the church of st john baptist

the church of st john baptist

The Parish Church of Yeovil

 

The earliest church on this site was recorded around 950 although this was most likely rebuilt by the Normans since it is recorded in 1226 as "the great church of Gyvele". In the Calendar of Papal Registers of both 1352 and 1353 it was recorded that William Boter was the "vicar of Jevele, in the diocese of Wells" and in 1355 John de Rysingdone was recorded as "rector of Yvelle, in the diocese of Wells".

The church was completely rebuilt once again between 1380 and about 1400 under the auspices of Canon Robert de Sambourne, most likely designed by the master mason of Wells, William Wynford. This is the church which we see today and it is an early example of fully developed Perpendicular with the tracery of the Reticulated Transitional Perpendicular style.

In 1391, during the construction of the present church, it was recorded "Pardon of outlawry to Robert Bays, vicar of Yeovil, canon of the cathedral church of St Andrew, Wells, for non-appearance to answer Geoffrey de Kent, citizen and tailor of London, and Richard Huntelegh for debts of 43s 4d and £10 respectively."

For information on the various Chantries of St John's church - see here.

During the sixteenth century, as the Reformation took its full effect, the parish church of St John the Baptist was closed down and the furniture and decoration sold or covered up. The imposed system of fines and punishments came to fruition as intended since within just a few generations Yeovil had become Protestant. A list of recusants compiled between 1592 and 1606 included the names of just seven people living in or near Yeovil, with five of them named Hawker.

The parish church of St John the Baptist has long been known as "the Lantern of the West" because of the superb windows which admit such a flood of light. The southern aspect of the church is its most striking and includes the massive tower, the seven large and graceful traceried windows of the south aisle and transept as well as the lofty pinnacles and parapets. It is built of Yeovil stone (a local limestone) with Ham stone dressings under lead roofs. Of cruciform plan it comprises a south porch, four-bay nave, crossing, two-bay choir with the crypt below, one-bay sanctuary, north and south aisles to both nave and choir, north and south transepts, north-east vestry (added in the nineteenth century) and a western tower of four stages.

 


This photograph features in my book "Yeovil In 50 Buildings"

St John the Baptist, the parish church of Yeovil, seen from the south. Photographed 2017.

 

 

Church Congregations     From the Ecclesiastic Survey, March 1851

St John's

614

Holy Trinity, Peter Street

550

Congregational (now United Reformed), Princes Street

530

Baptist, South Street

300

Methodist, Middle Street

250

Calvinist Baptist, Tabernacle Lane

190

Brethren Hall, Vicarage Street

93

Quaker Meeting House, Kingston

8

 

 

Unsurprisingly St John's church must be the most photographed building in Yeovil and has featured on postcards from the town for well over a century, and cartes de visite before that. I have nearly 80 in my collection, some of which are reproduced in the gallery below.


 

 

The south porch
The south porch is a half-height 2-bay extension, in the style of main building, and was rebuilt in 1862. It has a crocketted label mould to its pointed archway and a swept sculptured panel in a niche above.

The nave and aisles
The lofty nave has an open barrel roof with notable carved wooden bosses. The nave is 4-bays long with both north and south aisles that extend the length of the nave and continue parallel with the choir to form north and south choir aisles. The fine windows to both aisles are the full width of each bay and are of 5-lights terminating in 2-centre arches. The tracery is of Reticulated Transitional Perpendicular style.

The arcades are very lofty with the apexes approaching the level of the wall plate. The arcade columns are slender with small impost capitals and wall shafts to the aisle and chapel walls. The tower and crossing arches (there is no chancel arch) are unpanelled and set even higher. The trussed ribbed rafters of the barrel roofs and nearly all the bosses are said to be original with colouring, chiefly red and gold, to the bosses and principal timbers throughout. Of particular note are the 28 “African” mask bosses to the aisle roofs, although the origins of these strange bosses are unknown.

