- Somerset towers
The Somerset Towers are a collection of distinctive, mostly
spireless Gothic church towers in the county of Somersetin south west England. For examples and details of many churches with Somerset Towers, please see the related page, " A Tour of Somerset Towers."
Where beautiful castles and church spires rise above other parts of England, the crowning glory of many Somerset towns and villages is these
medievalchurch towers. It is largely on the basis of the Somerset towers that 52 of Simon Jenkins' "Thousand Best Churches" in England are in Somerset -- trailing only the counties of Norfolk(with 65 entries) and Lincolnshire(54). Jenkins cites the towers as one of England's finest contributions to medieval art.cite book |last= Jenkins|first=Simon|title= England's Thousand Best Churches|year= 2000|publisher= Penguin Books|isbn= 0-14-029795-2|] Other authors write:
"They stand apart by reason of their style, their intricate decoration, and their great height, from which they command the low flat plains of Somerset."cite book |last= Poyntz Wright|first= Peter|title= The Parish Church Towers of Somerset, Their construction, craftsmanship and chronology 1350 - 1550|year= 1981|month= |publisher= Avebury Publishing Company|isbn= 0861275020|]
"Somerset's wealth of some 90 late medieval towers, 50 of which are great designs by any standard, gives the county a unique place in the history of English art. The prosperity of the wool trade in the 15th century paid for the design and craftsmanship, displayed often in small villages, which still astonish us today." [cite book |last= Murrow|first= Tom and Jackie|title= Poster: The Somerset Towers|publisher= Tower Restoration Fund, St. Mary Magdalene, Taunton and Impact Design +PR, Taunton|]Often built on the foundations of older Norman churches, the
Perpendicular Gothic-style Somerset Towers became landmarks for travelers, with their square, corner- buttressed towers typically positioned on the west side of the churches. The towers soar more than convert|100|ft|m|0|lk=on in some cases -- convert|182|ft|m|0 in the case of Wells Cathedral's north tower (1440). Most of the towers house bells, and bell-ringing became a tradition still practiced in some of these English country churches. Most of the churches in this article have been designated, under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, by English Heritageas grade I listed buildings, which is defined as encompassing those of "of outstanding or national architectural or historic interest". Those which do not achieve grade I are listed as II* which is defined as "particularly significant buildings of more than local interest."
The prolific construction of the towers -- some started before 1360 -- was typically accomplished by a master mason and a small team of itinerant masons, supplemented by local parish laborers, according to Poyntz Wright. cite book |last= Poyntz Wright|first= Peter|title= The Parish Church Towers of Somerset, Their construction, craftsmanship and chronology 1350 - 1550|year= 1981|month= |publisher= Avebury Publishing Company|isbn= 0861275020|] But other authors reject this model, suggesting instead that leading architects designed the parish church towers based on early examples of Perpendicular design and ornamentation developed for cathedrals -- their most important commissions. Contract builders carried out the plans, adding a distinctive mix of innovative details and decorations as new designs emerged over the years.cite book |last = Harvey| first = John H.| title = Somerset Perpendicular -- The Church Towers and the Dating Evidence | publisher = The Ancient Monuments Society | location = London | date = 1984 | pages = 158-173 ]
"It is, indeed, a source of wonder that funds and skilled workmen were forthcoming in sufficient quantity to erect or rebuild so many churches within a comparatively short period. It was upon the Towers that the greatest skill of the Perpendicular builders was lavished." cite web |url=http://www.fullbooks.com/Somerset1.html |title=Somerset by G.W. Wade and J.H. Wade |accessdate=2008-03-03 |format= |work= ]
Key architectural references in the development of the Somerset Towers were
Gloucester Cathedral, Wells Cathedral(begun around 1180 and consecrated 1239), and Glastonbury Abbey(begun 1184) and their renovations into the 14th century. Beyond these, however, the mason-architects of the era innovated and borrowed new designs from one another, adding additional storeys and elaborating decoration wherever there was money to support it. The Reformationin the 16th centurylargely brought to an end the era of Somerset tower construction.
The distinctive quality of the Somerset towers derives in large part from fine decorative details --
pinnacles, lacy tracerywindows and bell openings, gargoyles, and beautifully adorned doors, arches, parapets, buttresses, merlons, and tall external stair turrets, for example. This icing of sculpted decoration, often made of beautifully colored stone, was hewn from soft sedimentary limestonequarried around Somerset, including Bath stone, Doultingstone (quarried near Shepton Mallet), Dundrystone, and Hamstone(from Ham Hillsince Roman times). This freestonecan be cut in any direction, making possible fancy curves and fine details. Unfortunately, the softness of the stone also makes it subject to weathering.cite web |url=http://www.somerset.gov.uk/archives/ASH/Parishchs.htm |title=Parish Churches |accessdate=2008-03-07 |format= |work=Somerset County Council - History ]
For the foundations and walls of the towers,
blue lias-- a limestone from the area -- was a frequent choice, but because of the difficulty and expense of transporting stone, stone from the nearest quarries was generally used, including red sandstone, and the softer freestonefrom quarries at Ham Hill, Bath, Doulting, and North Curry, for example.
