The Parish Church of St. Michael and All Angels is much older than the facade of its Victorian nave would suggest.
It is likely that a church has stood on, or near, this spot for almost a thousand years. Certainly, a church named St. Michael’s was in existence in 1125, when the anchorite Wulfric came to Haselbury. For details please refer to the Wulfric page on this website or see the Life of Wulfric of Haselbury by Abbot John of Forde Abbey. (see below)
In 1174 St Michael’s and its tithe income was given to Wells cathedral to support a Prebendary there. The ancient Prebendal Stalls can still be seen today in the Cathedral and Chapter House in Wells.
Wulfric at St. Michael’s, 1125-1154
In the year 1125 St Michael’s became the home of Wulfric, a middle-‐aged priest from Compton Martin on the Mendips, who wished to spend the rest of his life as an Anchorite, – “withdrawn from the world” – living in a “Cell” adjacent to the church. This Cell stood on the cold northern side of the Chancel where today’s Vestry is found. In writing up Wulfric’s life story, Abbot John of Forde Abbey tells us how, for 29 years Wulfric lived alone in these simple quarters, devoting much of his time to reading the Bible and praying. In keeping with the ideals of medieval spirituality, he adopted stern ascetic practices: he deprived himself of sleep, ate a frugal meatless diet, spent hours reciting the psalms sitting in a bath of cold water, and wore a hair shirt and heavy chain-‐mail tunic.
His faithful prayer resulted in great holiness and wisdom and soon people high and low came to him for guidance and blessing. Visitors even included two Kings, Henry I and Stephen. Wulfric received the gifts of prophecy and healing and was involved in many miraculous happenings. This “Man of God” became a healer of body, mind and spirit for all those who sought him out. One of the most influential anchorite priests of medieval England, he died in his Cell on the 20th February 1154.
At his death, an unseemly scuffle occurred in and around St. Michael’s between black-‐robed Norman Cluniac monks from Montacute and folk from Haselbury and Crewkerne who had been summoned by Osbern, the Haselbury Priest. The monks maintained that providing food for the anchorite, which they had done for many years, gave them a claim to the holy man’s mortal remains. But the locals forced them to withdraw and Wulfric was buried in his cell by his Bishop Robert of Lewes, a predecessor of the current Bishop of Bath and Wells. Wulfric had always respected the authority of the Bishop. For security reasons, Osbern moved Wulfric’s remains twice, until they came to rest somewhere near the west end of the church, “…in a place known only to himself and God”.
It is not known whether Wulfric was ever formally canonised, i.e. declared a Saint, but he has certainly been portrayed as one down the centuries. His life has a lot to teach us, even today in the 21st century. Looking at Wulfric we realise that those who truly seek God often withdraw from normal daily pursuits and cherish solitude and quiet. In their quest for a contemplative life they are filled with God’s Spirit of love and wisdom and develop increasing compassion for those around them. Their holiness becomes known far and wide and brings countless people to their door. Thus they become a source of blessing for their contemporaries.
Further reading: “Wulfric of Haselbury”, Dom Maurice Bell, 1933, Somerset Record Society, Vol 47
“Hermits and Anchorites”, Rotha Mary Clay, 1914
“The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century”, Pauline Matarasso, 1993
“The Life of Wulfric of Haselbury, Anchorite”, John of Forde: Introduction, Translation and Notes by Pauline Matarasso, 2011
Early English Renovation
The donation of St. Michael’s to Wells Cathedral in 1174 seems to have been the occasion for a re-ordering of the old church and the conversion of Wulfric’s Cell into a Shrine, to which a stream of visitors came throughout the medieval period. The Early English style (ca. 1175-1275 ) of both archways to the present-day Vestry, known variously in previous centuries as Wulfric’s Aisle, Wulfric’s Chapel, or the North Aisle, may attest to this. The shafts and bases astride the arch between Chancel and Vestry have been judged by diocesan architects to be original. The arch from Nave to Vestry is considered to be wholly original. This is likely to have been the churchyard door to Wulfric’s Cell. It was incorporated within the Nave by the 1839 enlargement (see below).
The Tower dates from the 14/15th. century. Badly-weathered stone effigies on either side of the West Door possibly represent the Lord and Lady of the Manor who built it. Bell ringing at St. Michael’s goes back many centuries, with bells apparently re-cast several times. There are currently six Bells. The Tenor (weight 6 cwt -3-15) is dated 1735, made by Thomas Bilbie of Chewstoke and is inscribed “God send us Good Lock” (sic). It is inset with two coins of the period. A new Treble, known as the Victory Bell, was purchased after the Second World War. It is inscribed “In Memoriam T.L.M., J.P., H.M.W., 1939-1945”. At the same time (1949), three old bells had to be re-cast, rotting timber removed, and a new bell-frame installed. A chiming apparatus was donated by Churchwarden Henry Pitt of the old village blacksmith family who are said to have worshipped at St. Michael’s for four hundred years. Operations were not complete until January 1950. The tower clock, by Dell’s of Bristol, was installed about 1879, and was fitted with electric winding gear in 1974, in memory of Arthur Spoor.
The Elizabethan Period: Church Ales
Visiting St. Michael’s in 1633, Thomas Gerard wrote, “the Cell of St. Wulfric remaines unto this daye on the north side of the Chauncel “. (see below) This implies that Wulfric’s sparse living quarters had escaped the extremes of the Reformation, and remained on view to pilgrims. It appears from Gerard’s writing that the Chancel and Nave of the medieval St. Michael’s were of a uniform width, and might well have sat on Anglo-Saxon foundations. There was a small minstrels’ gallery at the western end, and seating for 362 persons.
