A Church of Two Millennia

Picture by Becky Feather

The church you see today has been changed many times over its history. It has been larger than it is at present and, at one time, may well have been taller.

The church guide gives a more detailed account of the church and its various treasures; but this timeline sets some of those changes in context and speculates on aspects for which there is no written record of change.

If you are unfamiliar with the names for parts of the church you can access a simple plan of the church’s layout here: St Mary’s Church – Floorplan.

If you want to proceed on the journey through two millennia of change, READ ON.

Roman Origins?

It is not known when the first church was built on this site.  In the nineteenth century, Roman tiles, coins and a pavement were found in the churchyard, so it is possible that a shrine or place of worship existed during the Roman occupation and that it was Christian.  The Roman Empire converted to Christianity in 380AD, some time before they left Britain, and their shrines and altars, previously been dedicated to pagan gods, were then reappointed.

The Course of the Via Julia

Close to the present church runs the old Roman road, the Via Julia.  This ran through Bitton connecting the Fosseway at Bath to the River Severn and the Roman Port of Abonae (now Sea Mills)
From H T Ellacombe – The History of the Parish of Bitton 1883

The Church of the Hwicce

Whether it continued as a Christian place of worship after the Romans left is simply a matter for speculation.  We know that in this part of Britain, Christian worship continued after the Romans occupation, although Christianity competed with pagan rituals. This area was one of the last parts of what is now England, to have been completely conquered by the Anglo Saxons who arrived in Britain from Germany after the 5th century.

What is quite likely, however, is that a church was here from around the year 700AD.  From this time, it would have  flourished as the newly formed Anglo Saxon Kingdoms converted to Christianity and later converged as a single English nation. The earliest church would most probably have been a simple building.

The people of this part of the country were known as the Hwicce.  The Hwicce became an autonomous sub-kingdom within the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia. Its separate identity was acknowledged in the title of its bishop, the Bishop of Worcester who was titled Episcopus Hwicciorum – Bishop of the Hwicce.

St Lawrence Church, Bradford on Avon
The original church of this period is likely to have been a very simple building, very  possibly similar to the small Church of St Lawrence in nearby Bradford on Avon.

The Anglo-Saxon Church

 the Anglo Saxon church which developed would have been a substantial building.  At its height (around the year 1000)it had two transepts (smaller buildings) at either side.

Parts of the Anglo Saxon church still form the structure of today’s building. Parts of the north wall of the nave  and parts of the opposite wall, at the end closest to the tower date from this period.

If you look at the north wall you will see the remains of some round arches that have been blocked up.  These were part of the Anglo Saxon structure too.

The nave roof  was almost certainly  taller than it is today and there may may even have been a row of high windows or openings at the highest points of the walls There was probably a thatched roof.

Within this Saxon structure a large stone Rood (a carved structure of Christ on the cross), was placed on the far east wall of the nave. You can still see the feet of this structure high up near the roof of the existing church.  An arm and head of this structure were also found in the nineteenth century.  The arm can be seen in the chancel.

We don’t know why or when the two transepts were removed, fell down or suffered some other form of calamity.

The Anglo-Saxons did not have the concept of a parish structure for their churches, but placed great emphasis on monastic centres or minsters serving the needs of a wide area – with shrines or small chapels within the wider locality.  Whether the church at Bitton operated in such a way is not known, but given its size it seems quite likely. 

St Mary’s Church, Braemore, Hampshire
 The Anglo Saxon church at Bitton,  may have looked a little like this surviving example in Hampshire.  This has two transepts located at the east end of the nave, with a tower rising above it.  The  tower at Bitton is likely to have been even higher to accommodate the Rood.
Picture – Alamy

The Norman Church

In 1066, England was conquered by the Normans who imposed a new ruling class and took over the senior positions in the church. The Normans had different approaches to church buildings to the Anglo Saxons both in outward design and inward appearance.  While the Anglo Saxons tended to order the church so that the most holy place was at the lowest point, perhaps even below ground, in the Norman church, the most holy place,(the altar) was also the highest. their churches were altered accordingly.