Classification and dating
How quickly the towers were built is controversial. Poyntz Wright estimates one or two years.cite book |last= Poyntz Wright|first= Peter|title= The Parish Church Towers of Somerset, Their construction, craftsmanship and chronology 1350 - 1550|year= 1981|month= |publisher= Avebury Publishing Company|isbn= 0861275020|] John H. Harvey believes a construction rate of convert|10|ft|m|0 per year, allowing for gradual settlement, is more in accord with known medieval tower construction rates.cite book |last = Harvey| first = John H.| title = Somerset Perpendicular -- The Church Towers and the Dating Evidence | publisher = The Ancient Monuments Society | location = London | date = 1984 | pages = 158-173 ] The towers were commissioned by wealthy benefactors and parishes as a testament to their faith, as well as a highly visible sign of wealth and status.cite book |title=Portrait of the Quantocks |last=Waite |first=Vincent |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=1964 |publisher=Robert Hale |location=London |isbn=0709111584 |pages= ]
Nikolaus Pevsnernotes that at the end of the 14th century, Somerset was producing a quarter of the wool products made in England and this was one of the sources of wealth that produced the Somerset Towers.cite book |title=The buildings of England, South and West Somerset |last=Pevsner |first=Nikolaus |authorlink=Nikolaus Pevsner |coauthors= |year=1958 - Reprinted by Yale Univ Press, 2003 |publisher=Penguin Books |location= |isbn= |pages= ] The boom in wool led to a comparable, though architecturally rather different, wave of equally extravagant parish churches in 15th century Suffolk. An additional source of support for some of the Somerset churches would have been close ties to nearby monasteries in Muchelney, Athelney, Glastonburyand Bath.
Because of the age of the Somerset Towers, there are few records showing exactly when and by whom they were built. But for more than a century, experts have studied and classified the Somerset Towers.
Edward Augustus Freemanproposed a classification of the towers in 1851-1852, with Dr. F.J. Allen and R. P. Breretonoffering new classifications in 1904.cite article |last= Brereton| first= R. P. |title= Somerset Church Towers|year= 1904, |publisher= Somersetshire Archeological Society at Gillingham |journ= The Archeological Journal |Vol= lxii. 60 collotypes prepared for a planned monograph are in the British Museum, Add. MSS. 37260-3, were published by the Society.] Wickham, who spent time as the vicar of Martockand later at East Brent, writing in 1952, accepted much of the classification scheme set out in earlier works, based on age and the arrangement of the windows. He argued, however, that the North Somerset group had been wrongly classified.cite book |title=Churches of Somerset |last=Wickham |first=Archdale Kenneth |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=1965 |publisher=David & Charles |location=London |isbn= |pages= ] Based on an early attempt to bring computer analysis to the study of the towers, Poyntz Wright in 1981 published a taxonomyof the towers to tease out patterns reflecting the chronology and teams of builders behind their construction. Based on details such as the numbers and arrangement of windows; presence, arrangement and decoration of pinnacles and merlons; and arrangement, location, and styling of buttresses, he described and proposed rough dates for "generations" of Somerset Towers. For example, Poyntz Wright proposed "The Churchill Generation" as an early group including churches at Churchill, Compton Martin, and Compton Bishop. These churches were clustered based on traits such as having smaller towers with a single window in each face of the top stage; a pierced top parapet without merlons and four square-set corner pinnacles above.
In a 1984 article, John H. Harvey thoroughly rejects Poyntz Wright's systematics, the assumptions upon which it was based, and the resulting tower dates.cite book |last = Harvey| first = John H.| title = Somerset Perpendicular -- The Church Towers and the Dating Evidence | publisher = The Ancient Monuments Society | location = London | date = 1984 | pages = 158-173 ] Harvey stresses the importance of tower arches as conservative architectural features, contrasting these with decorative features that could be changed in later stages of construction -- or even after the tower was complete:
"Whereas there is a substantial possibility of alteration in the tracery of a west window ... or of a later insertion of a west door, it is almost impossible for the for the tower-arch to be other than an integral part of the original build."Harvey pushes many of Poyntz Wright's tower construction dates later, and some earlier. He cites Yeovil's church as one of the earliest Somerset towers, suggesting that its construction began well before 1400. He finds similarities in the Yeovil church's buttress scheme and parapet to the datable work of
William Wynfordat Winchester and Wells cathedrals and works at Oxford.
Harvey cites Wynford's southwest tower of Wells Cathedral as "the source of the typical 'Somerset Tower'... and the later concept of the spireless tower throughout this country." cite book |last = Harvey| first = John H.| title = Somerset Perpendicular -- The Church Towers and the Dating Evidence | publisher = The Ancient Monuments Society | location = London | date = 1984 | pages = 158-173 ] Harvey presumes that Wynford, who died in 1405, was directly involved in the design of St Cuthbert's parish church, a few blocks away from Wells cathedral, one sign of the spread of the Somerset tower into the surrounding countryside. Ultimately, however, Harvey concludes that what is needed to do a proper dating and sorting of the rich collection of medieval towers in Somerset is a team of history, document, and architecture experts to probe widely and deeply, amassing all the clues possible before constructing the definitive dating and systematics of the towers. In the absence of such a definitive tower taxonomy, Poyntz Wright's dates and scheme -- used and italicized on the related page, "
A Tour of Somerset Towers" -- should be held lightly.
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