Archaeological Investigations at Frome St John the Baptist parish church in 2021

Thanks to funding from the Culture Recovery Fund for Heritage we were able to ask Context One Heritage & Archaeology to investigate the areas below the timber flooring at the West End of St John the Baptist parish church in March 2021. This work was undertaken as part of a feasibility study for the potential replacement of some of the timber flooring with a new stone floor in line with ideas suggested by the Diocesan Advisory Committee in relation to our reordering of the Welcome Area at the West End of the church.

Trial pits were opened up on each side of the Nave within the second bay from the West End. As was expected evidence of burials within the church was found: No graves were disturbed and any disarticulated remains encountered were reburied.

Testing by a structural engineer found the ground to be quite soft with propensity to be unstable on the North side, though a little firmer on the South Side. Discussions with our Church Architect and others have yielded the view that any future replacement of timber flooring by stone would need to be by means of installation of supporting beam structure such as is used when building in Radon affected areas rather than being supported by the potentially unstable earth floor.

A further pair of trial pits were opened near the centre of the Nave close to the line at which the late 12th century building is believed to have ended. Substantial brick walled crypts with stone capping were found in the middle of the Nave. Evidence of robbed foundations in this area and some remnants of stone walling together with the evidence of instability at the West End allowed an extension of permissions to investigate and Context One returned in May 2021 to conduct further work funded by St John’s Restoration Fund.

The archaeological investigations discovered the West wall and long side walls of a building that pre-dated the late 12th century church. A significant linear disturbance immediately West of that line appears to indicate where the West End wall of the late 12th century church was removed during the extension of the church to its present size in the early 15th century.

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A corner of walling on the South side of the Nave and related robbed foundations on the North side indicate the presence of a stone building exceeding 10 metres in length with an internal width of 4 metres, and with a slightly lower internal floor level than the later medieval church. This earlier building stood on the site prior to the late 12th century rebuilding work done under the direction of the Abbot of Cirencester, the then Rector.

These remains are consistent with being those described by William of Malmesbury in the early 12th century when he wrote of a stone church on the site larger than that at Bradford on Avon: “Stat ibi adhuc et vicit diuturnitate sua tot secula” – ‘It stands there still surviving the centuries’ [Anglia Sacra vol 2 pp7-8]. As yet the date of construction of that stone church remains undetermined but it is hoped that some samples awaiting Radiocarbon dating may yield scientific evidence relating to its lifetime.

Background Notes

Frome is a significant market town in Somerset, England, close to the border with Wiltshire. Continuous settlement of the town is believed to have begun with the founding of a mission church by St Aldhelm in AD 685. The church and town developed on a site in the ancient Selwood Forest supplied with fresh water by an abundance of springs and overlooking an ancient crossing point of the River Frome.

In 878 the defeat by the army of Wessex of the army led by Guthrum the Dane at Edington, just ten miles from Frome, heralded a period of greater peace and stability by the end of the ninth century.

By the tenth century the town was frequented by the Saxon kings including Aethelstan who held a witenagemot (assembly of nobles) at Frome, and Eadred who died at Frome on 23 November 955. By the time of the Domesday Survey the principal manor belonged to the Crown and the church lands of the ancient minster were listed separately. Through Regenbald, Chancellor under Edward the Confessor and Dean of Cirencester, the church lands passed to the Abbey of Cirencester in the early twelfth century a few years after William of Malmesbury described the church of St John the Baptist at Frome as having survived the centuries and being larger than that at Bradford on Avon.

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Anglia Sacra vol II p8

Around 1185 the parish church was rebuilt and chantry chapels were added through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Around 1420 there was a significant extension of the church to the size of its present footprint. Following the removal of stained glass by Puritans in the 1640’s and neglect of the fabric during the eighteenth century, significant restoration work was undertaken in the 1840’s of the Chancel and adjoining side chapel by the then patrons, Longleat, and then in the 1850’s and 1860’s of the whole site under the influence of Revd W J E Bennett.

The rebuilding of the South Aisle in Bennett’s time was radical as it was taken to the ground and rebuilt including a then innovative form of damp course. The archaeological investigations of 2021 have shown that Victorian works were less ruthless in the nave area of the church than has often been assumed and that significant remains from past centuries are present.

Rev J Collinson (1757-1793) in his ‘The History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset’ identified the building that William of Malmesbury saw with buildings at Lower Keyford. P Belham in the 1970’s was led to believe that the ancient church had been within the present North Aisle. The archaeological work undertaken in 2021 allows confident identification of the church that William of Malmesbury saw as being located within the Eastern half of the present nave of the parish church in Frome.