A Brief History of St. Mary's, Yatton


Yatton ... has a very ancient history, and might certainly be classed as one of the 'Lovely Villages of the Plain' for it lies on the level country between Clevedon and Weston-super-Mare, surrounded by wooded hills and gentle slopes. The derivation of the name is uncertain, but is most probably from the Saxon 'Gat' meaning a way, pass, or track, and 'ton', a village. Yatton stands on a ridge of higher ground that slopes from the foot of Cadbury Hill towards Kenn and the coast. This would naturally afford a passage between the marshes on either side, hence 'the village on the track.' For a short time, Yatton had the additional name of 'Blewett', the family name of a then local landowner.


Yatton appears in the Domesday Book as an estate of twenty hides, belonging to Giso, Bishop of Wells. Giso (or Guiso) in 1068 recovered the Manor of Winsharn which had belonged to Wells long before the Conquest, and had been alienated (that is, transfer of ownership) to Elfi, a Saxon. In the days of Edward the Confessor, the advowson (the right of presentation to a church benefice) and Manor of Yatton belonged to John the Dane. William the Conqueror gave them to the Bishop in 1068 in part compensation for some possessions belonging to the See in the Confessor's time that Harold had seized, and had made over to the See of Gloucester.

An interesting and informative pamphlet was written by a past Dean of Wells, Dr. J. Armitage Robinson, on the importance of the position and wealth of the Prebend of Yatton during the 14th century, when Princes and Prelates contested the claim to the presentation - 1320 to 1330. The Prebendary of Yatton nominated the Vicar to the Bishop, the Prebendary receiving the Rectorial tithes and the Vicar the lesser. This was the case from 1135-1327, when Bishop Drokensford re-adjusted the Vicar's income.

The Bishop of Bath and Wells became Patron of Yatton, and the Vicar of Yatton is Patron of Kenn and Cleeve-in Yatton because those two parishes were once part of the ancient Parish of Yatton. The passage of time has seen history repeat itself with Claverham, Cleeve, Kenn, and Kingston Seymour now being part of the Team Ministry of Yatton Moor. Set up in 1991, it superseded a united benefice created in 1981 to include Kenn, and Kingston Seymour in a parish called Yatton Moor.

The unusual size of the church can be accounted for by the former extent of the Parish. The custom in the Mediaeval Church of processions as part of the service was one way of showing forth the Glory of God.

1420-1498 - in the 15th century, the distinguished family of Newtons lived at Court de Wyke. They were great builders, and it is to them the church owes its noble size and beauty. There is little documentary evidence of the time of the Newtons. The following century the accumulated wealth and a great deal of the contents of the church were sold or distributed, though the building still stands as a perfect example of 15th century Gothic. From this fact can be imagined the munificence of the gifts.

1551 - in the reign of Queen Mary, Bishop Gilbert Bourne was compelled to surrender the Manor of Yatton to the Crown because Bishop Barlow had, in the time of Edward VI, alienated several estates for which he was held responsible. In 1590, Queen Elizabeth granted the Manor of Yatton to Richard Lewkner, Serjeant at Law, who sold it about eight years later to Sir Nicholas Stalling, a Bristol merchant, who married the widow of Christopher Ken, and settled the Manor on her.

The present extent of the Parish is over six miles by three miles, with an acreage of 5,400. The population of Yatton was 2,000 in 1931, and was recorded in the Winterstoke Hundreds. It has now grown to about 7,000 souls.

The Church

The most interesting feature of Yatton and its crowning glory is the beautiful Church of St. Mary the Virgin, dubbed 'The Cathedral of the Moors'. The church is the oldest building in Yatton and the only one in near-continuous use for its original purpose.

No doubt in Saxon times a Christian church, probably of wood, existed here. This was followed in the 12th and 13th centuries by a stone, cruciform building, of a smaller size than now, with a central tower, which stood until the end of the 14th century. The first Vicar recorded was Benthelin or Benzelin in 1084.

With regard to the church, the 15th century was the most important time in its history. Emmota, daughter of Sir John Perrott of Islington, became the second wife of Sir Richard Newton, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, and for the greater part of that century the family of Newton enlarged, enriched, and beautified the church. Although much that was acquired in the 15th Century was sold in the 16th Century, the Church as it is still today is one of the noblest examples of 15th Century Gothic in the County of Somerset.

