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The glory of Banwell Church

15:59 23 May 2008

This view of Banwell Church takes in its magnificent rood screen, installed in 1521.

This view of Banwell Church takes in its magnificent rood screen, installed in 1521.

Although a great many years ago the water from the Banwell spring had a reputation for healing powers, there is no record that it was ever regarded as a holy well. A former

The late Norman font. Its cover is Jacobean. Behind it is the finely carved front of the West gallery. In Elizabethan days this woodwork formed the Banwell church pew of Bishop Godwin.

Although a great many years ago the water from the Banwell spring had a reputation for healing powers, there is no record that it was ever regarded as a holy well. A former vicar of Banwell, however, put forward the theory that long before the Banwell monastery of King Alfred's time, and centuries before the magnificent 101 feet high church tower was raised, there may have been heathen worship of water at the nearby source of the River Banwell.Way back in 1905 Banwell's vicar and village historian, the Rev C S Taylor, said that the Saxons must have lived in these parts in heathenism for about a century, and possibly worshipped natural objects such as sun and moon, fire and water wells. He said it was a singular thing that the oldest minsters in the district, those of Wells, Cheddar and Banwell, all dedicated to St Andrew, stood at the spring-head of considerable streams. It seemed likely that these spots were sacred even in heathen days. After conversion, the spring-heads may have remained spots where people assembled for prayer until eventually a church was founded.To turn off of Banwell's main street into its church today is to be confronted by beauty that is breathtaking - the magnificence of its church, a building that is one of the great glories of the Mendip countryside.The historian, Freeman, stated: "I am inclined on the whole to set down the nave and aisles of Banwell as, externally, the most thoroughly beautiful I know among churches of its kind; the proportions of the aisle and clerestory are absolutely perfect. I have hinted that the Perpendicular clerestories are, if anything, a little too low and the windows a little too small. Banwell has hit the exact mean; its range of three-light windows with pointed arches is most stately."F A Knight also waxed enthusiastic in his The Sea-Board of Mendip declaring: "The Church of St Andrew, which stands near the centre of the village, is not only the finest example of Perpendicular architecture in the district, but is in some respects unsurpassed by any similar building in the Mendip country."Little is known of the church's history - there is no record of its foundation or subsequent alterations. But its story is in its stones and woodwork, the wonderful expression of days of great craftsmanship.The beauty of the church tower is no longer enhanced by its reflection in the pond, but how aspiringly it points to heaven. Its date is put at about 1380, and on its western face is a representation of the Annunciation. In the Virgin Mary's niche there is a lily pot symbol of purity, and a lily leaf motif also to be found in the font and pulpit. The font, probably of late Norman origin, is the church's oldest possession.Then there is the rood screen, acclaimed by Nikolaus Pevsner in his Penguin Buildings of England as 'the best of the district'. This screen is one of the church glories not only of the Mendips, but also of Avon and Somerset.The old wardens' accounts tell us that in 1530 4d. was paid for paper to draw the draft of the roodloft, 1s. 8d. for making the indenture and obligation for the carver, 6s. 8d. for the deed, and finally £16 6s. 8d. in part payment to the carver. In 1521 men were employed to take down the old rood loft, and another £23 was paid to the carver. A scaffold was also set up so that the 'High Cross' or roof might be painted.Thus, it appears, the roodloft was designed and started in 1520 and finished in 1521, and that this priceless possession of Banwell church was carved for under £40 - fairly big money, of course, in those days.It was not until 1525 that the screen was gilded, a Robert Hoptyn being paid £5 for the work, and for gilding the great Crucifix that once stood above it, suspended by a chain held by an angel.What a pity this Crucifix no longer remains. We are told that it stood on a great rood-beam, and was 12 feet high, and that a large candle, the High Light or Cross Light, burned ever before it, and five lights marked the five wounds of the Saviour, while another candle burned before the figure of His mother.Within a few years there came the effect of the Reformation, and the Banwell wardens record that the Cross was sold for £3, and that 10d. was paid for 'mete and drynke' for the workmen who took it down. A further 18 pence was disbursed for taking the Cross to Uphill, and another shilling given to 'ye botemen' for carrying it we know not where.But happily the screen was spared, and later a barrel organ took the place of the Crucifix on it. A new barrel organ was put there in 1830, but in 1865 the organ was installed in another part of the church.On the south wall of the nave is one of the church's most treasured