St Mary Magdalene Church & History
The Church of St Mary Magdalene in Winsford, Somerset dates back to the Norman period before the 13th Century and has been designated by English Heritage as a Grade 1 listed building.
Winsford Church is dedicated to St Mary Magdalene and was partly restored in 1858. The tower, which if 90 feet (27.4m) high and was
constructed in three stages. There are six bells; the four heaviest were made by Thomas Bilbie in Collompton in 1765. Within the church is a fine painted panel created in 1609 during the reign of King James. The ironwork on the inner doors of the church is thought to date form the 13th century, originating from the priory of St Nichola in Brlynch and the font is from the Norman period. The organ was installed c.1900, being delivered by horse-drawn wagon from nearby Dulverton. The church register dates back to 1660.
Parts of the present church were here probably within the century that followed the Battle of Hastings in 1066 – notably the fine Norman font, and possibly the rounded arch stone doorway, through which you have entered (this is best viewed from within the porch). Over the rounded arch is an interesting niche (intended to hold a statue, perhaps of the patron saint who was originally St. Peter and not St. Mary Magdalene) obviously of considerable age, judging by its floral carvings. There is a theory that the niche may have held a statue of St. Katharine; high in the niche is a carving which looks like a broken wheel, the symbol of St. Katherine.
The old door (kept permanently open) has ironwork older than its timber – the work of a skilful smith, maybe one of the thirteenth century monks of the nearby Barlynch Priory, from where the original door is said to have come.
To the thirteenth century also belong the chancel, that narrower part of the building which houses the present altar, the low doorway in the south wall of the chancel, and the two lancet windows, one on each side, both with a single light, which are likely to have been there when King Edward I (“Longshanks”), was subduing the Welsh, and had named his son first Prince of Wales (1284). The tomb-like structure, partly let into the wall near the north end of the altar, is thought to have been a sort of stage on which that old teaching-aid, the Easter sepulchre, could be mounted.
The small remnant of stained glass, depicting the Madonna and Child, in the east window, has probably come down to us from the fourteenth century. Its abbreviated Latin inscription – “Orate pro animabus domini…vicarius huius” – seems to have been a request for prayers for the souls of at least two people, one of whom was a former vicar of the parish. Near the main door is a list of known vicars whose names go back as far as 1280. The learning of some is noted, as are the shortcomings of others!
The original Norman church was probably as wide as the present nave; but, somewhere between 1400 and 1500, it began to show signs of collapse under the weight of its roof. You can see that the pillars of the arcade, on the south side, slope outwards toward their tops. They were probably built that way to line up with a soul wall, beginning to lean outwards from the top, and the top of which they now support.
About the same time (although time for building then can be reckoned in years rather than in months) the south and north aisles were added, as also were the chancel arch, and the east window, the tower arch, and the tower. All are Perpendicular in style even if some of the pillars are not so in fact. Originally there was a doorway in the wall of the north aisle – opposite the doorway through which you entered; although it is now blocked in, its outline can be clearly seen from outside. There are also some interesting grotesques on the outside windows east of the old north door.
The chancel arch has above it two pairs of windows unique in West Somerset, though common in the Cotswolds. The doorway behind the pulpit and the smaller doorway above it indicate stairs and the entrance to the top of a former rood screen. It is likely that when this first screen existed there would have been a line of three altars: the high altar in front of the screen, and one at the east end of each aisle. Note the piscina (water drain) an adjunct of an altar, in the east corner of the south aisle wall.
Even though the nave and both aisles have separate ceilings, all are protected outside by one large roof, an unusual feature as far west as Winsford. Three separate roofs are much more common.
The tower is built in three stages, and rises to a height of ninety feet – an imposing height for a well-elevated church in this part of Somerset where moorland towers tend to be squat. It would be a fair guess to say that this Perpendicular period of building was complete by the time Henry the Eighth came to the throne in 1509 or very soon afterwards.
The names of known churchwardens date back to 1551: see the list near the door.
The church possesses an Elizabethan chalice and cover inscribed “Wynsford 1574”, which is of Exeter pattern. It is no longer used for its original purpose, and is in safe-keeping because of its value. The right to present vicars to Winsford passed in 1589 from Queen Elizabeth to the Master and Fellows of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. This right originally belonged to the Prior and Canons of Barlynch who lost it to Henry VIII when their priory was dissolved.
This reign can claim the large painted panel of the Royal Arms on the wall of the north aisle. It is one of only four known and is dated 1609. The pulpit and very fine communion rails are also Jacobean.
From the very early reign of King Charles I we have a paten (also in safe-keeping). It is ten and a half inches wide and was presented to the church by Thomsine Widlake in 1633. There is still a Widlake Farm on the other side of the Exe. The parish registers go back to the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660. All filled registers are in the care of the County Archivist in Taunton.
The four heaviest of the present six bells were cast in Cullompton, Devon, in 1765 — the early reign of George III (‘Farmer George’). The tenor bell has the inscription “Religion, death, and pleasure make me ring.”
The second and treble bells were added in 1842 and 1897. The organ was a gift of a Mrs. Twopeny in 1860; it was not new then, having spent the first thirteen years of its life in the parish of Stockbury in Kent.
Winsford suffered less than many churches from the zeal of Victorian restorers. There was some judicious restoration by J. D. Sedding in 1890-91; he rid the church of its box pews (of no great age or interest), put in the present seating, renewed the roof, and relaid the floor.
Every century from the twelfth to the twentieth has its memorials in this building. It is more than likely, however, that what remains of the first Norman church built nine hundred years ago on this site was a replacement for an earlier church with less enduring qualities – probably a Saxon church – and before that buildings of wattle and daub. The Caractacus Stone on Winsford Hill is thought by some to be an early Christian monument, perhaps to British Christians pushed westwards (as they were into Cornwall and Wales) by Saxon Invaders of England in the fifth century.
Whilst we are rightly proud of the historical panorama displayed by our church, and whilst we do all we can to preserve and care for this heritage, we are also concerned that our church should be seen to belong not only to history but also to eternity. It exists both to teach us how to live in this world, to help us to do it, and to point us to our true and heavenly destiny.
For centuries it has lofted heavenwards the prayers of generations of Christians. “This is none other than the house of God and gate of heaven”. If you can spare a few minutes to join your prayers to the prayers of those who have worshipped and still worship here, you will have seen something of the real reason for the existence of this and all other churches.
“Somerset Churches near Dulverton” Dr. F. C. Eeles, O.B.E., D.Litt.
“Winsford Parish Church Guide” The Reverend P. D. Fox, M.A.
Framed Notes by Mr. W. Dicker (a former Headmaster of Winsford School) who did a lot of research in his time.