Unflatteringly The Shell Guide to England describes St John’s church as scarcely beautiful, it is, however, big and ruggedly impressive. “Built 1380-1400 it is older than most its size. It contains an outstanding fifteenth century brass lectern and the War Memorial window in the north aisle is intriguing”. There is more of interest in this church!
Yeovil’s Saxon Church
Yeovil was once focused around its Anglo-Saxon Minster Church which provided the nucleus around which the town of Yeovil grew. As a minster church it had a number of daughter churches in the surrounding villages. The churches had ancient rights over the sacraments of baptism and communion; and burial, which were jealously guarded. This was because they were an important source of revenue for the church charging for essential services . Daughter churches could include, Chinnock, Barwick, Brympton, Chilton Cantelo, Mudford, Preston, Sock Denis and Tintinhull.
The Saxon church was alluded to in King Alfred’s will of 899AD where he mentions seven of his estates in Somerset one of which is now referred to as Kingston, the northernmost of the two Yeovil Manors and now the parish of St John’s Yeovil and Kingston Pitney.
The first Anglo Saxon church surrounded by a large burial site to accommodate burials from daughter churches .
Later building additions and modifications added a chancel and a new medieval cross.
The demolished Saxon Minster gradually expanded and with a chancel at the east end and early in the fourteenth century. A wide market occupies land to the north of High Street disputedly owned by the church and the cause of unrest between the rector and the town.
 Yeovil’s Anglo Saxon Minster by Brian and Moira Gittos in Yeovil – The Hidden History.
 GCP Chartered Architects drawing from display panels.
Robert de Sambourne
Robert be Sambourne became rector of St John’s church in 1362. During the next 20 years he started work to build a completely new church in the perpendicular style. In his will he instructed his executors to devote his estate ‘foremost to the work of the church “begun by me” “until it is finished”. He was clearly a wealthy man.
The Parish of Yeovil, had a Saxon minster church and a rector whose position unusually carried with it the position of Lord of the Manor – bestowed in the ‘civil’ war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud (or Mathilda in Latin) by the Empress. If you want to find out more about her and the war read “When Christ and his Saints Slept” by Sharon Penman; you will also discover what happened to the castle at Castle Cary.
William Wynford (?- 1405)
Probably born at Winford, Somerset (just near Bristol Airport) William was a stone mason of immense significance in England in the fourteenth century. He met William of Wykeham when working at Windsor Castle in 1360 while Wykeham was Clerk of the Works to Edward III – the start of a long association of interwoven careers which would produce, the magnificent nave at Winchester Cathedral, Winchester College, New College, Oxford and twenty churches in Somerset with characteristic three-layered ‘Wynford towers’. In 1365 he became a ‘Master Mason’ and was working at Wells Cathedral where William of Wykeham had been appointed Provost. In 1372 the king awarded him an annual pension of £10 and he is recorded as having worked on the castles at Corfe, Winchester and Southampton. Wynford is buried in Winchester Cathedral where there is a stone effigy. At Yeovil, following a long tradition of master masons represented in the church they built we have a ceiling boss reputedly of him. You can see him on the ceiling of the chancel.
Churches normally lie in an east-west direction. St John’s however is aligned 16⁰ to the south of east on a bearing of 106. This is due to using sunrise on the day they started laying out the works being in that direction. Computers have calculated that that the date was at 0700 on 4 March – the start of the mud-free church building season.
Medieval Master Masons designed buildings using compasses and set squares to produce beautiful buildings whose very design conveys meaning much of it lost to modern minds. In Essence the circle is unending and represents God in Trinity and the square with its sharp imperfect corners and edges represents the world.
Here is a view of the south elevation of the church with a golden section (in red) and ad Triangulum system (in orange). The length of the building is 144 feet thought to relate to the size of the walls in Heavenly Jerusalem.
