THE PRESENT CHURCH was built partly by Sir Edward Hext, Lord of the Manor, MP for Taunton and a lawyer at Middle Temple. He had been active in training men to meet the Spanish Armada in 1588; he became Sheriff of the County in 1603 and was knighted in 1604.
The Sherborne Muniments dated 1587, shows that Henry, Earl of Huntingdon, leased lands in the nearby village of Aller to Edward Hext of Netherham. In 1597 Lady Katherine, the Countess, also leased lands in Aller to Edward Hext. It was from these lands that Sir Edward Hext gave an endowment in 1622 to pay the Chaplain of Low Ham. He also funded almshouses which still stand today in the nearby town of Somerton.
Sir Edward Hext’s will mentions the reversion of his lands to his daughter’s second husband, Sir John Stawell, whose family had been established at Cothelstone on the Quantocks since the Norman Conquest. Sir John Stawell was famous for his devotion to the King in the Civil War (1642-1649) and his son, George, was sent to raise a Troop in support of the King in Low Ham on 1st August, 1642. They were engaged the next day against the Parliamentarians in the first skirmish in which blood was drawn in the war.
At some time during the Civil War, possibly at the Battle of Langport (July 1645), the church suffered considerable damage and it fell to Sir John Stawell’s son George, to whose family the Manor of Low Ham had now passed through marriage, to carry out the restoration.
At the foot of the East Window are the fragmentary remains of an inscription recording the restoration. In 1921 a former tenant of Low Ham Farm (now known as Netherham Farm on whose land the church is situated) discovered papers relating to the Berkeley family (Lords of the Manor 1363-1484) on which was written the full inscription;
“Ad honorem et Gloria’s et divinum Dei maximi cultum et unius sumptu Georgii armigeri haec capella fuit locata XX die maii an regn sec et”
This inscription has been completed and translated to English as follows;
“To the honour and glory and for the divine worship of the Great God and at the sole expense of George Stawell Esquire this chapel was founded and finished. The Foundation was laid on the 20th Day of May In the 28th year (1688) of the reign of King Charles the Second and it was consecrated on the 1st day of September in the year 1690 Glory to God on High”
This reconstruction apportions to George Stawell far more work than he actually did, suggesting as it does that Sir Edward Hext’s church was entirely demolished and rebuilt in 1675 at the expense of George Stawell – this does not appear to be the case.
On the Rood Screen (or more correctly, a Screen without a Rood) can be detected the sentiments of an Anglican and a Royalist – the philosophy of George Stawell – where the words from the Book of Proverbs, Chapter 24, verse 21 are quoted;
“My sonne, fears God and the Kinge and meddle not with them that are given to change.”
With his brother Ralph, George gave a handsome set of Communion Plate to the church which is still in use to this day.
Ralph Stawell became Deputy Lieutenant of Somerset in 1672 and in 1683 he was created the 1st Baron Stawell in consideration of his father’s eminent services to the Royal cause. In his will Lord Ralph ordered a handsome monument to be erected in the Church of Netherham, (Low Ham Church), where he was to be buried between his late wife Anne (Ryves) (died 3rd December 1670) and his second wife Abigail (Pitt) (died 22nd September 1692). Although Ralph was buried with Anne in Low Ham Church, Abigail was to be buried at Hartley Wespall near Basingstoke, the home of her father – William Pitt.
On Ralph’s death (8th August 1689) his son, John, succeeded him as 2nd Baron Stawell but he was so extravagant that John almost financially ruined the family. He married the daughter of Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, and possessed 28 manors in Somerset and Dorset. When he came of age he said that he would have the finest house, the finest wife and the finest horse in Somerset. He therefore began to build a great manor house adjacent to Low Ham Church and disposed of 26 of his manors in the process, leaving only Cothelstone in Somerset and another manor house in Dorset. He pulled down part of the manor house built by Hext, thought to have been situated at the top of the hill on the South side of the church – said to be one of the finest houses in Somerset – and began his own sumptuous edifice measuring no less than 400 feet by 100 feet – spending £100,000 in the process. The wall discovered by the East wall mentioned earlier could be the remains of this house. After his death in 1692, it was sold unfinished. He too is buried in Low Ham Church.
THE TERRACED FIELD to the south of the church is the only reminder of the existence of this large manor house. These terraces were originally the garden and rabbit warren. The house was eventually demolished.
In the 1880’s the only remains – the stone gateway – was taken down stone by stone and removed in 20 wagons drawn by 40 horses and rebuilt to form the entrance to Hazlegrove House near Sparkford. Today this stone arch can be seen at the entrance to a private house opposite Sparkford Services near the A303.
