Aerial photographs used by kind permission of Robin Cleverley

The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles, Combe Florey

Combe Florey Church is dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, Apostles whose Feast Day is the 29th June. The church is a medium-sized rural church, built from rose-red sandstone.

To find us using sat. nav. our post code is: TA4 3JD. The church is normally open daily during daylight hours.

The first mention that can be found of the name Combe Florey is in 1100 when Baldwin de Cume or Combe lived at the Manor House. Baldwin probably took his name from the Celtic word ‘cwim’ or ‘combe’ meaning a valley.

Baldwin de Combe was succeeded, about the time of King Stephen (1135-1154), by Hugh de Fleuri or Flory who was probably of Norman origin and then his son Randolph who gave his name to the village.

The earliest mention of a church at Combe Florey is 1292, when the patrons were the Prior and Canons of Taunton Priory.

There was also a chapel here at this date belonging to the Abbey of Athelney, and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this chapel Walter de Meriet founded a chantry (c.1313) also dedicated to the Virgin and for upwards of 250 years successive priests were presented to this chantry by the Lord of the Manor. A chantry is described as a ‘chapel endowed for the singing of masses for the soul of the founder’. It is probable that in about 1840, the chapel became the north aisle of the present church. The eastern extension to this aisle was built as a chapel for the chantry. Chantries were, in fact, suppressed in 1547.

There is nothing in the church that can be ascribed to a date earlier than 1292, except the base of the font which is dated to c.1250, and in the rebuilt north aisle wall the re-used Cinquefoiled rere-arches to the windows which were widened and later provided with present wooden Y-tracery in the early 20th century. In one of the windows the remains of the original jambs can be seen.

In about 1480, during the ‘perpendicular’ period, much rebuilding took place: the tower, the font shaft and basin, the nave wall, the windows and roof, the nave arcade, the east end of the north aisle, the organ arch and the existing carved pews and pulpit all belong to this time.

About 1520 the rood screen was extended to the north aisle, but this was demolished in c.1850 when the chancel was rebuilt in the Victorian style, and the pulpit was moved to its present position from the north side of the chancel arch. The existing screen is in memory of the men who fell in both World Wars.

About 1730 the windows in the north aisle were replaced by the present Georgian wooden ones, the west window was filled in to take the marble monument of Philippa Francis (d. 1745) which was never inscribed. The 15th century pews were replaced by two deal box pews and an eastern one made of oak which was reserved for the Lord of the Manor and his family.

The priest’s doorway and square window were filled in (see outside wall) and the east doorway was made. The two eastern windows were inserted to match the others in the north wall.

The stone effigies: in the second half of the 13th century, Sir Simon de Meriet of Hestercombe and Merriott and his wife Lucy came to live in the Manor House. Sir Simon was succeeded by his eldest son Sir John de Meriet and the stone effigies in the north aisle are considered to represent Sir John and his two wives. Sir John died in 1327.

The figure of Sir John shows him cross-legged but he was not a Crusader and, although mutilated, it has one feature of real interest. It is a very late example of the chain mail period and on each shoulder are ‘ailettes’ or little shields to protect the neck from sword cuts. There are only four instances of these ‘ailettes’ on such effigies in England. The knight retains the 13th century surcoat and wears greaves (to protect the shins), knee cops, elbow cops and vambrances (to protect the fore-arms).

Sir John’s first wife Mary, is represented by the effigy nearest the wall. Mary was the daughter of William de Mohun of Ottery Mohun, and she died in 1300, aged 18. Sir John’s second wife Elizabeth, widow of Philip Paynel, died in 1344 and is represented by the effigy in the centre. These effigies were probably brought from Bristol to Taunton by water, and thence by wagon to Combe Florey. There is no doubt that the effigies were originally painted, as traces of paint can still be seen on some parts.

Initially the effigies were in three recessed shrines in the north wall, possibly either side of the heart shrine. About the beginning of the 18th century, when the windows of the north aisle were altered and the wall panelled for ‘horse box’ pews, they were removed to the west end of the aisle. In 1901 when the aisle was restored and re-seated, they were moved to their present position.

The little heart shrine in the wall just about the effigies is considered to be earlier than the effigies themselves, and to belong to the second half of the 13th century. The Lombardic inscription above the shrine reads ‘Le quer dame Maud de Merriete, nun of Cannington’. Although the family name, de Merriete, is the same there is no connection between this heart shrine and Mary the first wife of Sir John. The lady whose heart was buried here was Maud, and not Mary and, as she was a nun, she was probably buried in Cannington Priory. In addition, the practice of heart burial was not uncommon in medieval times amongst noble and knightly families, the object being to obtain additional prayers for the deceased by burying the body in one church and the heart in another. The practice was forbidden by Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1301), but was later sanctioned again.

The altar of the Lady chapel, near which heart shrines were usually placed, was originally where the modern screen now is, in the north aisle. The east end of the north aisle and the two easterly windows in the north wall were added in the 15th century.

The de Meriet family were succeeded by the Fraunceis family, who lived in Combe Florey for nearly 400 years, from about 1400 to 1800. The earliest tombestone in the church, which lies behind the organ, is the tomb of Nicholas Fraunceis who died on 5th June 1480. His sister, Agnes Molins, widowed daughter of Henry Fraunceis, is buried near the font. She died on 21st June 1518.

