Christian worship has been celebrated on or near the site of our Church of St. John the Baptist at Holcombe Burnell since before the Norman Conquest. Originally it occurred round a preaching cross in Saxon times, when the first building was probably erected to protect from the elements the mobile altar at which the Eucharist was celebrated. A more permanent church building was built in the Norman period and dedicated originally to St. Nicholas. It is mentioned in a charter of 1150, and parts of that church were incorporated in the present building, notably the south entrance door head depicting two monks and a nun.
Later additions to the old church which survive are the 15th century font (the cover of which is some two hundred years later) and the comparatively rare Easter Sepulchre in the north wall of the sanctuary, over the tomb of Sir Thomas Dennis. Formerly there were two kneeling figures of ladies on this tomb, but these have been lost, while the woodwork which surrounded it was taken down in 1740 to make room for more communicants at the altar.
The lower part of the screen is also mediaeval, and depicts, on the north side of the main aisle, the saints Catherine, Barbara, Margaret and Thecla (who accompanied St. Boniface to Germany) and on the south side St. Nicholas, the Archangel Gabriel, the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist, our present patron saint. The screen had disintegrated so much by 1792 that the present panels were moved to the rear of the church, to front a raised portion used by the choir. In 1913 they were moved again to form a pulpit desk for the parson (the pulpit having become unusable) and in 1952 they were moved to their present position, when the new pulpit and choir stalls were constructed.
In the late 15th century Holcombe Burnell Barton was acquired by the Dennis family, who started substantial reconstruction of the church. The tower and the arcades of the main aisle remain from the earlier building. The windows are 15th century, the mullions being of Beer stone. The three red battleaxes of the Dennis family crest are incorporated in the east window, with the crest of the Godolphin family, to whom Margaret Dennis sold the Barton shortly after her father’s death in 1604.
The church was again extensively and sympathetically rebuilt in 1843/44, the architects being John Hayward of Exeter and Henry Lloyd of Bristol, when it was re-roofed, a gallery containing 20 free seats was inserted in the tower, the chancel was extended eastwards, and the vestry added. In the 1960’s the present pews replaced the Victorian box pews. The Altar is a 16thcentury chest, possibly Spanish, which originated from Culver House, in the Parish, as did the organ, which was given to the Church in 1948 by the late Mrs. Jerrardine Eden.
The southern boundary of the original churchyard is marked by the copings of the wall just south of the porch. The land between the old wall and the present road, on the west side of the path, together with a small strip on the east, was acquired in 1881. That to the west of the steps was consecrated in 1966. The mounting block by the gate is made of stones from the old chapel in the grounds of the Barton. This chapel was demolished in the 18th century.
The kneelers have been made be parishioners since 1980 and depict ornamental details of the church, the saints on the screen and coats of arms of Lords of the Manor and other distinguished families and bodies associated with our church.
In the Domesday Book the parish is recorded as belonging to Queen Matilda. It formerly belonged to Britric Mean (Fair Haired), the Thane of Gloucester, who had spurned Matilda when on a mission to her father Count Baldwin of Flanders. It was his misfortune that she subsequently married Duke William of Normandy, and after the Conquest she rewarded him for his arrogance with imprisonment and death in Winchester, and by seizing all his property. On her death the parish was given to Tetbald Fitzberner, one of William’s knights, and as a result it became known as Holcombe Bernard, and later Holcombe Burnel. The living subsequently passed to the Dean and Chapter of Wells Cathedral where there was a prebendal stall for Holcombe. It was acquired by the Bishop of Exeter in or about 1850. The parish is now part of the North Kenn Mission Community.
Peter J. Chalk 1925-2011