English: St Leonard, Bursledon Grade 2* listed...

English: St Leonard, Bursledon Grade 2* listed building erected in the 13th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The church in Bursledon can trace its history back to the last half of the twelfth century, from both architectural evidence present in the building, and documentary sources. In the twelfth century St. Leonard’s would have been a simple, small, stone church of nave and chancel, similar to thousands of village churches being built across England at this time.

We are very fortunate that the foundation charter for this church still survives; permission was given to the monks of Hamble Priory to build a chapel here some time between 1129 and 1171. The charter tells us that, before this church was built, Bursledon’s ‘mother church’ was at Bishop’s Waltham. This would have been quite a journey for the faithful on every Sunday and Holy day; no wonder then that the charter states the reason for St. Leonard’s construction was for the ‘convenience of the parishioners’. Even after the monks had built a chapel here, parishioners were obliged to still make procession to Bishop’s Waltham twice yearly, and to keep paying certain alms and tithes to their old mother church.

Hamble Priory had been founded in 1109 by Benedictine monks from near Chartres, France; many such ‘alien’ monasteries grew up in the wake of the Norman conquest. These monks probably also built the parish church of Hound, less than two miles away. There are certainly similarities between the style of the two churches; a visit to Hound church is well worthwhile, perhaps suggesting how St. Leonard’s would have looked prior to its extension. (Hound church is kept locked but can be opened upon request.)

All churches can be given a ‘date’ by the styles of architecture they contain: St. Leonard’s has features that seem to confirm that it was indeed founded in the later twelfth century. The simple elegance of the Chancel Arch, dividing the nave from the raised area at the east end of the church, is of early English style and can be dated to 1190-1300. The font is perhaps earlier and, although unfinished and retooled in places, it is of transitional style dateable to 1160-1190.

The blocked doorways in the nave, presumably once the main access points for monks and congregation before the Victorian extension, date to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The small lancet window in the chancel, although restored in 1888-9 is of a thirteenth-century design.

Once St. Leonard’s had been completed, it would have been a prominent landmark for the large numbers of people who depended upon the River Hamble for transportation and employment. Rivers such as this were the lifeblood of the economy, the ‘motorways’ of the past, and very many ancient churches are founded close to them, for ease of access and also perhaps as a visible reminder of the central place that God and the church had in everyday life. It is only in the last century that tree growth has come to obscure a view of St.Leonard’s from the river; the Earl of Southampton’s map of about 1610 clearly shows Bursledon church as the most prominent building in the settlement.

A Change of Ownership

In 1391, not long after local populations had been ravaged by recurrences of the Black Death, the church here acquired a new ‘owner’. At this time all priories owned by overseas (particularly French) monasteries had their lands and assets seized by the Crown, and were dissolved; this included Hamble Priory.  Bursledon and Hound churches were given to the control of the newly formed Winchester College, who took over responsibilities for providing clergy and the upkeep of the churches, in return for tithe payments. The College kept control of the two churches until 1849 at which point they became the parish churches of Hound and Bursledon. Little alteration was made to the church building during this time – there was probably a new east window added in the fifteenth century, and traces of paint from this period can still be seen around it.

The Reformation

This was a time of tumultuous change for all parishes across England. Between 1547 and 1552, Henry VIII and Edward VI cleared away all traces of Catholic religion and introduced a Protestant form of worship enshrined in The Book of Common Prayer. This would have altered the way St. Leonard’s looked forever. Although we do not have any records for this period, we know that all paintings, saints’ images, statues, rich hangings, altars, plate and screens had to be removed and sold; it is difficult now to visualise the colour and vibrancy of the medieval village church as it once was. The church became a place where the preaching of the Word was paramount; in St Leonard’s, services were from then on conducted in English not Latin. Parishioners then had access, perhaps for first time, to a Bible in English.

Extension and Renovation

In the 1830′s St. Leonard’s had two transepts added, making a cross-shaped church in plan. However, these proved unsatisfactory and in 1888-9 the church was extensively re-modelled. There is a brass plaque in the nave detailing the work that the architect, John Sedding, carried out. It seems that Sedding kept what was best about the old church and sensitively extended the nave and replaced the transepts, to accommodate the growing population of Bursledon.

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