Church history

A Brief History of Swainswick Church

by Dr Virginia Bainbridge

As in most places in England, the oldest building in Swainswick is the church. Parish churches, like inns, have been extended and altered over the centuries to reflect changing community use. It is often hard to imagine what the original church was like. At Swainswick each generation has added something new to the building – or removed earlier features. For example the windows are nearly all different – they vary in size and shape according to popular styles at different times. The church building of today is a charming muddle of extensions from many centuries which seems to have grown out of the stone and soil of the Lam Valley. None of the extensions are grand, because this was a small rural parish. However, there are some lovely carvings which add to its charm, and fine monuments commemorating wealthy people, for whom Swainswick was a suburb of fashionable Bath.1

The Norman Church

Swainswick, like most villages, probably had a wooden church before the Normans built a stone church in the late 1100s. The Norman church consisted of the nave, a large rectangular space where the congregation stood for religious services and public meetings, and the chancel, a small rectangular extension at the east end of the nave where the priest performed religious rituals. The priest faces east, the direction of the rising sun and the direction of the Holy Land of Christianity. A wooden screen once closed off the sacred space of the chancel when secular meetings were taking place in the nave.

The original Norman doorway into the church may be found inside the south porch. The stone has richly carved scalloped capitals, a round arch of zig-zag and dogtooth motifs, and two headstops, each of a man. Carvings of people, their coats of arms and tombs commemorate members of wealthy families who gave large sums of money to improve or restore the building. The church itself is a monument to all the other parishioners who gave the small sums they could afford for upkeep and building work over the centuries. They were buried in the churchyard – mostly without grave stones. The font stands on a pedestal dating from the 1200s. In its bowl new babies are baptised in water as the symbolic start of the spiritual journey of life. Over the centuries the font has stood in several places near the main door and it currently stands near the base of the tower. At an unknown date Swainswick Church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. As the mother of Jesus Christ, she is the most powerful of all the Christian saints, holy people whose lives were written down to encourage believers.

Extensions to the Church

The population of England reached a peak in the decades around 1300. This was before the Bubonic Plague killed up to half of the population in the Black Death of 1348-9. Prosperity in the decades before 1348 allowed new additions and decorations to the church. The tower was added in the late 1200s and on this awkward site it was built within the rectangle of the Norman nave, not outside it. Two fine arches connect it to the nave, the heads of three bearded men are carved in the stone corbels holding up the tower, and an angel in a niche high up at the south-east corner. In the Middle Ages, church towers and spires symbolised humanity reaching up in prayer towards God. They had practical uses as watch-towers and housed the community’s bells. The tower contains a peal of six bells, the earliest dating from 1636. Ringing the bells was a way of communicating important messages to parishioners in times of danger or celebration. They are still rung regularly by the team of parish bell-ringers. The south porch was added in the early 1300s. It was here that people were married in the Middle Ages, not inside the church. The doorway has a handsome ogee arch. Next to the porch, a new window was made in the south aisle with a matching ogee head. The window has three lights, or sections, and would have let much more light into the nave than the original slit windows, like the one in the north wall of tower. Inside, between the main door and the new window is a holy water stoup of the same era. The water bowl is gone – presumably struck off at the Reformation to prevent people from blessing themselves with the water as they entered the church. It has a fine ogee gable with three carved finials.

The Church and the Manor House

The system of parishes which covers England and Wales was in place by 1300. Each parish had a church, a meeting-place for the community in the centuries before village halls. It was generally built by the lord of the manor, who also appointed the priest. At Swainswick the church was built next to the manor house. Unsurprisingly, lords of the manor felt a sense of ownership over their church. They sat in the chancel near the priest and away from the people.

Around 1400 Edmund Forde (d. 1439), a knight, undertook major building works. He took down the north wall of the chancel, added a chapel to seat his family and household servants, and inserted a decorated archway to hold up the wall so they could see the priest at the altar. He and his household entered the chapel from the manor house through the door in the north wall. The chapel was decorated with an Easter sepulchre, an empty tomb for use in Easter rituals, decorated with the same carved leaves as the chapel’s east window. Edmund Forde is commemorated by a replica brass monument now in the floor of the chancel (original stolen in 2002). A north aisle was added around the same time to make more space for the parishioners. The original rectangle of the Norman nave was punched out and the north wall is held up by an arcade, a series of arches.