The Normans also introduced the concept of the parish church for each village or community.  This may have made little difference to the church in Bitton, as much of the area that it served, and which later became identified as its parish, was the forested.  the parish was very large incorporating what is today, Hanham, Kingswood, Warmley and Oldland.

Little more is known about the church building until 1299 when a chapel, known as a Chantry Chapel was built on teh north side  to say masses for the souls of the de Bytton family. The richly carved sedilia, still in place in the chapel, suggests that this addition to the church was originally magnificently decorated.

The tower was added at the west end in the 1370s, and much of the previous Anglo Saxon Church had disappeared or much modified by thgen.

Unlike today, access to the church came through either a south or north door rather than the tower.

The church at this time would also have appeared quite empty.  There may have been some temporary seating, but little else on the floor.  The walls, however, would have been covered with large and dramatic paintings of Christ in glory or quite frightening images of souls in purgatory. At the east end of the nave there would have been a screen closing off the chancel. In these times the chancel, the most holy part of the church (and located at the far end) was reserved for the priest.

Whether or not  it had been the case previously, during this late medieval period, it seems that the church was the centre of a significant religious community that may have been accommodated in the buildings close to the church which date from that time.

The Manor House

The manor house next to the church dates from the 13th century and was originally part of the estate of church buildings. Today it is a private home.

The Reformation

A new chancel was constructed at the end of the 15th century, since when the footprint of the church itself has changed little. The interior design of the chancel partly reflected the changes that had already started in religious thought. These changes were to lead to a fundamental change in the way in which churches operated known as the Reformation and affected not only England but Scotland too and other countries on the continent.

The English Reformation began in the 1530s when King Henry VIII broke with the Roman Church. Over the next 100 years it had a profound effect on the way that churches looked and the way in which they were used.

Most church adornments or ornaments were removed, painted over, or, in some instances, disfigured. It is likely that a chancel screen remained in place, but the chancel itself was no longer viewed as a particularly holy place.

The Reformation had a wide set of interpretations: from those who originally saw it as just a break with Papal authority, to the more extreme puritans, for whom the old rituals and rites of the church were not only outdated but considered forms of idolatry. Instead, the Word of God , as understood through the Bible, now available in English rather than Latin, was taken as the only authority in matters of worship and orthodoxy.

The Memorial to John Burnlie

The memorial was dedicated, by his parishioners not to their priest, but to a Minister of the Word of God

Communion was rarely celebrated, and the centre of any service was the sermon – the ministry of the Word. The highpoint of the more extreme puritan approach came with the victory of Parliament in the English Civil War, and the period of the Commonwealth that followed the execution of the king.  Strict instructions were given to churches about the removal of any pictures of saints or representations of Christ.  The communion table (not an altar any longer) was ordered to be simple and adorned only with a plain linen cloth. Such instructions were enforced, as far as practicable, by Cromwell’s Commissioners.

If you look around this church you will see signs of the Reformation and its impact. Despite it being a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, there is no statue or even a picture in her honour. A clue to the position of this church and community at the time may be  evident through its oldest wall memorial, in the chancel.  On the south wall (the right hand side) is a simple stone tablet to John Burnlie, who was vicar in the 1620s and is described as a Minister of the Word of God a strong reference to the fact that this church seems to have embraced the reformation more keenly then elsewhere.

The Restoration

Neither the puritans nor the Commonwealth itself were long endured.  The monarchy was restored in 1660 and with it a gradual return to more symbolism and ritual as well as ornament. On the opposite wall to the memorial to John Burnlie (in the far east end of the chancel overlooking the sanctuary)  is a memorial to Sir John Seymour. Sir John was Member of Parliament for Gloucestershire and, living in the manor house next to the church, would have known John Burnlie in his youth. Seymour’s memorial is a grand affair probably constructed some years after his death in 1663, by his grandson, also John Seymour, who in the 1690s, donated an ornate cloth to cover the Communion Table.  The gift of the cloth itself, suggests that the communion table was no longer without adornment and may well have been reassigned a place at the east end of the church where the pre-Reformation altar would have been sited.