The north aisle
The western bay of the north aisle is original whereas the other bays have all been restored. To bay 3 of the north aisle, and opposite the south doorway, is a pointed arched doorway cut into the bottom of the window. Of note is the Prowse memorial window by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Henry Holiday. Holiday worked as the stained glass window designer for Powell's Glass Works from 1861 until 1891 when he left to set up his own glass works.

The north transept
Now the Holy Cross Chapel, the north transept was formerly a chantry with its foundations in 1432. The chapel now houses memorials and a hatchment of the Harbin family of nearby Newton Surmaville. In a glass case is a copy of Erasmus' Paraphrase of the Gospels - bought for 16 shillings (80p) in 1561 with a later chain added for 1 shilling (5p).

The north choir aisle
This was formerly a chantry chapel of the Name of Jesus, founded in 1480 and maintained by a guild. The organ dates to 1894. Formerly located on the floor of the choir, note the brass memorial to Gyles and Isabell Penne.

The choir, chancel and sanctuary
Mounted at mid-height on entering the choir are two carved heads that were either brackets for the medieval Lenten veil or corbels for the rood. The male head on the north wall is possibly King Edward III (1312-1377) and the female head on the south wall possibly that of his Queen consort, Philippa of Hainault (c1314-1369). The heads may, of course, represent the monarch and consort at the time the church was built - Richard II (1367-1400, regnant 1377-1399) and either Anne of Bohemia (1366-1394, consort 1382-1394) or Isabella of Valois (1389-1409, consort 1396-1399). The north wall of the chancel contains the entry to the vestry (built 1915) and crypt with a good ogee and crocketted surround. Next to this the former niche of the Easter Sepulchre now contains the figure of Rev Robert Phelips, vicar from 1815 to 1855. The Phelips family held the patronage of St John's for some two and a half centuries. The floor of the sanctuary is tiled with Minton tiles depicting symbols of the Evangelists. The east wall has two good double niches, canopied and pinnacled, containing modern statues of the Evangelists - Mathew, Mark, Luke and John - and their symbols. Also of note is the east window – almost mirroring the west window with its fine early Perpendicular reticulated tracery. On both north and south chancel walls are many good monuments. In a glass case is a James I Bible of 1617 that was donated to the church by Elizabeth Prowse in 1628. The choir stalls are carved with symbols of the Passion and also include the initials 'TM' for Thomas Messiter of nearby Barwick Park who was Lay Rector.

The crypt
In the earlier Decorated Gothic style, but probably contemporary with the rest of the fabric, the crypt lies under the choir. It comprises four quadripartite vaults in early to mid-14th century Decorated style with a central octagonal pier and moulded corbels to the walls.

Tunnels are reputed to run from the crypt east and south however there clearly couldn't be as the crypt is only partially underground and actually has windows. The entrance doorway in the north wall of the chancel has a crocketted ogee arch with double cusps and pinnacled side pilasters.

The south choir aisle
A former chantry dedicated to the Holy Trinity, this was restored in 1962 and is now the Trinity Chapel. The carved mice, secreted about the wood furniture of the chapel, are the signature work of the carpenter.

The south transept
Externally the south transept has a stair turret to the east corner and services are held annually on the flat roof. The south transept was formerly the Chantry of the Blessed Virgin Mary founded in 1302 in the former church. Of note is the possibly unique black halo of Judas Iscariot in the window glass.

The south aisle
Of note is the exceptional English brass lectern, seen here, dating to about 1450. One of only five in the entire country, it is inscribed in Latin and complete with picture of the donor monk. The lectern was acquired in 1541 at a cost of £3 (about £16,000 at today's value), probably from the Convent of Syon who held the Rectory as well as Lordship of the town.

The head of the donor was defaced by iconoclasts and the Churchwardens' Accounts for the year 1565 record the payment of twopence "P(ai)d for the puttynge out of the two pictors uppon the brass dexte that the lessuns be reade on".

For more information on the lectern click here.

The restored Perpendicular font is probably contemporary with the present church, dating to about 1400. The font canopy dates to 1911.

