The A-Z of Curious Somerset

The A-Z of Curious Somerset

by Geoffrey Body


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This book draws on the long and unique heritage of the county of Somerset, bringing to life seventy of the little known but fascinating and unusual aspects of a much-loved county. It tells, in a single volume, tales of body-snatchers and bewitchment; crime and conflict; lepers and lighthouses; songs and words; heroes and villains - this is book is of and for the curious. Its accounts of larger-than-life episodes from Somerset activity, locations and people take the reader on a near-unbelievable exploration of local human behaviour and idiosyncrasy. Richly illustrated, this book is great for dipping into, but can equally be enjoyed from cover to cover.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752493299
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Series: A-Z of Curious
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Geoffrey Body is a prolific author, having authored over thirty books, over fifty booklets, and over 100 articles. He has a great interest in the local history of Somerset and its people. As well as local history, Geoff has a passion for railway history. He lives in Weston-super-Mare.

Read an Excerpt

The A-Z of Curious Somerset

By Geoffrey Body

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Geoffrey Body
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-5298-9




In the year 1539 a sad drama came to its dramatic climax on the summit of Glastonbury Tor. The story had been building up for the best part of five years, over which period the consequences of King Henry VIII's break from the Church of Rome had become more and more apparent throughout England. Its size and importance had preserved Glastonbury Abbey for a time, but even such an eminent and well-run foundation could not escape the process of dissolving the monasteries which was yielding such riches for the monarch and those he favoured.

To justify the process there had to be scapegoats and, quite undeservedly, Glastonbury's abbot became one of these. Lord Russell, who was in charge of the affair, described the outcome in his subsequent report to Thomas Cromwell, writing: 'that on Thursdaye the 14th daye of this moneth the Abbott of Glastonburye was arrayed, and the next daye putt to execution with two other of his monkes for the robbying of Glastonburye Churche, on the Torre Hyll next unto the towne of Glastonburye'.

The abbot referred to was Richard Whiting, a man of modest origins who had studied at Cambridge, been ordained priest and then given an appointment as chamberlain at Glastonbury's famous abbey. He seems to have attracted the favourable attention of Cardinal Wolsey who, in a surprise decision, elevated him to the highest position in that great religious establishment, that of abbot. Taking over in 1524, Abbot Whiting seems to have been an effective leader, carrying out the religious and pastoral duties of the abbey well, and effectively managing its large establishment, its great landownings and its many satellite houses. Forty-seven monks witnessed his election as abbot and supported the abbey's works with more piety and discipline than was apparent at some religious foundations.

Inevitably, all this was to change in the massive upheaval which followed Henry VIII's divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon and his consequent break with the Pope and the Roman Catholic religion. Whatever Abbot Whiting's personal reservations about the king's chosen means of changing the nation's religious allegiance and practices, he duly appended his signature to the tool chosen for this, the 1534 Act of Supremacy. In the following year, Thomas Cromwell was appointed Vicar General and, interpreting the king's wishes, instigated a survey of England's religious houses. As a result of this, Glastonbury Abbey was inspected by Dr Richard Layton who reported that there was 'nothing notable' to say about it. It became increasingly clear later that Layton could not find any real fault with either Glastonbury or nearby Bruton.

The Act for the Submission of the Clergy and other legislation in the 1534 package was supplemented in 1535 by a statute governing the dissolution of the smaller monasteries. These were the simplest prey, and Cromwell's commissioners no doubt saw them as easy to find fault with and to relieve of their land and treasures. So began a process of pensioning off the inoffensive clergy and making an example of the obdurate, coupled with lining the pockets of the monarch and his chosen beneficiaries. Richard Whiting must have watched this process with growing concern and he tried to protect his own establishment by frequent gifts and written appeals to those with influence. To no avail.

