Holcombe Old Church – About the Church
This text comes from a booklet I produced in 2013. I am very grateful to have been lent many photographs of the church from various stages in the 20th century, and also some in this century, though it isn’t always easy to date these accurately.
Holcombe Old Church is also dedicated to St Andrew. It lies about a mile away from the village as it now stands; it is thought by most people that in 1348 the village that surrounded the church was hit by the Black Death and most of the inhabitants died and were buried there. Those that survived moved to the hill which is Holcombe today.
The earliest church in Holcombe was apparently of Saxon workmanship and was probably at first only a domestic oratory attached to the then Manor, possibly therefore not on this site but situated by the Manor building. Some 300 years later, when the Manor had fallen into the hands of the Abbey of Keynsham, this oratory was either probably enlarged and converted into the current building, or else stones were moved to the present site and used in the building of the church. Most of the present church dates from the 12th century, with alterations in the 16th and 17th centuries.
External Features of the Church
The porch on the south side is of Norman origin. The gable incorporates a recut Norman arch, with zig-zag around it, and short rolls inserted at intervals in the hollow beneath the hood. Above the arch, instead of the keystone, is a 16th century carved angel. The shafts are decorated with spiral fluting which may have been reset, since the fluting does not quite fit, and have scalloped cushion capitals in the Norman style.
The eastern cushion capital is particularly interesting since it contains an inverted inscription, suggesting that whoever laid it was unable to read. Scholars have long debated on the interpretation of this inscription, and one possibility is that the first line reads ‘+protr’ or ‘wrotr’ which might refer to Wrotard, Archbishop of York, and his attendance at the Exeter Council in Easter 978, with the possibility that he consecrated the earlier, Saxon, church on his journey.
The tower is in the Perpendicular style, which was developed towards the end of the 14th century after the Black Death had caused a shortage of skilled craftsmen for the earlier, Decorated, style. This suggests that the tower may have been finished later than the rest of the church, given that the first Rector of Holcombe was appointed in 1344.
The rest of the outside of the church is plain and simple with two-light windows and four small buttresses, one at either side at the north-east and south-east angle of the nave and chancel, and two at each side of the east wall.
There was also a hole in the end of wall on the West end of the nave wall, to the left of the porch, above where the bench is now – for the priest to tie up his horse.
The Interior of the Church – Pre-Reformation
Little remains in the interior of the church from pre-Reformation days, and no records from this period exist; much of what follows is therefore conjecture. The church is small, comprising sanctuary, chancel, nave and tower (see plan). The chancel and sanctuary would have been the priest’s preserve, and many churches of this time would have had a chancel, or Rood, screen, fitted under the arch, to separate priest from people. Early screens were made of stone but by the late 14th century, oak was used. Over the screen was the Rood beam on which was fixed the Rood (an image of Christ on the cross with figures of the Virgin Mary and St John). There is, however, no evidence in the church to suggest that there was such a chancel screen.
The altar in pre-Reformation days would have been of stone, with five Consecration crosses, signifying the five wounds of Christ; there might well have been statues either side, and the Sacrament would have been reserved. Given the size of the church, it seems unlikely that there would have been much furniture in the chancel, apart from the altar. There might have been paintings on the walls but no evidence of these remains.
Medieval liturgy was focussed on the daily offices and the Mass, in Latin rather than English, but, given the lack of literacy on the part of nearly all laity, it was the priest who said Mass (in many cases learnt by heart, and not very well, given that many clergy were also not literate), while the people heard it. The emphasis was on Sacramental worship, with the use of statues, paintings and other imagery to emphasise it, rather than the Word, although some priests did attempt to educate their congregations by preaching sermons.
