St James, Somerton, Oxfordshire
TheChurchofSt Jamesin Somerton stands on a knoll to the south of one of the tracks leading down from the tableland to the east to the water meadows along the Cherwell. The church is unusually large and imposing for what has never been a large village. It contains remarkable monuments and has architectural elements from every century between the eleventh and the sixteenth. It is listed as Grade 1.
In the churchyard immediately overlooking what is now Church Street stands a medieval preaching cross, and the knoll may have been a site of worship in Saxon times, but the first building which we know to have stood on this site was erected shortly after the Norman Conquest and may have included the earliest extant part of the church – the blocked up door on the south side of the nave.
This door with its round Norman arch may have been the original entrance to the church since church doors were traditionally on the south side and at that stage much of the village may have been in the area to the south of the church which is now an orchard.
The outline of the nave and perhaps some of the lower stonework probably go back to the twelfth century, and the round piers to the arches to the north aisle are transitional betweenNormanand Early English style. (The arches themselves, however, are double chamfered, a typical fourteenth century feature).
The North Aisle was added sometime around 1200 and the Chancel about a hundred years later.
The fourteenth century saw not only the creation of the Gothic arches between the Nave and the North Aisle but also the building of the Tower and the Porch. Here ironstone was used rather than the local limestone. Somerton is close to the geological border between limestone and ironstone country, and the ironstone, though more expensive was probably thought to be superior, but a very white limestone was used to good effect for the Crucifixion depicted on the North side of the Tower.
A south aisle was also added in the fourteenth century. This was much extended and altered in the sixteenth and seventeenth century to accommodate the memorials to the Fermor family (see below).
The fifteenth century saw further works not to extend the church but to make it more imposing. The roof of the nave was raised and the clerestory added, and crenellated parapets were added to the nave, side aisles and tower to give the whole church its present ‘visually assertive’ appearance (Wheeler….) – and the east end of the south aisle a slightly rakish aspect.
There were no alterations to the external structure after the early seventeenth century possibly because the Fermor family, the lords of the manor, moved to Tusmore. By the late eighteenth century most of the rectors were non-resident and the church and its monuments were in disrepair.
A major refurbishment took place at the end of the nineteenth century under Henry Wilson (1864 – 1934) who had taken over the architectural practice of JD Sedding.Wilsonwas noted not only as an architect but also as a designer.
The Monuments and Internal Features
– The Chancel
The oldest and perhaps the single most important carving in the church is the remarkable stone Reredos behind the altar. This probably dates from about 1400 and depicts the Last Supper in splendidly lively style. All the figures are caught in mid-gesture (One disciple is refusing another drink for example) except for John who is lying in the lap of Christ. Wheeler (op cit) describes it as ‘medieval sculpture at its most engaging and accessible: humane, animated and brimful of charm’. It is made of Brize Norton stone and is similar to one at Bampton. It was taken down and hidden from the Puritans in the 17th century and only put back in 1822.
(Reredos full view. The damaged section immediately in front of Christ might have been an image of Judas Iscariot)
(reredos – left side. One of the apostles has evidently had enough to drink already!)
(Reredos – right side)
The three-seat sedilia on the south wall of the chancel dates from the fourteenth century
The choir stalls incorporate two medieval bench ends but date from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. They are thought to be to designs by the architect Henry Wilson who was himself a well-known sculptor. They are fine examples of the Arts and Crafts style and the carvings depict an enchanting menagerie of animals with seated figures supporting the arm-rests at the east end.
(Detail of carving from choir stalls)
(Detail of carving from choir stalls)
(Detail of carving from choir stalls)
North section of Rood Screen showing double middle rail and below the arms of William Juxon, Rector of Somerton before the Civil War who became Archbishop of Canterbury at the Restoration
The rood screen separating the chancel from the nave is a particularly fine example of of late fifteenth century work. The upper parts are substantially original and the tracery heads are of great finesse. The double middle rail is a rarity (others are found at Cherry Hinton in Cambridgeshire and Llanegryn in North Wales). It features a series of wheels each containing four mouchettes. These motifs were typical of the earlier Decorated Gothic style of the fourteenth century whereas the panel tracery above is typical for the Perpendicular style of the following century. The screen would originally have been vaulted with the vaulting ribs springing from the tops of the shafts between each tracery head. The vaulting would have formed the underside of the now missing rood-loft above. (Richard Wheeler op cit)
(Detail of Rood Screen showing Mouchettes)
The Fermor Chapel;
“The Dormitory of the Fermors in this church contains many curious Monuments, which we cannot but lament is hastening to decay……… the all destroying hand of time is committing daily depredation which cleanliness& a few occasional repairs might have prevented.” (Thomas Trotter, archival watercolourist to the Royal Society of Antiquaries in annotation of his paintings of the tombs in 1801 (see example below) Trotter was a pupil of William Blake).