Fourteenth Century stone mason at work:
In order to be paid for ‘piece work’ masons would use simple marks etched onto the stones to show what work was theirs so they could be paid accordingly. A recent survey of these marks conducted when the interior of the church was fully scaffolded for painting and cleaning shows much about the men.
In all, just under 500 marks were identified, and discounting faint, doubtful, and unique marks, a total of 466 marks have been included in the tabulated analysis (see Table 1). The current survey has not included marks in the three spiral staircases or the tower chambers, since these will remain accessible after the scaffold is struck.
A total of seventeen individual mason’s marks (discounting ‘uniques’) were recorded in the chancel, transepts and nave, with two other marks occurring only on the tower, tending to confirm the evidence of the fabric that the latter formed a separate building campaign. Investigation of the internal stair and upper chambers of the tower is expected to confirm this, and the evidence at present suggests that the tower was a later addition following on from the nave, rather than being contemporary with the chancel as Harvey suggested. Of these seventeen banker masons five are represented by fewer than 5 marks each (‘crescent’, ‘double arrow’, and ‘recumbent C’ with 4 each; ‘shield’ with 3; and ‘long B’ with 2); while the four most prolific masons account for well over half the total (‘B’ with 104, ‘crossed arrow’ with 66, ‘X’ with 56 and ‘T’ with 46).
|Sanctuary: E bay||27||2||4||33|
|Sanctuary: W bay||–||–||–||0|
|N Choir Aisle: E bay||6||4||4||1||2||2||2||2||5||28|
|S Choir Aisle: E bay||8||4||1||1||1||15|
|N Choir Aisle: W bay||5||2||1||4||12|
|S Choir Aisle: W bay||10||1||1||3||1||1||17|
|N Chancel Arch||3||2||5|
|Centre Chancel Arch||7||4||11|
|S Chancel Arch||1||1||2|
|N Transept – E wall||1||1||20||22|
|S Transept – E wall||7||7|
|N Transept – N wall||3||1||1||3||1||2||11|
|N Transept – S arch||1||3||3||2||1||10|
|Nave Bay 1 – N arcade||2||1||6||7||12||28|
|Nave Bay 1 – S arcade||3||7||1||11|
|S Transept – N arch||1||1||1||1||1||5|
|S Transept – S wall||3||2||5|
|N Transept – W wall||1||1|
|S Transept – W wall||1||6||1||9|
|Nave Bay 2 – N aisle||1||1||3||5|
|Nave Bay 2 – N arcade||1||1||11||9||4||3||11||40|
|Nave Bay 2 – S arcade||3||1||1||1||10||1||17|
|Nave Bay 2 – S aisle||2||2||4|
|Nave Bay 3 – N aisle||1||3||4|
|Nave Bay 3 – N arcade||7||8||9||3||6||33|
|Nave Bay 3 – S arcade||1||1||2||1||12||17|
|Nave Bay 3 – S aisle||2||1||1||2||6|
|Nave Bay 4 – N aisle||5||2||7|
|Nave Bay 4 – N arcade||3||1||10||3||10||4||5||36|
|Nave Bay 4 – S arcade||2||1||2||1||1||1||1||9|
|Nave Bay 4 – S aisle||1||1||1||3|
|Nave Bay 5 – N aisle||1||2||2||1||6|
|Nave Bay 5 – N arcade||6||7||10||8||2||33|
|Nave Bay 5 – S arcade||4||1||3||1||1||1||11|
|Nave Bay 5 – S aisle||2||1||3|
Analysis of the marks shows that different teams of masons built the north side of the church to the south-side. Some of the masons worked at other churches and one in particular also worked at new College, Oxford. They also suggest a sequence of building best illustrated in the pictures below. For further details see Caroe Architects excellent paper.
- Leslie Brooke produced and excellent guide in 1994 available at the church.
- James Dudley-Smith and Colin Dore – St John the Baptist, Yeovil also available at the church.
- Yeovil St John Report on the Mason’s Marks Survey 2010 by Caroe and Partners Architects