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Religion

Stone Age Celtic Roman Saxon Medieval
Tudor Stuart Georgian Victorian Modern

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Rev Stephens

The investiture of the Rev Stephens 1980. Courtesy of Mrs De Tracy Reade pictured on the right.

Chewton Mendip has been a spiritual centre from the begining of history and he building of the church is the physical as well as spiritual centre of the village. The people left to right are Archdeacon Hughs, Frank Cumberland?, Earl Waldagrave, Rev Stephens, Bishop of Bath and Wells,? and Mrs De Tracey Reade.  Reigion
Stone Age Some people believe that Genesis chapter one verse three “And ‘God said, let there be light and there was light” should be taken literally but most people see it as a symbolic statement. Most religions have an explanation for creation which are not that different from the scientific explanations when taken at a symbolic level. The Higgs boson is sometime called the ‘God particle’ because it could explain the mysteries of the universe. DNA analysis links the modern population to the skeleton found in Cheddar caves which is 9000 years old and its location may have had religious significance. Hunter gatherer societies have a close link with nature and have some form of animist religion that shows respects for the natural elements of earth, wind, fire and water as well as the ‘spirits’ of the animals they hunted.  There are no examples of stone age art in the area but the wet climate would have destroyed anything from that period. There may have been caves that provided shelter at the source of the river Chew that may have provided temporary or permanent shelter. There is a stone circle a Stanton Drew and various mysterious rocks that may have had some spiritual significance. It has been suggested that Chew Down was part of a Neolithic track way that linked Stanton Drew with Stonehenge. The Glastonbury Lake village shows there was human occupation on the Somerset levels 5000 years ago. Glastonbury Tor still holds a spiritual attraction to people who hold a range of belief systems so it probably had religious significance to the earliest settlers in the area. Return to the top of the list.
Celtic The oldest structures in Chewton Mendips are religious in origin. There are at least two Bronze age barrows in Chewton Mendip and a number of other ‘bumps’ in the ground that could be burial mounds. One of the neighbouring parishes, Priddy, has a high concentration of burial mounds and ceremonial circles from an earlier age. Votive objects from the Bronze Age have been found recently to add to the religious significance of the site. One example is a small axe that has no practical values so its purpose must have been symbolic.  The symbol of an axe was later adopted by the Ancient Order or Foresters. The concept of repaying the gods for their bounty also survived. The developed into a system of paying tithes which persisted until the 19thcentury. One concept that may have been introduced by the traders from overseas was the single, male, god. Some aspects of the Celtic religion can be identified that are reflected in a number of modern belief systems. The relationship with water as a source of life is almost universal as is the concept of 3 and 7 being ‘magic’ numbers. ‘Mother earth’ is a term used so often that it has lost much of its original religious connotations. Return to the top of the list.
Roman The Romans combined their goddess Minerva with the local deity Sulis worshiped in nearby Bath to help merge the cultures. Something similar may have happened at Chewton Mendip but the lack of evidence from the Roman period has been interpreted as lack of  occupation in the Roman era. Recent discoveries of coins and pottery counter these claims and demonstrate that there was activity within Chewton Mendip during the Roman period.Christianity was introduced to Britain during the Roman Empire and a form of  Romano-British, or Celtic, Christianity developed and persisted until the middle ages. Return to the top of the list.
Saxon Chewton Mendip was probably a religious centre in Saxon times. The Celtic form of Christianity probably co-existed with the local pagan traditions and the religion of the Anglo Saxons which still provides us with the names of the days of the week. The Celtic church may have been more tolerant to the concept of female deities and priestesses could than the Roman Catholic version introduced during the Saxon period. The earliest documented evidence for Chewton Mendip is the will of Alfred the Great from 899 who owned the village personal. He was known to have been very pious Christian so he may have endowed the church. Wells Cathedral was established as the centre of a Diocese in 909 and Queen Edith, the wife of Edward the Confessor, held Chewton Mendip prior to the Norman invasion and was influential in getting Giso (Gisa) of Lorraine appointed as the Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1060 or 1061.  A Charter held by Wells Cathedral suggest that Chewon Mendip, or at least part of it, was awarded to Giso by Edith in 1062. Edward the Confessor also appointed Robert Chambert (or Champart) from Jumieges in Normandy as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1052. English common and ecclesiastical law started in the Saxon era which included the payment of tithes to support the church and monasteries. Return to the top of the list.
