We use cookies to improve your experience, some are essential for the operation of this site.

St John the Evangelist, Milborne Port, Somerset

(50°58′6″N, 2°27′46″W)
Milborne Port
ST 676 185
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Somerset
now Somerset
medieval Wells
now Bath & Wells
  • Robin Downes
  • Malcolm Thurlby
  • Robin Downes
19 December 2005; 2 June 2008; 30 June 2009

Please use this link to cite this page - https://www.crsbi.ac.uk/view-item?i=12897.

Find out how to cite the CRSBI website here.


Milborne Port occupies a Somerset salient into Dorset, 3½ miles E of Sherborne. The church of St John the Evangelist is basically cruciform: chancel and N chapel, central tower with crossing emphasised internally, N and S transepts, nave with S doorway, and a tower with a stair-turret in the exterior SW angle.

Later alterations to the building have been numerous. The W and E crossing arches were replaced by Perpendicular ones and significant changes followed in modern times including significant Victorian work (drawings by J. Buckler in 1839 and 1843 are reproduced in VCH Somerset, vol. VII, plates 7 and 8). Despite this, Milborne Port is a very interesting and rewarding site for early sculpture. The principal items of interest for CRSBI include the central tower with its external stair turret, the crossing arches, the chancel interior and exterior (including some unusual roundels), the S transept with adjacent S nave doorway, a font, piscina, and a loose voussoir with chevron decoration.


Milborne Port was in Horthorne Hundred; there was a church in the town by c. 950 (citing Finberg’s Early Charters of Wessex 136). It was probably a minster church with a hide of land and dependent churches at Charlton Horethorne, Holwell and Pulham. (The last two villages being in Dorset suggests that, in its capacity as a minster church, St John’s exercised jurisdiction beyond the limits of Somerset county.)

It was held in 1086 by Rainbald or Regenbald, dean of the college of canons at Cirencester. The church was part of the original endowment of Cirencester Abbey by Henry I. From the 12thc until the Dissolution, the abbot and convent of Cirencester were patrons (VCH Somerset vol. VII, 145, 152).

The links with Cirencester are dealt with in detail in Evans 1989, where it is noted that one Regenbald, a very wealthy priest who might have been king’s chancellor both to Edward the Confessor and William I, held (together with many other churches) Frome and Milborne Port. Evans suggests that he was probably more committed as a priest to his Somerset properties.

Regenbald’s involvement at Milborne Port is also mentioned by Gem 1988, 27, and by Blair 2005, 366, who says: ‘Sometimes the survival of community life is suggested by architectural evidence . . . Regenbald the chancellor, that hardy survivor from Edward’s reign into William’s, rebuilt his minster at Milborne Port in a sumptuous hybrid style where, in Richard Gem’s words, Anglo-Saxon and Romanesque features “are welded together into an articulate and satisfying whole: a truly Anglo-Norman fusion has been achieved”.’


Exterior Features



Exterior Decoration

String courses


Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches
Tower/Transept arches
S arch to crossing
Nave arches

Interior Decoration

String courses



Piscinae/Pillar Piscinae


Loose Sculpture



Pevsner identifies various Anglo-Saxon features such as lesenes (simplified pilasters) on the external S wall of the chancel, together with the narrow proportions of the chancel and the known features of the lost W wall of the nave, which had triangular arches. The fact that the crossing is wider than the ‘arms’ of the cross is a Saxon feature noted by the Taylors. The close association of Saxon features with Norman Romanesque ones is usually taken to mean that the church was a post-Conquest project. The date of the sculpture has long been the subject of discussion; indeed, the early work at the church was described as 'problematic' in an article by F. J. Allen in 1934. According to the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, VII, Appendix B, p. 191, and illus. 563-5, some items here are wrongly associated with the pre-Conquest period. These items include two capitals on the exterior of the south doorway, six capitals on the exterior of the south chancel wall, one capital of a round-headed window on interior of the south chancel wall, and thirty capitals on piers of central crossing tower. Rosemary Cramp wrote that 'Although a case can be made for part of the fabric of the church to be pre-Conquest, the rich decoration of its openings appears to be post-Conquest but with strong influence from pre-Conquest art.' Zarnecki considers the floral decoration on the tympanum to be so similar to that on the crossing capitals as to imply contemporaneity - that is, both could be late eleventh century. (Note, the word 'floral' is used by, for example, by Rosemary Cramp and Zarnecki, when describing the dominant ornament at Milborne Port, but, strictly speaking, there are no flowers, only luxuriant leaves, and the word 'foliage' would be more appropriate.)

