The Parish Church at Somerford Keynes incorporates one of the oldest stone built churches in Gloucestershire. In 675 a monastery was founded in Malmesbury that became a great mission centre. In 685 a nephew of King Ethelred gave some land at Somerford to the Abbey at Malmesbury and we may assume that from that date a preaching centre was established at Somerford. The first converts were baptized in the River Thames and Mass would have been said, first in the open air, and then perhaps in a rough wooden shelter. By 695AD a stone church had been built under a thatch roof. The north doorway of this church still remains today.
The font (1100) has a Norman bowl on a 14th century stem of unusual design
Between the font and the Saxon Fragment are stone coffin lids. They were used from about 1150 to 1300 to cover the graves of well-to-do people and were incised with an ornamental cross or emblems: a sword for a knight, a key for steward, a chalice for a priest, a pair of shears for a wool merchant. These lids may have originally been in the church but reset in the present position in 1968
In the reign of Henry 1, the manor of Somerford came by marriage into the possession of Ralph de Keynes of Dodford, near Daventry and thus ‘Somerford’ acquired ‘Keynes’. Around 1215 the Keynes family, who held the Manor from about 1100 to 1300 – started rebuilding the church. William, the grandson of Ralph, in 1218 gave ‘Somerford Church’ – the advowson and the greater tithe – to Merton Priory perhaps as a thank-offering for the recovery of his lands, which he had forfeited to King John after joining a rebellion! Most patrons and incumbents from that day to this are known. It is possible Merton Priory rebuilt the chancel making it larger and lighter and adding windows. Some years later, about 1250, the greater part of the church was rebuilt. The eastern end of the north wall of the Nave was pierced with two arches and the North Chapel created. The south wall was built of squared stone and contained four two-light windows and the main door then, or later, protected by a porch.
The main south door and porch from about 1250 showing a stone bench, as painte
d about 1865 by Rev. Fawcett’s daughter.
The Chancel Screen was carved in 1483 and may have originally stood between the nave and the north Chapel before being moved beneath a gallery that stood on the west wall between 1710 and 1875. After this date it was moved to its current location.
The interior walls would have been covered with paintings the last one being the great St Christopher about 8½ ft high painted on the plaster around 1500 when the north doorway was blocked up. This painting was plastered over at the reformation and replaced by a Bible text. It was rediscovered in 1822 but destroyed by damp during the restoration of the church in 1876
Between 1505 and 1545, three bells were added . The oldest is the treble, shown left nearest the door, when in 1999 they were lowered and converted to swing chiming, as our Millennium Project. The tenor bell and Sanctus are shown with their old (16thC.) headstocks. As they were before nuts and bolts, these were fixed by wedges. The bell frame is an original oak frame dated 1682. The three bells were made by the Bristol Foundry, the Sanctus bell bearing the initials of Thomas Gefferies and, would have hung in a wooden turret and then moved into the current stone tower built in 1715. The fourth (centre) bell, by Rudhall, is dated 1747 and is inscribed ‘When you me ring I’ll sweetly sing’. The bells can be rung by swinging, or when fixed, using the Ellacombe chime, allowing one person to ring three bells. This chime allows exact timing for tolling at funerals for example. There are more details and pictures of the bells in the room below the tower.
In 1554, Robert Strange of Cirencester bought the Manor of Somerford Keynes from Queen Mary. One hundred years later in 1654, his great grandson, another Robert, died in London of the smallpox aged 23. His three sisters erected the great marble monument in the north chapel, his figure reclining dressed in Cavalier fashion with long hair and ribboned shoes. His original Helmet can be seen in Cirencester Museum.
In 1859 the church was visited by Mr.& Mrs.Hall who wrote ‘the beautiful and graceful little church is covered with flowers, roses and honeysuckle intertwined with green ivy from the base to its roof – a model of cheerful aspect and simple beauty.’In 1874 it was discovered this picturesque covering was hiding serious decay such that the church was in a dangerous condition, so Frederick Waller, architect for Gloucester Cathedral was called in. Among other alterations, the church was re-roofed, the walls rebuilt, a vestry added which entailed relocating the Strange monument, heating installed, the gallery removed, a new pulpit, reading desk and pews were provided. The Chancel screen was moved from the gallery to the present position. All the memorial inscriptions on the walls were lost, as were those in the floor whe the flagstones were replaced with Victorian tiles.
In 1968 Cannon Gibbon instigated removal of the stones that had sealed the Saxon doorway since 1500. A removable wooden door was put in the doorway until in 2004, when through the generosity of a local parishioner, the doorway was glazed and the glass engraved so that the full beauty of the opening could be appreciated. During the work on the doorway, the mortar was carbon dated to AD695.
When in 2007 the organ in the chancel required an overhaul, opportunity was taken to reposition it in the North Chapel which had been reordered to create an open space for youth activities.
The church and the tabletop tombs are all Listed by English Heritage, The church is Grade II*, the tombs all Grade II. The Tabletop tombs are called Chest Tombs by English Heritage.
Words and pictures by Judy Monger
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