The Prayer Book was also restored in 1662, providing rites and procedures for services of all kinds.  But it would be wrong to assume that there was a return to the adornments of the pre-Reformation church.  Far from it. Communion took place, but rarely.  The centrepiece of the Sunday service was the sermon, most often based on a passage of the Bible authorised for reading on the Sunday in question.

The Memorial to Sir John Seymour

The Seymour family took a lease on the Manor House in the 1570s and kept it as a family home for nearly 200 years. This memorial was installed some years after his death in 1663. Sir John was MP for Gloucestershire in the Short Parliament but was excluded after Pride’s Purge which removed MPs suspected of having sympathies with the King.

What did occupy the concerns of the leading men of the parish over the next century and a half, however, was not the pattern of worship, so much as how to accommodate more people and ensure that the seating arrangements in the church reflected the structure of society.

The pulpit, from which the sermon was preached seems likely to have been in the centre of the nave on the north wall.   Seats closest to the pulpit were seen as the most desirable and consequently were allocated to the most important an d richest families. 

In 1693, the parish registers record that:  it was ordered that the two seats on ye south side of the church opposite to the pulpit shall be allotted to Sir John Newton and his family at Barr’s Court for ever and that Mr Seede and Mr Rosewell be placed in ye seat just below and yt Sir Ricard Hart have ye two seat just under the pulpit for him and also his tenants at Philgrove.”



The Gallery at the West End

The gallery was installed in 1734.  This watercolour was painted in the 1840s by HT Ellacombe, who was vicar at the time.   By then, an  organ had been installed on the gallery.  The walls remained covered in plaster until the 1860s, although the pews  that had been installed in the chancel itself were soon to be removed.

Picture: Bath & North East Somerset Council

It is likely that these seats would then have been installed by the families themselves, probably with high box walls making the not only warmer but shielding the family from the view of less important parishioners. They would have to endure less comfortable seating on plain benches or would be required to stand. Seating would also have largely faced towards the pulpit.

St Mary’s Church in the Eighteenth Century

This drawing of the church is dated 1792 and shows the church from the north side. It is noticeable that there are fewer windows than today. Only one large window was recorded with a slit window close to where the nave meets the chapel.

In the eighteenth century the population was growing faster than it had for many centuries and It is most likely population pressures that led both to the final removal of the old chancel screen, enabling seating to be installed in the chancel itself, and the construction in 1734 of a gallery at the west end of the church, to accommodate still more people.

Pews for the general population were installed in 1785.

Henry Thomas Ellacombe 1790-1885

This picture dates from 1817, the year in which he arrived in Bitton as curate.

The Ellacombes

The church of today owes much of its look to the work of and decisions made during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by two vicars, father and son who together were incumbents for a combined total of 99 years. It was in 1817, that the young Henry Thomas Ellacombe arrived at Bitton.  In the past few years he had worked for the great engineer, Marc Brunel, and he clearly had a level of self-confidence and assuredness to begin to make significant changes to the church itself almost immediately.


Ellacombe was a graduate of Oxford University, where he had attended Oriel College. Oriel was, or at least was to become,  the centre of a movement known as Tractarianism.  It sought to restore ancient rites and rituals to the Church of England with an emphasis on more ornament, music and veneration than had been seen since the Reformation.  Central to the argument was that the Church of England stood within the catholic episcopal tradition and that while most rejected the authority of the Pope, they did not otherwise reject other catholic traditions including the centrality of the rite of holy communion in church practices

Medieval Coffin

This coffin was among the items discovered by HT Ellacombe during his excavations in the 1820s and 40’s.

In this regard, Ellacombe seems to have been something of a pioneer. His approach ruffled feathers and caused some outrage. One of his first acts was to change the seating arrangements, cutting down the box pews and reordering them so that so that everyone faced east, towards the restored altar. He introduced a surpliced choir and included music in services and chanting – a practice that was largely abhorred. Around this period (although this may have slightly pre-dated Ellacombe’s arrival) an organ was installed in the wets gallery.

