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Conservation project stirs up mysteries at St Mary’s Church in Puddletown

PUBLISHED: 09:34 09 June 2014 | UPDATED: 09:54 09 June 2014

The alter tomb after conservation, noved back into the centre of the chapel and all four side panels restored

The alter tomb after conservation, noved back into the centre of the chapel and all four side panels restored

Archant

The Martyn family chapel at St Mary’s Church in Puddletown has been given a new lease of life thanks to an award-winning conservation project which, as well as solving some centuries-old mysteries, has stirred up some new ones

Some of the altar tomb's panels have retained their blue  backgroundSome of the altar tomb's panels have retained their blue background

St Mary’s Church in Puddletown dates back to the 12th century and, with alterations, extensions and modifications every century since then, the building is now a treasure house of architectural styles. Having escaped attacks against religious imagery in the 16th and 17th centuries, St Mary’s has an unusually large number of medieval effigies, but the passage of time and damp has taken its toll on them.

In the Athelhampton Chapel, the family chapel of the Martyn family who lived at nearby Athelhampton House, there is a large alabaster altar-tomb of a mid-15th century knight with finely-detailed armour and his lady. Sadly the knight had lost one leg and both arms, but thanks to an award-winning conservation project the chapel’s treasures have been given a new lease of life. In addition, the project itself has been recognised as ‘an outstanding contribution to the archaeology of the County’ at the 2013 Dorset Archaeological Award.

Athelhampton  Chapel after conservationAthelhampton Chapel after conservation

Making plans and raising funds

For several decades, Puddletown’s Parochial Church Council had wanted to conserve the monuments in the Athelhampton Chapel but, as a valuable meeting space, it was always in use. When a new Church Room was built in 2005, the chapel space wasn’t needed any more, and the Council started looking for funding to carry out the complete conservation of the chapel’s fabric and monuments including the altar-tomb of the knight and his lady.

Simon Pomeroy, Chairman both of Dorset Historic Churches Trust and St Andrew’s Conservation Trust, asked specialist conservators Sue and Lawrence Kelland to prepare a full report. This highlighted how the alabaster elements of the monuments in the chapel were deteriorating daily but, before conservation could begin, the damp problem needed to be overcome. Architect David Illingworth recommended all interior plaster should be removed, and this provided new opportunities for archaeologists Brian and Moira Gittos to identify and record areas of the building’s fabric that hadn’t been seen for centuries.

The cost of repairs and weather-proofing was estimated at £75,000, and conservation of the monuments would cost another £30,000. As with many projects like this, the funding came from a variety of sources: £10,000 from Dorset Historic Churches Trust; £10,000 from St Andrew’s Conservation Trust; £10,000 from the Claude Blair Memorial Fund, organised by the Church Monuments Society in memory of its founder; £5,000 from the Francis Coales Charitable Foundation; £30,000 from Viridor Credits; and £9,000 from the Church Events team. The remaining £31,000 came from donations and legacies, particularly from Peter Ricardo Trust.

Athelhampton Chapel before conservation and re-siting of monuments. Damp from the walls has damaged the effigiesAthelhampton Chapel before conservation and re-siting of monuments. Damp from the walls has damaged the effigies

Conservation, discoveries and more questions

The altar-tomb, which at some point had been moved from the centre of the chapel to a rather damp corner, was completely dismantled; the effigies and panels were carefully lifted with hydraulic tables. It was hoped the missing limbs would be inside but they only found rubble, fragments of animal bone, pottery, slate and alabaster. The tomb was re-assembled in the middle of the chapel, showing off all four of its glorious alabaster side panels, two of them having been fixed onto the wall above the tomb for four centuries, and some still with blue colour in the background. The knight’s lady wears a veiled head-dress and there are traces of original red colour on her gown.

In a recess in the wall, there’s a ‘coffin’ tomb with the effigy of a magnificent moustachioed knight in late-14th century armour. The tomb front has an effigy of the crucifixion and eight other figures, one of which was rediscovered during the conservation work. This tomb had been pushed back into the wall long ago, making the lead-lined coffin too narrow to hold any remains. When it was brought out for cleaning and conservation, the conservators were surprised to find the knight still had a dagger at his belt.

Athelhampton House has been in Martyn hands since at least 1303, and the chapel’s oldest effigies, lying on the floor beneath a pedestal table monument to Nicholas Martyn, date from about 1300. These are a comfortably cross-legged knight in a long coat with shield and sword and, presumably, his wife, her head resting on a cushion.

Above the table are four brass plaques to Nicholas, the last of the Martyns, who died in 1595 leaving four daughters but no surviving sons.

Between the chapel and the nave, under a canopy of Purbeck stone, is a fine altar-tomb which is something of a mystery. It had long been believed that this was the tomb of William Martyn, builder of the present Athelhampton House, who died in 1503. But archaeologists Moira and Brian Gittos have now shown that the tomb is of Thomas Martyn, William’s father who died 14 September 1485, 28 days after the Battle of Bosworth Field, probably from his wounds.

His Yorkist allegiance is demonstrated by his sumptuous collar of suns and roses and lion pendant which shows ‘support and service’ to the late Edward IV and the House of York. His armour is exquisitely detailed, and this is the only effigy of this date in England to carry a shield.

Solving one mystery has created another. Where is William Martyn’s monument? Is it the rather worn stone slab found in the floor? Or is there a vault under the chapel where his actual remains are interred? Initial investigations suggest there is a space below the floor. Could a large medieval stone coffin lid, discovered beneath the double altar-tomb when it was moved, be closing off the access to the vault? Who knows, until more funding is raised - we must just wait and see.

Dorset Historic Churches Trust

Dorset Historic Churches Trust (DHCT) provides grants for fabric repairs and structural maintenance for Dorset churches, and St Andrew’s Conservation Trust gives grants towards conservation of objects and artefacts within historically important buildings. There are over 400 historic churches and chapels in Dorset and, since its foundation in 1960, DHCT has provided grants totalling £1million to 250 churches. Simon Pomeroy, Chairman of both Trusts, sees three basic reasons for DHCT’s work in saving these buildings: For worship and prayer, as a hub for the community, and as buildings of architectural interest and depositories of national and local history. Find out more at dorsethistoricchurchestrust.co.uk


How you can help

Become a member of The Friends of Dorset Historic Churches Trust and/or volunteer for the ‘Ride and Stride’ held every September. ‘Ride and Stride’ supports the work of Dorset Historic Churches Trust and, last September, it raised more than £72,000 in one day. This year’s event is 13 September. For more information or membership details, email Liz Ashmead: lizashmead@btinternet.com

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