. They could be persuaded or put themselves forward as patrons for the building of towers. Looking closely at towers it is possible to find faces that may relate to patrons. At Isle Abbots under the statue of the Virgin and Child are the carved heads of a man and woman. As the church is dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, this was the most important statue. Perhaps these are secular patrons of the tower.
Thomas Broke, Abbot of Mulcheney from 1505-1522 undertook some rebuilding at Muchelney Abbey which had been started by his predecessor, William Wyke. Broke may have been a patron of Isle Abbots church tower.
The links from cathedral to abbeys (e.g. Athelney, Glastonbury, Mulcheney, Bath) to parish church potentially formed an network of monastic, clerical, and secular patrons and supporters.
At the Church of All Saints, Closworth, near Yeovil, Somerset, are sculpted friezes on the tower. The first is on the west side and the second on the south side. They feature figures holding rosary beads. Are these patrons that paid for the tower?
The ladies have similar head wear that was worn by Elizabeth of York (1466-1503), the mother of Henry VIII.
Hunky Punks & Gargoyles
Gargoyles had two purposes on a tower. Firstly, providing a means of enabling water running off the tower to be channelled through an opening. Secondly, to act as an apotropaic figure that ward of evil spirits. Hunky Punks, which feature greatly on Somerset Perpendicular towers, served no practical purpose, but appeared ready to spring into action with apotropaic power.
I previously have written on hunky punks at Isle Abbots. The link is: Somerset Hunky Punks
Whilst recently at the Church of All Saints, Nunney, Somerset. I came across a new type of Hunky Punk. Reminds me of Chaucer’s The Millers Tale!!
Rebuild or Upgrade?
On some towers there is an upgrade from what maybe Norman or Early English. Windows and belfry openings are upgraded, string courses are added with decoration, and battlements with pinnacles added.
What prompted these towers to be built or upgraded may not just have been the motivation of wealthy secular patrons and abbots/bishops. The housing of bells and the dominance of the west tower was also supported by the Sarum Rite that became the standard in the 13th and 14th centuries across most of southern England.[xi] The importance of the western entrance with a western tower over it may have relevant liturgical reasons.[xii] This doesn’t quite account for those few perpendicular churches with central towers. Although they do have western entrances and may have been wealthier rebuilds, such as Ilminster.
Today as I drive around the Somerset Levels, I notice the church towers in the distance as pinpointing settlements and providing orientation.
The late-medieval Somerset towers were a sense of parish pride, to stand impressively in the landscape. The common elements applied in a unique way demonstrated that parishes wanted to be different from their neighbours. Each tower had a unique approach to identify it separately, even if there were similarities with others in the county. It is curious to think that the Wars of the Roses ran from 1455-1487 when the rise of the towers was taking hold. Was there something about Somerset which enabled collaboration to ensure the success of tower building?
I wonder about the teams that may have worked on the designs of the towers. Perhaps there were specialist teams that worked on specific and separate elements (statue niches, pinnacles, ornamented battlements (or crenellations), belfry windows, etc.) and there was a master mason and team who brought the design and pre-made elements together on site to build the tower. Certainly, at Isle Abbots the statues and niches were not only different stone but likely differing workshops. The statue of St. George did not fit the pre-prepared niche and adjustments had to be made.
The demand for towers in the latter part of the 15th C and the early 16th C meant that organisation, skills, materials, tools, and quality control required overall management. Perhaps monastic and cathedral involvement with funding from wealthy secular patrons ensured the demand and the high quality of the individual product. This is only speculation and requires further investigation of the theory.
These impressive towers must have been a great wonder at the time they were built. They should be so today. But how easily we humans adjust with distractions and make extraordinary things part of the mundane ordinary. Please stop and look at these wonderful towers that grace the towns and villages of Somerset. Think of the ingenuity of their design and construction by hands over five hundred years ago.
[i] Lawrence Jones, The Observer’s Book of Old English Churches (London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1965), repr. 1976, p. 17.
[ii] John, H. Harvey, ‘Somerset Perpendicular – The Church Towers and the Dating Evidence’, The Ancient Monuments Society, (1984), pp. 158-173.
[iii] Warwick Rodwell, The Archaeology of Churches (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2012), p. 77.
[iv] Rodwell, p. 77.
[v] Rodwell, p. 77.
[vi] ‘Church of St Peter and St Paul’, Historic England, < https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1345202?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 30 June 2022].
[vii] ‘Cathedral Church of the Holy and Indivisible Trinity’, Historic England, < https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1245952?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 30 June 2022].
[viii] Peter Poyntz Wright, The Parish Church Towers of Somerset (Avebury: Avebury Publishing, 1981), p. 142.
[ix] Poyntz Wright, p. 143.
[x] Poyntz Wright, p. 143.
[xi] Nicholas Orme, Going to Church in Medieval England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2021), pp. 200-11.
[xii] Poyntz Wright, p. 1.
‘Cathedral Church of the Holy and Indivisible Trinity’, Historic England, < https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1245952?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 30 June 2022]
‘Church of St Peter and St Paul’, Historic England, < https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1345202?section=official-list-entry> [accessed 30 June 2022]
Harvey, John, H., ‘Somerset Perpendicular – The Church Towers and the Dating Evidence’, The Ancient Monuments Society, (1984), pp. 158-173
Jones, Lawrence, The Observer’s Book of Old English Churches (London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1965), repr. 1976
Orme, Nicholas, Going to Church in Medieval England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2021)
Poyntz Wright, Peter, The Parish Church Towers of Somerset (Avebury: Avebury Publishing, 1981)
Rodwell, Warwick, The Archaeology of Churches (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2012)