This article came from the Chronicle published October 1997. Pages 59-62
A QUARTET OF CHURCHES
Author: Jack Sweet
A Clever Ruse, A Secret in Glass and A Rector in Stone (St Andrew – Trent – Dorset)
The spire of St Andrew’s church can be seen from the eastern suburbs of Yeovil and although the village is less than a mile from the town, Trent is safe from the expansion of its large neighbour. Between the two communities flows the River Yeo, whose steep banks and deep pools have formed a protective moat for the small villages which lie along its eastern flank, just inside the Dorset county boundary, which the river forms.
St Andrew’s is an old church going back to the early thirteenth century, when the main body was built, followed by the tower, some hundred years later. Visitors should heed the notice displayed in the porch which requires ‘All persons are requested to take off pattens and cloggs before entering the Church’. The dark sixteenth century pews are carved with symbols of the Passion of Our Lord and arranged in two groups to form the prayer ‘Hail Mary Full of Grace – The Lord be with You – Amen’. During the Civil War, so the story goes, some Parliamentary soldiers were reported to be heading for Trent and the villagers feared that if the Latin Prayer were discovered the church would be destroyed as a reprisal against Popish idolatry. The congregation was in a panic. What could be done to prevent the destruction of their beloved church? Someone then had an idea. Why not dismantle the pews and mix them up so that the symbols and the letters would be meaningless, and that is what they did. Presumably the ruse worked because the church and the pews are still there.
A reminder of our mortality is written on the archway to the Manor Chapel and reads ‘All fleshe is grass and the glory of it is as the floure of the fielde’. Not an unusual message , but the means of transmission is, because it is in mirror writing and said to be for the benefit of the souls of the young ladies of the Manor who, when admiring themselves in their mirrors instead of listening to the preacher, would be reminded of their mortality; or so the legend says.
In the Manor Chapel lies the full length stone effigy of the Reverend W.H. Turner, who was Rector for forty years from 1835. The Reverend Turner commissioned the carving in 1853 and kept it in the hall of the Rectory for twenty-two years, until he died in 1875, when it was moved to the Manor Chapel. Perhaps he kept the effigy in the house to remind him of his mortality. The Reverend Turner was a great benefactor to the church and reglazed the east window with sixteenth and seventeenth century Swiss and German stained glass. The window is probably unique in Great Britain because the glass had a secret property, now lost, of not projecting its colours on the chancel floor when the sun shone through.
The Devil Locked Out and Some Sepulchral Scripts (Holy Trinity – Long Sutton – Somerset)
The superb fifteenth century tower of Holy Trinity, Long Sutton, rises nearly one hundred feet above the village green and provides, for the enthusiast and snapper alike, a perfect photo opportunity. From the tower, on a July morning in 1645, an observer could have watched the Royalist army of Lord George Goring being smashed by the New Model Army a few miles to the west outside Langport and, forty years later would have witnessed the terror of fugitives from the Duke of Monmouth’s tragic defeat at Sedgemoor.
Before entering the church by the north door, visitors should glance up at the battlements where stands a large uncut piece of stone. Legend says that this was the devil who, driven out of church by the preaching of the gospel, took his stand over the porch to try and prevent people from entering to worship. A good story, but the question remains; why was a lump of stone placed on the battlements, when and by whom?
The wooden pulpit is a wonderful piece of craftsmanship and dates from the fifteenth century. The initials carved on the it are J.P. (those of James Petherton, Abbot of Athelney from 1424 to 1458) and W.S. (William Singleton, Vicar from 1455 to 1462) and confirm the date of its construction. Carvings of the twelve apostles, each in his niche and beautifully painted and restored in 1910, embellish the sides of the pulpit.
The church also contains a number of 17th and 18th century memorials with interesting epitaphs, one of which is to 19 years old Joseph Harris, who died in April 1780 and has a nautical theme:
`The stormy wind and Neptunes waves has tost
Me to and fro
In spite of all be God’s decree
I harbour here below
Where I do now at anchor lie
With many of our fleet
Yet once again I must set sail
Our Admiral Christ to meet’.
Mary Harris, possibly a relation of Joseph, passed away some eight months later at the early age of 22 years, proclaiming:
`In my full strength and bloom of days
That death most strong closed up my eyes
Much like a bud nipt off a tree so death has parted you and me
Therefore dear friends I you beseech for bare to mourn for I am rich’.