Next in importance to the reredos must be the collection of monuments in the Fermor Chapel (which like the reredos are still awaiting conservation). The Fermor family completed their acquisition of the manor of Somerton in 1512. They remained in Somerton until 1642 when they moved toTusmorePark, but subsequent generations continued to be buried at Somerton. The family remained staunch Catholics through all the turmoils of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The founder of the dynasty was William Fermor and his wife Elizabeth Norrys whose tomb chest next to the screen to the chancel has fine brasses. These are palimpsests (ie re-used with memorials to someone else on the reverse). William Fermor died in 1552, having been married four times but with no issue. He was buried according to his will “under the new arch, between the aisle of the south side and the choir wherein I used to kneel”. His tomb was described as “a great raised monument of gray marble – thereon ye picture of a man and a woman in brass.”
(Water colour by Thomas Trotter, dated 1801)
Even more interesting is the tomb on the south wall opposite. This is of William’s heir Thomas Fermor and his wife Brigitta. Thomas, the younger son of Richard Fermor of Easton Neston, was Lord of the Manor of Somerton from 1552 to 1580 and by his will left an endowment for the establishment of the village school, which remained in existence for nearly four centuries. His tomb bears the inscription
“to Thomas Fermor, Knight, a man of generosity towards scholars, mercy and goodness towards his people, admirable piety towards all men, the kindly lord of this estate, and the excellent founder of a school. In perpetual memory of himself and his beloved wife Brigitta, his executors, in accordance with his will, have with tears erected this monument. He died in the year of our Lord 1580, the 8th day of August”.
The effigies of him and his wife are by Richard and Gabriel Roiley ofBurton-on-Trent. The alabaster is not of good quality and the style is consciously archaic but the tomb is important partly because it is well documented: the Roileys were to be paid the “full somme of Forty poundes of lawful mony ofEngland” – a massive sum in those days. Under the contract the creature at Thomas’s feet is supposed to be a lion but is normally described as a dog. With all its imperfections this monument is a good example of English workmanship of the period. There is no suggestion in the contract that the effigies were to be actual likenesses of Thomas and Brigitta. Rather they were to represent their standing in society and the number of their offspring. There is a naive charm about the monument as a whole, particularly perhaps in the way that the ill-proportioned weepers support enormous shields of arms between them. The weepers include a swaddled baby – presumably a child who died at birth or soon thereafter. In a nice touch Brigitta’s little dog with a studded collar is busying himself untying one of the knotted ribbons on her dress.
(Monument to Thomas Fermor and his wife Brigitta)
(Monument to Thomas Fermor and his wife Brigitta – detail)
Next to Thomas along the south wall is the monument to Richard his eldest son who was lord of the manor from 1580 till his death in 1642. This is in a very different style. The effigy is lying under a Renaissance canopy. Richard is lying on his back in what was by then a very old-fashioned posture. The monument is of painted limestone with black stone decorative inserts and columns. There should be a pair of obelisks at the top of the canopy. The whole monument would originally have been extremely colourful. It bears the inscription in Latin:
You ask who I am that lie here. Here I lie, dust beneath marble. Once I was Richard Fermor. Part of me returns, ashes to ashes, part scales the heights of heaven. That thou mayest act thus in death, in life act likewise.
(Monument to Richard Fermor)
Opposite Richard on the north wall of the chapel lies John Fermor, his eldest son who predeceased him, dying in 1625. His monument is very similar in style and construction but the effigy is in the reclining posture popular from the late sixteenth century onwards. John has a much fuller and sadder epitaph also in Latin:
O hurrying traveller, grudge not to check thy step. See who I was and ponder well. My name was John Fermor, the eldest son of his parents and the first hope of the House of Fermor. I was in the flower of youth, my cheeks were bright and blooming, and having just married a wife I was full of joy.
Scarcely had I begun my course when suddenly cruel Death bade me halt and stopped the journey I had started. I pleaded my strength and wealth and my flower of youth, my wife’s tears and my father’s sad prayers. But my words fell upon deaf ears: inflexible Death drew his weapon and laid me low with a cruel wound.
But why speak I of myself? So many sons lie here buried in the earth, but their spirit ascends to the stars. While thou readest this, pity my fate and say a propitious prayer. My present fate may soon be yours.
The inscriptions to both Richard and John were probably re-carved in the nineteenth century since Thomas Trotter, the watercolourist for the Royal Society of Antiquaries who painted the monuments in 1801 recorded that they were virtually illegible but that he had found them recorded in an Oxford college.
(Monument to John Fermor)
On the floor of the chapel are ledger stones with elegant lettering commemorating various members of the family, among them Colonel Thomas Morgan, killed in 1643 at the battle of Newbury, who was husband of Jane Fermor. The (parliamentary) Committee for the Advance of Money[i] referred to him as a ‘notorious papist and delinquent’, and ordered that his confiscated land (sequestered) presently possessed by Jane, his widow and her family, be handed over to the trustees of the children of John Pym, the leading parliamentarian who had died that year[ii]. He had lands at Heyford and inNorthampton. As late as 1650 there were complaints to Parliament by John Pym’s heirs that they still could not collect rents for the property because the tenants were still paying rent to Thomas Morgan’s heirs.