THE TOWER at first sight, gives the appearance of being 15th century, while much other work, including some of the windows, seem to a date hundreds of years earlier. The church was actually consecrated in 1690. A copying of earlier architectural styles accounts for the confusion! Gargoyles, or as they are known locally, ‘Hunky Punks’, can be seen on the exterior walls.
THE TOWER contains two medieval bells believed to have originated from an earlier church built on this site. They were preserved by Hext when he rebuilt Low Ham Church and are still in use today.
THE ANGELUS BELL is inscribed “Angelus Michael Maria Gabriel”. It bears an eagle stamp similar to a bell at Closworth near Yeovil and other bells in Wiltshire and Dorset. These were cast by a Salisbury founder, although some attribute this bell to a foundry at Montacute, dating it about 1500 or earlier. The smaller Saint Mary bell has an inscription “Sancta Maria Hora (ora) pro Nobis”. It bears the same cross and lettering as a bell at Wraxall in Dorset, which bears the founders name – Thomas Hey Makede – perhaps of Sherborne. Its date is thought to be not later than 1350.
THE CLOCK dates from the mid to late 18th century. At the time it did not have a clock face or hands but simply chimed the hours of the day. In 1882 Sir Charles Wathen, (Lord of the Manor and Mayor of Bristol in the latter part of the 19th century) added the timing mechanism, hands and clock-face we can see today.
THE MONUMENT TO SIR EDWARD HEXT and his wife, Lady Dionis, can be found in the North-East corner of the nave. Their beautiful stone figures rest within a railed tomb. Both wear ruffs. Sir Edward died on 29th February 1624 and Lady Dionis died on 30th July 1633. Sir Edward is shown wearing armour with his head resting on a plumed helmet. A life-like dog rests at his feet.
THE STAWELL FAMILY MONUMENT to Ralph (died 1689), his two wives, Ann and Abigail, and his son John, can be found on the south side next to the pulpit, while a spear – or long lance – on the south wall in the Chancel is said to have been given to Stawell by a North American Indian. Legend has it that it was used to kill a dragon in Aller!
THE ARMS OF THE STAWELL FAMILY can be found outside carved on the north door which once led into the the Chancel. At some time the Chancel floor was raised and the doorway was built over and hidden from view from inside the building.
THE CHANCEL SCREEN is made of oak. It is carved on both sides with a vine trailing along the east cornice and back again along the west cornice. It was placed there by Sir Edward Hext. The fourteen gold cherubs were added by his grandson.
THE STONE SCREEN at the west end originates from the Mayor’s Chapel in Bristol, a gift made to the church by Sir Charles Wathen, a former Mayor of Bristol.
THE PULPIT is genuine Jacobean – as are the pews. Seating plans of 1677 and 1699 describe places for men on the south side of the nave and in the south aisle, women used the pews on the north side of the nave.
Included in Sir Charles Wathen’s gift to the church was a stone pulpit. But for a now forgotten reason, an exchange was effected between Low Ham and Muchelney Churches, which resulted in the stone pulpit going to Muchelney – where it can still be seen. The wooden pulpit, which is beautifully painted and suited to the church, was brought from Muchelney to be placed in its present position in Low Ham Church.
SIR CHARLES WATHEN carried out these alterations and did other restoration work to the church in the late 19th century. His monument may be found in the nave’s south-west corner.
THE STAINED GLASS Is most interesting – particularly the east window of the Chancel, which is almost entirely filled with glass painted around 1690.
The central light contains a large cross around which are two scrolls. The upper one bears the words “I.H.S. Non Marte sed Morte”. The lower one continues a sentence begun on a third scroll placed above the cross, the whole of which reads “Christ is risen from the dead and become the first-fruits of them that sleep”. At the foot of the cross are the words “O Graue I will be the destruction”.
The northern and southern lights hold large figures of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist standing on pedestals. Behind the lower part of the cross is seen the city of Jerusalem. The rest of the background is painted brown to represent a cloudy sky. Bordering the lights is what is known as a ‘rod and wreathed foliage’ design.. The large central tracery light contains the Holy Name in Hebrew characters in a glory.
The four tracery lights surrounding it hold cherubim. The others are filled with clear glass and glass painted with foliage. A lengthy inscription ran along the bottom of the main lights. Most of it now disappeared and has been replaced by fragments of fifteenth century glass. All that remains are two fragments. The window is painted in enamels and a rather harsh yellow stain.
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The Church in the Field Charitable Association