The nave was where the congregation sat or stood. There might have been stone benches around the outer walls of the nave, for the use of the better off, but no evidence of these remain, and it is possible that if there were benches these would have been of wood. The floor is of stone, which in Medieval times would have been covered with rushes. Up until the reign of Charles I, when Archbishop Laud finally put a stop to the practice, naves were used not just for services, but more as a church hall would be used today, with markets and other jollifications being held regularly, hence the reason for the chancel screen, with the ‘holy’ things being kept one side of it, and the ‘un-holy’ the other. Not only would the parishioners have been in the nave, but also their dogs and other animals. By the time of Archbishop Laud these revels in the nave would have been purely secular, but in the Middle Ages, they were very much linked to church festivals and were often an extension of them. It is, however, possible that, given the move of Holcombe Village away from the church after the Black Death, this was not the case in here, and that the church would have been used for services only, and possibly this is a reason why there is no evidence of a chancel screen.
The font, which stood by the door was removed to the ‘new’ St Andrew’s when it was built; the base is an inverted font, with traces of cable ornament, probably Norman, and the upper shallow bowl is also of an early date. In Medieval times, the baptismal service began in the porch, and finished at the font, hence the original position.
From the mid fifteenth century, there would presumably have been a copy of the Ignorantia Sacerdotum or Lay Folk’s Catechism which John Stafford, Bishop of Bath & Wells from 1425, had had translated and placed in every church in his diocese. This was a scheme of instruction for the laity, structured round the Creed, the Ten Commandments and Christ’s summary of these, the seven works of mercy, the seven virtues, the seven vices and seven sacraments.
The Interior of the Church – Post-Reformation
As the Reformation made itself felt, so the interior of the church would have changed. In 1538 Henry VIII ordered that the Great Bible (Tyndale’s translation, revised and completed by Coverdale) be placed in all churches. By 1550 the familiar Mass books and breviaries would have been surrendered, to be replaced with Cranmer’s Prayer Book of 1549, heralding the change of the people participating in the liturgy, rather than simply hearing it. Then came the 1552 Prayer Book, and then between July 1553 and December 1558, the country became Roman Catholic again under Queen Mary, and back came the Mass. Under Elizabeth I came a new Prayer Book in 1559 and there was a further edition in 1604 (James I). During the Civil War prayer books were banned but then in 1662 came the final Prayer Book to be regularly used in this church, still used today for Evensong.
Back in 1552, the stone altar would have been removed, to be replaced with a wooden table, and if there had been images painted on the walls these would have been whited out. In early 1553, throughout the country, veils and vestments, chests, hangings and chalices were either surrendered to the King’s commissioners or sold. The Rood, if there, and other images would also have been removed. These would have been reinstated under Mary and gone again after Elizabeth’s accession.
The Salmon family, who lived in Holcombe from 1630 to 1881, appear to have been responsible for much of the interior of the church as it looks today. The church is fitted with painted pews, installed in the early 19th century, those on the left being of the box variety, some with seats facing both east and west, and some with east facing seats only, and those on the right being more simple. Above those on the left, which were presumably designed for the gentry, can be seen a row of pegs – for the gentlemen’s hats. When built, these pews may have had doors, but they do not appear to have been as luxurious as, say, the church at Stourhead, near Frome, in which the family pew had a fireplace.
From the Application for a Grant to the Incorporated Society for Promoting the Enlargement, Building and Repairs of Churches and Chapels in 1884, we learn that there were 36 seats here where pew rents were charged, and 73 free seats, including those for the choir.
The pews on the right (looking east) are much smaller and must have been for the poorer members of the parish. Interestingly, these are provided with wooden kneelers – presumably it was thought more necessary for the poor to kneel than the rich.
The pulpit is three decker, although incomplete; it was originally Jacobean and re-modelled in late Georgian style. In the front can be seen the clerk’s desk, from where the clerk would read the lesson and any notices and make the responses at Mattins and Evensong. Behind is the stall from where the incumbent would sit when not preaching, and the actual pulpit from where he would preach. The back was clearly altered in the 19th century. The seat in the pulpit is set back in a rough stone recess, possibly indicating the remains of a Rood altar, destroyed at the Reformation, or a former window.
The emphasis of worship had changed so that the Word was more important than the Sacrament, which was only celebrated four times a year from at least 1750 – 1870, as evidenced by the Churchwardens’ accounts from this period.