South Doorway Tympanum

The inscription at the bottom of the tympanum was spotted by Zarnecki's camera ‘in early morning light’ but was invisible to the fieldworker in 2006 and later. Zarnecki gives the fullest published statement:

The faint inscription on the lower edge of the Milborne Port tympanum is disappointing in that it only gives the name of St. John the Evangelist as the patron saint of the church, and contains no date or other helpful information. But the script includes the lozenge-shaped letter ‘O’, used four times. Professor Wormald has pointed out that this form is essentially a Saxon feature, but that the inscriptions on the great seals of William the Conqueror also have such ‘O’s. It is significant, however, that on the second seal, of 1070, the round ‘O’ appears as well. On the evidence of seals, the lozenge-shaped ‘O’ went out of use some time between 1070 and 1087. Since the dates of the relevant comparative material for the tympanum, namely the Bayeux Tapestry and the Ely capitals, are about 1070 and 1090 respectively, there is a very strong likelihood that a more provincial work, such as the Milborne Port doorway, dates from the end of the eleventh century. Miss Elizabeth Barty, who has made a special study of stone inscriptions, examined the tympanum recently and confirmed the late-eleventh-century date for the inscription as the most likely. (Zarnecki 1966, reprinted 1979).

No text of the inscription was published by Elizabeth Barty, as was hoped for by Zarnecki. The doorway seems always to have been extraordinarily tall, if we can judge from the Buckler drawing of the church before the 19thc restoration. Jerry Sampson (archæological consultant with Caroë & Partners of Wells) has identified the use of Bath stone in the second order, and on the interior of the S doorway. He has also observed that the tympanum having been treated with shelter coat further obscured the inscription on the lintel. It does not seem plausible to relate the tympanum to the capitals of the S doorway, there being such an obvious difference in artistic quality: the tympanum is extremely confident and accomplished in contrast with the sketchy capital figuration. There is a great puzzle here: where else is there such a scene and why is the execution so very masterly?

The fieldworker has searched for possible comparanda from Britain and the Continent without finding any precise analogue, although there are many instances of affronted lions, on capitals and in friezes. It is suggested that the design made by the lions’ tails is important: the fieldworker sees similar design in the double-lion motif on one of the capitals at Steyning (W Sussex), and at All Saints, Lullington, on a capital on the S side of the nave arch there is an example of the familiar design whereby two lions bodies meet at the angle in a single head. The tympanum at St Michael’s, Shalfleet, in the Isle of Wight, presents two lions with conventionally luxuriant tails, while the apse decoration at the church of St.-Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) includes an affronted pair of lions in the frieze. A much less ambitious frieze, but also with affronted lions, may be seen at the church of St Nicholas at Barfreston, Kent, in the ‘enriched band below sill level’ (Newman North East and East Kent p.135). Representations of lions in other artistic media are also apparent, such as the 11thc illuminated manuscript of the Old Testament originating from the church of St.-Pierre in Moissac [now in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris as Lat.52 folio 1: illustrated as No.59 in the first volume of Walter Cahn’s Romanesque Manuscripts: The Twelfth Century (1996), II, No.28.

The importance of the double-lion icon at the lay entrance to the church is emphasised by Rita Wood (1998). As she argues, the tympanum scene would have been intended clearly and powerfully to make a definitive theological statement in order to control the attitude of those entering the church. The slightly rotund appearance of the lions (underlined rather than contradicted by the delineation of the ribs) and the softness of their features (note especially the harmless-seeming paws) render them apparently beneficent. They are ‘good’, Christian, lions. Brian Gittos’ conjectural reconstruction of the S doorway places Christ-in-Majesty in a niche in a gable above the tympanum: an arrangement still extant at Lullington, not far to the north and also in Somerset. (A comparison of artistic quality between the two tympana underlines the relative — and mysterious — superiority of that at Milborne Port.) Following through Brian Gittos’ reconstruction, above the tympana there would have been the three roundels each depicting, with only slight variation, the image of the dove of peace together with icons of the sun-Christ and of the Tree-of-Life.

