By Ivor Porter, the son of the Revd. Leopold Victor Porter, who was Vicar
of Keevil between 1943 and 1946
The road sinks down into the village between high banks and walls, so that if you turn up into the lane into the churchyard you come unexpectedly upon the clear view across the vale to the ramparts of Salisbury Plain. A thousand years ago there was already the “Coople Church” down there in the meadows its foundations now under grass. When the Normans came Arnulf of Hesdin planted a simple rectangular building on the higher ground from which our church has grown. He gave it to the Nuns of Shaftesbury when his daughter entered their order and the 13th Century lancet windows on either side of the choir are their legacy today.
By the 15th Century it had passed to the monks of Edington Priory who enlarged it and made it cruciform by adding north and south transepts and nave.
At the time of the Reformation, the wool merchants and clothiers added the south aisle and tower, thus completing the design of the Church as we know it today. The Victorians embellished it with good quality stained glass and in the present century a handsome Rood Screen was erected.
Throughout the generations the masons and craftsmen used methods and features such as the pinnacles which crown the walls which show our kinship with our neighbours in Steeple Ashton and Trowbridge but, like all good Parish Churches, we have our unique treasures. The roof beams with tracery panels above them are notable and the Sanctus Bell in its own little turret above the choir is one of the six oldest bells in the country. It was not cast in the usual way but turned on a lathe. Within there are fine monuments on the walls to 17th and 18th Century squires and their families and in the churchyard good box tombs for prosperous clothiers and farmers. On tombstones and the War Memorial are many names still familiar to us.
We are proud that for nearly a thousand years St Leonard’s has been the growing and living heart of this village. It would be a tragedy if it stopped beating through our neglect. The Church needs an ongoing commitment from everyone to keep it in existence.
From the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre…
It is thought that there was an extremely early church within the parish, at around the end of the 11th century; a church, its tithes and lands were granted to Shaftesbury Abbey by the lord of the manor, Ernulf de Hesdin, when his daughter became a nun there. This church is thought to have originally stood where St Leonard’s now is, but evidence is scarce.
In 1393 the advowson of Keevil was sold by the Abbey of Shaftesbury to the Priory at Edington. It is presumed that the monks went swiftly about the business of building a new church.The church built by them was known as St Leonard’s by 1396. There were initially two chapels; one was known as the Lady Chapel.
St Leonard was the patron saint of prisoners and other churches within Wiltshire which share the name include Minety and Broad Blundson. He was born in Le Mans, in France, and died at Limoges in 559.
The church has a nave, chancel, north and south transepts, south aisle, west tower and three porches, facing north, west and south. The nave is especially interesting as it is irregular; one side is at least one foot shorter than the other, creating a slightly wonky effect. The chancel has two single windows.
There was an extension and enlargement of the church in the years 1516-1517. Some restoration occurred at the start of the 19th century; in 1807 the rood loft was taken down because of dry rot and in 1814 the pews were found to be rotten and were replaced. The altar floor was raised and the altar piece extracted in 1815 at a cost of £42.
In 1909 the organ was installed in the church for £300.
The font in the church is the original one, but took a leave of absence in19th century when it was replaced by a new creation. In 1840, the Reverend Crawley of Steeple Ashton found the font in a stonemason’s yard. He bought it and kept it in his garden for some time before giving it to the Reverend W.H. Pooke, who installed it back in its original position in St Leonard’s.
The churchyard was enlarged in 1864 and heating apparatus was installed in 1905 but the process took until 1909 to complete.
The east window is in memory of the Reverend G.T. Chamberlaine, who was a prominent member of the community. Two smaller windows in the church were the gift of the Wallington family; the first in 1901 and the second in 1905. The clock on the first floor of the tower has no hands. It is not clear exactly when it was built but was probably from around the turn of the 18th century. There are many mural tablets within the church, lots of them using coloured marble, and they commemorate local families such as the Blagden family of the 18th century.
In 1553 there were four bells and a Sanctus bell at St Leonard’s. The Sanctus bell at the church is thought to be one of the oldest in the country, dating from the 12th century. It was moulded on a lathe which is notable as the majority of later bells were cast. In March 1902, the tenor bell fell down, but as it was kept from falling too far by the wooden frame, no-one was injured. In the spring of 2000, the bells were taken down from the tower and sent for cleaning. In the meantime there was refurbishment of the cast iron frames and wooden wheels and installation of safety netting. The bells were re-hung on 13 September 2000.
The vicarage of St Leonard’s was built in 1842 by Rev. Pooke and was enlarged in 1869. It was also known as ‘Field Head’ and is now a private house.
A new vicarage was built in Steeple Ashton in 1953 and was the home of the resident vicar until sold by the Church Commissioners for England in June 1972. It is now a private dwelling known as ‘Springfield House’. Keevil last had a resident vicar in 1970; our current vicar resides in Trowbridge and also tends to St James’ Church there.
During a restoration in the later part of the 20th century, stone gargoyles clinging to the side of the church were considered to be in such a bad condition they would have to be removed. New gargoyles, at a cost of £20,000 were installed, but were purely decorative, unlike the originals which were a way of draining excess water from the church roof.
The church is a Grade II* listed building and there are several monuments in the graveyards which are Grade II listed. The parish registers from 1559 (christenings and marriages) and 1562 (burials), other than those in current use are held at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre at Chippenham.