 

 

The tower
The tower dates to about 1480, some sixty years after the completion of the body of the church. It is 90 feet (28m) high and contains 130 steps in the north-west stair turret. It is a plain, four-stage tower with set-back offset corner buttresses stepping at each stage. The plain open parapet of balusters and capping is devoid of pinnacles but carries a range of hunky punks and gargoyles albeit somewhat small and unimpressive for a church of such grandeur. The parapet, while appearing to be diminutive when seen from the ground, is actually about 5' 6" (1.7m) high.

The top stage has a single, two-light hooded 14th century bell opening to each face filled with good pierced stonework grilles. The third stage has similar windows. The west window is exceptionally large and unusual in Somerset because of its early Perpendicular style. The glass, in memory of Prince Albert, shows the life of St John the Baptist. The plain west doorway is flanked externally by triangular shafts. The tower has a chiming clock (see below) but no clock face, a Sanctus bell and a peal of 14 bells.

 


This photograph features in my book 'Secret Yeovil'.

This small iron cross, fixed to the parapet of St John's church tower in the southeast corner, indicated that the church was exempt from certain levies (that is, certain tax exemptions) while the borough was held by the Convent of Syon (between 1420 and 1534). The levies were listed in a deposition of 1614 reciting a grant of Henry VII to the Abbess of Syon including freedom from subsidies and King's silvers, tonnage and poundage, etc.

 

The cross seen close up. Photographed in 2021.

 

The weathercock surmounting the roof of the northwest stair turret. Photographed in 2021.

A new weathercock was purchased in 1575 at a cost of £2 9s 2d (14s for supply and a further £1 15s 2d for erection - around £800 at today's value). When the present weathercock was erected in 1745 The Churchwardens' Accounts recorded that the cost was £3 5s 6d (£1 4s 0d for supply and a further £2 1s 6d for gilding and erection - £3 5s 6d at today's price, but around £550 at today's value).

 

The dedication panel of the tower's lead roll roof, naming the Vicar, HT Beebe, and the Churchwardens of 1891, Edmund Damon and Thomas Denner. Photographed in 2021.

 

The manufacturer's panel of the tower's lead roll roof, naming James Bazely Petter, ironfounder. Photographed in 2021.

 

The Bells

One of the earliest churchwardens’ accounts in the country is that recorded for Yeovil in 1457-8, the Latin text of which was printed in full, with all its contractions, in ‘Collectanea Topographica et Genealoical', published by JB Nicholls & Son in 1836.

Expenditure is detailed in 71 entries, many of which relate to the bells of the church. The most important work during the year was the provision and erection of a recast bell for which £5 0s 8d (around £4,000 at today's value) was allocated the previous year. The relevant entries are:

  • For one man conveying the broken bell in drink 2d
  • Paid to one man for making the last new bell £5 0s 8d which were received from Tristram Burnell and Thomas Smythe £1 0s 1d
  • Paid for carriage of the old broken bell up to Bristoll 5s 0d
  • In bringing back the same bell homewards to Yeovil 6s 8d
  • Paid for hanging of the same bell in the tower to John Hill, Thomas Capenter, and John Harrys 2s 0d
  • Paid to John Wayte for obtaining the rope at Mountagu (Montacute) and for the help of the said carpenter for one day and a half 6d
  • Paid to Richard Hosyer being with the same carpenter at the same time 6d
  • Guy Corveser present at the same place for half a day 2d
  • One horse brought for carrying the said rope from Mountagu to Yevell 2d
  • For nails and bolts purchased at Shurbourne for fixing the said bell 5d
  • Paid to William Barry for repair of the ironwork of the said bell 4d
  • For meat and drink for the said men helping to raise the said bell in the tower for two days and a half 2s 2½d
  • In carrying the rope to Mountagu 3d
  • For timber and boards lying in the tower and placing them in other places for fixing the said new bell 2d