Medieval Chewton Mendip was awarded to the Abbey  of Jumieges  by William The Conquere and the Knights Templars also held land in the area. It is probable that the Abbot of Jumieges and the Bishop of Bath& Wells came to a pragmatic arrangement which was later defined in 1241. The Abbot of Jumieges finaly lost control of Chewton Mendp and Hayling Island in 1340 at the beginning of the Hundred Years war.  A new Carthusian monastery was founded in Sheen in 1414 and both Hayling island and Chewton Mendip were assigned to it. Stories about the persecution of witches are well known and one example of the fear of witches is that the 15th century font in St Mary Magdalene’s Church in Chewton Mendip was kept locked to prevent witches stealing the holy water. The first recorded dedication of the church to St Mary Magdalene was dated 1535. Return to the top of the list.
Tudor Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and the turbulent fate of the Lords of the Manor of Chewton Mendip is well documented but what happened to the rectors of Chewton Mendip is less clear. Mary I tried to reverse the reformation and John Haines, who was the last recorded Prior of Sheen Abbey, deprived the  protestant vicar, John Guy and replaced him with Roger Normecok. It is possible that John Hains or Joh Joberne was living in Chewton Priory. It has been identified that Henry Grey had been living in Sheen priory and the priory would have been ruled by an  a prior who may have lived in a building known localy as ‘the priory’. The cheapest way for Elizabeth I to award the loyalty of her supporters or buy the acceptance of her political allies was to award them with former church land. The most likely recipient of the church lands of Chewton Mendip was Roger Manners of Uffington who was an Esquire to both Mary I and Elizabeth I.  This was a time when parish priests had to be qualified ministers and started to become wealthy. It is possible that  Edward Thekland or Anthony Eglesfield who were the vicars during the period built a new vicarage house on the site of the Old Rectory or Chewton Priory. What is also less well known is that there were attempts to eliminate bishops and the hierarchy associated with cathedrals. This occurred in some Protestant countries and the motivation was part doctrinal and part economic. The theological issues resolved around the need for intermediaries between the individual and God. The economic arguments were based on the cost of maintaining Bishops and their associated entourage. This was money that should have been spent on the poor and sick according to many people. Return to the top of the list.
Stuart Religious persecution persisted in the 17thcentury but it was not as virulent as in earlier periods.  The Litton parish registers contain a memorandum dated 1616 which was five years after the introduction of the King James Bible. The 1616 memorandum stated that the villagers agreed to abide by an agreement made in London in 1562. This was the same year that Sir Edward Waldegrave was imprisoned for practicing his Catholic faith too openly. The implication being is that some villagers still resisted the Protestant reforms. The Rector of Litton at the time was Robert Earle. He was a Preband of Wells Cathedral which was a term still used by Wells Cathedral to identify a member of the cathedral hierarchy with special economic responsibilities.The Waldegraves were still openly Catholic in for most of the 17th century. They married into the Beaumont family of Ston Easton  who can be traced back to Robert de Beaumont, 1stEarl of Leicester in  medieval times. Their social status enabled them to practice their religion openly without retribution. The Stocker family of Chilcompton were less fortunate  and were fined and eventual evicted for their Catholic faith. The Plaister family of Widcomb may have been covert Catholics who had the money to pay for memorials in the Lady Chapel but did not have the social status to openly flout the mainly ‘low church’ hierarchy that held sway in the village.The religious politics changed by the mid 17th century when the king Charles 1st was suspected of Catholic sympathies. His ‘high church’ Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, imposed a number of reforms that were opposed by the mainly ‘low church’ parishes such as Chewton Mendip. It is possible that Bishop Piers, the Bishop of Bath & Wells. A letter addressed to the  Bishop of Bath and Wells, in 1664 asked for the reinstatement of Nathaniel Till-Adam who was the curate for Ston Easton and Embororough. The implication was that Nathanial Till-Adam was too ‘low church’ for Bishop Piers. The letter also stated the villages would not pay their tithes which implies that the Bishop of Bath and Wells was the Rector of Chewton Mendip at the time. The payment of tithes and the roles of the Bishops were both points of contention that fuelled conflict that resulted in the English Civil War. The Puritans were against the payment of tithes whilst the Royalists were in favour.The Kingsmills become Lay Impropriators of Chewton Mendip sometime in the 17thcentury and were paying the Dean and Chapter of Wells Cathedral a pension due from Chewton Mendip rectory.What adds confusion is that a Nathanial Till-Adam was appointed vicar of Chewton Mendip in 1697 and commemorated in the Lady Chapel when he died in 1703. This suggests that he was both wealthy and of ‘high church’ persuasion. Return to the top of the list.
