About twenty miles away from my home is the Oxfordshire village of Somerton. I had been there once before, a couple of years earlier, when a sign saying ‘historic church’ had sidetracked me on the way home from the north. My initial visit was little more than a scouting trip; there were plenty of things to see that tied in with the research we were doing for the books, but until we have explored them together, they don’t really come into play. For some reason, though, we never did get round to visiting the place. So, a few weeks after our foray into Wales, when we were in the south instead of playing in the north, we decided to rectify that.
Somerton is off the beaten track, even today, which would explain its air of being somehow beyond the touch of time. It is a pretty village, and in spite of cars and roads gives the impression that it has changed little, and reluctantly, over the centuries. It is a small place too, with little more than three hundred inhabitants, but it has been here a very long time and has always been a close-knit community.
Saxon and medieval graves were found on the site of the current school and a Saxon church may once have stood where the parish church of Saint James the Apostle now stands. The village was mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086, stating that most of the manorial lands belonged to Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and step-brother of William the Conqueror. A Norman church was built here before William’s Great Survey and is known to have been in existence by 1074. Part of a carved doorway inside the church dates back to the original building.
Outside the doorway and dominating the churchyard is a medieval preaching cross set on five steps. The carvings are much weathered and it is now impossible to make out what was originally carved on the finial. More curious though are the carvings on the corners of the steps. They too are eroded and easy to miss. Worn faces stare out over the green, surrounded by an odd circular feature. At first we thought they were perhaps symbolic depictions of the four directions, or something solar. The Four Holy Creatures would have been more appropriate, but they didn’t look anything like the lion, the ox or the eagle…only the man. Or perhaps woman… maybe the carvings show nothing more than local dignitaries wearing Elizabethan ruffs or elaborate headdresses. It certainly looks that way from the photographs, but it was impossible to see in the dull light of day.
Even so, it was unlike any cross we have seen so far and we have seen quite a few. It is not the only interesting detail to the outside of the church. Most of the current exterior dates from the fourteenth century and was made of ironstone instead of the local limestone. A white limestone Crucifixion was set into the outside of the tower.
Tucked around the back of the tower, an avenue of old yew trees lead down through the churchyard to an orchard. In folklore the yew is thought to be a protection against witchcraft and some believe that yews were planted on sacred ground for this purpose. There are other interpretations of the presence of the yew in so many of our ancient churchyards though and chief among them are the links to the pre-Christian beliefs that linked the yew to the Tree of Life and rebirth although the Christians replaced ‘rebirth’ with ‘resurrection’ and the rebirth brought about by baptism. The long-lived evergreen was also seen as a symbol of eternity and was one of the ancient sacred trees.
Also behind the church is a Tudor door, surrounded by fragments of carved masonry. It was during the reign of Henry VIII, in 1534, that the Act of Supremacy made the king the head of the Church in England, instead of the Pope. A troubled period in history began, with Catholicism…up until that point the only form of Christianity current in the land…becoming first treasonous, then acceptable, then illegal again from 1570 under Elizabeth. At that time it was against the law to celebrate or participate in the Catholic Mass or to harbour a priest.
Somerton had long been in the hands of the Fermor family who were Catholics and had a private chapel in their home. Even after the family had moved on, Mass continued to be celebrated there for forty seven worshippers, in spite of it being against the law. The Catholics were good neighbours and farmers, treated the Church of England clergymen with respect and were an integral part of the life of the village. Religious differences did not get in the way of marriages and, in spite of their recusancy, it was the opinion of the rector that the adherents of the two Churches were “so blended and united together” that the Catholics should be allowed to continue their devotions.
If a country rector, over four hundred years ago could recognise the value of community, it makes you wonder where we have been going wrong. In a time where people barely know their neighbours and even architecture seems designed to isolate rather than bring together, we still have a lot to learn…and sometimes, we can learn from the past.