Wimborne St Giles
Ken Ayres and Lilian Ladle explore the extraordinarily ornate and historically-rich church of St Giles
Published in February ’11
Lying at the edge of the Cranborne Chase, the peaceful village of Wimborne St Giles has a timeless quality. Sturdy houses share the village green with almshouses dating to 1624, and a church which combines a modern parish function with that of a memorial to one of Dorset’s oldest families – the Ashley-Coopers, Earls of Shaftesbury.
Although the church has medieval origins, its first rector being recorded in 1207, the present building has an 18th-century core with late 19th and early 20th-century additions. In 1732, a modestly simple place of worship – comprising a west tower and nave – was reputedly designed by the Bastard brothers; there is certainly a marked similarity between this church and that of St Peter and St Paul in Blandford. The exterior is of greensand ashlar in a chequerboard pattern contrasting with alternate panels of knapped flint.
In 1887, the church was redesigned and ‘Gothicised’ by the noted Victorian architect G.F. Bodley who inserted arcades with gently pointed arches. The work was instigated by Harriet, widow of the 8th Earl, as a memorial to her late husband. On 30 September 1908 a fire, caused by soldering work on the roof, resulted in the almost complete destruction of the interior of the building; all the internal woodwork was lost and many of the monuments were very badly damaged. Sir Ninian Comper, a pupil of Bodley, was engaged by the 9th Earl of Shaftesbury to redesign, restore and repair the interior of the church. Comper extended the building northwards, widening the north aisle and adding a Lady Chapel and, as it stands today, the church is a testament not only to his expertise and imagination, but also to the craftsmanship of his early 20th-century workmen. Re-consecration took place in 1910.
Today, entrance to the building is through the west tower, the south porch is rarely used. The Ashley-Cooper family had their own entrance directly into the chancel. Inside, unusually, the interior is now almost square as a result of the Comper restoration. A dark oak screen with delicate tracery, its upper part showing the twelve apostles, divides the chancel from the nave and north aisle. On top of this is a finely carved rood with a crucifixion flanked by the Virgin Mary, St John and winged seraphim. An extension of the screen into the nave encloses the Ashley-Cooper’s private seating.
Behind the screen, within the small chancel and above the altar, is an alabaster reredos painted in pale shades and gilded with figures of an unusual ‘beardless’ Christ and the saints Giles, Anthony, Benedict, Francis, Edward, Osmond, Aldhelm and Rumbold. High above the altar a canopy or ‘tester’ depicts the holy dove with ‘tongues of fire’ all finely decorated in blues, reds and gold. A similar decoration scheme is used for the tall font cover, which consists of eight elegant columns supporting a tall, tapered octagonal superstructure. The stone font itself is early 18th-century and is likely to have been commissioned for the 1732 rebuilding. It consists of a strapwork-decorated round bowl, which sits on a square base with octagonal baluster.
The nave and aisles are separated by six slender piers and arcades that support the roofs, the bases of the main beams are decorated with crowned angels having very large outspread wings. The nave ceiling is plastered and panelled with foliate designs within roundels, which contrast pleasingly with the simpler, beamed aisle roofs.
At the west end of the church a gallery was designed to house the organ and choir. The window here is of five lights in Early English style; this was once two windows and was part of Bodley’s work. The vestry, below the gallery and abutting the tower, is accessed from the north aisle. It was originally one of the tiny almshouses attached to the church on its northern side and was incorporated into the fabric by Comper following the fire when the original vestry made way for his northward expansion.
Apart from the gallery window and another in the centre of the south aisle, the stained glass is of Comper’s design. It has bold figures of saints mostly in shades of blue and green with flashes of crimson and gold. The east window is of particular note. The frame itself is painted and gilded, the glass, mostly in shades of blue, depicts a risen Christ with choirs of angels and prophets. Again the Christ figure is shown without a beard and is blonde-haired. Reset, one above the other, within the round-headed Georgian middle window on the south wall, are one rectangular and two trefoil-headed panels of early 16th-century Flemish or German glass acquired for the church in 1785. The subject matter is ‘St Andrew with an unknown kneeling donor’ and the ‘Entry into Jerusalem’; the vibrancy of the design belies its antiquity.
Although the Earls of Shaftesbury had their own private chapel within their house, the church displays family memorials going back nearly four centuries. The earliest is the largest and most elaborate and is sited in the Lady Chapel adjacent to and north of the chancel. It celebrates the lives of Sir Anthony Ashley who died in 1628 and his wife Jane. It was he who founded the almshouses and also he who is reputed to have introduced the cabbage to England. They (he and his wife, that is) lie together on a surprisingly comfortable looking sarcophagus beneath a richly decorated double-barrel canopy, soberly but fashionably dressed. His effigy is placed at a slightly higher level. The monument of clunch (soft chalk/limestone) and alabaster consists of painted and gilded columns which support panels with inscriptions and coats-of-arms. Flanking the family crest on the highest level are the restored figures of Temperance and Fortitude. Beside the sarcophagus is the kneeling figure of a single daughter, Anne, who married Sir John Cooper and who was mother of the first Earl of Shaftesbury. By comparison, the simple inscription to Anthony Ashley Cooper (1801-85), seventh Earl, commemorates this great philanthropist and social reformer, who among other things fought for the cause of destitute children and was a founder of Great Ormond Street Hospital. His public memorial is the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, London.
Perhaps unique in any church is the painted inscription on the south side of the high altar, commemorating two robins that built nests in the roofless church during the rebuilding of 1887 and again after the fire of 1908. The nests have been embedded within the wall of the building.
St Giles is one of four parishes looked after by the Rector, The Reverend David Paskins, who also ministers to Cranborne with Boveridge, Edmonsham and Woodlands. As in many rural areas, the church is a focus for the community and two special events always attract attention. In July, a flower festival within the church brings many visitors, not only to admire the floral displays, but also the historic building. The annual church fête is always held on the village green on August bank holiday Sunday, this year raising a magnificent £8000 towards the upkeep of the church – no mean sum for a rural parish. After four centuries the Ashley Cooper links are still strong, confirmed by the recent marriage in this striking village church of the new (12th) Earl and Countess of Shaftesbury.