The Elizabethan period at St. Michael’s must have been an enjoyable one. Early 17th century Glebe Terriers indicate that St. Michael’s Church House then stood in Church Lane, on the plot now occupied by The Chimes private house, and state that Church Ales were held there. These were major social events, common to much of the country. Ale was brewed and kept in the cellars of Haselbury Church House. The barrels were broken open, and food served, at certain times in the year to provide merriment and raise money for church expenses. Country dancing would have played a major part in these old church socials which involved the whole village. If the ale was strong, behaviour could get somewhat rowdy. The upper floor of Haselbury Church House, gained by a pair of outside stairs, contained a School Room equipped with two tables and forms, where the Vicar taught children of the village before the days of public education.
The Influence of the Puritans
The English Civil War and the victory of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Roundheads must have caused a great cultural shock to Haselbury and St. Michael’s. By 1654, the Royalist Lord of the Manor, Sir William Portman, had been replaced by Dame Anne, Countess of Ancram and her son, Lord Charles Carr, Baron of the Wight, who were Anglo-Scottish protégés of Cromwell. It is likely that Wulfric’s old Cell was soon emptied of any remaining relics, and boisterous Church Ales brought to a swift end.
Early Victorian Enlargement
By the 1830s, the medieval St. Michael’s was quite inadequate for the 800-plus villagers of Haselbury, a figure rising incessantly as elsewhere in the country. Services had become an embarrassing scramble to claim the Free seats, and even the paid-for Pews were insufficient for large Gentry families. More importantly, the old church was literally falling down. The South wall was “… six inches out of the Perpendicular, the North five inches, the roof timbers decayed for many years … The church has not been substantially repaired Within the Memory of Man “. (see below) Aided by charitable funding and private donations, the old Nave was knocked down in late 1838 and considerably widened. A bigger west gallery with seating was installed. A new roof was built, and stonework renovated. At this point the former Wulfric Aisle or Chapel was turned into a Vestry and children’s area and given a coal-fire (since removed). The reconstruction took nine months, during which time services were held in a farm building. The enlarged St.Michael’s, seating 554 persons, opened its doors in 1839. A plaque set into the north wall of the new Nave records the event. A plan of the interior shows that the seating was then arranged in three blocks.
The Dole of Bread
In the churchyard to the south of the Tower lies the tomb of Mrs. MaryMountford She decreed that, on her death in 1830, the annual rent of 2 1/2 acres of land, amounting originally to £6, should go to the upkeep of her tomb, and the surplus given to the poor of the village in Bread. This was to be distributed by the Minister and Churchwardens on St. Thomas’ Day, 21st. December. Details are inscribed on a brass plate above the internal south door. (see below) The Dole of Bread was recorded by the eminent Victorian painter Joseph Clark.
John Hancock: Vicar and Master Sculptor
The Reverend John Hancock was Curate and Vicar of St. Michael’s from 1860 until his death in September 1881. Called a True Christian Gentleman and a Constant Friend to the Poor, he was held in great affection by the parish, and the existing pulpit was erected in his memory. Apparently a bachelor, his hobby and great passion was stone sculpture and wood carving. When St.Mary’s, Hardington Mandeville, was rebuilt in 1863/64, sections of a Norman arch were discovered and John Hancock offered to carve a neo-Norman arch between Chancel and Vestry. This magnificent work stands as a testimony to his skill with stone. His model was the impressive Norman original still to be seen today in St. Mary’s, Stoke-sub-Hamdon. In his own Haselbury Vicarage in the 1870s, he produced intricately-carved wood panels and stonework for a new fire-place. The identical style of certain items of church furniture in St. Michael’s points to his having made the carved oak lectern, the two clergy chairs, and the panels of Biblical scenes adorning the choir stalls (in Jacobean style which he seemed to favour).
20th Century Renovations
With a declining population due to depressed conditions for farm labourers in the second half of the 19th. century, the congregation at St. Michael’s grew smaller. These developments coincided with criticism that the interior of the church had become cluttered, a situation aggravated by the arrival of a new organ in 1901. Alterations were thereupon carried out in 1907/08, which entailed the complete removal of the gallery, transposition of pulpit and organ, and installation of pitch-pine seating – with centre aisle and boiler heating (since removed ). A suspended ceiling was installed in 1967, and renovated in 1983.
In the 1980s, the North windows were replaced by eye-catching contemporary glass-work designed and made by two parishioners. They depict the Birth of Christ, Transfiguration, Resurrection and Pentecost.
Vestry and Beaumont Room
In the 1990s our church received a generous legacy from the late Gertrude and Helen Beaumont in memory of their years in Haselbury Plucknett; the Beaumont Stores and Post Office were in Oak House until about 1923. The bequest was made “for the religious purposes of the Church and as a Gift of Gratitude to God”. It enabled us to make some major improvements to our facilities.
In 1996 oak doors and fitted cupboards were added to the Vestry to provide much needed storage and better security and generally enhance its appearance.
1998 saw the erection of a new West Gallery, below which we were able to create a spacious meeting room, coffee making facilities and toilets with disabled access. Sliding doors can be opened to incorporate the meeting room with the body of the church, when this is desired. The handsome oak facade with its striking arches adds greatly to the attractiveness of the church interior.
A further feature of contemporary design was added in 2005, when new lighting was installed. Four wrought iron chandeliers inspired by Christ’s Crown of Thorns combine with concealed lighting for the Chancel. Together with the recently installed audio loop and a new heating system, these facilities are designed to create a welcoming atmosphere in St Michael and All Angels.