Downside Abbey, Stratton-on-the-Fosse, Somerset BA3 4RH
Copyright Alex Ramsay
Copyright Alex Ramsay
Copyright Alex Ramsay
Copyright Alex Ramsay
Copyright Alex Ramsay
A church of exceptional architectural, artistic and historical significance. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described it as ‘the most splendid demonstration of the renaissance of Roman Catholicism in England […] Pugin’s dream of the future of English Catholicism at last come true’. The Revd Antony Symondson SJ considers it ‘one of the most outstanding churches of the Gothic Revival. In the diversity of hands that have contributed to the design, in its lack of uniformity, it equals the building development of medieval Gothic’. The church was built in several stages between 1873 and 1938, and the architects involved are a roll call of some of the major names of late-nineteenth and early twentieth century church architecture: Dunn & Hansom, Frederick Walters, Sir Ninian Comper, Thomas Garner and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Each phase is distinct, yet harmonious with the others. In the county of Somerset its tower is second in height only to that of Wells Cathedral; it is a landmark for many miles around.
In 1794 the English Benedictine community at Douai in Flanders was forced to leave the country when Revolutionary France declared war on England. They found refuge at Acton Burnell Hall in Shropshire, the home of the Smythe family, where a plain chapel was completed for the monks’ use in 1799. This served until 1813 when the present site at Stratton-on-the-Fosse was acquired for a monastery and school. At the centre of the small estate was a stone-built manor house of about 1700, known as Mount Pleasant (today as the Old House) in which a temporary chapel serving both monastery and school was established on the ground floor.
Designs for monastery buildings were sought from John Tasker, a Catholic architect who would have been known to the community for his work at Acton Burnell; Tasker also designed major Catholic chapels at Lulworth Castle, Dorset and Spetchley Park, Worcestershire. His classical designs did not find favour and instead designs were sought from George Allen Underwood, a pupil of Sir John Soane. He produced one Gothic and two classical designs, but again these were not taken forward. The architect finally chosen was H. E. Goodridge of Bath, whose prepared an Early English Gothic design for a large L-shaped block, one range containing classrooms and dormitories and another at right angles containing a vaulted, apsidal chapel over a library and refectory.
In 1838 A. W. N. Pugin prepared designs for expansion, retaining the Goodridge additions and the Old House (the latter Gothicised), while providing a new gate house, refectory, library and cells arranged around a large cloister. This was succeeded by a more ambitious scheme in 1841, which cleared the existing buildings, and replaced them with a series of buildings arranged around four courtyards, placed (unusually) to the north of the large church, which had spires at the west end as well as at the crossing. Funds for such an ambitious undertaking were not available, and criticisms of the practicalities of Pugin’s arrangements meant that his scheme was not taken forward.
In March 1846, C. F. Hansom was invited to prepare a new scheme for the school and monastery. As with Pugin’s first scheme, he proposed the retention of the existing buildings, with new buildings arranged around a courtyard and a smaller abbey church (with just one spire) to the north. However, for financial reasons this scheme too was not advanced.
In April 1872 the partnership of Dunn & Hansom was invited to prepare designs for the church and monastery. A contract was let to Joseph Blackwell of Bath, and on 1 October 1873 the foundation stones of the church, tower and monastery were laid by Archbishop Manning of Westminster, Bishop Brown of Shrewsbury and Bishop Clifford of Clifton. Construction of the church only began in 1879, by which time the design had evolved from the so-called ‘north country church’ Early English Gothic design of 1873, which was inspired by Tynemouth, Fountains and Rievaulx and bore some resemblance to Dunn’s Dominican church at Newcastle. Dom Aidan Gasquet, who had become prior in 1878, wanted a less ‘severe’ design. A decision was taken, probably by Gasquet, to begin construction with the transepts (including the lower stages of the south tower), crossing and adjacent bays and chapels. Stained glass was supplied by John Hardman & Co. The church completed thus far opened on 11 July 1882.
