Last Photographed: Saturday 14th September 2019
Other Names: St Andrew's Church, Stoke Courci Priory, Priory of St. Andrew, Blackabbey
Stogursey Priory dates back to shortly after the Norman Conquest, when William de Falaise was gifted the Saxon manor of Stoche. It's probable that a church already existed at the site, but no trace of that remains today. Around 1090AD, work began on a Norman church.
Between 1100AD and 1107AD, this church was gifted to the Benedictine Abbey of Lonlay. They established a daughter priory, sharing the church building with the parishioners. Around this time, a second William de Falaise (probably son to the first William), married his daughter, Emma, to William de Courcy. The estate of Stoche was gifted to them at that time, and thus became known as Stoke Courcy. This mutated over the centuries into Stogursey, as the village is known today.
By 1180AD, the church had been extended to the east, providing a choir and chancel, which was separated from the parishioners' nave by the crossing. This presumably allowed the monks to practice their worship separate from the lay folk. The transepts were also extended eastwards as choir aisles (latterly used as chapels).
By 1326AD, Stogursey Priory was already in decline. When the Bishop of Bath and Wells visited, he was scathing of the prior, and found the priory "impoverished and neglected, containing the prior and one monk, some servants and useless folk sojourning there by your leave, the other monks living lecherously abroad". A new prior was appointed, sworn to remain in residence rather than splitting his time between Stogursey and France.
All profits from the priory were sent to its mother house in France, and most of its monks were French. As such, it was considered an "alien" priory. When war broke out between England and France, this led to Stogursey Priory's confiscation by Henry VI. Around 1440AD, he granted its lands to Eton College. The priory was closed, and from 1453AD the vicars of the church were appointed by Eton.
Around 1500AD, the church nave was rebuilt and a north porch added. The choir aisles were also reconstructed, with the north aisle being extended to the east to provide a vestry.
Restoration work took place during the 19th Century, following the deterioration of the building. The nave and the sanctuary were remodelled around this time.
In the 1930s and 1940s the building was again restored. Evidence of the Victorian interior remodelling was removed, the choir floor lowered, and memorials reintroduced probably from the churchyard.
Today, the village of Stogursey lies on a forgotten strip of land sitting between the sea and the A39 on the north side of the Quantocks. It's a peculiar, liminal place, that feels a little left behind by the modern world. It's a fitting home for St Andrew's Church - which bar a restored dovecote, is all that remains of the priory.
Stogursey is an obvious example of a mediaeval market town, as evidenced by the large space at its centre. It's easy to imagine the place full of shops and businesses at various points through the centuries. This creates a ghostly feel to the place, as there's now very little sign of life throughout the course of the day. A couple of small shops and a pub survive, but little else to give the place the feel of a bustling community. The upshot of this is that St Andrew's Church is an unexpected and neglected gem that takes you totally by surprise.
When I first visited Stogursey, the church was locked, and I was only able to photograph the exterior of the church. Even then, I really fell in love with the place. Visually, it's striking and unusual, and the setting has the feel of quite an ancient site. Given the likelihood that the Norman church was built on top of an earlier Saxon church, it's easy to imagine a continuity of spiritual significance dating back to an even earlier period.
The massive tower that dominates the church is topped by a wooden spire. Apart from the Victorian parapet, this likely dates back to the first Norman period of construction. Other decorative features are of uncertain age.
When I visited a second time, the church was unlocked. I'd already seen photographs of the interior, but I really wasn't prepared for the feel of the place. It's a magnificent building, full of little details and surprises. Unlike some churches that feel slightly bland or sanitised, St Andrews has a palpable atmosphere. There's an undeniable sense of neglect and decay, but I found that added to the experience. It feels like a living, breathing site, drenched in history, with stories seeping out of its walls.
The crossing and the transepts survive from the first phase of construction. Seeing pillars that date back 900 years in the parish church of a tiny village is quite a thing. Other details worth looking out for include the two Norman fonts, some surviving mediaeval floor tiles, a 13th Century cross set into the floor of the nave, 16th Century decorative carved bench ends, and a rare example of an iron sanctuary ring.
Prior to the abolition of the right of sanctuary in 1623AD, a felon who grabbed hold of a sanctuary ring was granted immunity from arrest for 40 days if they remained within the church. After that time had passed, they were expected to confess their guilt, or to agree to exile. The terms of that exile might be quite harsh, including walking in sackcloth to the place of exile. Any deviation of the terms of exile would, as you might imagine, invoke even harsher penalties.
Another pleasant addition to the experience of visiting St Andrew's Church is the tolling of the bells on the quarter-hour. The sound from within the building is quite enthralling, and the oldest bell in the tower dates back to 1611AD.
To sum up, I really can't recommend this place highly enough. It's a fantastic piece of heritage, all the more incredible for the way in which it slumbers quietly in a half-forgotten corner of England, overlooked by the rest of the world. This is one of Somerset's best kept secrets that you're unlikely to stumble across by chance.