These are the specific references to the recasting of an old bell which most probably came from the former church (pre-1380). It seems surprising that in order to hoist the bell up into the bell chamber, it was necessary to send to Montacute to borrow a rope of sufficient strength, and though twopence was spent in its carriage from there, it cost threepence to return it. It was also necessary to go to Sherborne for nails and bolts and, indeed, in further expenditure on other bells, sevenpence was paid ‘for transport of two clappers, namely the fourth and third bells, to Shurbourne there and back’, the making of these clappers ‘for the Feast of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist’ costing separate payments of 4d and 6d, while, at the end of the accounts, a further 12d was paid to ‘William Smyth of Shurbourne for the repair of the clappers beyond the costs above’. The reason for this may be due to the existence of a smith working for the Abbey there, who specialised in bell maintenance.

Other bell expenses included repairs to a ‘bawdry’, the thong attaching the clapper to the bell, on two occasions; 1½d for ‘acsingia’ (flick) for greasing the bells at Whitsuntide; 1d ‘for a clapper purchased a new for the bell serving the Body of Christ’, this would have been the small hand bell rung at the celebration of Mass; and 2d ‘for a string (cordu) purchased for the Salsyngbelle’. This last, which is referred to as the ‘Salve’ bell in 1544 and in 1557 accounts, is the ancient Sanctus bell which still remains in St John’s and which almost certainly came from the former church, which was pre-1380.

Fourpence was also paid ‘for making one hempen rope containing thirteen pounds of hemp by gift of Tristram Burnell serving the great bell’. Tristram Burnell, of Poyntington, had married Agnes, widow of Ralph Brett of Newton Surmaville, and together they acquired the whole of that manor in 1442. Another entry relating to the bells is:

  • In drink given to the ringers while it thundered (tonutruat) 1d. Payments of this nature for drink either for the ringers or for the clerk, continued until the Reformation when such ‘superstitious practices’ were banned. It was a commonly-held belief that the sound of the bells drove away the devil who was held responsible for creating thunder.

Today, there are fourteen bells set within two bell chambers, one above the other, giving a 'ring of twelve bells'. The bells include two dating from 1728 and made by Thomas Bilbie of Chew Stoke. Another from the same date, the 'Great Bell', was recast in 2013, from 4,502 pounds (2.01 tons or 321.6 st or 2,042 kg) to 4,992 lb (2.23 tons or 356.6 st. or 2,264 kg). The bells were overhauled and re-hung in 2014-15 by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd.

 

The lower bell chamber, photographed in 2021.

 

Bell Weight Note Diameter Dated Founder
1 6cwt, 3qtrs, 5lbs G 29.00" 2013 Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd
2 7cwt, 2qtrs, 9lbs F 30.56" 2013 Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd
3 7cwt, 3qtrs, 3lbs E 31.88" 1931 Mears & Stainbank
4 9cwt, 1qtrs, 9lbs D 33.88" 1931 Mears & Stainbank
5 8cwt, 3qtrs, 4lbs C 35.38" 1768 Thomas I Bilbie
6 9cwt, 0qtrs, 2lbs B 36.25" 1768 Thomas I Bilbie
7 10cwt, 2qtrs, 11lbs A 38.50" 1662 Thomas Purdue
8 11cwt, 2qtrs, 27lbs G 40.50" 1626 Thomas II Pennington
9 16cwt, 1qtrs, 17lbs F 44.69" 2014 Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd
10 17cwt, 3qtrs, 27lbs E 47.50" 1626 Thomas II Pennington
11 24cwt, 1qtrs, 3lbs D 52.75" 1626 Thomas II Pennington
12 40cwt, 0qtrs, 23lbs C 61.13" 1728 Thomas I Bilbie
0extra 6cwt, 2qtrs, 15lbs A 27.94" 2013 Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd
6♭ 10cwt, 2qtrs, 2lbs B♭ 37.13" 2013 Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd
Sanctus 1cwt, 0qtrs, 8lbs A 18.25" c1399 Unidentified

Table of Bell details.