Dr Layton appears to have felt that Abbot Whiting was a man without fault, which was not the direction in which his masters wanted to go. Some of the larger monasteries had already surrendered themselves voluntarily, and a 1539 Act legitimising this also gave powers to dissolve the remainder, especially if treason or any other crime was discovered. Whiting and his abbey were now doomed. On 7 April he wrote a pitiful letter to Cromwell arguing against a summons to London, pleading that for some time he had been 'greatlye diseased with dyvers infirmyties', but it failed to deter Cromwell, influenced not only by his monarch, also but by the amount of confiscated wealth rolling in.

Already the religious houses of the West Country had yielded up around 500 ounces of gold and 45,000 ounces of silver and silver plate, and there was more to be had at Glastonbury. More commissioners came down and began the authorised looting there, but the abbot appears to have been left alone until a surprise visit by a group of commissioners on 19 September 1535, when Whiting was told that the abbey would close. He was taken from his house at Sharpham and confined in his lodging at the abbey. He was soon escorted to London and there confronted with prepared charges, never fully disclosed, before being returned to Glastonbury under guard. The opportunity had been taken to search the abbot's personal possessions in his absence and damning evidence was allegedly 'discovered' in the process. Whether or not it had been conveniently planted there is a matter for conjecture.

Even less information was forthcoming about a trial of Abbot Whiting which was staged before a jury at Wells on 14 November, but certainly no effort had been spared by Cromwell's emissaries to extort damning testimonies against him from some who feared for their own safety. The outcome of the examination was certain and swift. The verdict 'condemned to death' was widely publicised, but there was no publicity for the trial evidence and process.

After being taken back to the abbey under escort and spending the night there, Richard Whiting, his treasurer John Thorne and the sub-treasurer Roger James were roused the next morning. The day was destined to be their last. In a sad and degrading spectacle the three unfortunates were placed upon hurdles which were dragged by horses up the steep slope to the summit of the tor.

There, overlooking the abbey and its Somerset domain, Whiting, Thorne and James met their deaths.

In his letter of 16 November 1539 quoted at the beginning, Lord Russell continued: 'the seyde abbot's body being devyded into foure parts, and the hedde stryken off; whereof one quarter stondythe at Welles, another at Bathe and at Ylchester, and Brigewater the rest, and his hedde upon the Abbeygate at Glastonburye.'

More loads of looted treasure went up to London, the estates were sold off over a period of years and the 1,500 people managed by the abbey had to settle down to new masters and lifestyle. Fortunately the ruins of the abbey have survived and Abbot Whiting's life and service was honoured by his church with beatification in May 1895.


The right of a wanted man to seek sanctuary in a church lasted in this country for a thousand years, and at one period, as many as 1,000 people would exercise this right in a typical year. Somerset had its share of these, with cases recorded at places as far apart as Watchet and Yeovil.

The tradition of sanctuary was well known to the Greeks and Romans and was formalised here by King Ethelbert in ad 600. It was perpetuated after the Norman Conquest, and in cases of felony those accused could surrender themselves at any consecrated church and be protected from their pursuers. Only a limited number of chartered sanctuaries could take in people wanted for treason, and there was no succour at all if sacrilege was involved.

So how did the right of sanctuary work? In the main, two classes of society made use of it. Noblemen involved in a blood feud, or some other dispute over wealth or power, might choose to seek sanctuary rather than risk being cut down by their rivals. More ordinary people, usually driven to theft by need or hunger, would only choose the sanctuary option if the law was hot on their heels, but might then consider it a lesser evil than risking the harsh punishments of their times.

Once the fugitive was on consecrated ground, usually denoted by the churchyard boundary, he was safe. The commotion of the chase would alert the priest or churchwarden to the situation and a bell would be rung to denote the granting of sanctuary.

The church and community had then to hold its visitor secure while the coroner was sent for and the unexpected, and probably unwelcome, arrival had been given the choice of surrendering to the law or remaining in sanctuary. If he chose the latter he had to swear to 'abjure the realm' within a stipulated period, ultimately extended to forty days, and never to return. If he escaped during the sanctuary period, the church and its parishioners could expect a severe penalty.