The most recent addition to the church structure was completed in 1975 when the Bishop of Taunton dedicated the octagonal Chapter House, which is linked by a short passage to the site of the former north door. Work began and continued in very inclement conditions in September 1974 with the six-foot foundations being dug through inches of mud by volunteer help. The Doulting stone was laid professionally with volunteers following with the construction of the roof. After that, a vast amount of internal work started in the middle of 1975 to include offices, toilets and kitchen as well as the Chapter House itself.

In 1989, over 100 years since the last, a restoration project was launched by the Bishop of Taunton, to carry out, essential work to the church. Items to be restored included the nave roof, stonework including pinnacles and gargoyles, windows, nave floor and aisles, a new roof for the 1975 Chapter House, and redecoration of the church including the painting of the roof bosses. The total amount to be raised at the time of the launch was £288,000, which ten years on had doubled. Under the initial leadership of Monica Gable, funds were raised to carry out most of the restoration work. The Restoration Committee wondered whether funds could be raised as in the days of yore by resurrecting the old custom of 'Church Ales' but in the end it was thought unseemly and so more sober projects were considered! For a period, Sunday services were held in the Village Hall whilst scaffolding filled the church interior and the wooden floor replaced with flagstones.

In 1997/98 the Chapter House area was upgraded, under the watchful eyes of Churchwarden Marwood Hancock, including a new roof, kitchen, and toilet for the disabled doubling as a baby changing room (clothing that is, not the infants themselves!). Phase II of the restoration work launched in 1989 was at last complete. Fund-raising continued, this time to enable the restoration work to windows at the west end to be completed and this despite generous grants from English Heritage. Many had been restored by 2001 including the magnificent West Window but at the time of writing three windows in the North Aisle had yet to restored.

The Tower

The lowest part of the Tower is the oldest part of the Church, about 1340. The unique form of the spire, or steeple, is much discussed. Spires are not very usual features in Somerset churches. Those that exist seem to follow the line of the coast, and give rise to the suggestion that they may have been used as beacons. The Churchwardens' accounts tell that the building of the steeple was in progress in 1455-56, of stone, which was being brought from Dundry Quarries for the purpose. Some fault must have occurred as in 1595 the Wardens engaged three freemasons to take down the spire. They reduced it to its present dimensions. There used to be a truncated spire at St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, until about 1870, when a spire replaced it.

Other reasons for the truncated spire have been suggested as:

The Tower Clock

The present clock in the Tower has been there since 1877 and once had only one face. The works of an older 16th century clock (which was in use until that time) are stored in the Bier House. It is made of wrought iron with forged wheels, wooden barrels, hour striking, and probably only had one hand. It is hoped the workings of this 16th century clock will be preserved and eventually become a special feature for visitors to the church to see it operating as once it did in the Tower.

The clock of 1877, despite careful tending and winding by a few dedicated parishioners, ceased operation in the early part of 1998 owing to the ravages of time, and the after-effects of a disastrous fire that gutted the Tower in 1991. The refurbished and repaired clock (by Smith's of Derby) with new face gilding (enabled by a generous benefactor, John Rendall and others), and automatic winding will graced the Tower from the autumn of 1999. The winding mechanism will obviate the need for some poor soul from turning out in all weathers, to trudge up the steep tower staircase and to wind the machine by hand, as had been the case for over a hundred years (though not always by the same person!).

The West End

Both the interior and exterior views are fine, large, and bold. The only West End to be compared with this among Somerset churches is that of Crewkerne. The prevailing winds have taken their toll of the mediæval Great West Window over the centuries necessitating major conservation work that was undertaken in 1999/2000, as were some of the windows on the south-west aspect.

The large wooden West Door was inserted probably about the middle of the 16th Century, and may have replaced a much smaller door.

The Nave

From the West Door looking eastwards along the Nave there is an excellent view of the slender, beautiful columns and arches, the clerestory (a series of windows above the nave arches), and the side aisles, all of which are the inheritance from the Churchmen of Yatton in the 15th century.

Over the archway leading to the Chancel there is a double lancet window overlooking the Nave. In the 13th century this window was outside, overlooking the steep roof of the Nave, and a careful observer may still trace the outlines of the old roof below the window. The Clerestory and the side aisles were added in the 15th Century, enlarging an older, smaller Nave.

The mural decorations of lilies in the roof of the aisles, and the side screens, were parts of the work done during the general restoration of 1872, when Mr. Street was the architect. There is evidence that wall paintings of saints and Bible stories existed throughout the church but these were painted over in 1549 by a painter who was paid the princely sum of £5 so to do!

