A Short History & Description of St Mary’s

West Tower

The tower dates from around 1370.

West Door

The main entrance to the church since the nineteenth century was through the wets door, previously the church had been accessed through doors on the north and south sides.

In the 19th century, the then Regius Professor of History at Oxford, Professor Freeman, concluded that Saint Mary’s stood on the site of a British church and was established before 597 when St Augustine landed in England. It is also believed there was originally a Roman temple on the same site, as Roman remains were discovered in the churchyard. The Via Julia, runs through the village and the terraces of Roman vineyards are still seen at Upton Cheyney. The church is mainly in Norman building of the 11th century but blocks of masonry in the North and South walls of the nave are the remains of an earlier Saxon church.

The St. Catherine’s Chapel, a chantry Chapel, to the north west of the nave was built in 1299. The original North and South transept  (the foundations of which well discovered when digging graves) were pulled down about 1440. The chancel and sacristy (Vicar’s Vestry) were built in the late 15th century. The unusual length of the church from east to West is 42metres. The tower is 30 metres feet to the top of pinnacles and was built between 1370 and 1377. A papal indulgence of 1370 related to this, although no record of the removal of a rood screen has been found; but it is thought have been removed as late as 1787, according to HT Ellacombe who came to Bitton in 1817.

On the outside of the south wall of the chancel and east of the small door, can be seen the finger marks made by lepers as they watched the service at the altar, there peephole has now been filled in.

The two carved faces at the sides of the West door represent Edward III and his queen Philippa. The doors of English oak and adorned with Tudor roses were made and given by Mr E Caisley, in 1968, in memory of his wife. The original doors were destroyed at the Reformation. The west window is a good example of 14th century work although the glass is Victorian and is dedicated in memory of the Rev HT Ellacombe, curate and vicar of Britain from 1817 to 1850 who was succeeded by his son HN Ellacombe who remained in post until 1916. The spirette of the tower, rebuilt in 1843, replaced one  destroyed in a storm about 200 years earlier. The weathervane was made in Bristol in 1774.

In the South wall of the nave is a doorway (now blocked) of good plain 11th century Norman work. In the apex of the arch can be seen incisions for a sundial. The chancel is probably the commission of  John Gunthorpe, Prebendary of Bitton in 1492, and also Dean of Wells.

The old stone altar step, in one piece, 5.3 metres in length, is now placed at the foot of the East End wall.

The West Entrance

One enters the church through the large door in the tower. This became the entrance in the 19th century, previously the church was entered through either the north or south doors and the bottom of the tower appears to have been used for storage. It now provides a large open porch and is the last part of the church still to retain its white washed walls.

It is divided from the nave by an oak screen commemorating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and like the entrance doors was designed and given by Mr E Caisley, a furniture maker, who had a business in Bitton. To the right of the screen is an original system for chiming the bells (the bell remains still but by pulling a rope attached to hammer the bell is struck); this was devised by the Rev H T Ellacombe in 1821. The system is known today as the Ellacombe Chimes and is a system most commonly used when chiming bells.

Just inside the door is a large tombstone which originally covered the tomb of the composer,  Robert Lucas Pearsall, a great friend of Rev HT  Ellacombe. He is best known for reintroducing madrigals for small choirs to sing in close harmony. Probably his most well known piece, however, is that of In Dulci Jubilo,  which regularly appears as one of the nine lessons and carols sung by the choir of Kings College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve. The tombstone was brought to Britain in 2012 From Switzerland where it was in danger of destruction. The remains Pearsall himself, are still buried in  in Switzerland.

Ellacombe Chimes

Jules Hyam (BBC Points West) with Sue Elliott (Tower Captain) and Ada Thomas after a live broadcast of the chiming of the Ellacombe Chimes from St Mary’s on 25th June 2021 as Bitton hosted a bicentenary event.  The chimes were set up in the porch in 1821, by the then curate Henry Thomas Ellacombe.

The Nave

The nave prior to the removal of five rows of pews in 2017.

Holy Rood

A head, and the arm of Christ, elements of a huge Saxon Rood (circa 1000AD) that once stood at the east end of the nave.  There are further remnants in the wall above the chancel arch.

The Nave

The nave has an appearance the dates from the mid 19 century. Until that time its walls had been plastered and in the 17th century had been whitewashed to hide the ungodly images beneath it. We can assume, therefore, that like many churches of its age it was the possessor of a large number of mediaeval wall paintings. Unfortunately, the plaster work was removed in the 1860s when a new roof was installed. The removal of the plaster nevertheless revealed traces of the original Norman window arches which can still be seen in thein the north wall above the level of the present ones.

The font, carved of Caen stone was made in 1846. The bowl of the previous font was placed inside it.It has a conical pointed cover, most likely of yew dating from a similar period.

The pews are made of oak and were carved by local craftsman in the 1870s and 80s to the design of the vicar, Rev Henry Nicholson Ellacombe.

