Church services in Upton Noble’s St Mary Madgalene

Throughout this third lockdown every Sunday at 10 a.m. we are hosting socially distanced short services of Morning Worship (albeit without singing).

Everyone is welcome.

On every day of the week the church is unlocked and open for private prayer through the hours of daylight.

When was it built?

The church was probably built in the 12th century with the tower and a small chancel being added in the 13th century. The church was enlarged by the addition of the south aisle in about 1500. This was embellished with larger windows about a century later. The church must have been small for the village’s population. This stood, for example, at a total of 285 in 62 houses between 1821 and 1831.

Has it had a colourful history?

The church was unified with Batcombe in a single benefice for several centuries. After the Reformation the church was served by a succession of curates. Following the Civil War it passed into the hands of the Puritans under the famous rector Richard Alleyn. In 1662 the curate Emanuel Harford was ejected from the living under the terms of the Act of Uniformity which required the use of the Book of Common Prayer.

Who were the curates who served it?

These included Joseph Armitage Robinson, formerly Dean of Westminster and Wells, Bishop Charles Abraham (who is buried in the churchyard) and Bishop Fabian Jackson. Many of the curates lived in the Manor House until it was leased out by the Rector in the 18th century. It became the Red Lion Inn and later a cloth factory. Some curates had more than one job. For example, Edward Michell was also headmaster of Bruton Grammar School.

How was holy communion taken?

The Puritan tradition persisted in Upton Noble after Harford’s time. Holy communion was taken sitting around a table within the communion rail until the first half of the 19th century. When this observance was abandoned, communion was given from pew to pew.

When did the building fall into disrepair?

In 1785 a survey described the church as being “much out of repair…the pews and seats are old and ordinary, the floor bad, the walls green and damp and the whole very dirty”. The curate was a Mr Norris at Batcombe and services were held only once every three weeks. In 1876 a letter to the Western Gazette complained of the “disgraceful state of the building” and that “one of the seats broke down while three men were sitting on it”. There were large holes in the plaster ceiling. In 1878 the church was described as “partially in ruins and has not been used for two years”.

Who regenerated it?

The London architect Robert Jewell Withers (1823-1894) was engaged by the Revd W C Baker, a keen sportsman and army sports coach among other things. Withers rebuilt much of the church. He reused the old stones as far as possible and retained the old stone window frames in the south aisle. Withers increased the capacity of the church from 50 to 76 worshippers by dint of a slightly larger floor plan.

Why is the interior so serene?

The church’s simple interior is a place of solace. Inside you know you are in a special place because there is so much history. You enter through the tower with its 13th century arch. The porch is hung with trestles for supporting coffins. Beyond it, another Norman doorway gives access to the nave. This doorway is surmounted by a mediaeval stone canopy which used to hold a small statue of a saint — presumably until the Reformation. Just inside the nave stands the Norman font.

Much of the decoration within the church dates from the rebuild of 1878. Access to the chancel is through a wide arch of that date, but in the “decorated” style of around 1300. From the chancel, an original archway of around 1500 leads into the side chapel in the south aisle. This is graced by two pairs of wooden angles believed to have been carved for St Paul’s Cathedral after World War II.

On the east wall of the side chapel is a stone crucifix probably of Norman vintage which was discovered buried in the north wall during the 1878 rebuilding. The crucifix is much defaced, but it is still full of pathos. There are two memorials in the side chapel, one to members of the Dawe family (1709) and one, which is hidden behind the organ, to the Balch family (1869).

When did burials begin?

There is no evidence of burials at Upton Noble until the end of the 17th century. For centuries burial rights were with Batcombe. There are no gravestones pre-dating the church rebuilding of 1878. Fragments of earlier gravestones can be found elsewhere in the village, being used for other purposes. The church yard includes the base of an ancient cross which was probably overturned during the Reformation.

* A more detailed description of the church and its history can be found in a booklet kept in Upton Noble Church.