A piece of rough-hewn masonry protruding above the pulpit towards the North Transept is part of an early tower buttress from the 13th century, cut away to make room for a Chapel which formerly stood there. As in many churches of this provenance the stonemasons have carved a 'Green Man' on a capital- a kind of pagan 'graffiti'. This depicts a man's face with leafy branches emanating from his mouth. This can be seen on the most easterly pillar on the north side of the Nave, facing south-east.

The South Transept retains in its south wall a fine traceried 14th century window, restored in 1896. Its roof, though modernised, is of the same acute pitch as originally planned. The North Transept also retains its ancient outlines but here a window of Perpendicular style has been inserted in the old 14th century arch. Its old square panes are conspicuous when compared with the glass in the other windows of the Church.

The Altar in the nave was set up with the changes made in 1977/78 making the administration of the sacraments to the main body of the church so much easier, and at the same time enabling the Celebrant to be seen and heard more readily than was the case from the distant East-end (High) Altar. The large wooden pulpit, made by Wake & Dean (a local company specializing in high quality furniture) which at that time graced the north side of the Chancel arch was a divided in two. This enabled the new Altar to be installed and to make the two ambos that can be seen to the north and south of the Nave Altar.

The Font

The present Font is relatively modern, and took the place at the restoration in 1872 of another, quite plain, which was then presented to St. Catherine's Church, Felton. What happened to the Norman Font represented by Buckler (in a drawing dated 1827 now in the Piggott Collection of Drawings at the County Museum, Taunton) is unknown, but it seems to have disappeared more than two hundred years ago.

The Choir and Chancel

These are believed to be 14th Century reconstruction on a fabric of much older foundations, say 12th Century or earlier. The four crossed arches under the tower are encased with fine moulded ashlar work of 14th Century.

The Chancel is modest, of low elevation, with windows of simple perpendicular style. The oldest feature is the internal string-course, which is roughly cut, and clearly a primitive feature. Over the windows is a label-mould, which is of similar section but better worked. The roof has the old steep pitch, and follows the line of a stone drip-course on the tower wall above. The number of stalls in the Chancel at each side is noticeable.

The Organ

Originally, the organ was built for Bath Abbey in 1703 by the Jordan's, successors to Father Smith, a German organ-builder to King Charles II. In 1838, it was taken to the Chapel of the Bishop's Palace, Wells. At the end of 1842, the instrument was purchased by the Rev. D. M. Clerk, who was then Vicar, for this church at a cost of £150, and the Bishop sanctioned its removal. It was erected in St Mary's in a gallery that at the time existed below the west window. With the original organ were three allegedly life-sized carved figures of St. Peter, St. Paul and King David, each carved from a single piece of wood, the work of a Danish carver and considered to be very fine specimens of their period (1702). Following the 1872 restoration these carved creations went walkabout, but found in a builder's yard (or furniture shop - depending upon the version of the story being told) by members of the Hardman family who returned them to the Church in 1925. St David with his ubiquitous harp is in Bath Abbey in one of the transepts.

The instrument was removed to the South Transept in the general restoration of 1872 and thirty-four years later entirely rebuilt by Nicholson and Lord, and moved forward to allow room for the Choir Vestry behind. Again, in need of attention in 1977 the console was moved to its present position, the organ reduced to kit-form, re-erected, and improved tonally. All this work took place through the efforts of voluntary help under the guidance of retired organ builder Mr A. W. Pritchard. The work commenced in April 1977 led by Churchwardens Bill Marsh and David Stancombe and completed in June 1978. It was thought until recently that the instrument could still claim to be a Jordan Organ but the church was sadly disabused of this in 2001 by Dr William McVicker, St Mary's independent organ adviser. It was learned that the only item left from the original instrument was the filigree fretwork above the console - woodwork not known for its properties of creating 18th century sound!

The Rood Screen

In the Churchwardens' Accounts (said by English Heritage to be the best documented of any church in the country) in the 15th century mention is made of the Rood Loft, with its Aler (more properly 'alure' - a passage way above), splendidly carved, gilt, and painted, and decked with over eighty images. It must indeed have been a fine one. The door and staircase of approach is in the North Transept. All that now remains to show where the Loft once stood is a small piece of stone carving beneath the Barnard window, which may have been one of the supports.