The gallery at the back of the church was probably put in a bit earlier than the pews and would have been used for musicians. Seen here, looking west in 1985, it cuts rather awkwardly across the original arch going from nave to tower.
Above the chancel arch there are the Royal Arms of George I (1714 – 1727) in a frame dated 1726 (see page 12). From the Act of Supremacy in 1559, when Elizabeth I became Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Royal Coats of Arms were installed in many churches, emphasising the supremacy of state over church, and replacing either the figure of Christ on the Rood beam or a wall painting of the Last Judgement.
The walls in the nave are adorned with several memorials to members of the parish, in particular those of the Salmon and Ashman families.
In the chancel, on either side of the east window, are two round-headed panels of the Ten Commandments, and above the window are those of the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. These are painted in gold lettering on black, and are signed by Joseph Emery, painter, Wells, 1817. In his book, Records by Spade and Terrier (nd but c 1910), the Revd J D C Wickham notes that these cost £25 ‘a very high charge’, especially when ‘the same thing at Luccomb Church in 1818 cost £12 17s., including carriage’. Wickham also notes that 19/- were spent on ‘two prayer books for the parson in 1789’, and ‘in 1814, 6 guineas for the same purpose’.
From the chancel, one shallow step onto a wooden platform marks the sanctuary. The altar, altar rails and stalls in the chancel are all 19th century.
The Articles of Enquiry for the Bishop’s Visitation in 1840 tell us that there were a Rector and Curate for Holcombe Church, that services alternated between Sunday morning and afternoon and that one sermon a week was preached. The Churchwardens were able to assure the Bishop that Holy Communion was celebrated ‘at least three times a year’ but in response to the question ‘Are there two surplices?’ they could only say that there was one. It was however washed regularly, and this is evidenced in the accounts from regular fees paid for washing of the surplice. The altar was covered ‘with a cloth of silk or other decent stuff’ and there was a ‘fair linen cloth’ for the covering of the remains of consecrated elements, which were not then consumed at the altar but later. There was a ‘paten or metal plate’, a ‘cup’ (chalice) but no flagon with cover.
A semicircular arch takes one under the gallery and through into the tower. The gallery is reached by a ladder-like flight of steps from the tower, and has a row of turned balusters, probably earlier than the pews. In an article in the press in 1961 it was reported that the gallery was unsafe and not used. These days it is safe and able to be used.
In the north wall of the tower, there is a small door to the stairway leading to the upper part of the tower. I regret to say that when I climbed up the tower stairs few years ago I did not then have the courage to climb the vertical ladder right to the top, but up in the belfry there are two bells, one c 1425 and one c 1545.
The Decision to Build the ‘new’ St Andrew’s
From the minutes of the Easter Vestry meeting in 1870, we learn that ‘this meeting do stand adjourned to this June 2nd at 11.00 in the forenoon to find time for the further consideration of the accommodation provided in the church for the congregation with a view to the improvement and increase thereof’. Clearly there was disagreement about this as at the meeting on June 2nd it was proposed by Mr Padfield and seconded by Mr Giles that no alteration be made in the pews at the North side of the aisle in Holcombe Parish Church. After which it was proposed by Mr Green and seconded by Mr Walter Nuth that in the opinion of this meeting ‘present accommodation in this church is inadequate and that leave be given to the Rector and Churchwardens to consult the landed proprietors of the parish with a view to obtain their co-operation in making a better provision for the congregation and that the Churchwardens be empowered to call another meeting when they have done so’. Upon a show of hands, three were held up for the amendment of Mr Green and eight against it. It was accordingly lost. On a show of hands for Mr Padfield’s resolution, nine hands were held up for it, and two against, and it was accordingly carried.
For the next few years, money continued to be spent on the church:
In 1870 Joseph James was paid £9/1/6 for ‘erecting seats and repairs in the church as per contract’.
On September 30th 1871 Charles Badman’s bill for colouring the church was £1/1/6.