The fieldworker's suggested reading of the tympanum is as follows. The floriate arch around the lions represents Paradise as the source and destination of Life on Earth. That basic floriate motif/concept is repeated in the luxuriant manes, in the shape assumed by the lions’ tails and in the floriate details of the tail-ends: such intermingling and consistency of imagery represent the organic continuum of Life from the Spiritual to the Animal through the Vegetable. (Beigbeder draws attention to the way in which the disposition of lions’ tails and the details of tail-ends often appear heart-shaped). The lions fill their space and thus dominate the tympanum. They are handled confidently and boldly, in keeping with conventional conceptions of leonine character — quite in keeping, as suggested above, with what may be presumed to have been the theological ‘message’. In striking contrast with most Romanesque lions, these are extremely naturalistic (which perhaps might make one sceptical about a Romanesque date). Most strikingly, the head of the dexter lion is turned back, away from its counterpart: it has an introverted pose as it sucks its tail. That dexter lion receives Life, not directly from the other lion, but from the heart-shaped foliage of its own tail (symbol of vegetable stem and vegetative life). The eyes of both lions copy the same shape. The sinister lion’s fiery breath (not tongue, surely?) forms the trefoil (as prominent as possible, in its position at both centre and apex of the tympanum; its details echoing those of the floral motifs in the arch and the tail-tufts) which is depicted as directed not only into the other lion’s ears (appropriate receivers) but also at the floriate arch: thus effecting not only life-giving breath (or the Word) being passed on but also interchange of Life back to the spiritual. One small but important detail is that the rear dexter paw of each lion touches and is thus integrated with the arch of Paradisal Life. This reinforces the interconnection otherwise effected by the trefoil and the tail-tuft of the sinister lion. Thus there is a subtle array of varieties of communication between the various manifestations of Life.


Jerry Sampson has identified Bath stone in the south-east quoin of the chancel, thus implying a possible pre-Conquest date. Only the S wall carries sufficient detail (despite its poor survival) to give any idea of the original, which seems to have carried lesenes and capitals in a fashion traditionally dated to the pre-Conquest period, but dated by Zarnecki to the late 11thc.


In the fieldworker's opinion the font stem represents an extreme simplification or even perversion of the usual form, making the stem somewhat ugly and heavy. To underline the crudity, there are no mouldings defining top or bottom. This was probably done in the 14th or 15thc - compare the easternmost pier in the N arcade of the chancel which is also in Beer stone. Jerry Sampson, archaeologist, found traces of paint on this stem, suggesting that it might have been painted to look like marble at some time.


The piscina is dated to c.1070-80 by Macolm Thurlby by virtue of the flat bottom and uncertain carving. Either the bowl is modelled on a late 11thc. capital or it is indeed a re-used capital, perhaps from a wall arcade. If the latter, then the block into which it is inserted may be later.


The capitals of the crossing, it is generally accepted, include original stucco, but exactly where it is, and of what quality it is, does not seem to have been determined. Nor is there a decision as to the date of any stucco - 11thc? 19thc? It was agreed that the plaster was probably original - or, if dating from the 1840s restoration, that it was likely to be faithful to what it replaced. However, it unsafe to assume that the upper decoration of the Crossing, if restored, can be trusted to represent what was created in the late 11thc. One needs to look no further than the Churchwardens' records to see how eclectic and daring the 19thc restorers could be if they were doing more than minor repairs. Hence, since the work seems to be so uniformly correct, it seems likely that the stucco is largely original.

South transept windows

In 2009, Malcolm Thurlby observed that the capitals to the interior of the window in the W wall of the S transept are made from re-used Romanesque bases. The windows in W and E walls were rebuilt in the 19thc. in the style of post-Conquest work.


The original context of the loose voussoir is unknown, but it could perhaps be from the Norman S portal, though the original chancel arch is also a possibility.