The Chantry Chapel of the Newtons is dedicated to St. John the Evangelist. The de Wyke Chapel in the North Transept is possibly dedicated to St. James. Notes from Yatton Churchwardens' Accounts: The Chapels served by the Vicar were probably

After the Reformation the Chantry Chapel of the Newtons and the de Wyke Chapel were used as a Vestry till the time of Prebendary Mather (1902-1909) when they were restored for public services. In 1906, the Italian Mosaic was laid, and the design includes the Eagle of St. John, the Newton Crest, and that of the Battiscombes.

The Chest of Three Locks

The large Chest in the de Wyke Chapel has been much admired because of its good proportions and excellent condition. Certain documents are kept there and other items not in general use. There are three locks to the Chest - the Vicar/Rector used to hold one key and the Churchwardens one key each. The Chest could not be opened unless the three keys were used. The locks and keys are all of different make. Presently however the chest, known as the 'Churchwardens' Chest' can now be opened with a single key, although for the unwary there is still a quaint and unexpected knack in locking it again!

The Yatton Pall

The Yatton Pall, or 'Herse-Cloth' to give it the old English name, is one of the most important relics of mediaeval embroidery in the West of England. Of the few surviving examples of Pre-Reformation needlework this must date from after 1500. The Yatton Pall has been made up from two vestments of the latter part of the 15th century, some time between 1450 and 1500. It probably received its present form in early in the 17th century. The groundwork is of 15th Century blue velvet. Down the whole length run two bands composed of the embroidered orphreys of the vestments, but with the panels reset. These panels contain figures of prophets and saints under canopies. Among them, we can identify Moses and David, St. Andrew and St. Thomas, St. Stephen and St. Laurence. The groundwork is embroidered with conventional designs, which of old used to be called 'water-flowers.'

The vestments of which the Pall is made up were called dalmatic and tunicle, or sometimes two tunicles or two dalmatics for they were often exactly alike. They were put on over the head; reached to about the knees, had some sort of sleeve, and were divided up the sides below the sleeves. The assistant ministers, who read the Gospel and Epistle, and who were known as the gospeller and the epistoler, or deacon and sub-deacon, wore them. The garment is now hung within a glass case in the passage leading from the Chapter House to the church.

The Hagioscope

The oblique opening in the Chancel wall of the North Transept is sometimes called a ' squint', or more properly a Hagioscope: Hagios - holy; skopein - to look. There is evidence in the wall of the tower stair that there once was another hagioscope between the Chancel and the South Transept. The approximate date of this would be about 1300 and from its design, is conclusive proof of the antiquity of this portion of the Church.

Piscinas and Niches

At the East-end of St. John's Chapel we see two handsome niches in the wall, one on each side of the Altar. That on the South side has its base elevated a few inches above the other, below which is a canopied stone Piscina. The purpose of the Piscina was for the disposal of the water used to rinse the Chalice after Holy Communion. The superior elevation of the niche above the Piscina is probably intentional, as in this manner a greater honour was given to the Statue of the Blessed Virgin, which may have stood there. The other niche held the statue of St. John the Baptist, to whom the Chapel is dedicated.

There is also part of a Piscina built into the masonry of the wall on the right side of the North Door.


The earliest recumbent figures are in the Tudor niches in the North wall of the de Wyke Chapel.

Stained Glass Windows

Coats of Arms

Some of the heraldic glass above the East Window in the St. John's Chapel is very old. It is first mentioned in Collinson's History of Somerset,' dated 1791. It was incorrectly replaced in the restoration of 1872, but in 1927 the shields were made historically correct under the supervision of Roland Paul, Architect of Bristol Cathedral.

The Church Plate

Though possessing good Church Plate, Yatton's silver is not exceptionally old. There is however a fine Chalice and Flagon (1723) used at celebrations of the Eucharist on Sundays. Tradition asserts that the older silver was sold to raise money to keep out the inroads of the sea (!), and from the Churchwardens' Accounts of 1548 this seems to have been the fate of the Silver Processional Cross.

Frontals, Falls and Fair Linen

St. Mary the Virgin possesses several sets of Frontals and Markers in styles both ancient and modern. White, which is particularly beautiful, Red, Green and Violet (now called Purple). Among the fair linen there are some examples of exquisite Church Needlework. In 2002, the church embarked upon a scheme under the guidance of Donald Denham, the Diocesan Adviser on church furnishings, to supplement the nave altar falls with those of a new design in green, white, red, and blue that would complement the frontals seen on the High (East-end) altar.

The Registers

The early Registers are missing; the oldest extant books begin in 1675 and are mutilated. The Churchwardens' Accounts are much older and have been kept since the early 15th Century. They are a source of great help in tracing the history of the Church. In view of the importance being placed on preserving church archives in appropriate and controlled conditions material that is over ten years old has been placed in the care of the County Archivist in Taunton where it may be viewed, although copies of some Registers are kept in the parish.

