The foundations of Taunton Minster, St Mary Magdalene church, were probably laid in the early eighth century when Ina, king of the West Saxons established Christianity in Taunton.
The church was first built in stone as part of the reorganisation of Taunton by Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, by 1180. St Mary’s became the town church in 1308 when Bishop Hazelshaw of Winchester changed its legal standing from a chapel of Taunton Priory to a church with its own ‘living’; the Revd Simon de Lyme became its first incumbent. This was achieved through a legal process known as the ‘Ordination of the vicarage’.
The church is mainly built of sandstone and has a painted interior, except for the ‘forest’ of pillars which line the four aisles – a rare feature in a parish church. Most of the statues and stained glass date from the Victorian restoration.
The main instigator of these ‘improvements’ was the Revd Dr James Cottle who, in the 1840s removed the high box pews, replacing them with the present ones. A later successor, the Revd Dr William Robinson Clark introduced more high church features such as the raised chancel floor.
Within the church there are a variety of memorials and tablets including War Memorials for soldiers from Somerset, including the Somerset Light Infantry.
The tower was built in the 15th and 16th centuries, financed by the prosperity created by the wool trade, and was rebuilt in 1858-62 (in replica) under the guidance of the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. It is considered to be one of the best examples of a Somerset tower and at 163 feet (50 m) tall is a local landmark. On completion of the re-build, the donkey who had hauled all the stone up the tower was himself hoisted to the top from whence to survey his handiwork! Nowadays a Peregrine Falcon resides up its dizzy heights from which precipitous lodging he flies to catch his prey.
The tower was described by Simon Jenkins, an acknowledged authority on English churches, as being the “noblest parish tower in England”. There have been bells in the tower since at least 1660. They have been augmented and recast a number of times and none of the original bells now exist.
Ever since the tower was rebuilt in 1862 with the bells hung at the very top, they proved difficult to handle due to the amount of tower movement and long ropes. Over the years, they also became too far out of tune to be successfully re-tuned.
The church had suffered from the weather over the years and there had been various appeals for funding to repair the fabric of the building including one for £25,000 in the 1950s and a more recent one for £135,000, in particular to repair the tower’s stonework after two pinnacles fell through the roof.
A project was therefore launched in June 2012 to recast all the bells, hang them lower in the tower and replace the broken musical chime. In March 2016, a contract was signed with John Taylor and Co of Loughborough to carry out the work and the funds were raised. The new bells were cast in Summer 2016, installed in December and dedicated in March 2017.
St Mary’s now has a beautiful, tuneful ring of bells that is already enabling a new generation to learn bell ringing and a musical chime that will serve the church and Taunton for many generations to come.
St Andrew’s Chapel
The side chapel which had been created in Corfield’s day in remembrance of Archdeacon Askwith (vicar of St Mary’s 1887-1911) was dedicated to St Andrew.
It was glazed in 2003, giving both quietness from the business of the church’s coffee and gift & books shops, and also enabling the names of departed loved ones to be etched on the glass.
St Andrew’s chapel has some impressive Victorian stencilling on the walls and the embellished ceiling above the chancel.
From the parish of St Mary’s, has been carved Holy Trinity church (1840s) and All Saints church, Halcon (1940s). The remaining parish consists of about 5,000 souls residing between the church and the motorway to the south. However, much of its mission lies within the town centre where it offers an open door together with a coffee and book shop.
The Minster has a central church spirituality and continues to proclaim the gospel of our Lord and seeks to create fellowship and to promote witness.
2008 was a very significant year for St Mary’s. In 1308 the church was made into the Parish Church of Taunton by the Bishop of Winchester. Its first Vicar was Simon de Lyme. Seven hundred years later we celebrated this auspicious event by having new glass doors constructed for the entrance of the church. The doors were designed and engraved by Tracey Sheppard FGE, with angels heralding the Good News on their trumpets. These power-assisted doors replaced the wood and latticed Edwardian doors, and thereby allowed people to see in and out, thus reducing the barrier between Church and People.
The Quinquennial (every 5 years) Inspection Report of 2010 stipulated works that have to be carried out to the interior and exterior fabric of the building. The Report was drawn up by our architect Mark Richmond. The pictures below show the final stages of completion of the works, with George Bros the builders, touching up exterior stonework and replacing broken glass panes. These final works cost in the region of £13,000, which is modest by comparison with some previous restorative works.
Ever since the tower was rebuilt in 1862 with the bells hung at the very top, they had been difficult to handle due to the amount of tower movement and long ropes. They also became too far out of tune to be successfully re-tuned.
A project was therefore launched in June 2012 to recast all 15 bells, hang them lower in the tower and replace the broken musical chime (aka The Carillon). In March 2016, a contract was signed with John Taylor’s, bell founders of Loughborough to carry out the work and the funds were raised. The new bells were cast between June and August 2016 and installed in December 2016, just in time for the carillon to play `The First Noel’ on Christmas morning. The bells were dedicated by the Rt Rev Peter Hancock, Bishop of Bath and Wells, on 19 March 2017.
St Mary’s now has a tuneful ring of bells on which all ages can learn to ring and a musical chime that will serve St Mary’s church and Taunton for many generations to come.