Robert Jeans, who departed in July 1782, also young, did not appear to have much enjoyed the company of his friends for some unknown reason:
`Weep not dear friend because my days
With you have been so few
I hope in Christ to find more joys
Than I could have with you’.
There couldn’t be a more forthright warning than that from Thomas Warrens in 1657:
`It is decreed and approved true
Today dy I tomorrow you’.
They Found Peace in An English Churchyard (St Peter and St Paul – Wincanton – Somerset)
The parish church of St Peter and St Paul and its churchyard seem almost secreted away in the busy country town of Wincanton. In the south east corner of the churchyard, there is an echo of a time when the whole of Europe was ablaze with conflict and Great Britain stood alone against the might of the dictator Napoleon Buonaparte. A headstone stands shadowed by an ancient yew and bears the names of two Frenchmen, Pierre Jacquet and Jean Baptiste Fioupe, who died in 1806 and 1807, and includes the simple sentiment, ‘He was a prisoner of war but death has made him free’.
In 1805 Great Britain was at war, Europe lay at the feet of Napoleonic France but, despite fear of invasion from across the English Channel, Britannia still ruled the waves. There was a stream of prisoners, from captured enemy ships, being distributed to various parts of the country, some to prisons, some to the hulks floating in river estuaries and some to ‘parole’ towns where secure accommodation could be obtained in private premises and the captives undertook not to escape.
Wincanton was established as a ‘parole’ town, mainly for officers, and in September 1805, the first batch of twenty prisoners, taken in the capture of the 44 gun frigate Didon, arrived. During the next seven years the town would be host to some five hundred men and boys.
The Frenchmen were dispersed throughout the town and the 1811 census shows that nineteen houses were occupied by two hundred and nineteen ‘French Prisoners of War’. The imprisonment was far from strict and the prisoners were allowed the freedom to move about the town and to walk out of Wincanton for up to a mile in any direction. There were entertainments and indoor recreations and the Frenchmen were made reasonably comfortable and welcome by the townspeople. The wealth of many of the captives also gave a much needed boost to the local economy. Even so, there were men who were unwilling to see out the war or to await an exchange of prisoners at some unspecified time in the future, and escapes were attempted. On 17th February 1806 Joseph Allemes, formerly captain of the privateer Hirondelle, escaped but was recaptured the following month in London and sent to the hulks of Chatham.
Young Francis Guieu, son of the cook of the Alexandre, ran away in September 1809, after three years in Wincanton, ‘on account of the ill usage from his father … he is now again admitted on Parole’. Francis was finally released and repatriated on 7th May 1810. On 25th June 1808, the French merchantman Tigre was captured and an Army surgeon, Jost Duval, was taken prisoner. It was recorded in January that he was received on transfer from Tiverton because of ‘one of the Townspeople there fearing he would seduce his daughter!’ Six months later, the lusty Jost is reported to have escaped from Wincanton and there is no record of his recapture. Perhaps he made it back to France with the assistance of local smugglers and was one of the prisoners mentioned in the following contemporary newspaper report of August 1811:
`George Culliford, a notorious smuggler, has been committed to Ilchester jail, for conveying from Wincanton, several of the French prisoners of war from that Depot. Culliford is said to be one of the gang that for some time past has infested the neighbourhood, and been aiding the escape of the prisoners from Wincanton to the Dorsetshire coast, whence they have been conveyed to Cherbourg, and it was with great difficulty and perseverance he was taken in consequence of a large reward.’
The final departure of the Frenchmen was very sudden. One day in December 1811, a troop of cavalry clattered into Wincanton and surrounded the prisoners at their morning roll call. The troopers were followed by a company of infantry and it seems that this was so unexpected that the prisoners were completely unprepared to move. The Frenchmen were isolated from the townspeople and by 4 o’clock in the afternoon they had gone. The prisoners were marched to Mere where they were kept in the church under guard overnight and the following day were dispersed to quarters in Kelso, Hawick, Biggar and Jedburgh to await eventual exchanges for British prisoners of war.
The Wincanton burial register shows, however, that seventeen Frenchmen remained behind in the parish churchyard but only the final resting place of Pierre Jacquet and Jean Baptiste Fioupe, under the ancient yew, is known.
The Ghost in the Gallery (St Mary’s – Beaminster – Dorset)
Beaminster sits in a green hollow in the Dorset hills and, rising prominently above the rooftops of the small town, is the fine tower of St Mary’s church. There is a record of a church in 1303 but little remains as it was extensively rebuilt at the end of the 15th century. The tower was raised at the same time and is almost certainly one of the finest in Dorset, adorned with many stone figures on which, sadly, time and weather are taking their toll. In 1685 the church was desecrated, when corpses of executed Monmouth rebels were hung in pieces from the tower, in company with the sculptures of the Blessed Virgin, the Crucifixion and the Ascension, in a show of strength by the government of James II.