The foundations of the Lady Chapel to the east and of a chevet of chapels to the as-yet-unbuilt choir were laid early in 1886, and the Lady Chapel opened by Archbishop Ullathorne of Birmingham in July 1888.
Two significant architects succeeded Dunn & Hansom in the closing years of the nineteenth century.
Frederick Arthur Walters, was a prolific figure in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Catholic church building, and at the time he began working at Downside was building for the Benedictines at Buckfast Abbey, Devon. He was also architect for Ealing Abbey, a dependency of Downside. At Downside he was brought in to complete the chapels of St Isidore and St Benedict, with English square ends rather than the more Frenchified polygonal ends envisaged by Dunn & Hansom (however, the chapels of St Vedast and St Joseph to the north maintained the original design, despite being completed later). Stained glass and other furnishings were supplied by Nathaniel Westlake as well as Walters.
Ninian Comper was an Anglican, and received few Catholic commissions. His introduction to Downside was effected by Arthur Stapylton Barnes, who was staying there in in 1896 after his reception into the Catholic Church. Comper prepared designs for heraldic glass in the lower east cloister and, more importantly, Barnes commissioned from him an altar in the Lady Chapel, groundbreaking in its discarding of the established arrangement of gradines and large reredoses with exposition thrones in favour of riddel posts, curtains and a suspended canopy, the so-called English altar. The Lady Chapel altar was completed in its original form 1898. It was followed soon afterwards by stained glass (an Annunciation and a Visitation), showing the artist’s characteristic debt to late medieval glass design. The Lady Chapel altar was completed by Comper in 1913, St Sebastian’s chapel in 1929, and the choir east window in 1936.
Both Walters and Comper were to do further work at Downside (Comper’s connection continuing until 1951), but it seems neither was considered for the next big phase of work, the completion of the choir. This was undertaken by Thomas Garner, whose longstanding partnership with G.F. Bodley had been dissolved soon after the former’s reception into the Catholic Church in 1896. Garner had undertaken the restoration of the Slipper Chapel at Walsingham for Charlotte Boyd, who after her conversion had vested that building in the care of the Downside community. As early as 1898 Abbot Ford asked Garner to prepare designs for the chapel of St Sebastian at Downside, and in 1900 Garner prepared a design for the completion of the tower, or rather the rebuilding of Dunn & Hansom’s already substantially-constructed design. This and other extravagant plans of Garner’s did not come to fruition. His design for the choir was a simplified and amplified version of Dunn & Hansom’s design, square-ended, with the leftover semi-circular space between the east wall and the Lady Chapel turned into what he called a feretory. As with the Dunn & Hansom work, architectural carving was by Alfred B. Wall of Cheltenham, except for the Virgin and Child on the eastern gable, which was carved by Farmer & Brindley. The choir was completed in September 1905. Garner died in the following year and was buried in the abbey church; his tomb was designed by F. A. Walters and incorporates a crucifix based on a design by G. F. Bodley.
In September 1917 Giles Gilbert Scott was invited by Abbot Cuthbert Butler to prepare designs for the nave of the abbey church. Still in his thirties, Scott was already well established as a designer of churches, both Catholic and Anglican (not least Liverpool Anglican Cathedral). Moreover, in 1906 he had converted a medieval barn at Midsomer Norton for use as a Catholic church, for the Downside community. Political and economic uncertainty made planning and fundraising difficult, and it was not until May 1922 that Scott was instructed to proceed with seven of the proposed ten bays of the nave, in addition to the existing one. Construction was carried out by the abbey’s own direct labour, with Wilfred Collins acting as clerk of works and again Alfred B. Wall of Cheltenham undertook the architectural carving. The nave, with its ‘temporary’ west wall (still there, nearly one hundred years on), was opened in July 1925, when the Bishop of Clifton preached.
