Breamore is a small village in Hampshire, on the main road between Salisbury and Bournemouth. It is a small rural village with a lot of heritage which includes this rare example of an 11th century church, making it one of the most important Saxon buildings in the south of England.
Hidden in a small copse of trees not far from Breamore House, is the rather squat and unique little church of St. Mary's which represents an important stage in Anglo-Saxon architecture. Dating from around 980 - 1000AD, the church was built during the reign of King Ethelred II The Unready and was a minster church serving a large estate owned by the crown.
It is a 'Turriform' church, otherwise known as a tower-nave church and there are very few of them left. Not all Anglo-Saxon churches were built in the Romanesque basilica style and instead, like this one, were built with a central tower - the ground floor of which was the nave, with two shallow lateral extrusions. There are so few remaining because as populations grew, the western extrusion was usually transformed into a nave. Breamore Church, being built slightly later than some other turriform churches, already had the nave in situ, separated from the chancel by the square central tower, so it is a snapshot in time of a particular development of Anglo-Saxon churches.
The church also still retains other Saxon features, such as the seven 'double-splayed' Saxon windows. What is even more remarkable is the original arch over the entrance to the south transept. Clearly visible is an Anglo-Saxon inscription, incised in the stone and painted in red ochre, which reads “HER SWUTELATH SEO GECWYDRAEDNES THE”. (“Here the covenant is manifested to thee”.) Another stone in the wall has “DES” inscribed, suggesting that there was once more of the sentence elsewhere. Although some of the text may have been touched up over the centuries, some of it has not, and to see the original artwork from over 1000 years ago is impressive.
Even more astonishing is the Saxon Rood, which is in the porch, but which was once over the chancel arch, removed in the 14th or 15th century when the chancel was enlarged. It was probably around this time that the porch was enlarged to protect the rood. The rood shows Christ suffering on the Cross with St. John on his right and the Virgin on his left, with the Hand of God above them all. It was defaced between 1561 - 1580 under the instructions of Robert Horne, the Bishop of Winchester who was part of an ultra-Puritan movement to remove papist art.
A life-size carving of Jesus suffering on the cross is an unusual subject matter for that time, but even more unusual is the depiction of Judas having committed suicide, which is on the west wall of the porch next to the rood, and which is part of wall paintings of a landscape background with buildings of towers and spires.
The church has obviously undergone many modifications over the years - the chancel arch and the arch in the west wall of the tower are 15th century, as is the octagonal font. The tower houses four bells cast in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and there are traces of medieval paintings behind the altar.
There are a few memorials of interest, although the Hulse family, minor gentry, society page regulars and residents of Breamore House for nine generations, do seem to dominate this small church. The majority of the memorials are dedicated to them - most of the family seemed to live to a ripe old age, as only the rich can do, except for those who died on the battlefield. My favourite memorial of theirs is to the American widow of the considerably older 8th Baronet of Breamore. He died in 1931 and she clearly then made her escape from the ghastly family and hot-footed it to Monte Carlo, where she died in a luxurious hotel two years later at the age of only 58. I like to think she really made the most of her freedom for those last two years.
As well as most of the wall memorials being dedicated to the Hulse family, their family hatchments are all over the walls. In fact, St. Mary's has the largest collection of funeral hatchments of any parish church in England.
Hatchments are plaques which commemorate and show the marital status of the deceased and were originally hung outside the deceased's place of residence for a year before moving to the parish church.
Those with a black background show that the deceased was single at the time of death. For widows and widowers the arms are divided in two with the arms of the dead person and his/her spouse on either side. If the deceased was a bachelor or a spinster then his/her arms cover the whole hatchment. When a man dies before his wife the left side is black and the right is white. When a woman dies first, the left side is white and the right side is black.
English parish churches perform many worthwhile functions. Perhaps the perpetual reminders of the overweening self-importance of the “nobility” down the centuries is not one of them.
The presence of the Hulse family is rather overwhelming here, and it certainly wouldn't be somewhere I would want to attend for a service or event; you would feel like a peasant in their fiefdom. Fortunately, there are at least a few memorials that aren't just about them.
There is a plaque which commemorates the presentation of a standard to the Old Contemptible Association in 1930 (although naturally the plaque also has to have the Hulse name on it somewhere).
The Old Contemptibles Association was formed in 1925 of the men who had served in the British and Indian Expeditionary Force who were holders of the Mons Star with Clasp, a medal awarded to those who had served in France or Belgium between 5 August and 22 November 1914 and who had served under fire or who had operated within range of enemy mobile artillery. It was formed to provide assistance to members who had fallen on hard times, and to foster the spirit and strengthen the bonds of the 'Chums', as they were known. It is rather saddening to think that the Chums are no more:
“I'm throwing a lot out, nobody's interested in these things now. Gradually we're destroying the papers: nobody will look after the papers when we all go. It's the best way, really, to wipe it all out, the past."
James Preston, Former General Secretary to the National Council of The Old Contemptibles’ Association (The Guardian 22 June 1978).
Most poignantly, the church contains a memorial to Mary Hall, a woman from Fordingbridge who was murdered on her way to church at the age of 22 in 1862.
The case became a celebrated Victorian murder case and at the time was described as 'a case almost without parallel in the history of crime' by the judge.
Her killer was executed in Winchester. You can read more about the Mary Hall case in this article >>
The graveyard is a particularly pretty one with some ancient graves as well as a couple of Commonwealth war graves. If you visit in Spring, not only is the graveyard awash with daffodils, but there is a public footpath which runs through some beautiful bluebell woods nearby.
You can walk from the church up to the Breamore Mizmaze, a remnant from the priory which once stood on these lands and which is the oldest and one of only two remaining mizmazes left in the country. (The public footpath takes you past Breamore House which is sometimes open to the public, but not a place I recommend visiting.) Right next to the Mizmaze is the Giant's Grave, a Neolithic long barrow. The church also features on the Breamore-Woodgreen Walk, a five mile circular walk which also includes the tiny church in Hale, an old railway station and some ancient water meadows.
VISITING ST. MARY'S CHURCH BREAMORE
How to get to St. Mary's Church Breamore
Postcode: SP6 2DF
Public Transport: There is a bus stop called Breamore House Turn which is the nearest one and is on the main X3 route between Salisbury and Bournemouth Find timetable >>
Parking: There is parking outside the church for just a couple of cars
Which is the nearest town to St. Mary's Church, Breamore?
Salisbury is the nearest town. See our Salisbury City Guide for details on how to get to Salisbury, locally owned accommodation, restaurants and shops, further places to visit and things to do.