Being at the centre of town and village life, churches were often used for purposes other than worship and the display of rebel bodies. For centuries they were the local community centres, debating chambers, places of refuge and, in time of war or rebellion, a fortress or prison. In many churches, schools were established in a part of the building and often these were charity schools, supported by local benefactors.
One such school for 20 boys was set up in St Mary’s, in the upper gallery of the extension of the south aisle next to the tower, and was completely self-contained, with its own staircase to the churchyard. It was in this schoolroom that a curious thing happened in the summer of 1728.
At about noon on Saturday the 22nd June, the school had just closed for the day and the Master had gone home. Twelve boys remained playing ball in the churchyard but after a while four of the youngsters became bored and went back into the schoolroom to hunt for old pens. Suddenly, there was a great clanging sound, just like someone hitting a brass pan in the church and the four fled from the gallery, down the stairs and out into the churchyard, where they breathlessly recounted their fright to the ball players. After a few minutes in the open air and with senses collected, the boys concluded that a practical joke was being played and all twelve returned to the schoolroom. A thorough search revealed nothing but, as they were leaving, to their horror, they heard behind them in the empty room, sounds resembling the footsteps of a man walking about in heavy boots. Terrified, the boys tumbled down the stairs to the churchyard and, as they ran passed the great west door, their terror was compounded by hearing fora moment the sound of preaching and a congregation singing psalms in the church – but they all the church was empty. Then there was silence and, with the resilience of youth, the boys dismissed their fears of the last few minutes and resumed the more important task of playing ball.
One of the youngsters, deciding it was time to go home, went back into the schoolroom to collect a book and, to his complete surprise, he saw a coffin resting on one of the benches. Retiring quickly to the churchyard, on what was becoming with great rapidity an unusual Saturday afternoon, he described what he had seen and, once again, the boys swarmed up the stairs and crowded through the narrow door. The coffin was still there, and all saw it, but more was to follow. Further back in the classroom was the figure of a boy sitting on a bench and one of the youngsters, who recognised him as his half-brother, cried out ‘There sits our John, with just such a coat on as I have, with a pen in his hand, and a book before him, and a coffin by him; I’ll throw a stone at him!’. The boy in the schoolroom was 14 years old John Daniel and strangely enough, he had been dead and buried for three weeks.
Although the boys tried to dissuade the half-brother from throwing stones at his ghostly relative, they were unsuccessful and, with a shout of ‘Take it!’, a stone was hurtled across the room. The apparition disappeared, leaving the church in complete darkness for several minutes, and the youngsters fled.
Very soon Beaminster was buzzing with the news of the ghostly visitor but the parish authorities were sceptical and ordered the boys to be examined before a Justice of the Peace. One by one they were brought before him and, one by one, they recounted what they had seen. All the descriptions tallied, even to the detail of the coffin hinges. The examination of one of the boys was of particular value. He was described as being a ‘sober and sedate boy’ of 12 years who had come to the school after the late John Daniel had left and had never seen him before. The youngster gave an accurate description of the deceased and included a detail which all the others had missed. He had noticed that a white cloth was wound around one of the hands of the apparition. This observation was confirmed by a woman who had laid out the body and who swore under oath that a cloth had been wrapped around the hand when it became lame about a week before John died.
In view of the corroboration of the accounts given to the Justice, a question mark hung over the death of John Daniel. Had his ghost returned to seek retribution? The boy had been found dead in a field some way from the town and, because his mother had stated that John had suffered from fits, it was accepted as a death from natural causes and the Coroner was not informed.
Following the ghostly visit, orders were given for the body to be exhumed and a Coroner’s Jury summoned to decide the cause of death. Two `respectable’ women were called to swear that they had seen the body with a strip of black cloth around the throat and the local joiner, who had dealt with the burial, also testified that through a gap in the shroud he had seen the black cloth on the neck of the corpse. However, the surgeon who examined the body could not state with any certainty whether the boy’s neck had been dislocated. Despite the inconclusive medical evidence the Jury decided that John Daniel had been ‘Strangled’.
This story appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1774 which stated that it was ‘well authenticated’ but there is silence on the outcome, if there was one, following the Jury’s verdict.