Georgian The Protestant ascendancy was firmly in power and the focus was on economic development rather than religious conflict. The Vicars in the early part of the century were William Hunt, John Taswell and John Culliford. These are all family names that appear in the local records as farmers although the Vicars were all educated men. Arthur Annesley who was the vicar from 1764 may have been part of the aristocratic Annesley family which showed how the social status of the parish priest had improved. Everyone was required to pay tithes. The Church no longer had the threat of eternal hellfire to enforce payment and people could appeal to the common law courts. However, the same people who qualified for the Vestry Committee also served on the juries and the Justice of the Peace was a local landowner who all had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.The preaching of John Wesley, which was in part directed against  the monopoly of economic as well as the spiritual power, of the establish Anglican Church was probably already having an impact in Chewton Mendip. John Wesley’s grandfather was the Rev Samuel Annesly who may have also been related to the aristocratic Annesley family.The Lay Impropriator at the end of the 18thCentury, Admiral Robert Brice Kingsmill was involved in supressing a rebellion in Ireland that had religious and economic causes.Church music was quite different from what we expect today. There is an undated  record of Amos Middle who played the base cello and Dicky Clark who played the base viol in what was originally the ‘choir’. The solemn hymns accompanied by  an organ was introduced in Victorian times. Return to the top of the list.
Victorian Admiral, now Sir Robert,  Kingsmill was still the lay Impropriator of Chewton Mendip when he appointed John Stephens as vicar in 1793. Officially John Stephens was the nephew of Sir Robert but the consensus of opinion was that John Stephens was the illegitimate son of Sir Robert from London who who was sent to Chewton Mendip to make him ‘respectable’.John Stephens was named as the major beneficiary of  Sir Robert Brice Kingsmill’s will in 1805 and adopted the Kingsmill name. He was succeeded as vicar by Henry Hodges Mogg who was part of the coal mining families so there was a direct link between the Church and coal mining for a short period.Methodism was established in Chewton Mendip by the 19thcentury. A dissenter chapel was built in Widcombe in 1821 and a building known as ‘The parish house’ was used as Methodist Meeting Room until a new Chapel was built in Bathway in 1861.The Vestry Committee began to ;oose power in the 1830’s when a new poor law obliged parishes to form unions  and the  creation of the ‘Work House’.  Another change in the 1830s’ was a reorganisation of the method of assessing and paying tithes.  This has left a legacy of detailed maps of the parishes and lists of who was paying the tithes.The restoration  of the church tower in 1890 showed that the Methodists were still supporting the Anglican church by donating to the restoration fund. The fund also demonstrated the William Kingsmill was still the Rector of the Church.The Vestry Committee was finally abolished by the Local Government Act of 1894 which created the Parochial Parish Council with greatly reduced powers. Return to the top of the list.
Modern The Rev Charles Young was probably the last vicar appointed by the Kingsmills in 1885 and he spanned the change from the 19th and 20thcenturies. His grandson, Mervyn epitomised the waste of young life and the end of the ‘old order’ when he was killed in World War One as subaltern aged just 18.The Church Bells were replaced just prior to that conflict and are recognised as one of the best set of bells in the country. The Waldegraves replaced the Kingmills as Lay Impropriators of  Chewton Mendip church sometime after 1890 and the 9thEarl was named as the patron of John Arthur Beazley in 1915.There was a ‘minstrel’s gallery’ in the baptistery until the 1920’s where the earlier musicians performed. It was above the organ in the 1920’s because the organ was in such darkness that the organists used to wear a cap like a miner’s with a candle in it.The population of the village continued to fall and so did  church and chapel attendance. The Methodist Chapel fell into disuse and reverted to secular use by the 1970s. The Church of England followed the lead set by other members of the Anglican communion by ordaining female clergy in 1994.Science does not have all of the answers and  St Mary Magdalene’s church still dominates the centre of the village and is landmark for everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs. Return to the top of the list.

Please refer to the acknowledgements page for a list of the contributors to this website.

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