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Steeple Ashton

Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Steeple Ashton

Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Steeple Ashton Date Photo Taken 2010
Uploaded 15/02/2010 17:20:42
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Map Latitude 51.313006146095084 : Longitude -2.1355560421943665
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Original Media Location: Michael Marshman

Stone Bust in South Aisle Chapel.

This grand church dominates the village and is large enough to serve a medium sized town. The exterior is very elaborate with battlements, two-stage buttresses, a variety of pinnacles and many splendid gargoyles. It has a four bay clerestoried nave, north and south aisles which are extended to incorporate chapels at both ends, a west tower, and a chancel. The main entrance is via the south porch, which is two-storied with a parvise room above the stone vaulted ceiling, with the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on the central boss, of the entrance; there is also a single storey north porch. Below the window of the parvise room there is a large sundial, probably of the 18th century, replacing one of 1636.

The tower is of four stages with set back angle buttresses and crocketted pinnacles, with windows in all three upper stages. The middle window on the south is mostly blocked by a blue and gold clock face of the 19th century. The clock is an early one made of iron and may date from 1543. The fine west face of the tower has a great west window above the door; above its transom are five niches with elaborate canopies, these are most likely to have held images in earlier centuries.

A church was first recorded here in 1252 but the document indicates that it had long been in the village. The Rectory had been obtained by the abbess of Romsey long before this date and had probably been in possession of the Abbey since 1066. The document of 1252 states that the vicar was to have two chaplains continually with him; one of these would have served the chapel at Semington. The dedication to St. Mary was first recorded in 1281 and the first recorded presentation of a vicar in 1388.

The great tower was built in the early 15th century and is the earliest part of the present church. Apart from the chancel most of the rest of the structure dates from the late 15th century, most probably the period 1480 - 1500. There is a Victorian copy of a painted board that had been fixed to the west gallery stating the church was founded [rebuilt] between 1480 and 1500. The north aisle was built at the cost and charge of Robert Long and his wife Edith, the south aisle built mostly at the cost and charge of Walter Lucas and his wife Maud; the rest of the church and the steeple at the cost and charge of parishioners then living. The mason, and therefore most likely the architect of this work, was Thomas Lovell of Trowbridge. The only early part of the church that remained was the chancel that was the responsibility of the holders of the great tithes and they did not spend any money replacing it. The eastern chapel of the north aisle has a carving of the Assumption, indicating that this was the Lady Chapel.

The stone steeple mentioned stood on top of the tower and was 93 feet in height, giving a combined height of 186 feet for tower and steeple; the highest in the county apart from the spire of Salisbury Cathedral. It was presumably an earlier steeple that gave the village the prefix in its name. The later steeple stood until 25th July 1670 when a lightning strike shattered part of it in a violent storm. The parish employed good masons to repair the crowning glory of the church but when it was nearing completion another great storm occurred on 15th October 1670 when two workmen were on the steeple. It was again hit by lightning, completely demolished and the two workmen, John Bartlett and John Robins, killed.

Great damage was done to the nave and aisles by the fall of the steeple and it cost £420 to repair roofs and walls; this was completed by 1675. After two strikes by lightning it was possibly felt to be tempting providence to rebuild again and Steeple Ashton has been without its steeple since 1670.

This was a wealthy church and vicarage with substantial tithes; in 1698 these alone were worth £100.

In 1605 a new pulpit was built. A west gallery was built in 1715 and accommodated an orchestra that played for church services. In 1835 a barrel organ was put in this gallery, replacing the musicians of the gallery orchestra. Box pews, some fitted in 1745-6 by Jonathan Reynolds, a Trowbridge carpenter, filled the nave and aisles and there was a pulpit and tester. The interior was a place of Georgian splendour with a classical altarpiece, much wooden furniture and hatchments and monuments. In 1853 the somewhat plain chancel of the earlier church was demolished and the present one, designed by Henry Clutton, built. It was taller and about four feet longer than the old one and much more in keeping with the ornate Perpendicular work of the late 15th century. The font was given in 1841 by the vicar Richard Crowly (1828-69) in memory of his mother.

A complete restoration of the church, including refurnishing, began in 1868 to create a place of worship in keeping with mid-Victorian ecclesiastical thought. The gallery was demolished and the organ moved to the north chancel aisle while the pews were swept out of the church and replaced by the present seating. New west doors were fitted and the floor covered with encaustic tiles. Between 1871 and 1874 the rest of the church was 'improved' including a new pulpit, and the removal of monuments from the pillars. This work was carried out by Giles and Gane of London.

There are a good number of fragments of medieval glass from the windows broken by Sir William Waller's troops in 1645; locally it is said that his men stabled their horses in the church. In 1648 a heavy church rate was levied to repair the glass. The Victorian stained glass window in the eastern end was considered unsafe and replaced by one of clear glass in 1978. Twentieth century restoration took place from 1948, including the installation of a modern heating system. Between 1968 and 1978 restoration work included the re-roofing of the south aisle, repair of the pinnacles and stonework of the west window, the re-leading of the aisle windows, the re-tiling of the chancel roof, and the repainting of the clock face. In 1974 flood lighting was paid for and installed by a member of the congregation in memory of his parents.

The present organ, made by Bryceson Bros. & Ellis, was given by Charlotte Long in 1877; this replaced the barrel organ of 1835 that had seen service in the gallery and the former Lady Chapel. An earlier organ had lasted about 70 years; in 1514 Walter Lucas left money to buy and organ for the church but this seems to have been dismantled by 1589 when it was recorded that the parish had 181 organ pipes. In 1620 the old pipes and fragments of the organ were sold.

In 1543 the church had five great bells, a small bell and a clock. Three bells were recast by John Wallis of Salisbury in 1607 and in 1616 he also recast the tenor bell. Henry Long set up a sixth bell, a Sanctus bell, in 1666. Four bells were recast again in the 18th century while another one was recast in 1889. Another Sanctus bell by Wells of Aldbourne was provided in 1809. The remaining original bell of 1607 and another of 1772 were recast in 1915. The whole peal was recast in 1959.

From 1495 vestments, books, and silver and pewter vessels were given to the church, mainly by the Long family. One vicar gave the church the volumes of the work of St. Chrysostrom, published in 1530, and these were later included in the Samuel Hey Library. Samuel Hey was vicar from 1787 to 1828 and left 1,139 books for the use of future vicars. All but about 200 were given for salvage during the Second World War. In 1968 the books were removed from the old vicarage and placed on specially built shelves in the parvise room, Here also is a lectern of c.1740, made of walnut and pear wood, that is believed to have belonged to Hey.

The Church House was first mentioned in c.1550 but had fallen down by 1699.

The parish registers are complete from 1538; all but those in current use are held in the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre in Chippenham.

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