The second tombstone behind the organ is of Nicholas’ son, John Fraunceis and his wife Florence. Most of the brass has disappeared, but the figures of Florence and her two daughters and the brass inscription – dated November 1485, – still remain. The butterfly head dress of the ladies’ heads fix the date of the brass at no later than 1490.

A second Nicholas Fraunceis, who died about 1526, has his tombstone in the north aisle near the font. It is beautifully carved in blue lias, and is surmounted by his brass.

At the east end of the north aisle, on the north side, is the priest’s doorway and a perpendicular window, now filled in. On the south side is a credence, and a niche for a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The daughter of Mrs Philippa Fraunceis, also named Philippa, died in 1745, leaving £40.00 for the white marble mural monument fixed to the wall at the west end of the north aisle, attributed to John Michael Rysbrack (1693-1771). . This monument, for some reason unknown, was never inscribed.

The four tablets to members of the Malet family were moved to their present position on the south wall of the nave in 1864, and the pulpit was moved from the north to the south side of the chancel arch. Leading from the pulpit is a small door and steps, now blocked, which at one time gave access to the rood loft above the screen which unfortunately disappeared during the earlier – already mentioned – restoration.

The north aisle belonged to the Lord of the Manor for 650 years, before finally being handed over to the church authorities in 1966.

The best known Rector of Combe Florey and a much loved incumbent was Sydney Smith, the celebrated wit, writer, preacher, champion of parliamentary reform and sometime Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral. His wit and love of life attracted many eminent statesmen, writers and other distinguished persons to his dinner table at the Rectory.

From 1829 until his death in 1845, his care of the people of Combe Florey endeared him to all as physician, counsellor and friend. outraged by the social injustices of the time, he was moved to found the Edinburgh Review in 1802.

SYDNEY SMITH: Notes compiled from ‘The Smith of Smith’ by Hesketh Pearson and ‘The Life and Times of Sydney Smith’ by Stuart J. Reid: ‘The Rectory at Combe Florey was in a dilapidated state when the Smith family arrived in 1829. Sydney, by now a comparatively wealthy man, soon engaged a team of thirty builders and joiners and when the additions and repairs were complete he described it in a letter to a friend “My place is delightful; never was there a more delightful parsonage! Come and see it. Be ill, and require mild air and an affectionate friend and set off for Combe Florey. The country is perfectly beautiful and my parsonage the prettiest place in it.” A constant flow of visitors, especially his family, children and grand children, pleased Sydney, but on the whole long periods in the country bored him. When towards the end of his life he and his wife were the only inhabitants of the Rectory he became melancholy and longed for London society, which was in such marked contrast to their daily life in the country.

The months of February March and July were usually spent in London where he performed his duties as Canon Residentiary of St Paul’s Cathedral. When away from the village for long periods he would engage a curate to care for the parish. His nephew Revd. Cecil Smith was able at times to take over for him.

The people of Combe Florey were always delighted when the family returned from London. A visitor to the Rectory was amazed that every morning after breakfast the study was full of poor people seeking advice, medicines and food. There was a room fitted out as a dispensary and Sydney administered simple remedies for common ailments to all comers as best he could. he would visit the sick, pray with them and “by gay and cheery conversation divert their thoughts”. He would often leave the patient a volume from his extensive library.

The parish school kept by a dame in a cottage was not large or well attended but the Smiths took a great interest in it and were constant visitors. The village was a sad place in the summer of 1833 when an epidemic of scarlet fever caused many deaths. It was said that old age made no difference to Sydney’s devotion to the sick and poor.

The arrival of the railway at Taunton in 1842 was a great consolation to Sidney when Bath could be reached in two hours and London in six. “In short everywhere is no time!” he gleefully exclaimed.

The last 15 years of Sydney Smith’s life were spent between his town and country houses. He returned to London from Combe Florey for the last time in the Autumn of 1844 to be near to his son in law Dr. Henry Holland and died aged 75 at 56 Green Street, Grosvenor Square on Feb 22nd 1845. He was buried at Kensall Green cemetery.’

EVELYN WAUGH 1903-1966

The novelist Evelyn Waugh lived in Combe Florey House for ten years from 1956. He and his wife, Laura, are buried in a private plot on the North-East side of the church, approached through the kissing-gate.

Their son, Auberon Waugh (1939-2001) the journalist and satirist, lies in the church burial ground.

TERENCE RATTIGAN 1911-1977. The well-known English playwright lived in The Old Manor House as a boy.

The Bells: up until 1902 there were five bells in the tower with details as follows –

Treble cast in 1615 by George Purdue of Taunton. George Purdue came fron a long line of bell founders. His family began casting bells in about 1540, and only ended when Thomas died in 1711 aged 91.

A second cast in 1710 by Thomas Wroth of Wellington. Thomas Wroth (father and son of the same name) do not appear to have been very good founders. They were casting bells from about 1690 to 1750, and most of their bells have been recast.

A third cast about 1480 by an unknown Exeter Founder

A fourth cast in 1742 by Thomas Wroth.

A Tenor, cast in 1710 by Thomas Wroth.

In 1902 all the bells were recast by John Taylor and Co. of Loughborough, and a sixth bell added. They are considered to be a very tuneful six.