History of St. Kenelm's Church Sapperton

Photo of St. Kenelm's Church Sapperton

Sapperton means 'the home of the soap makers' - probably a reference to an ancient wool trade and linked with the occurrence locally of fuller's earth, a special clay once used for fulling (cleaning) fleeces.

With links going back at least as far as Roman Britain, Sapperton is also mentioned in the Doomsday Book - population 39, of whom 13 are listed as'slaves'

Every churchyard is a history book and Sappertorr's is no exception. For instance, Rebekah Mason, first wife of Charles Mason (1730-87) the distinguished English astronomer, is buried here near the South wall of the Chancel.

It was Mason, with his colleague Jeremiah Dixon, the English surveyor (of whom little is known except that he was reputedly born in a coal mine) who surveyed and established the famous Mason-Dixon Line, popularly seen as dividing the North from the South in the USA. In 1788, King George III came to inspect and make famous by his presence, a tunnel more than two miles long, which had been driven as part of the Thames-Severn Canal beneath the hill on which Sapperton stands. (Though long disused and blocked by rock falls, plans are afoot for the tunnel's restoration).

At the end of the 19th century Sapperton became the adopted home and workplace of Ernest Gimson and the brothers Ernest and Sidney Barnsley.They and their associates were strongly influenced by WiIliam Morris (1834-96), founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Their beautifully crafted handmade furniture has become world famous, as have some lovely Cotswold houses they built hereabouts. The Gimson and Barnsley graves are in the churchyard, not far from the now sadly headless 15th century Churchyard Cross.

Sir Stafford Cripps (1889-1952), a man of strong Christian beliefs who became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1947, lived locally and is buried in Sapperton Cemetery. And John Masefield, who served his apprenticeship in a windjammer and became Poet Laureate in 1930, lived for a time at Pinbury Park nearby.

When they were casting about for a site for their intended church and finally stood on the shoulder of this hill overlooking the Golden Valley (reputedly named by Queen Victoria, who saw it on a sunny autumn day) it is tempting to imagine that our forefathers exclaimed "Just look at the view! Let's build it here." And over the centuries since then, what they founded has developed into the church you see today. Symbolically cruciform in plan, with a central bell tower capped by a broach spire (a broach spire is an octagonal one rising from a square tower but without parapets), with transepts north and south and a great west window, it is more akin to a mini cathedral than are many other country parish churches.

The position ofthe Font, immediately inside the door through which you entered, symbolises by its location the rite of baptism which is itself symbolic of admission to the Christian Church. Our font, standing there for over five hundred years, has witnessed many such admissions.Beyond the font, the carved linenfold pew-ends date from Tudor times

Passing through the opening below the 'Bathurst' pew, which is up on a gallery, you have a first general view of the interior.

Although a priest was appointed to the parish in 1190 and though there is stonework of Norman workmanship a.round the door leading from the North Transept to the belfry staircase and surrounding a small window on the stair itself, St Kenelm's is not, in ecclesiastical terms, all that old a building. The Chancel, though subject of some later reconstruction, dates from the 13th century.

The 14th century Bell Tower (carrying two medieval bells and one of a later date) came next, followed by the Transepts and

Nave. The North Transept, originally a Chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is mainly 16th century Tudor.

People sometimes ask why medieval church-building seems so piecemeal, spaced out over centuries. Well, in those days building really was a slow process, hindered by lack of funds and shortages of skilled labour (what's new?), held up by changes of plan, yet all constantly alleviated by endless patience. Of what account a passing century when the work in hand is to the Glory of God?

Traditionally, the Chancel is the 'property' of the ecclesiastical authority, whereas, given money and influence, other parts may be altered, enlarged or replaced by the laity. This is what has happened here. In the first years of the 18th century the great landowning Atkyns family rebuilt most of the church, changing its character completely, for ever and rather splendidly.

Then, in 1730 the 1st Earl Bathurst purchased Sapperton Manor House, which stood on the north side of the church, from the Atkyns trustees. Shortly afterwards he demolished it and gave the panelling from the banqueting hall to the church. His gift included the panels now used as pew-ends in the Nave, which depict persons of, shall we say, an unexpected charm. Incidentally, the kneelers in the pews, illustrating local wildlife, were worked by Sapperton's parishioners.

The North Transept contains memorials to members ofthe Poole family which held the patronage of the living from the 15th century onwards. That to Sir Henry Poole, who died in 1616, and his wife Anne, surrounded by their children, is particularly splendid.

The South Transept is dominated by the magnificent memorial to Sir Robert Atkyns, the historian who lived at Pinbury Park.

Walk up the steps, through the tower, into the Chancel. Under the altar is a slab marking the burial place of Sir Henry Wentworth, Major General to King Charles 1. He died in 1644, the year of the King's visit to Sapperton during the Civil War.

The East Window above the Altar shows Jesus with St George and St Joan of Arc on either side of Him. The window is in memory of the alliance of the First World War.

This is a holy place. For generation after generation ordinary people have knelt here, finding their happiness turning to a greater joy, finding their grief assuaged, finding their all-too-human emotions of anger, frustration, doubt and self-pity gently given a wider perspective. It is a place where, by God's Mercy, all human frailties are understood and forgiven.

On the north wall, to the left of the Altar, is the aurnbry, a small recess wherein is safely kept the blessed sacrament of Bread and Wine against the time, any time, when it is needed. Go in peace.

As you go, glance again at the War Memorials. Those men, like all servicemen, expected to come back to their familiar countryside. They had a rotten job. Spare them a thought. You, after all, can walk out through the door and touch the yew trees which have stood so long on either side of the path.

And who was St Kenelrn, who has seven other churches in England bearing his name? He was the boy-king of Mercia, seven years old. In 819, the year of his succession, his older sister Quendryra, wanting the throne for herself, persuaded Kenelm's guardian, Askobert - with hints that he might share the throne with her - to take the boy into the forest, murder him and bury him in an unmarked grave. This Askobert did, enabling Quendryra to observe, brightly, that her little brother seemed to have disappeared. The plotters were soon undone. Miraculously, a dove flew to Rome bearing a scroll tellng the Pope where Kenelm 's body could be found. The Pope responded and Kenelm's faithful subjects recovered the body and bore it to Winchcombe Abbey. On the journey, wherever the body was set down, aclear spring of healing water materialised, a prelude to many other miracles. As for Quendryra, her eyes fell out onto her Psalter while she was at prayer and she died soon afterwards.

Derived from the old English words 'cene' and 'helm' the name Kenelm means Brave Helmet, a heavy title for so little a lad, but one into which he might have grown had he not been destined for a greater glory


You can discover more about the future of St. Kenelm's and what Loyd Grossman had to say when he visited the church as Chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust.

Floor plan of St. Kenelm's Church Sapperton

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Photo © Elaine Kemp

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