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St Mary, Isle Abbotts, Somerset

(50°59′1″N, 2°55′23″W)
Isle Abbotts
ST 353 209
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Somerset
now Somerset
medieval St Mary
now St Mary
  • Robin Downes
31 March 2005

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Feature Sets

In South Somerset District, the small (population c.200) village of Isle Abbotts lies in the shallow valley of the river Isle, a tributary of Somerset’s principal river, the Parrett, their confluence being c.7kms NE, c.2kms upstream of the former Benedictine Muchelney Abbey which possessed this manor. It rests at a modest elevation (the church on ground c.18m above the OD) above the valley Alluvium on a promontory of Lias between the Isle (500m E of the church) and the Fivehead river (formerly the Earn) to the N and W (400m distant). Its neighbour Isle Brewers lies 1.5kms E across the river.

The scenery of this district is as gentle as its topography: generally pastoral fields defined by willows and hedges; against such an undramatic landscape the church’s tall (25m) ornate W tower in the celebrated Somerset style makes an imposing statement.

The village is only sub-nuclear, its buildings well separated by fields and orchards. In historical times its inhabitants were engaged principally in dairy-farming and livestock husbandry (cattle and sheep) as well as activities pertaining to a self-sufficient community — although there is evidence of a significant number being employed in South Somerset’s cottage-industry of gloving (as shown, for example, in the 1861 census returns). Given the current upsurge in cider-production, there are no doubt new orchards appropriately stocked and managed by such local concerns as the Burrow Hill company.

Any mill most likely used the Isle; Isle Abbotts villagers could have used the flour mill the short distance of 1km downstream at Isle Brewers although their route along a road would have been rather circuitous, away from the river. There was another mill upstream just over the parish boundary, in Ilton. A mill appertaining to Isle Abbotts itself is listed in the Domesday Survey but, as the village website says: ‘. . . there is doubt where it was situated. Possibly on the R. Isle at Millmoor where there are several sluices, or on the Fivehead river near some stone walling.’ Certainly, the name ‘Millmoor’ must give confidence; however, the author has been unable to find the name on a map.

This is an area of unclassified lanes subject to winter flooding not too far from several major roads: (in order of importance) the A303, linking London and the South-West Peninsula, at Ilminster (i.e., ‘Isle Minster’) 6kms S (measured to the original alignment rather than to the present bypass); the A358, connecting the A303 with Taunton and the M5 motorway, 5kms W; the A378, linking Langport and Taunton, at Fivehead 3kms N; and the B3168 road, from Ilminster to Curry Rivel (giving onward access to Langport via the A378), 4kms SE.

Major towns include the county town Taunton 12kms WNW, Langport 9kms NE, Somerton a further 7kms ENE of Langport and Ilminster 8kms S.

The church consists of a chancel, a nave with a N aisle and a W porch, and a W tower. Stylistically the church is largely Perpendicular and Decorated, and is built of coursed and squared blue and white Lias with Hamstone dressings. The 4-stage tower bears the initials of Abbot Broke of Muchelney, and can thus be dated to the early-16thc tower. It is adorned with figures of saints and pierced battlements and is justly celebrated. The font is the only Romanesque feature.


Isle Abbots was held by Godric in 1066 and by the Abbey of Muchelney in demesne in 1086. It was assessed at 5 hides with, in addition, 40 acres of meadow, 7 acres of pasture, woodland 3 leagues by 1½, and a mill.





Bond was not impressed by the carving of the font. 'What can be more uncouth', he wrote, 'than the beast upside down carved or rather scratched...' Pevsner (1958) suggested that the carving of the E face was Norman, comparing it with the Luppitt font (Devon), but that the bowl was later inverted, the animal carving placed out of sight, and the remaining motifs added. This is most unlikely as the beast or bird on the E face works best on its back, the other features on the face are correctly disposed, and the font bowl is tapered.

Orbach describes this as a crude, Hamstone version of the widely exported Purbeck fonts, and repeats Pevsner's Luppitt comparison. The present editor adds the suggestion that the beast lying on its back may be vulpis, the fox of the Bestiaries, who pretends to be dead to attract carrion birds, which he suddenly pounces on and eats.


Francis Bond, Fonts and Font Covers, London 1908,

J. Orbach and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: South and West Somerset. New Haven and London 2014, 381-83.

N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: South and West Somerset. Harmondsworth 1958, 204.

www.isle-abbotts.org.uk (the village website) is a source of respectable historical information.