Scott went on to design several important furnishings for the church, including the high altar, the magnificent choir stalls (made under the direction of Ferdinand Stuflesser of Ortisei), and tomb monuments to Abbot Ford, Abbot Ramsey and Bishop Collingridge. His finest monument in the church is that to Cardinal Gasquet (d. 1929), carved in grey marble by Edward Carter Preston of Liverpool, with carved and gilded woodwork above and an alabaster and marble pedestal below. It is one of the great funerary sculptures of the twentieth century.
The abbey church was finally consecrated in 1935, and at the same time was raised to the status of a minor basilica by Pope Pius XI.
Scott also added flying buttresses to Garner’s choir. His final contribution was the completion of the tower in 1938, in the style of a Somerset Perpendicular tower; at 166 ft, it is higher than any other in the county, apart from the central crossing tower of Wells Cathedral.
In 1968 Francis Pollen (who also designed additions to the monastery and was at this time working on designs for a new church at Downside’s daughter house, Worth Abbey) was invited to undertake the reordering of the choir of the abbey church to take account of the new liturgical requirements. This included bringing forward the high altar (as previously recommended by Comper and Scott) and the removal of two of the Stuflesser choir stalls.
In 2020 the separation of monastery and school was announced and in 2022 the small number of remaining Benedictines relocated to Buckfast Abbey.
See list description (below). This describes the building’s architectural features, but contains less on the furnishings. Chief amongst these are (in broadly chronological order):
Entry added by AHP 4.5.2022
Abbey church and north cloister. Commenced 1873 and as yet unfinished (west front and two bays of nave are missing). Main building periods 1872-82, c.1890, 1901-5, 1911-12, c.1923-25, 1938. Architects in date order, A M Dunn and E J Hansom, Thomas Garner, F.A.Walters, Sir G.G.Scott. Interior fittings and furnishings by the principal architects and Sir J N Comper. Bath stone ashlar with red plain tile roofs, the east end chapels roofed very conspicuously in copper sheeting.
Abbey church consists of nave with blind aisles and gallery chapels to south over north cloisters, by Sir G G Scott 1922-25 incorporating temporary west front, in simplified early Perpendicular style. Transepts with chapels opened 1882 and base of tower 1884, by A Dunn and E Hansom in early English style; tower finished 1938 by Scott in Somerset Perpendicular. Choir 1902-05 by Thomas Garner in early Decorated style; east end, ambulatory and radiating chapels with large projecting Lady Chapel opened 1888 by Dunn and Hansom in a French C13 style. Of the earliest work by Dunn and Hansom the 2 bays transepts have a rose window to the north, south transept with tower on south side; tower with much emphasised doorway and with gabled canopy with figures; with Scott’s addition it rises to about 166 ft, corner buttresses, pinnacles, 3 tiers of 2-light bell-chamber windows. Eight bay nave with triforium and clerestorey, pierced parapet, 2-light windows, rich tracery, west end (unfinished) with triple lancets. Chancel of 7 bays, with tall transomed clerestory windows, pierced parapets, flying buttresses, massive end pinnacles, 3-light east window. Chapels at east end with much emphasis on facetted roofs. Interior rib-vaulted in C13 French style; nave with tall Perpendicular arcades; triforium in Decorated style; richly fitted and furnished with much high quality work including altars, carvings, tombs, paintings and stained glass; canopied tomb of Cardinal Gasquet (d.1929) by Sir G G Scott, effigy by E Carter Preston. The Lady Chapel was decorated, glazed, paved and screened by Comper.
‘The most splendid demonstration of the renaissance of Roman Catholicism in England’ (Pevsner) it was built for a community of Benedictine monks, founded at St Gregory’s monastery at Douai in Flanders in 1607, house re-established in England 1795, present estate purchased 1813.
References: Pevsner. Buildings of England, North Somerset and Bristol 1958 and for full description of church: James, Dom Augustine. The Story of Downside Abbey Church 1961. Fitzgerald-Lombard, Dom C.A guide to the Church of St Gregory the Great Downside Abbey, 1981.
Architect: Dunn & Hansom; Thomas Garner; F. A. Walters; Ninian Comper; Giles Gilbert Scott
Original Date: 1879
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Grade I