At certain times, implementing the abjuration process involved stringent conditions, such as being forced to wear simple pilgrim garb and carry a small, symbolic wooden cross. The subject might choose his own port of embarkation, but had to follow a specific route and tarry no longer than a single night at any point on the journey. He was obliged to seek a ship immediately and, if a passage was not to be had, to wade into the sea each day and sleep on the beach each night. Failure to leave the country within the appointed time meant having to seek a renewal of sanctuary locally. Coupled with the automatic loss of property that went with this exile status, sanctuary was clearly not a soft option.

Not surprisingly, this ancient right of church protection sometimes caused friction with other parties involved. In 1318 Walter Brinton had no sooner grasped the sanctuary ring on the door of Chedzoy church than his pursuers dragged him away and carried him off to Somerton Gaol.

When news reached the bishop at Wells, he was incensed and insisted that Brinton be restored to Chedzoy as the right of sanctuary provided. Somerton then featured in another case in 1340, when one John Durburgh was on his way to Somerton to give evidence in a case against a member of the powerful de Mohun family. He was waylaid by a group of armed men and only just managed to reach the church there ahead of them. Despite claiming sanctuary, his pursuers dragged him out and set off along the road to Langport. Fortunately for Durburgh, the sheriff and a band of followers managed to rescue him and de Mohun was eventually imprisoned for his offence, subsequently receiving a royal pardon.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries claims for sanctuary are recorded at a variety of places in Somerset including: Taunton; North Petherton; Yeovil; Martock; Bagborough; Stogumber; Ilton; Chedzoy; Crewkerne; Huish Episcopi; Ilchester; Stogursey; Somerton; and Watchet. The Watchet case of two murderers had two different outcomes; one fled and was outlawed and the other abjured the realm. At Yeovil in 1420 John Green, thought to be fleeing from a duelling death, was sent to Southampton but failed to keep his abjuration oath and was brought back for trial.

A most unusual case of people seeking sanctuary occurred at Ilchester in 1276. The church involved was St Olaves, which belonged to Montacute Priory. Its priest must have been astonished on the day when, according to one account, 'a thief removed from the gallows for burial in the churchyard, recovered and sought sanctuary there.'

After Henry VIII broke with Rome, the practice of sanctuary started to change. Not only did the state seek more control of the law, but churches proved less than keen on the burden of supporting sanctuary claimants. Eventually, special 'chartered sanctuary' status was accorded to just a small number of locations, Wells among them, but this brought them an influx of the sort of people they were not willing to welcome. James I, an astute and pragmatic monarch, then abolished the right of sanctuary in 1623 except for a few specific civil cases, mainly involving debt. Curiously the concept lingered on in a few places, and a Weston-super-Mare innkeeper is said to have lived on Steep Holm island for seven years, claiming it offered sanctuary and precluded proceedings being taken against him for debt.


By the beginning of the present century an odd survivor of a once-important travellers' route stood alone, uninhabited and neglected, a little way from the eastern bank of the River Parrett opposite the village of Combwich. It was once a fairly substantial building, at times full of life and activity, but it fell into disuse; its walls crumbled and shrubs and brambles began to grow in profusion where once travellers had paused for refreshment.

This was the former White House Inn, probably so-called from being whitewashed to provide a progress marker for the vessels that plied along the adjacent river on their journey between Bridgwater and the open waters of the Bristol Channel.

This curious location for an inn is not so strange when a look at the map reveals that it lies on a direct 'crow-flight' line between the traditional road south from Bristol and a very large land area between the Quantock Hills and the Channel coast. The modern route lies via Bridgwater, but this adds a number of miles to the journey and this factor would have been of considerable significance in former times when most travellers had to make their journeys on foot. Even the use of horses meant strict limitations on the rate of progress. This choice of the route and river crossing would be even more understandable to present minds if the roadside through Pawlett still carried the old sign which pointed and read, 'To the Ferry'.

