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Gallery: Churches of Somerset
by Peter Kessler, 6 September 2019
SW&T (Taunton Deane) Part 1: Churches of Central Taunton
St Mary Magdalene's Church in Taunton
occupies a churchyard on the northern side of Magdalene Street,
with Whirligig Lane on its western edge and overlooking Hammet
Street for this famous view of the tower. The church's foundations
were probably laid in the early eighth century when Ina, king of
the West Saxons, established Roman Christianity in Taunton. That
early church was replaced by a stone building by 1180 under the
bishop of Winchester's direction.
St Mary's became the town's parish church in 1308
(long before Taunton was the county town) when Bishop Hazelshaw of
Winchester changed its legal standing from a chapel of Taunton
Priory (see below) to a church with its own living. The building
is mainly of sandstone with 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.
Revd Dr James Cottle was mainly behind the
'improvements' in the 1840s: high box pews were replaced with the
present ones. A later successor, Dr William Robinson Clark,
introduced more high church features such as the raised chancel
floor. The tower was added in stages in the 1400s and 1500s,
financed by wool trade prosperity. It was rebuilt in 1858-62 (in
replica) under the guidance of architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.
At fifty metres tall it is a local landmark.
Taunton Vineyard Centre is at 2a Church
Square, on the western side of Whirligig Lane opposite St Mary
Magdalene (see above). Taunton Vineyard was planted in 2000 as an
extension of Exeter Vineyard (see related links). A small group of
people who lived in Taunton but who worshipped at Exeter Vineyard
began feeding the poor on the streets of Taunton, and this
evangelical Christian church grew from there, with Truro Vineyard's
pastors moving here to lead.
North Street Church, otherwise known as
the Taunton Independent Congregational Church is set back
deep on the eastern side of North Street in Taunton, opposite the
southern corner of Debenhams, and backing onto Whirligig Lane. The
building was erected in 1843 in the then-popular twelfth century
Gothic style. Probably independent from the beginning, it was
apparently formalised as Congregational in 1873. The building is
now Grade II Listed.
The former Octagon Gospel Chapel is on the
southern side of Middle Street, just visible between the frontage,
about sixty metres from Canon Street. It was opened in 1776 by John
Wesley himself. In 1809 the Methodists moved to The Temple but kept
the Octagon for Sunday School work until it was sold in 1832. Bible
Christian Methodists used it until 1840, after which the Christian
Brethren held it until 1965 when they moved to their New Octagon
Chapel on East Reach.
The Church of St James sits on the northern
side of St James Street, with The Ring O'Bells pub and Coal Orchard
on its western flank. Its dedication is for St James the Greater,
brother of John and first of the apostles to be killed by Herod in
AD 44. He later became patron saint of Spain and the centre of a
flourishing pilgrimage trade, making him a popular choice for the
canons of Taunton Priory (below) when it came to dedicating their
new church for northern Taunton.
A church on this site was first erected by
Taunton Priory in the tenth century. The current building replaced
it in the fourteenth century with a surviving fifteenth century
font. The south aisle and the south porch were rebuilt between 1836
and 1837. The west tower received the same treatment in the 1870s,
and the chancel in 1884. Today the church backs onto Somerset County
Cricket Ground instead of Taunton Priory and forms part of the
ground's recognisable backdrop.
Taunton Priory, otherwise known in full as
the Priory of St Peter & St Paul, formerly occupied grounds
between the medieval town of Taunton and the River Tone for which the
town is named. Its location was due in part to the fact that Taunton
was a manor of the bishops of Winchester. An Augustinian monastery,
it was founded around 1115 by William Gyffarde (also spelled Giffard),
bishop of Winchester and chancellor of England, supported by his
A charter of Edward the Elder in 904 proves that
a settlement of clergy existed by then, but any early priory buildings
were probably swept away by the Norman rebuild. The priory was
dissolved in 1539, and was entirely demolished except for its
barn (seen here) which dates to the late 1400s or early 1500s. This now
stands on the south-eastern corner of the County Cricket Ground, at the
top of Priors Walk. The medieval fish farm, or vivarium, is now the site
of Vivary Park.
Nine photos on this page by P L Kessler. Former
Taunton Deane area church names and locations kindly confirmed by
South West Heritage Trust, with additional information from The
Chapels Society visit to Mid-Somerset, 28 September 2013, by
Peter Daniel, David Dawson, and Roger Thorne.