 

The Clock

There have been clocks in the church tower for centuries, but on 24 September 1891 Yeovil Borough Council installed a chiming clock (as opposed to a 'timepiece' which is a clock with no bell, or a 'striking clock' which just strikes on the hour), presented by Henry Cole, in the tower of St John’s church. It has no face but strikes the quarters and hour on the church bells, and was originally meant to complement the Town Hall clock in High Street, (destroyed by fire in 1935). It employs similar mechanism to Big Ben and the chimes are the same. Recently restored, it now chimes the quarters and hours but is silenced at night (between 11pm and 6am).

The mechanism was made by Thwaites and Reed of Brighton, but assembled and installed by John Tyte of Yeovil. Tyte also installed the clocks in St James' church Preston Plucknett and St Peter & St Paul's church Odcombe.

 

The tower clock in-situ. Although apparently a Heath-Robinson contraption, the clock is remarkably accurate. The chimes are silent during the night. Photographed in 2021.

 

The dedication of the clock is recorded on part of the clock's mechanism, the "setting dial". It was presented by Henry Cole Esq and also recorded are names of the Mayor, Alderman Ptolemy Colmer, the Vicar Henry Beebe and the Churchwardens Thomas Denner and Edmund Damon. Photographed in 2021.

 

The Paraphrase of Erasmus

Edward VI (reigned 1547-1553) decreed that Erasmus' 'Paraphrase of the Gospels' be set up in all English churches. (Erasmus himself noted that paraphrase is not a translation but a kind of commentary with no change of persons; yet it allows something of the paraphrasist's own to be added in explanation of the author's meaning). In 1561 (some eight years after the death of Edward VI) the Churchwardens' Accounts show a payment of sixteen shillings "It(e)m payde for a paraphrase". This was an original copy of the 'Paraphrase of the Gospels' by Erasmus, written in 1523, and purchased by the Churchwarden John Langdonne in 1561. In 1565 the then Churchwardens (Tristram Brooke and Giles Hacker) purchased a chain for twelve pence to secure it and the Accounts record "P(ai)d for makynge of a chayne and a lock to fasten the paraphrase".

 


From my collection

A 1930s postcard of St John's 16th century chained bible and Paraphrase of Erasmus.

 

 

 

For a list of Incumbents - click here

For the carved church mice - click here

For the Medieval carved roof bosses - click here

For the carved Medieval African masks - click here

For the stained glass windows - click here

 

gallery

 

This oil painting dates to about 1750 and shows the Chantry, at left, in its original position by the church tower. In front of the Chantry are the Chantry schoolboys in procession behind their master, on their way to church. This painting was sold for £4,000 as part of the Newton Surmaville house sale in October 2007.

 

A pen and ink sketch of St John's church with the Chantry attached and seen left of the tower, published in the July 1824 edition of the Gentleman's Magazine.

 

A sketch of St John's church published on 9 February 1785 by Collinson and Rack. Interestingly, the Chantry, the eastern end of the chancel and all the gravestones have been omitted from the sketch.

 

A watercolour sketch of St John's dating to around 1830.

 

A Victorian print of St John's church, dated 1851, showing the Chantry still attached to the church. The Chantry was to be demolished and rebuilt in its present position three years later in 1854.

 

A post-1854 Victorian sketch of St John's church, with the Chantry now removed.

 

This sketch from Summerhouse Hill overlooking Yeovil was made about 1860. St John's church dominates the skyline just left of centre. "The town is surrounded on the South East by three remarkable hills - Babylon-hill, Windmill-hill, and Newton-hill. The landscape is also diversified by Newton Copse, the property of George Harbin, Esq., and the beautiful undulating plantations belonging to John Batten, Esq., flanked on the extreme south by some less extensive and elevated grounds, the property of F. Greenham, Esq. From these several points there are prospects so rich in fertility, verdure, and beauty, and smiling prosperity, - such a brightness, a greenness, and a repose, - that the spectator is wrapt in admiration of the view thus spread around and beneath him; and as the hum of distant voices from the busy little town in the valley below reaches his ear, and he looks upon St. John's gray tower, in its hoary age and silent grandeur, rising out of its midst, impressions something akin to adoration force themselves instinctively upon his mind." (Vickery, 1856).

