The Church of St Stephen, Winsham

In south Somerset, as elsewhere, one effect of the Black Death was the change from arable farming to less labour-intensive sheep farming. By the end of the 14th century, Somerset was producing about a quarter of English woollens and it was a time of great prosperity. As the wool trade boomed during the 14th and 15th centuries, a religious zeal swept the country in the wake of the Black Death that was to last for some two hundred years. Also, local populations were tending to increase in size and so, flushed with the wealth of wool, began a phase of enlarging existing churches and St Stephens was no exception. 
A village of Saxon origin, the manor was held by the Canons of Wells Cathedral by the time of Edward the Confessor (c.1003 - 1066). It was seized briefly by Harold II but reverted back to the Canons after the conquest.


Of the original church there is no trace but the present fabric, with the unusual form of nave and chancel separated by a central tower without transepts, is no doubt based on the Norman plan. At the beginning of the 13th century, the church and manor constituted a provostship of Wells with the provost having a house in Winsham. By 1234, because the Winsham lands were insufficient to maintain a provost, it was united with the provostship of Combe St Nicholas.
It was probably at this time that the chancel was extended to its present size - evidenced by the slim, pointed Early English Gothic lancet windows. Since the chancel was the responsibility of the church while the nave was the responsibility of the parish, it is unlikely that the nave was extended at the same time. The chancel continued to be altered throughout the 13th and early 14th centuries as can be seen by the elaborate tracery of two other windows in the Decorated Gothic style.
In 1348, plague , the "Black Death" , reached England through Weymouth and recent research confirms that about a third of the population of the known world perished. 50% of beneficed clergy in Somerset died between October 1348 and April 1349. Overshadowing the second half of the 14th century, the aftermath of the Black Death saw little in the way of building works - not only had the country lost many of its skilled artisans and builders but the high cost of the remaining workforce was prohibitive for most recovering parishes.

The 15th century saw a remodelling of the church fabric in the Perpendicular Gothic style - showing today in the heightened central tower, the ornate wagon roof of the nave together with the large nave windows, the font and the almost unique tympanum panel depicting the Crucifixion.

The nave
The nave is entered through the south porch with a good 15th century wagon roof. The detached
vestry was built in 1929. The west window of the nave is in the Curvilinear form of Decorated Gothic style with simple recurving tracery and probably dates the nave to the early- to mid-14th century. The other windows are later Perpendicular insertions of the 15th century. The west door has been made into a window recently. 

A tiny hagioscope, or squint, in the south pillar of the tower suggests a former south side altar in the nave. Above where this altar would have been, the blocked rood loft doorway is visible. 

The wagon roof, probably dating to the 15th century alterations, is ceiled with contrasting structural members and has some fine gilded bosses including a Tudor Rose and a portcullis. The Jacobean pulpit is octagonal with double Ionic columns at each angle with arabesque decoration to the panels. The font is Perpendicular with quatrefoil decoration, cusping below and panelling to the stem.

The tower base
The internal base of the tower was probably heightened as part of the 15th century alterations when the present Perpendicular arches were inserted but the
heads in the chancel are much earlier. 

The tympanum panel is described above.

The oak rood screen is just pre-Reformation and probably dates to the late 1520's or early 1530's and is similar in style to other early 16th century church carving in the district. It is constructed with four-light side sections with the central mullions extending to the apex. The lower panels are carved both sides with mainly foliage work but also included are a stag and a falcon on its nest of sticks. The latter was the heraldic badge of Henry VII’s sister-in-law, Katherine, the Countess of Devon. The screen has seen much restoration.

Carvings from the rood screen including the Stag, the Barrel and the Countess of Devon's badge.

The chancel

Remarkably off-set from the rest of the church, even for the "wry-neck" style, the chancel has simple Early English lancet windows of the 13th century and later Decorated style windows with simple tracery of the 14th century. The east window is Victorian (1880) as is the reredos by Hems of Exeter (1873). The displayed copy of Foxe’s "Book of Martyrs" would, in the late 16th century, have been chained to its desk. 



The priest’s doorway is Early English and has one of the church’s seven scratch dials on its jamb externally.

The tower

The three stage tower is Perpendicular, although a lancet window to the east elevation of the second stage shows the earlier construction of the tower base. The tower is plain with a fine embattled parapet and a higher south-west octagonal stair turret, again embattled. 

The single two-light bell openings, in the Perpendicular Gothic style are louvered. 

The tower has a peal of eight bells, re-hung in 1894 when five of the bells were new. The fifth dates from 1875, the seventh from 1720. The 13cwt tenor dates to 1583.


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This page reviewed 27 September 2019