Visitors - Detailed History
History of the church
Of the original church on this site little is known. However, recent excavations in the chancel, together with others in the 19th Century in the nave, revealed early foundations. These indicate a large central tower that possibly dated from C.950, and a later Norman nave arcade on the same plan as the existing one. A central tower survived until the 15th Century.
The Church of the blessed St John the Baptist of Northbinne (the North Field), as it is called in the early charters, was one of the seven local churches over which, from Saxon times, the Abbey of Glastonbury had claimed complete ecclesiastical jurisdiction. This led to disputes with the Bishop of Wells, and in 1170 these churches became a special Archdeaconry with the Abbot as Archdeacon. About this time, when a Master Alvred was the incumbent, there were attempts by the Abbey to appropriate the revenues of the church. This finally happened on the resignation of Ralph the Chaplain in 1203 and the Sacrist of the Abbey was then to appoint the future vicars and to pay them a stipend. This was confirmed in 1225 by Pope Honorius III, when it was stated that the revenues were appropriated to help the Abbey's building fund (the Abbey had been burnt down in 1184). The parishioners also had to pay a rent of 6s 9d to the Abbey.
At the dissolution of the Abbey in 1539, the church passed to the Crown, and the rent was raised to £1 2s 2d. In 1649 it passed to the Bishop of Bath and Wells, who is today the patron of the living.
St Benedict's Church, Glastonbury, and West Pennard Church were originally chapels of the mother church of St John's. They always had their own churchwardens, and eventually became separate parishes, but were served by the same incumbent, except between 1846 and 1980.
In medieval times the churchwardens were a corporate body owning considerable property in the town. We are fortunate that a number of their account rolls from the year 1366 onwards have been preserved although with many gaps and doubts about the dates of some of them. They give much useful information about the church, the town and its people.
From these accounts it is clear that at the beginning of the 15th Century the church was either in an extremely bad state of repair or had suffered some catastrophe such as the collapse of the central tower. A great deal of reroofing and repair was done in 1404, and all through the century rebuilding and refurnishing went on. In 1418 the altars of the chapels of Our Lady, St George and St Nicholas were reconsecrated by the suffragan Bishop. Sometime during this century further damage was caused by the collapse of several pinnacles, whether from the old or new tower is uncertain, and the nave roof had to be practically rebuilt. The west tower is first mentioned in 1484. By the end of the century the church had assumed the appearance which it has today.
It was very richly furnished, with carved seats, screens, a silver rood, costly images in each chapel, vestments, and 21 chained books (one of them a Caxton first edition). However, these disappeared during the years following the reformation and eventually the church was furnished in 18th Century style. In 1856-57 the church was restored and reseated by Sir George Gilbert Scott at a cost of £3000, and it's gothic character re-emphasized. In 1910 St. Nicholas' Chapel was again brought back into use, and the other chapels were all restored to their original use in the decade 1920 to 1930.
More recently, the restructuring of the Diocese of Bath and Wells led to the creation of the Abbey Five Parishes. These were - St John's, St Benedict's Church in Glastonbury, St Mary's & All Saints Church in Meare, St Nicholas' Church in West Pennard and Godney church. These churches were served by a priest in charge and a second priest. In the early 1990s Godney church was closed and the parish became assimilated into Coxley. Further reorganisation in 2001 saw St Nicholas' Church move to be part of the Butleigh / Baltonsborough group and the Abbey Five became known as the Abbey Parishes. At this time, the second priest moved on and all three churches are currently served by one stipendiary post. Fortunately our vicar is supported by a non-stipendiary priest and a curate in training. We are also fortunate to have several readers and retired priests who help by carrying out occasional services.
Reorganisation is again upon us! Whilst details are still be confirmed, it appears that although each will have its own priest, Glastonbury and Street benefices will need to work closely together to ensure that both communities are served well.