possessions, the memorial brass to a Banwell physician and priest, John Martok, who died in 1503. It is in excellent condition, and Martok is seen vested in cassock, surplice, almuce, and cope.Martok was a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and physician to Bishop Oliver King, whose name is linked with the building of Bath Abbey. In 1495 he had a dream in which he had a vision of a ladder to heaven, and heard a voice saying: "Let an olive establish the crown, and let a king restore the church". He began the buildings of Bath Abbey, but with the Reformation the work was stopped. The building was not finished until 1609, and the West front commemorates Bishop King's vision.Bishop King, who was chief secretary to King Henry VII, died at his manor house at Banwell in 1503, and John Martok, his physician, survived him by only two days. There is a story that they were buried side by side in the chapel attached to the manorial residence, Banwell Abbey, but there is no confirmation of this. It seems more likely that his remains lie in St George's Chapel, Windsor, where there is a chantry with a tomb bearing his name.Banwell's fine screen is not its only outstanding example of woodwork. The finely carved font of the west gallery is of late Elizabethan origin, and once formed a part of a pew set up by Bishop Godwin in about 1590.Ordinarily Bishop Godwin would only attend Banwell church as the lord of the manor, and he provided himself with a finely carved pew just outside the screen on the south side of the nave, where it remained until about the middle of the last century, when all the high pews in the church were removed.The font is of late Norman date. There is also a beautiful stone pulpit of great antiquity, while in the tiny chancel vestry there is some extremely old Flemish glass, brought from Belgium by a former vicar, the Rev W H Turner, in 1855. The subjects include the marriage of Tobias and Sarah, and their return under the guidance of St Raphael.The church records of Banwell are especially interesting, and the registers go back to 1569. Of particular interest is the entry in 1568 that reads: "Pd John Payne for the Kooken stool, 17s." The Kooken Stool or Cucking Stool was a specially made chair to which scolding wives of inhabitants, guilty of misdemeanours, were tied and thrown into the water. No doubt Banwell Pond was the place of 'execution' and where the villagers assembled to watch the ducking.The first mention of a vicar of Banwell is that of Robert, who was there in the first quarter of the 13th century. Down the years some remarkable characters have had the care of souls of Banwell folk.There was, for instance, the remarkable Rev Dr Frederick Blomberg, who was vicar towards the end of the 18th century. He was brought up by royalty and received many favours. He maintained that his father was an Army officer who married secretly, and that two children of the marriage were brought up in a secluded corner of the country. The father died in battle, but straightway appeared before a fellow officer as a ghost, telling him about his secret marriage and the children, and "how they could be put in possession of a vast estate".Queen Charlotte is said to have heard this story, and summoned young Blomberg to her. She took a liking to him and had him brought up with her own children, of whom she had 15.A Bristol writer, Joseph Leech, who used to get around to the church services in the district on horseback, said of Blomberg: "At a sermon Blomberg was poor, but give him a fiddle and he had few superiors. So fond was he of his instrument that he had a desk fitted up for music books in his chariot, and he would scrape away behind four horses as he made his periodical journeys to and from London."He played duets with his foster-brother, George IV, who was one of the best 'cellists in England. Rest to poor Blomberg's ashes; those who did not come to listen to his sermons were ever pleased to hear his solos; and I am not one of those who hold fiddling cheap or think that is only the scraping of the hairs of the horse upon the bowels of the cat."There have also, of course, been Banwell vicars unknown at Court, neither wealthy nor famous scholars, but who did great work among their people. There was the Rev W H Turner, who made the gift of old Flemish glass installed in the vestry. He was the son of the Rev Dr Joseph Turner, Dean of Norwich and Master of Pembroke College, who taught William Pitt. The Rev W H Turner was a much-loved vicar of Banwell for 55 years, almost the entire length of Queen Victoria's reign, and died at the age of 93.I myself have memories of the Rev T H Amos, a rare character. As a reporter attending Banwell harvest homes of pre-war days, I recall his wonderful sense of humour. His after-luncheon speeches, invariable delivered in Zummerzet dialect, was the most hilarious 'turn' of harvest homes in the district.Churches, of course, are more than places of worship. They enshrine village history. Their memorials tell the stories of the faithful servants, and Banwell church also gives expression to the great workmanship of those who wrought in stone and wood for the glory of God.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on September 28, 1963


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