A ferryman is recorded at Combwich as early as 1327, but his boat was not the first route across the river. Starting from a point on the east bank, near where the ferry used to berth, there is a ridge of hard lias rock running diagonally beneath the river to the west bank. Although visible only when the water is at an unusually low level, this causeway provided a firm and shallow way for people and animals to cross the river, long before the ferry was introduced or Bridgwater got its first bridge. It was still crossed occasionally by farmers and other local people into the twentieth century and a local comment records, 'The Combwich ford was well known and used in former days. It was the chief route to Glastonbury and Salisbury. At low tide horses and cattle were safely driven across the river.'

The tiny pill at Combwich was being used by small sailing vessels taking corn to Ireland and other markets as early as the fourteenth century. It continued to despatch local produce over the years, served as a base for larger vessels on longer routes, dealt with timber and other goods being transhipped to barges and received coal for the local brick industry and shipped its finished products outwards. Coupled with the livestock farming on local agricultural land and the consequent need to get fattened animals to market, this busy area clearly needed a more reliable local means of crossing the river than that offered by the causeway where the depth of water varied and could be dangerously deceptive.

Once known as the King's Ferry, this Combwich river crossing may have dated back to Saxon times but, in addition to the fourteenth century mention, it certainly featured in a will dated 1650 and again in an indenture of 1751. The latter referred to the sale of fifteen acres of land, an orchard, a wharf for landing coal and 'the ferry or passage boat' and 'its customs, profits and privileges'. The crossing was recorded as providing 'large ferry boats for cattle, sheep and passengers in the eighteenth century.'

Today, the eastern approach to the River Parrett opposite Combwich is just a lonely track and the old White House Inn just a ruin along it. It is easier to imagine the days of the ferry in the village setting of the Combwich side, where passengers would wait for the ferry in the Blue Anchor Inn or ring the bell to summon the ferryman from the other side. Less easy to imagine, unless you were out on the riverbank alone on a wild night and with darkness approaching, is the reputed ghostly re-enactment of that evening in the eighteenth century when the horses pulling a coach across the Combwich Passage were startled and bolted, taking the vehicle and its innocent passengers to a watery oblivion.


Axbridge is one of those rare and very special places where the evidence of the past is dramatically apparent, and provides a vivid idea of how a small town would have looked over a long history stretching back to Roman times. Although the name Axbridge has had a variety of spellings over the years there can be little doubt that it can be taken literally and refer to a bridge over the River Axe. That watercourse is now a mile or so away, but has had a host of routes and tributaries over the ages and there is at least one strong view that the original bridge lies buried beneath The Square, which is the heart of the present settlement.

From the town's market square, where the market cross and stocks once stood, the outlook in all direction holds a wealth of special features. The misleadingly misnamed King John's Hunting Lodge commands instant attention, clearly revealing its origins as a late medieval wool merchant's house dating from around 1500 – nearly 300 years after King John's death. At the lower corner of the High Street, dramatically timbered and jettied, it rises three stories from a stone foundation: the ground floor once having been occupied by shops, the second devoted to the living area and workshops and the third to the sleeping and ancillary accommodation.

Now owned by the National Trust and functioning as a museum with local support, the building has been restored to reveal the incredible main timbers around which the construction centres as well as showing the pattern of secondary beams projecting outwards to carry the jetties. Helped by the fact that neither stairs, walls, nor anything else, is really straight inside, and by the collection of artefacts the building houses, it is easy to get some idea of how the original occupants might have lived.

On the opposite side of the High Street is another timber-framed building of the same period, with a further example at No. 9, a little way along. Further up this narrow, atmospheric street are other period features; huge studded doors, carved lintels and more.

With a little imagination one can visualise the barbaric annual bull-baiting ritual which took place along here every November, and during which the unhappy beast was hounded to its death by a host of local people, supposedly in the interests of tenderising the meat it was then slaughtered to provide.


Excerpted from The A-Z of Curious Somerset by Geoffrey Body. Copyright © 2013 Geoffrey Body. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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