Saturday 27 June 1992

Crypts Bartons And Ancient Graffiti


Earlier this month, twenty members of Warminster History Society made an evening visit to the ancient town of Bruton, escorted by Society member Chris Bubb. Among the group was member Danny Howell, who penned the following notes:

Described by the Council for British Archaeology as "of special importance as regards historic quality" Bruton was the first conservation area of East Somerset. Today, Bruton has much to offer the inquisitive visitor, retaining its special historic atmosphere and charm.

Chris Bubb concentrated on three places of interest: showing us the church, the packhorse bridge, and Sexey’s Hospital with its chapel and boardroom.

St. Mary’s Church has two towers: the one next to the north aisle is a century older than the west tower, which dates from 1449-1456, and stands 102½ feet high (a typical height for a Somerset tower). It houses a peal of six bells.

The north aisle contains the Royal Arms of Charles II. These are, appropriately a restoration; they were put back up after being discovered in someone’s shed.

The parish registers, which date from 1554, record both Charles I and Charles II staying and worshipping at Bruton.

The chancel was entirely rebuilt by Sir Charles Berkeley in 1743. The architect was Nathaniel Ireson of Wincanton.

The plaster reredos covers the east wall and is an example of the sacramental piety of the period.

A fine tomb chest on the north side of the chancel features the recumbent effigies of Sir Maurice Berkeley, who died in 1581, and his first and second wives who died in 1559 and 1585. The tomb is one of the few in the country to feature three effigies.

The crypt below the church, which may sometimes be seen by arrangement, measures nearly 40 feet square and contains many lead coffins, some of which have burst exposing the bones of those who rest there.

Bruton was once the home of a mediaeval Augustinian Priory and Abbey. The field south of the church is still called Abbey Field. After the dissolution of the monastery in 1539, the family home of the Berkeleys stood there for 250 years.

The 15th century dove-cote on top of the hill and a long buttressed wall in the street called Plox below, are visible reminders of the former abbey. A Georgian rectory now stands behind the old buttressed wall.

Bruton features many narrow walkways known as bartons.

Members of the History Society made their way over the river Brue via a 15th century packhorse bridge, passing by the Victorian fire-engine house, and into Nathaniel’s Barton, which took them under the houses and into the High Street.

The river looked very shallow. Bruton used to frequently flood, but is now protected by an interesting flood relief scheme. Several signs showing the height of the flood in various years can be seen about the town.

Near the west end of the High Street stands Sexey’s Hospital. The western range dates from 1638. Hugh Sexey, auditor to Queen Elizabeth I, founded the charity which administered these almshouses, and was a vital benefactor to three schools.

The chapel and the boardroom at the Hospital contain fine woodwork. The pews and the pulpit feature some early graffiti. An Armada chest in the hall next to the boardroom has a lid with 24 locks operated by the turn of a single key.

The architecture of Bruton shows a rare continuity, through six centuries, of styles and techniques used where stone meets timber in Wessex.

Many houses survived the fire of 1647. Priory House is a late 15th century half-timbered jettied town house. The pharmacy was a gentleman’s house, and its 18th century fa├žade hides a building dating from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Last port of call for the History Society was opposite Patwell Pump, a communal parish pump in use after 1900, where a vote of thanks was given to Mr. Bubb for a most interesting evening.