On November 30th 1871 9s was paid to John Harris for ‘making a new window (North side) and repairing others’.
In 1873 Joseph James was paid £3/11/6 for making a ‘new oak cover’ for the font and in April 1874 he was paid £1/10/- for ‘seats in the gallery’.
In March 1877 Charles Badman coloured the church again, this time at a cost of 18/6 and he also repaired the roof of the church for 2/6.
Finally, in June 1877 Joseph F? was paid 10/- for varnishing the royal arms and for painting the church door.
There are no repairs listed in the Vestry Minutes of 1879, 1880 or 1881 for the three preceding years. Clearly further discussions had been taking place about what to do about the inadequacy of the church.
‘At a vestry meeting held on Tuesday September 20th 1881, the following motion was proposed by Arthur Green Esq and seconded by Mr Hawkins. That this meeting considers it expedient to build a church in a more convenient situation for this parish. Mr Green, in proposing the motion, made a statement of the contribution in money already given or promised, showing that £721/11/4 could be already reckoned on and that this afforded reasonable hope that the total amount could eventually be raised. The motion was carried unanimously, proposed by Mr Benjamin Padfield and seconded by Mr Green.’
It was also agreed ‘That this meeting considers it advisable that the existing burial ground should still be continued in use, and that it should be enlarged. Carried unanimously’.
The new church was consecrated in July 1885, and a formal letter of substitution of the new church for the old church was dated 4th September 1885. The Articles of Enquiry for the Bishop’s Visitation in 1885 show that there was now an incumbent only (the Revd Walter Eugene Whitaker who had been in office since 1874), Holy Communion was celebrated twice a week, there was a flagon with cover, and there were four surplices.
Holcombe Old Church between 1885 and 1985
I have not found detailed records for this period, although there are photographs taken, in particular, in the early years of the century, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, in 1961 and 1985, as well as more recently. In the early years the Old Church was used purely as a cemetery chapel when there was a burial in the churchyard. Repairs were kept to a minimum.
In 1961 repairs were clearly done, and certainly the plaster was taken off the ceiling, showing wonderful roof timbers, before the plaster was put back on.
Up until the 1980s the church was in the care of the parish, and it was difficult to maintain both churches. As the ‘new’ St Andrew’s approached its centenary in 1985 it was decided to hand the church over to the Redundant Churches Fund, now The Churches Conservation Trust and it was finally vested in the now CCT on 1st August 1987. In 1985, because of this, the National Association of Decorative and Find Arts Societies produced an illustrated foolscap book compiled by the Mendip Group which gave a detailed Record of Church Furnishings.
The CCT have carried out necessary repairs to the church, such as the flooring on the gallery and cracks in the chancel arch.
Although not closed, there are no spaces in the churchyard for new burials. It is still possible to bury in an existing grave and also to bury ashes by the south and west walls. (The modern cemetery, run by Holcombe Parish Council, is to the north of the church and is where new burials are made.) In the north side of the churchyard is the Scott family grave (the family of Robert Falcon Scott, although he was buried in the Antarctic) and to the south there is a grave with five lambs on it, remembering the five children from one family who were drowned at the end of the 19th century when the ice on the pond opposite the inn gave way.
Trees have been planted, and sometimes these have seriously affected the view of the church. In recent years, some of these have been felled, with permission, and nowadays we ensure that a little gentle pruning is done, again with permission, so that those remaining do not get too big.
Archaeology at the Church
Wessex Archaeology was commissioned by The Churches Conservation Trust to undertake archaeological excavations in July 2012 (as part of the Festival of Archaeology) and March 2013. The 2012 investigation was mainly outside, but in 2013 much of it took place in the nave of the church. The excavation uncovered two, largely rock-cut graves, both of which had been re-used on a number of occasions. The grave closest to the altar contained the remains of three adults, buried at separate times over the centuries. In a grave further west, there were the remains of an 11-12 year old and a separate adult burial. A fragment of re-deposited flagstone suggests a late 18th or early 19th century date for these burials.