The Crosses

There were once three Crosses in the Parish of Yatton. One in the Churchyard, one at Court de Wyke, and one at Stream's Cross, Claverham.

There is doubt about the exact date of the erection of the beautiful cross that stands outside the South Porch. It may have been the last work of the Newton's and completed in 1499, but it is also mentioned as costing £9 in 1525, but this may be only a restoration. The fine calvary of six steps alone survived until 1921 when the beautiful shaft and Cross were restored in memory of those sons of Yatton who died for their country in the Great War of 1914-1918. Their names are commemorated on a brass plate in the de Wyke Chapel with floral tributes provided by The Royal British Legion. This Churchyard Cross compares very favourably with any of the many crosses still in existence. It is more than 62 feet in circumference.

The Bells

There are eight bells in the belfry, some of very considerable age. On the 7th Bell, hung in 1451, is the following inscription: 'Misericordias Domini in Eternum Cantabo' which is the first verse of Psalm 89, and translated reads 'I will sing of the mercies of the Lord for ever.' Some interesting facts are recorded of the loyal use of Yatton Bells.

The Bells are always rung on Guy Fawkes' Day. It is believed that this good old custom has been repeated in Yatton every 5th November since 1606 with the exception of the years 1939-1945, when the ringing of Bells was only to be used as a means of warning of Invasion. In the Churchwardens' Accounts 1685 to 1706 this annual ringing is duly recorded, as is also the ringing on the 29th 'May, Oak Apple Day, to celebrate the escape of King Charles from Oliver Cromwell's Army in 16051. Old Prayer Books used to contain special Thanksgiving Services for both these days but they have been omitted for many years.

Yatton seems always to have been loyal to the Crown for the old Accounts also mention that the Bells were rung on 6th July, 1685, when the Duke of Monmouth was taken after the Battle of Sedgmoor. Also on 10th November 1696, they were rung to celebrate the safe return of King William III from the War in France. No doubt it was about this time that the 'Prince of Orange' the principal hostelry in Yatton, received its name.

As a result of an arson attack in August 1991, whilst the major restoration work to the church was in progress, the tower was severely damaged, the bells and the associated mechanism ravaged by fire and smoke. It was remarkable therefore that only one bell, the 4th, had to be taken down, recast, and later re-hung, a process necessitating lowering the bell down through a circular trap door, with millimetres to spare, into the old choir area of the church. During the recasting by the Whitechapel foundry, an additional inscription was added to the bell 'Recast Whitechapel 1992 following damage by fire Bernard G. North, M. Rhiannon Leaman Churchwardens, The Rev John L. Ruffle Rector'

The spiral staircase leading to the top of the tower is opened on a regular basis and those who have braved the ascent (and descent) have reported it is well worth the climb to gain a whole new perspective of Yatton and the surrounding countryside. On one famous occasion, hundreds of gas-filled balloons were released from this vantage point as part of a fund-raising event for restoration work.

The Churchyard

There are numbers of very beautiful tombstones, some with delightful epitaphs, but sadly many are in a poor state of preservation and many of the inscriptions illegible. The 'Gipsy' graves on the East Side of the Churchyard are worth visiting. They are famous as being the last resting-place of a well-known old character Gipsy Isaac Joules and his wife Merily, whose descendants are believed to be still living in caravans. The railings were once painted bright red and blue and bits of colour can still be seen. The touching lines on Merily's stone read ' Here lie Merily Joules, a beauty bright; That left Isaac Joules, her heart's delight 1827.' Yatton Local History Society members undertook for posterity as complete a survey of the tombstones in 2000/2001 as could be managed.

The churchyard being 'closed', its upkeep has passed from the Church to North Somerset Council whose people spend many hours of mowing and strimming to keep the grass at a manageable level. The Friends of St Mary's Churchyard, founded to maintain and beautify the churchyard for parishioners and wildlife, have undertaken an enormous amount of work to bring the churchyard to its present enviable state. To celebrate the Millennium in the year 2000, and as part of a nation-wide scheme an English yew tree will be planted in the churchyard to celebrate 2000 years of Christianity, and if it is a good specimen could be about to witness a couple more.


The present author, Roger Lawrence, is deeply indebted to Mrs Mary Peart whose 'Short History' published in 1931 and revised in 1948 for the reuse of much of her text.