First impressions suggest something rather special. St Mary's has two towers, that alongside the north aisle being a hundred years older than the great west tower of 1449-1456. And as you enter there's the surprise of finding a light and omate classical chancel of the eighteenth century east of the medieval nave. It is a church you will long remember.
It all began in Saxon times when both King Ina and St. Aldhelm caused churches to be built here. One of them, originally Benedictine, grew into the medieval Augustinian Priory and Abbey. The field to the south of the church is still called Abbey Field and here, following the dissolution of the monastery in 1539, stood the family home of the Berkeleys for another 250 years. The dove-cote on the brow of the hill and the long buttressed wall in the street called the Plox, against which the Georgian rectory was eventually built, are visible reminders of the Abbey.
The West Tower under which you entered is 104 feet high and is a fine example of a Somerset tower. It houses a peal of six bells, the earliest dated 1528 and the heaviest weighing 25¾ cwt (1308 Kgs). The Jacobean screen is dated 1620 from the churchwardens' names above the centre arch, though some of the lower panels could have been rescued from an earlier screen. Above it the great wet window by Clayton and Bell commemorates the successful completion of the Victorian restoration.
The Nave was rebuilt a little after the west tower had been erected. Not the Fitzjames Dolphin. At the same time it was heightened to give room for the uncommonly wide clerestory windows and enlarged eastwards over part of the crypt. This accounts for the floor rising as you walk towards the altar. The roofs date from the same period, the main roof being a fine example of a Somerset king post roof. Tie beams of low pitch hold the short king posts and are supported by wall posts springing from between the clerestory windows. Above them is open tracery work and the whole roof is richly detailed. Some colour remains on the easternmost beam and in the eastern bay of the north ends. The font dates from 1847, with fragments of a Norman front nearby.
In the north aisle note the Royal Arms of Charles II. The parish registers date from 1554 and contain a number of references to both Charles I and II staying in Bruton and worshipping here. The steps in the wall once gave access to the rood loft that extended right across the church at this point. The steps near the Jacobean pulpit - it has lost it's sounding board wooden pedestal - led to another such loft at a later date. The altar in this aisle is a memorial to King's boys who fell in World War I. The daily services are held here and, by permission of the Bishop, the local Roman Catholics come for Mass on Sundays. The white light indicates the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, reserved in an aumbry for communication of the sick. Here is a place to return to and pray.
The rood screen divides chancel from nave, and above it is the rood, Christ on Calvary with St. Mary and St. John. It is the work of Randall Blacking and was set up in 1938 to commemorate a much respected choirmaster. Looking up to the easternmost window of the south clerestory you see another memorial. It is to Dr. E. B. Michell, the first principal of Hertford College, oxford, whose home was in this parish at Wyke Champflower.
The chancel was entirely rebuilt in 1743 by Sir Charles Berkeley. The smaller crypt beneath suggests that the earlier chancel was quite small. The architect was Nathaniel Ireson of Wincanton who was also responsible for the little church at Redlynch in this parish. It retains it's original altar rails and bow pews. The plaster reredos covers almost all the east wall and testifies to the sacramental piety of the period. The letters HIS in a glory are set between cornucopias and the instruments of the passion. Note the fine tomb chest bearing recumbent effigies of Sit Maurice Berkeley, died 1581, and his first and second wives, died 1559 and 1585. It was mercifully preserved from the earlier chancel as has the notable bronze of William Godolphin, died 1636, attributed to Le Seuer. The organ dates from 1760 and has had a chequered history, at one time occupying a place in the west gallery. Note too some fine examples of heraldic glass of the 16th and 17th centuries.
The crypt may sometimes be seen by arrangement. Its octagonal piers and the masons' marks, similar to those in the north tower, date both Crypt and tower to about 1350. In the south aisle, moving from east to west, note the piscina in the wall, sure evidence of an earlier altar. Later the Berkeley's may have had a family 'chapel' here: witness their arms in a central boss and wall plates painted with Sir Maurice's monogram. Later the family would have sat in their newly built chancel. The west windows of this aisle are to two brothers by the name of Ames who emigrated to the USA and who are the forebears of all Americans who bear that name today.
Before you leave the church you will see framed on the south side of the tower arch fragments of blue and red velvet embroidered with flowers. One device appears to be the monogram of William Gilbert, prior and abbot 1498 - 1533. Nearby hang lamps said to have been used at the midnight burials of the Berkeley's in the crypt. On the other side of the tower arch is a photograph of Bruton Church, Williamsburg. Sir William Berkeley went out to be Governor of Virginia on 1639 and with Thomas Ludwell, another Brutonian, were instrumental in establishing one of the earliest most notable Episcopal churches in the States. In 1979 the two Rectors of Bruton met for a memorable Sunday here in St. Mary's