Medieval Art in Little Somerford Church

The interior of this church contains two large medieval pieces of art, and several smaller wall paintings.

Coat of Arms and Tympanum

The Coat of Arms of Queen Elizabeth I hangs in the archway between the nave and the tower, but it used to hang above the screen in the centre of the church.

In 1983 it was removed from there for restoration, leading to the discovery of the tympanum listing the first four of the Ten Commandments.



Wall Painting of Psalm 78 verse 1
Give the King thy judgements O God and thy righteousness unto the King’s son
Wall painting of The Lord's Prayer
The Lord’s Prayer
Wall painting of The Apostle's Creed
The Apostle’s Creed
Angel to the right of the Tympanum
Painting of angel
Angel to left of Tympanum
Painting of angel
The tympanum showing the first four of the Ten Commandments
The tympanum showing the first four of the Ten Commandments
Coat of Arms of Elizabeth the First
Coat of Arms
Wide shot of the Tympanum

It is thought that there was a rood screen in the centre of the church, separating the people from the clergy, dividing the chancel and quire from the nave.  It would have stood free on the beam which remains in place across the top of the lower part of the screen. The angels on either side are painted on elm boarding with eyes in the centre and swinging censers of incense and these are in a good state of preservation. There are several items painted on the surrounds left and right.  There are flowers or stars and at top middle left there is a dice.  It is thought that there are drops of blood portrayed, coming from the crowned head of Christ mixed in with the flowers.

When Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Church and the Pope he ordered all roods to be taken down and his Coat of Arms to be put up in its place. We have no evidence of this actually being done in Little Somerford Church, and it is suggested that for a time the gap which the removed rood left was used to place pictures depicting the seasons of the church, Christmas, Easter, etc.

Eventually the Ten Commandments were painted on an oak panel in the centre. It is thought that the tympanum reached to the screen below.  There is evidence of this because of a different plaster and lathes on the existing level. At what time the bottom half was taken away and for what reason, we have no evidence.

However, it would appear that the Little Somerford or Somerford Parva St John the Baptist Church was guilty of not fully complying with Henry VIII’s edict. It seems that in 1602 action was taken to put up the present Coat of Arms. This appears to have been done in a hurry, as oak strips were nailed over the tympanum – including the Ten Commandments – lime plastered and the Coat of Arms painted.  Why in 1602, a year before Queen Elizabeth I died?

Perhaps the Queen was on a tour or pilgrimage to Glastonbury, and her loyal subjects, not wishing to the thought otherwise, now complied with the edict, somewhat belatedly, and with which, for some reason the Church had failed to comply. Did the Queen call in, or did our forbears only think she might?

In 1985 the restoration and repair of both paintings was completed with great skill.  The beauty of the tympanum is there for all to see and to contemplate during acts of worship.

The Coat of Arms was restored and strengthened using modern techniques and was rehung in the only space in the building which is large enough and provides us with a good view, the tower archway, which gives us the impression that it has always been there.  It is also a very effective draught excluder preventing gusts from the tower penetrating as far as the people!

The restoration project was made possible by the generosity of local people and the Council for the Care of Churches, the skills and talents of three men from the firm of Ingenhoff in Tubingen, Germany, and the time of the Churchwardens, two Rectors and the PCC secretary.

Duncan and Mandy Ball have a website which has extensive photography of this and many other Wiltshire Churches.  All photos on this page are taken from there.