On the south wall of the chapel is an elaborate monument to James Smith and his wife Eliza. It is not clear why that monument is in the Fermor Chapel, but Parliamentary records for Somerton also refer to one Thomas Smith as a noted recusant . If James was related to him he may have been a close ally of the Fermors. It is also noteworthy that the small marble monument in the nave to William Mynn and his wife commemorates another noted Catholic. [iii]
[i] Calendar of the Committee for the Advance of Money 6 Dec 1643
[ii] Dictionary of National Biography
CCalendar for the Committee for Compounding p. 3194 and 3186, 18 Jan 1654
(Monument to William Mynn and his wife Mary)
On the west wall of the chapel are three monuments by JG Lough (1789-1876) the noted sculptor of funerary monuments. Each is in the form of a stele with a low pediment and acroteria at the top , based on the type of ancient Greek (and later Roman) external standing memorial, with a relief sculpture on the face. Professor Brian Kemp comments that each is in its own way interesting. That of William Fermor (died 1828) depicts a lady grieving at a draped urn upon a column; the lady is probably his daughter, who erected the monument. The largest monument is that of John Ramsay (died 1840). It was erected by his family and shows in a very moving way the members of the family, including children, in various attitudes of grief. That of Philippa Dewar (died 1853) shows an angel in low relief conducting aloft the soul of Philippa holding a baby – this would normally indicate death in childbirth, and would help to explain ‘Thy will be done’ at the top of the monument. The depiction of angels assisting souls, or even taking souls, to heaven is typical of the Victorian period.
John Ramsay (d 1840) and Philippa Dewar (d 1853) were descendants of the Fermors. It is notable that the family still wished to be commemorated in the chapel even after the Fermor estates around Somerton were sold to the Earl of Jersey in 1815.
The chapel also contains three hatchments recording the heraldic arms of eighteenth century members of the family. (Hatchments are large diamond-shaped canvases thought to have been painted for the funeral of the deceased, hung outside the house during the mourning period and then placed in the church) These are in poor state of repair but are
- 1. For Henry Fermor, d. 17 Jan. 1746/7. (who m. 1736,Frances, dau. of Edward Sheldon of Beoley, She d. 20 Mar. 1790).
Dexter background black. Argent a fess sable between three lions’ heads erased gules (Fermor), impaling, Sable a fess between three sheldrakes argent (Sheldon). Crest: From a ducal coronet or a cock’s head gules beaked combed and wattled or Mantling: Gules and argent
- 2. For Frances Fermor , d.24 June 1787 (eldest dau. of John Errington, of Beaufront,Northumberland, m. 1766, William Fermor of Tusmore)
Sinister background black, Fermor, impaling, Argent two bars and in chief three escallops azure (Errington). Motto: Resurgam Two cherubs’ heads above shield
3. For William Fermor, of Tusmore, d. 1 July 1806. All black background. Arms: As 2. Crest: defaced Mantling: Gules and argent Motto: Horae sempre
The screen separating the Fermor Chapel from the nave is probably fifteenth century work (perhaps from an earlier chantry chapel?) re-used when the Fermor Chapel was created in the sixteenth century out of the east end of the previous south aisle. The western section of it was probably placed at first north-south at the western end of the smaller Chapel and then moved to its present position when the remainder of the south aisle was incorporated into the chapel in order to accommodate more family memorials.
The screen separating the chapel from the chancel is Jacobean.
The Nave and North Aisle
The font was moved to its present position in late 2009 but is medieval. Its unusual hexagonal shape suggests that it may not have been designed as a font. Sherwood in the Pevsner (ed) Oxfordshire suggests that it may have been the base of a cross.
The fine window at the East end of the North Aisle (see separate article) is by Christopher Whall (1849-1924). Whall was an important member of the Arts and Crafts Movement, who became a leading designer of stained glass. He was a close collaborator of William Morris.
Some of the many pleasures in this church are quite hard to see. The carved stone corbels supporting the wall posts of the fifteenth-century ceiling are particularly good examples of the vigour and humour of the medieval tradition. See for example the head of the lion – or is it a bearded man? – on the second corbel from the east on the south side. Even harder to make out is the fantastic owl facing east carved on the second tie-beam from the East. (To the medieval mind an owl was a creature of darkness and ignorance, not the friendly and wise old bird of today)
Basil Eastwood with additional material supplied by Richard Wheeler, author of Oxfordshire’s Best Churches, to be published 2012
 Calendar of the Committee for the Advance of Money 6 Dec 1643
 Dictionary of National Biography
CCalendar for the Committee for Compounding p. 3194 and 3186, 18 Jan 1654