Somerton, St James Church
History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS: Stone reredos dated to 1400 AD
Also 14th century is the south aisle, which was transformed in the 16th century into the Fermor Chapel. And it is the Chapel that must be mentioned first, for it truly is exceptional.
The Fermor family purchased Somerton manor in 1512, and stayed until 1642 before moving to Tusmore Park. Even then, family members continued to be buried at Somerton. The first Fermors at Somerton were William and his wife Elizabeth Norrys. Their beautifully preserved memorial brasses are set into the top of a tomb chest next to the screen that separates the chapel from the chancel. William Fermor was married 4 times, but had no children.
On the south wall, opposite the brasses, is a table tomb with effigies of William's heir, Thomas Fermor, and his wife Brigitta. Thomas was lord of the manor at Somerton from 1552-1580 and founded a school which existed for 400 years. We know a remarkable amount about the tomb, which was made by Richard and Gabriel Roiley of Burton on Trent, who were paid the sizeable sum of 40 pounds. Look on the tomb base and you will see four 'weepers'; one of them a very touching image of an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, presumably in memory of a child who died shortly after birth. One very amusing touch is a tiny carved dog toying with a ribbon on Brigitta's dress.
Opposite Richard Fermor's elegant tomb is another in similar style to his eldest son, John, who predeceased his father, dying in 1625. Unlike his father, John is shown reclining, under a melancholy Latin epitaph.
The west wall of the chapel has some very nicely crafted mural monuments by JG Lough, in classical style, with Greek and Roman symbols like draped urns and columns, and grieving family members clustered around a central figure. One touching memorial shows Philippa Dewar (died 1853) being helped towards heaven by an angel as she clutches an infant; indicating that she must have died in childbirth. Also on the west chapel wall are three 18th century hatchments, the earliest to Henry Fermor (d. 1746).
THE FERMOR CHAPEL
One of the most fascinating historic features is a remarkable reredos panel set on the east wall behind the high altar. This dates to about 1400 and depicts the Last supper in superb detail. None of the figures are static; each seems to be caught in mid-gesture, pouring wine, or, in one case, refusing an extra drink. The one exception is the figure of John, show with his head in Jesus' lap. Though there is some obvious wear to the carved figures, the reredos is in remarkable condition, save for one damaged area immediately below the figure of Christ. This may originally have held a carving of Judas Iscariot. We owe its preservation to the fact that it was taken down and hidden during the worst Puritan iconoclasm of the 17th century, and only brought out again in 1822.
To the south of the altar is a 14th century three-seat sedilia. Also in the chancel, several of the benches incorporate medieval carvings. The benches themselves are 19th century, by Arts and Crafts carver Henry Wilson.
The wooden rood screen is an exceptional piece of late 15th century woodwork, with beautifully carved detail. Most of the upper section is original, though the lower part has been heavily restored. On the lower left of the screen is an intriguing armorial panel dated 1632, with four carved heads, the arms of Bishop Juxon, onetime rector of St James who accompanied King Charles to the scaffold. In the nave is a marble wall monument to William Mynn, another prominent local Catholic.
In the south west corner is an ancient turret clock mechanism, probably dating to the 17th century and regulated by a system of weights and pulleys. The clock never had a face; it simply rang a tenor bell every hour. Nearby is the rather peculiar hexagonal font, atop a later base. The shape of the bowl is so unusual that some experts think it might originally have been part of a cross base.
What an amazing church! I simply didn't want to leave. Everywhere I looked there seemed to something fascinating. There were very useful signs, including translations of the Latin inscriptions on the Fermor tombs, but even so there were so many interesting features that I could only guess at. There really is a lot to enjoy in this wonderful historic church.
Address: Church Street, Somerton, Oxfordshire, England, OX25 6LN
Attraction Type: Historic Church
Location: Limited parking along Church Street, or on the main road. The church was open when we visited.
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low-exceptional) on historic interest
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