Reformation and Revolution c. 1530 – 1660

Over the centuries fixtures and fittings were built into the stone walls. The damage left when they were removed suggests what was there before. Before the Protestant Reformation churches were decorated in bright colours. Wall-paintings and stained glass told stories from the Bible and lives of the saints. Images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and other saints stood on altars and shelves around the church. These were decorated with rich fabrics, like the priest’s robes, or vestments, and lights were burned to represent prayer.

All this changed at the Reformation when puritans wanted a simpler form of worship. Out went all the colourful fittings and images of saints. In came plain whitewashed walls and an empty interior where people could contemplate God without distractions. The altar was replaced by a wooden table in the nave. The parishioners gathered around it to re-enact the last supper Jesus ate with his disciples before one of them, Judas, betrayed him and Jesus was arrested and put to death.

William Prynne (1600-1669) and the Civil War

Around 1600 Thomas Prynne rebuilt his family home, Hill House where his son, Swainswick’s most famous resident William Prynne (1600-69), was born.2 He was educated at Bath Grammar School and Oriel College, Oxford. As a dangerous puritan propagandist he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, he had his ears cut off and was branded on the cheeks. He was equally against the government of King Charles I, and the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell. Prynne published around 200 books and pamphlets in his lifetime. The altar table dates from the mid-1600s, and the Prynne family may have given it to the church for puritan worship. In the Civil War other local gentlemen were royalists who supported the king. A royal coat of arms dated 1647 hangs over the south door to commemorate King Charles I (executed 1649). In 1643 royalist forces won the Battle of Lansdown against puritan forces. Musket balls found in the gardens of Upper Swainswick probably date from this event.

Rich and Poor in Swainswick

In the 1700s Bath developed as a fashionable pleasure resort for the wealthy. John Wood the elder (1704-54), and John Wood the younger (1727-82), architects of the Circus, the Royal Crescent and many more Bath buildings were buried at Swainswick.3 Marble tablets on the walls commemorate other wealthy people. Mary Morgan (d. 1754), has the finest monument by W. Reeves of Bath, with a large draped urn. By the 1800s wealthy parishioners had built their own pews. Churches were cluttered up with box pews of all different sizes and shapes where owners could sit in comfort out of the drafts. When they died other families rented the pews to pay for church upkeep. The poor had to stand through long sermons and many of them did not come to church. This led to a Nation-wide campaign to install uniform free seating for the poor. Swainswick’s cheap pine pews are the result. Many churches hold memorials to the dead of the 1st and 2nd World Wars (1914-18; 1939-45). Edmund Forde’s chapel was taken over by the Watson family who provided finely carved oak fittings to commemorate their sons.

1 Pevsner, Somerset North and Bristol, p. 625; Charrington, A Short Walk around St Mary the Virgin Swainswick; Historic England Buildings List,, accessed 27.11.2016. 2 Dictionary of National Biography: Prynne, William (1600-69); Peach, Annals of Swainswick, pp. 32-61. 3 Dictionary of National Biography, Wood, John the elder (1704-54), Wood, John the younger (1727-82); Peach, Annals of Swainswick, p. 6.

Swainswick’s connection with the slave trade

Black Lives Matter gave us the impetus for looking at Swainswick church’s memorials and researching any links with slavery. As much of Bath’s wealth was derived from the slave trade, there will be many indirect connections. However, the plaque commemorating Elizabeth Clarke in the north east chapel specifically refers to the Swainswick Estates in Jamaica.

Elizabeth was married to Edward Clarke of Hyde in Jamaica and Swainswick Estates who was listed in the Jamaican Quit Rent books for 1754 as the owner of 3310 acres of land in St James and 666 acres of land in Westmoreland, total 3976 acres. Edward and Elizabeth had a daughter (Anne) and a son (George) together. Elizabeth and Anne both died in 1764.

Edward lived for a further 15 years. His probate in Jamaica in 1779 showed that he owned 324 enslaved people – 168 men and 156 women 123 are recorded as children – who horrifically were ‘valued’ at £18,995 in Jamaican currency.

The last member of the Clarke family who lived for any length of time in Swainswick was Edward Clarke, born in 1770, the second son of George Hyde Clarke. He built Swainswick Villa, later called the Woodlands and probably also lived in Lambridge House, on the London Road. As well as the Swainswick property, he had estates in Jamaica.

As far as we can discover, none of the Clark family money was given to the church. Inheritances, land and profits went to descendants of the Hyde Clarks of Hyde Hall in Cheshire and New York State.