The hatchment hanging on the South wall of the nave is that of Henry Creswicke of Hanham Hall, who died in 1806, and shows his arms impaling those of his wife Mary Dickinson of Queen Charlton. The royal arms near the font were bought in Bristol in 1764, as were the brass Candelabra in 1771.

The roof of the nave with its carved and gilded angels and lettering in relief, is constructed of cedar. For many years it was believed that the wood came from a ship wrecked in the Bristol Channel in 1867. However it seems more likely that the Ship’s Timbers used in its construction were provided and installed buy a builder by the name of Ship.

The chancel arch is a copy of the original Norman arch at the NW of the nave.  It replaced a plaster arch that had been installed by the architect John Wood of Bath, a churchwarden in the 18th century. There are remains of the original semi circular arch above the present one, and over this what is believed to be part of a colossal image of Christ, a rood, dating from Saxon times.

The pulpit, formerly placed by the chapel arches, was demolished in 1825 and the present one designed by Rev H T Ellacombe was paid for by the composer R L Pearsall. It is partly made of metal to represent wood. During this work the stairway in the adjacent wall was disclosed by which the a rood loft had been reached. Ellacombe redesigned the stairs as an access to his pulpit, however, this precarious access route was redesigned in the 20th century to its present form.

At the West End of the nave, there was a staircase to a gallery which was erected in 1734. Later this housed an organ until it was demolished in 1862 a new organ was then placed in the chapel where it remained until 1951 when it was removed to its present position above the porch.

The Chantry Chapel

On the north side of the church is a Chapel. Often referred to as the Lady Chapel, it is in fact dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria and was purposed as a chantry Chapel, built in 1299 by Thomas de Bytton, then Bishop of Exeter. The chapel was a memorial to his parents Sir Robert and Lady de Bytton.  The chapel would originally have been richly decorated, and there remains a richly carved three seat sedilia in the chapel sanctuary, no doubt to support the daily work of priests who were charged with the job of praying for the souls of the de Bytton family.

Also in the chapel are two other tombstones That of Sir Robert de Bytton, a previous holder of that title and of a lady by the name of Emmotte de Hastynges who may well have been his wife. These were recovered in the 1820s during an archaeological investigation conducted by the Rev HT Ellacombe in the garden of the adjoining Grange.

The de Bytton family lived at what was later to become Barr’s Court until 1375, during which time two more became bishops of Bath & Wells. Afterwards the Barr family held the court until 1485 giving the property its title.  They were followed by the Newtons until 1805, then afterwards the Whittucks,  to both of which families there are tablets in the chapel.

From 1820 the Chapel was used as the village school until a boys’ school (later a National School) was erected in 1830.

The choir vestry at the west end of the Chapel was once the entrance porch accessed through the north door. It contains a tablet to Mary, daughter of Sir Gervase Eyre and wife of Sir John Newton, 2nd  baronet; the arms on a lozenge on Newton impaling Eyre.

Sir Robert de Bytton

The tombstone of Robert de Bytton, a Norman knight and possibly the first holder of the title of the manor and lands of Bitton in the 12th century.  The tombstone was excavated in the 1820s from the site of a former mortuary chapel on the south side of the church.

Chancel Ceiling

The bosses on the 15th century vaulted ceiling are both unusual and, in some instances, grotesque.

The Chancel

The chancel and sacristy were probably built in 1492 by John Gunthorpe, Prebendary of Bitton and Dean of Wells. The stone vaulted roofs of chancel and sacristy are good examples of 15th century work. The chancel ceiling bosses are thought to refer to the story of St Mary of Egypt, a woman whose salvation was delivered through the Virgin Mary and who lived the life of a hermit in the desert thereafter.  She was by legend buried by a monk named Zosimas who was assisted by a lion. Tudor roses appear at the intersections, although it should be noted that these Tudor roses have six petals instead of the usual five.

On the north wall is a memorial to Sir John Seymour, who died 1663, one of the family who held the prebendal manor of Bitton from 1550 to 1750. Close to it,  is the Ellacombe memorial to the Rev HT Ellacombe and his three wives. In the chancel, on flat stones ( now regrettably removed) many Whittingtons were previously commemorated; those being of the family of Sir Richard Whittington, thrice Mayor of London.

The east window corresponds in tracery with the windows of St. Mary Redcliffe Bristol. The stained glass dates from the 1860s and commemorates lives of a family who died in India.

On either side of the altar are the 10 commandments, beautifully could transcribed, and believed to be the only remaining part of a reduce installed by John Wood of Bath in the 18th century. The sanctuary of the chancel also contains a sedilia, but much more simple  than that of the chapel.

The floor of the chancel was re-laid in the early twentieth century by Rev H N Ellacombe.  In his later years he travelled widely in Europe, especially in Italy where he was impressed by the use of marble in churches.  The main part of the floor is taken from the design of the marble tessellated floor of the church of Santa Anastasia in Verona. His last change to the church appears to be the marble reredos on the east wall dedicated to his sister, Elizabeth Rous Ellacombe, who died in 1910

This Short History & Description is largely taken from a booklet of the same title written and devised by Joy Gerrish in 1970, which has been updated.