 

A carte de visite dating to about 1875 of St John's church by John Chaffin & Sons.

 

St John's church photographed in 1906.

 


From my collection

This hand-coloured postcard, posted in 1909, shows the gate with lantern over in the churchyard wall facing Silver Street.

 


From my collection

This hand-coloured postcard with an integral frame was part of a series of Yeovil postcards produced around 1910.

 


From my collection  -  This photograph features in my book 'Yeovil From Old Photographs'

A postcard showing, unusually, the north side of St John's church.

 


From my collection. This image features in my book 'Yeovil - The Postcard Collection'.

A hand-coloured postcard of St John's church against a sunset. Postmarked 1917.

 


From my collection

A photograph of St John's church published in a Yeovil Guide of the 1920s. 

 


From my collection  -  This image features in my book 'Yeovil - The Postcard Collection'.

.... and a 1920s postcard when anyone could park in Silver Street.

 


From my collection. This image features in my book 'Yeovil - The Postcard Collection'.

A postcard showing St John's church "Floodlit on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee, 1935, by the Yeovil Electric Light & Power Company Limited".

 


From my collection

A postcard of the nave, looking east towards the chancel, from the 1930s.

 


From my collection

This postcard of the steps from the chancel into the crypt probably dates from the 1940s.

 


From my collection

Another postcard of the crypt, again probably from the 1940s.

 


From my collection

A 1940s postcard of St John's church. At this time there were 'No Parking' signs painted on the churchyard wall facing Silver Street.

 

A 1950s postcard of St John's church looking across the churchyard.

 


From my collection

A late 1950s photograph of St John's church with its wrought iron gates by HA 'Jack' Cooper.

 


From my collection

.... and this postcard, sent in 1963, features a fine sketch of St John's church. It makes you wonder when the sketch was made since all the trees appear to be newly-planted.

 


From my collection

.... and a 1970s postcard of St John's church seen from Silver Street.

 


This photograph features in my book 'Yeovil From Old Photographs'

A postcard of the 1920s viewing St John's church from the air.

 


From my collection. This image features in my book 'Yeovil - The Postcard Collection'.

Another aerial view of St John's church, probably from the same 1920's series.

 

A 1928 aerial view of St John's church with Church House at left. Notice that this photograph shows the wing of the house, adjacent to Church Street, that was destroyed by a German bomb in October 1940.

 


From my collection. This image features in my book 'Yeovil - The Postcard Collection'.

St John's in a postcard photographed during the 1980s from the top of what is now the Superdrug building in the Borough.

 


Photograph by Trevor Hussey, courtesy of Mrs Anne Hussey

St John's church, photographed at Christmas 1990.

 


This photograph features in my book "Yeovil In 50 Buildings"

St John's in the snow - February 2009.

 


From my collection  -  This photograph features in my book 'Yeovil From Old Photographs'

A postcard of 1908 showing the nave of the church, looking east.

 


This photograph features in my book "Yeovil In 50 Buildings"

And a 2017 photograph of nave of St John the Baptist seen from the tower gallery.

 


From my collection

A 1950s postcard of St John's church showing the choir and the brass lectern.

 


From my collection

And another postcard showing the south choir aisle.

 

Another postcard of the brass lectern.

 


From my collection

.... and a postcard of the font.

 

The sanctuary and the east window. Photographed 2013.

 


This photograph features in my book 'Secret Yeovil'.

Typical medieval roof boss in the nave. Photographed 2013.

 

St John's churchyard, south side, photographed in the 1970s.

 

A colourised photograph of St John's churchyard, north side, photographed in the 1970s.

 

The 2015 tower refurbishment

 

Following its refurbishment during the winter of 2014 and spring of 2015 the tower of St John's was revealed in July 2015 in all its resplendent glory - just as it would have done when new some 600 years ago.