The History of St Leonard’s Bells
A short history of the Bells of St Leonard’s Church
Records show that the monks of Edington Priory began the construction of St Leonard’s church in 1393 and the earliest reference to its bells was in 1395 in the Edington Cartulary when John, Bishop of Salisbury, took corporal possession of the church, one of his acts being “ringing the bells”.
From this record then we know there was more than one bell in 1395. In 2017 the church has seven bells, one a Sanctus bell and the others a ring of six.
The Sanctus, which is rung five minutes before the start of Holy Communion and during the service at the consecration of the bread and wine, is housed in its cot at the east end of the knave. It is thought to be 12thC. Nicholaus Pevsner, in his series of books on The Buildings of England(2), states it is one of the two oldest bells in the country. It is 15” in height, long wasted and 15” in diameter.
In 1553, during the last year of the reign of the young Tudor Monarch, Edward V1, there was a nationwide inventory of church goods. This showed that St Leonard’s Church had 4 bells and a Sanctus. This was a common number at that time. They would have been hung on a half or three-quarter frame and if rung together would sound as they do on the Continent today, making uncoordinating clanging.
It was in the 17thC that change ringing came into being with bells being attached to a wooden circular frame. This heralded the introduction of methods.
If we fast forward to the 19thC Whitechapel Foundry records show that on 5th October 1842 Samuel Ferris, churchwarden ordered a new 7cwt bell. The benefactor was William Beach M.P. father of the Houses of Parliament, who lived in Keevil Manor House. This is the lightest bell and brought the number of bells to six.
Bells 2 and 3
These were cast in 1609 by John Wallis, a prolific bell caster who lived in Culver Street, Salisbury. He cast 263 bells between 1581 and 1624, the date of his death. Bell no 2 would have been the treble until the installation of the William Beach bell.
This was formerly the no 3 bell until it developed a severe crack. Records show that at a vestry meeting on 4th August 1809 it was decided that the churchwardens, James Watts and Andrew Burbidge, should “order the recasting of the ruinous bell”. On 3rd May 1810 it was taken by horse and cart to James Wells’ Aldbourn foundry where it was melted down and recast. It was returned on 21st December and rehung by 5 men.
Bells 5 and Tenor
The heaviest bell in a ring is known as the tenor. Number 5 and the Tenor were cast in 1761 at Chew Stoke, Somerset, at the foundry of Thomas Bilbie. The Bilbie’s cast 370 bells between 1698 and 1814 when the foundry closed.
It was common practice when a bell was cast to inscribe the names of the church wardens on the outside rim such as has been done on the Tenor which reads, “Samuel Atwood Thomas Bell John Marieram John Taylor Ch Wardens 1761 T Bilbie cast me.”
20th Century Events
On Sunday 2nd March 1902 while the bells were being rung for Matins the oak frame collapsed sending the tenor bell crashing to the bell tower floor. The event was reported in the “Amongst the Churches Column” of the Devizes and Wiltshire Advertiser of 3rd April, 1902.
The quotation for a replacement iron frame and rehanging of the bells by Llewellins and James of Bristol was £300. With the approval of The Bishop of Salisbury, the churchwardens issued an appeal throughout the district as it was “impossible to raise such a sum from within the parish” so said the Devizes and Wiltshire Advertiser.
The bells continued to be rung continuously throughout the 20thC until 1997 when an inspection showed that the bells and their fittings were in need of refurbishment. Quotations were obtained and the one of £22,000 from Taylors of Leicester was accepted by the Parochial Church Council.
At a bell ringers’ meeting at the home of Ann and Ian Woodhead it was decided by the ringers that they would be the driving force in raising the money for the church. With the support of the villagers, the Parish Council, the former Keevil Society, the Parochial Church Council, Keevil Village Hall Committee and others from outside the village the money was raised in 30 months.
To do this the ringers went to numerous car boot sales raising £4500, organised the first Music at the Manor, Keevil Society donated the proceeds of the Keevil Weekend, the Keevil Village Hall Committee put on shows throughout the year, a “Keevil in Pictures Calendar” was produced and sold like hot cakes, and a grant was obtained from Salisbury Diocesan Guild of Ringers as were donations from many people in the village and elsewhere.
The bells’ refurbishment was completed in the year 2000 when they were rehung by a Taylor’s engineer with much help from the villagers. They were rededicated by the Reverend Terry Brighton, the Ramsbury Rural Officer and the Reverend Derek Hart, Vicar, at the Patronal Festival on Sunday 5th November.
The St Leonard’s bell ringing team are a very sociable group of people who are always looking to expand their numbers and if there is anybody in the village who is a former ringer or is somebody who has thought that they might like to bell ring then please contact Ann or Ian Woodhead.
Practice night is Wednesday and we alternate with St Mary’s Steeple Ashton. Novices are taught professionally by the Tower Captain, Michael Moore, 01380 870280.
A warm welcome will be guaranteed.
One thought on “History of St Leonard’s Church”
Good morning, I have enjoyed reading this history of St Leonard’s- thank you.
My husband and I are travelling from Australia and are looking forward to visiting your wonderful church next month, in June 2022.
I think My 3 x great grandmother, Mercy Cox, was christened at St Leonard’s in 1805 and married William Porter there 1833. I think there might also be some Cox or Porter family buried in the church yard.