19thc restoration and rebuilding

The accelerating course of ‘restoration’ at the church in the 1840s can be followed in documents held in the Somerset Archives and Local Studies. The passages quoted below, particularly those involving the capitals of the crossing and the south doorway, are highly relevant to what we see, and try to record, today. The following extracts cover the earlier Victorian changes, and are from the Churchwardens Accounts for 1748-1845:

The Rural Dean visited and inspected on 12 October 1839. As well as other suggestions unrelated to the Norman fabric, he recommended: ‘That the South Porch be substantially repaired or rebuilt.’ After another visit on 20 September 1841, he recommended: ‘1. That the South Porch be removed or rebuilt without delay. 2. That the Parishioners be consulted as to the propriety of removing altogether the East Gallery. . . 3. That if this Gallery is taken away the Door on the South Side of the Church leading to it be stopped up.’

‘In the year 1841, the gallery over the rood loft and the pews in the Chancel were taken down, and also the partition wall between the Chancel and Chancel Aisle . . . [the Chancel] pavement repaired . . . [with] steps of Hamstone . . . [as suggested by the Rural Dean] . . . The Norman piers were also cemented and repaired, their capitals restored, . . . The above alterations & improvements took place in September, 1841, and the three following months. . ,’ In 1842, a strong iron girder was inserted in the inside of the Tower to prevent further settlement; the Font was removed from the West end of the Church and placed temporarily in the Chancel aisle.

‘In the year 1843 the South Transept was rebuilt from the foundations, the two Norman windows therein being restored, . . . the Norman doorway previously mutilated [was] restored to its original proportions, the filleting and zigzag over the arches being copied, the former from that remaining over the capital of one of the columns of the doorway, the latter from Stoke- under-Ham Church, and the finish of the upper part of the doorway from Iffley.’ The crossing piers and roof, etc., were repaired in 1844.

In October 1845, the Rural Dean expressed his satisfaction with the good quality of the work achieved (Churchwardens Accounts for 1845-1963). At some time before 1842 a N aisle had been added as it was described by Sir Stephen Glynne. Subsequent work in 1867-9 under the architect Henry Hall extended the nave 28 feet westward. This extension deprived us of early detail of the W front. The chancel refurnishing by Sir Walter Tapper in 1908 may be relevant to the roundels there (VCH Somerset, vol. 7, 152).


F. J. Allen, ‘The Problematic Early Work at Milborne Port Church’ Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society 80 (1934), 25-31.

F. Arnold-Forster, Studies in Church Dedications or England’s Patron Saints, III (London, 1899), 201.

J. Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford, 2005).

T. Buxbaum, Pargetting (Market Harborough, 1999).

R. Cramp, Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture in 13 vols (Oxford, 2006), VII.

C. R. Currie and R. W. Dunning (eds.), The Victoria County History of Somerset, VII: Bruton, Horethorne and Norton Ferris Hundreds (London, 1999).

A. K. B. Evans, ‘Cirencester’s Early Church’, Transactions of the Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 107 (1989), 107-22.

R. Gem, 'The English Parish Church in the Eleventh and Early Twelfth Centuries: A Great Rebuilding?', in J. Blair (ed.) Minsters and Parish Churches: The Local Church in Transition 950-1200 (Oxford, 1988).

Historic England listing 1295666

R. Lvovski, ‘Anglo-Saxon or Norman? The church St John the Evangelist, Milborne Port’, Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society 160 (2016), 57-82.

N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: South and West Somerset (Harmondsworth, 1958), 237.

C. E. Ponting, ‘The Church of St. John the Evangelist, Milborne Port’, Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, 60 (1914), 46-54.

A. Reynolds, ‘Milborne Port Church’, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society 14 (1893), 70-74.

Somerset Record Office D\P\mil.p/4/1/1, Churchwardens’ Accounts 1748-1845.

Somerset Record Office D\P\mil.p/4/1/2, Churchwardens’ Accounts 1845-1963.

H. M. Taylor, & J.Taylor, Anglo-Saxon Architecture in 3 vols (Cambridge, 1965), I, 424.

M.Thurlby, pers. comm.

R. Wood, ‘The Two Lions at Milborne Port’, in Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society 141 (1998), 1-15.

G. Zarnecki, ‘1066 and Architectural Sculpture’, Proceedings of the British Academy LII (1966), 87-104. Reprinted in G. Zarnecki, Studies in Romanesque Sculpture (1979), Essay I.