The ancient yew tree

Church history

from Saxon times until now

It is almost certain that as far back as Saxon times there was a church in Tisbury, as there was an abbey here from the 7th century until the Danes destroyed it in the 9th century. It’s more than likely that the church we know today was built on the site of the Saxon one. Even before that, the ancient yew tree in the churchyard was probably used as a gathering place for local people.

Between 1180 and 1200 the Norman church was built in the form of a cross, typically of the time. Now only four massive piers, the arches of the tower and parts of the transepts can still be seen.

In 1299 the Lady Chapel was first dedicated an in the late 13th/early 14th century the chancel was rebuilt. The font also dates to this time, although since then the carving has been redone and a cover was added in the 17th century. Chantries were founded to support priests, who lived in a small room above the north porch of the church. In 1450 the nave was built with a clerestory and a fine wagon roof. Latin inscriptions cut into the roof timbers in the south aisle show that it was finished in 1616. Inscriptions in the panelled roof of the north aisle are dated 1569, but part of it was lost when it collapsed in 1762.

After the Reformation, the Arundell family (who remained Roman Catholics) lost the patronage of the church. However, many families in the area also remained true to the ‘Old Faith’ under the protection of the Arundell family and so it is likely that the congregation at St. John’s was somewhat reduced in number.

In the 1660s the Jacobean pews and pulpit were built in the church.

The church spire was struck by lightning in freak thunderstorms in 1742 and again on 6th January 1762. On the second occasion the spire fell, destroying the roof of the north transept and part of the roof of the north aisle. When the church was rebuilt, a second storey was added to the tower in place of the spire, reducing the overall height.

In 1858 the Rev. F.E. Huchinson became vicar. He and his wife greatly improved conditions for the villagers by building schools and school houses. They also made alterations to the church and built a new vicarage. It should be said that in return they expected respect and a strict observance of rules. The musicians’ gallery was removed from the church and the roof of the Beggar’s Porch (the west porch) was lowered. Both alterations can be regarded as architectural vandalism, particularly the latter, as the porch contains ancient stone seats on which the poor sat to receive charity after a service.

The 20th century saw a range of alterations and improvements in the church. In 1900 work was done on the choir, vestry and sacristy. In 1927 there was major rebuilding of the tower, the bells were overhauled and rehung and a new three- dial clock was installed. The church was rewired in 1972 and a new lighting system installed. In 2002, as part of the re-ordering of St Andrew’s Chapel, an ancient stone altar, thought to be as old as the church itself, was mounted on new Chilmark stone supports and placed in its present position.

In 1976 a team benefice was created to include the churches of Tisbury, Swallowcliffe, Ansty and Chilmark.

The interior of the church boasts many interesting and notable features. There are eight floor memorials in the Sanctuary, others being covered by the carpeting in the chapel. The Laurence Hyde brass, dated 1590, is one of the oldest in England. His grand-daughter Ann, daughter of Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, married James II. Their daughters Mary and Anne both became Queens of England.

The ancient Arundell Helm hangs high on the wall of St Andrew’s Chapel. It belonged to Sir Thomas Arundell, who died in 1639 and was made Baron of Wardour by James II. One of the memorials on the Sanctuary floor shows that his daughter Ann married the second Lord Baltimore and with him became founder of the new American State of Maryland.

The churchyard also yields a few gems, such as an ancient yew tree over 2,000 years old, a 13th century cross on an 18th century stem and the burial place of Rudyard Kipling’s parents. The parish registers from 1563, other than those in current use, are held in the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office.