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Brent Knoll

Dedication : St Michael              Simon Jenkins: **                                   Principal Features : Humorous Bench Ends

Brent Knoll is just that: a conspicuous hill about 450 ft high next to the busy A38 road near Burnham-on-Sea and it has a village of the same name. Mounds were thought to be potential haunts of the Devil, hence the dedication to St Michael - the archangel. The Romans had a fort here, and the Anglo-Saxons a lookout post. On its slopes in AD875 they successfully saw off the Danes in a pitched battle.

There was probably a church on this site in c7 when the manor of South Brent was given to the Abbey of Glastonbury, but what we see today is unexceptional perpendicular. There is zig zag moulding over the west door that has clearly been recycled from an earlier Norman building. The rather basic, but nevertheless informative, church guide points out that St Michael was a favourite dedication of the Norman conquerors.

The south side of the church from the west end as far as the north transept is all that remains of the early c14 structure. The north aisle was built in the late c15 and has a fine carved roof alive with angels and bosses. The chancel is Victorian. The tower is late c14. All in all, then, there is little to detain us architecturally.

The bench ends from the c14, however, are another story. Here we see mediaeval carving at its most mischievous. To be sure, neither the humorous scenes portrayed nor the more spiritual ones are of great artistic merit, but they

are vibrant and fun. One can’t help feeling sometimes that for all their fear of God, our ancestors had a more robust and less po-faced  approach to their religion than people have today where there is endless concern over “causing offence”! If you are speeding along the A38 do take the short detour.

Looking towards the Victorian chancel.

West door interior with its Norman zig zag moulding

View to the west end.

The exterior of the south door with the Norman decoration conspicuous. Note the empty niche above - Cromwell’s men passed this way - and evidence of an earlier arch.

The memorial to John Somerset on the south wall. His is not a tale of bravery or martial glory but of trying to keep his head above water amongst the twists and turns of the war. At one point he led a rebellion against the depredations of Royalist soldiers. There were many such as him.

John Somerset’s memorial tablet.

The bench ends stretch both sides of the aisle, but the best and wittiest are those facing us in the northern half of the nave.

The extraordinary representation of a fox in bishop’s clothes. There are various candidates for the role of butt of this satire. One theory is that it is the unpopular Bishop Richard Fox of Bath and Wells who took up office in 1492. Another is the Abbot of Glastonbury who taxed his tenants heavily - the fox preying on the geese. He is seen preaching to the geese. Another  In the upper panel is what appears to be a chained monkey holding a bag of money. At the bottom two more monkeys roast a boar on a spit!

In the middle panel the Fox is now naked and manacled by the legs. In the lower panel (see below) they have him in the pillory!

Retribution is now complete: the Fox has been hanged by the geese!

The boar being roasted by the monkeys.

The Pillory scene. The mitre leaves no room for doubt as to who is the victim. A monkey with halberd stands guard.

Not by any means all of the bench ends are secular. This eagle is probably intended to represent St John.

This is the winged bull of St Luke. This image show the limitations of this particular carver. The “bull” is more like an udderless cow!

A “Pelican in her Piety”. Our ancestors believed (wrongly) that the female pelican pecked her own breast in order to feed her babies - a symbol of pious self-sacrifice,

Maybe a crude representation of a green man at the top of one of the benches.

Agnus Dei - The Lamb of God, Note the crude stylised “wool” using a chevron motif.

Footnote

We visited on a late afternoon in November 2010. Rather to our surprise, we found another couple taking photographs of the bench ends. We asked if they had found out about them through Simon Jenkins’s book, to be told that they had lived in the village for 11 years and thought they might take a look! We explained that we had driven 180 miles to see the church....