Ellacombe was also something of a historian and undertook a series of archaeological digs on the south and north sides of the nave and under the floor of the chantry chapel. It was he who provided the information of the two transcripts and rediscovered steps in the north wall appearing to lead top the rood or tower. He also uncovered the tombstones and coffin that are in the church today. The old access routes to the church through north and south entrances were closed so that the west door into the tower became the main entrance.

Designs for the Quire 1845

H T Ellacombe was a fine draughtsman and designed the poopy seed heads of the choir stall fronts and the design for the choir seating  himself. These fronts are still in the church today.

Picture – Bristol Records Office (c) The Parish of St Mary, Bitton

Later in his curacy, Ellacombe installed a new pulpit moving its site from the middle of the church to the far east end of the nave (where it remains today). He purchased a new font and finally removed pews from the chancel, investing it with a quire of his own design. In line with the fashion of the day, Ellacombe made wide use of tiles, particularly behind the altar, around the font and to fully repave the floor of the Chantry Chapel (although much is now hidden from view by a fitted carpet).

Henry Nicholson Ellacombe

H N Ellacombe became renowned for his writings on gardening and horticulture.

Picture generously provided by Mr Gilbert Ellacombe

His son, Henry Nicholson Ellacombe, who took over from his father in 1850, continued this substantial programme of work.  Most significant of his changes was the new roof, installed in the 1860s and of a completely different design to its predecessor.  This new roof was of hammerbeam construction, executed in cedar and used slate tiles.  As a part of its installation the walls were stripped of their plaster in the fashion of the time, probably destroying any medieval wall paintings still lying beneath the centuries of limewash.

The work also exposed the feet of the former Anglo-Saxon Rood, parts pf which had been discovered earlier in the century by the elder Ellacombe. Henry Nicholson Ellacomb  also replaced the pews with the oak pews we have today, designing (it is said) each of the richly carved pew ends himself.

He also removed the gallery at the west end and in the 1880s, installed a new and much larger organ, which stood in the chantry chapel until being moved to its current position after the Second World War.

The New Roof

This early photograph of the church, taken in the 1860s shows the new hammerbeam roof.

The plaster on the east wall of the nave still remains, marking the line of the former ceiling and exposing the feet of the stone rood. Note also the absence of the angels on the roof beams; their arts and crafts design suggests that they may have been a  later addition.

The Chancel Floor

Two church floors, 1000 miles apart.  H N Ellacombe visited Verona in 1900 when he visited the Basilica of St Anastasia and saw the tessellated marble tiles that cover the church floor.

Perhaps the most unusual redecoration was that of the chancel.  Ellacombe had, since the 1870s. made extensive use of the growing railway network on the continent, which enabled holidays of no more than a few weeks to be taken as far away as Switzerland and Italy. It seems these journeys had a significant influence on him and to his decoration of the chancel.  The floor pattern was clearly copied from the Church of St Anastasia in Verona, a city he visited in 1900.  

His last installation was that of a new reredos, again in Italian marble which was erected in memory of his sister, Elizabeth, who died in 1910.

The Twentieth Century and Beyond

Little further change too place to the church interior during most  of the last century.  Increasing recognition of the heritage of buildings in general and increased regulation of planning, would also restrict any future incumbent from carrying out work to the same degree as the Ellacombes.

The church suffered from enemy action during the Second World War, which included the chapel roof.  After the war, the organ was removed from the chantry chapel and placed on the first floor of the tower, in the same place as its predecessor a hundred years earlier.

In the late 1960s, concerns about the stability of the floor and infestation of some pews, led to a major reordering which placed the pews (reduced in number) onto a wooden raft floor of American oak, and re-sited the choirstalls into the east part of the nave.

Reordering of 1967

This picture was taken in 1968 the year after the reordering was completed, showing the new choirstalls in position at the west end of the nave.

A Third Millennium

Since 2012, the church has been engaged in a gradual process of change that is intended to create a more flexible space that can continue to be used for worship, but give the church a more extended role as a centre for the community and for heritage.