A History of East Coker

Many people ask about the history of the Church, and of the village, so it seems appropriate to write some details down that have been gained from the Taunton Record Office, the Parish Books, and individuals who have long had an interest in the history of this area.

The Church

Perhaps there was a Roman temple or church here in Roman times, as the site of the Church is typical of a commanding vantage point for safety and protection.

Roman mosaic depicting a hunting scene

Mid-4th century mosaic depicting a hunting scene from the site of a Roman villa in East Coker. Fran Stothard's picture reproduced by kind permission of the Western Daily Press

Certainly, the present Church has Saxon foundations, and Ham stone on the West end confirms this. It is thought that the large cruciform building with a tower at the central cross point was a Minster Church for the area. Curates would have been trained here, and sent out to the surrounding parishes to celebrate and lead the worship.

In Saxon and early Norman times, the Manor was held by members of the royal family. "the King holds Cocre. Ghida (mother of Earl Harold) held it in the time of King Edward the Confessor. King William Rufus granted the Manor of Cocre to the Abbey of St Stephen at Caen in the province of Normandy, founded in 1064 by William Duke of Normandy, who was buried there in 1093".

The Mandeville and Courteney families were Lords of the Manor, and from the time of King John until Edward III, it was the de Mandevilles that built the Church which we presently see.

Hugh de Courteney, Earl of Devon, and his family then held the Manor for the next 250 years. During this time, the North Aisle and Chapel dedicated to St John and The Holy Cross was added. The Chapel dedicated to Our Lady St Mary was already on the South Aisle.

During the time of Queen Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603) the manor was sold to Bartholomew Trevilian (the family now live at Drayton near Langport), and subsequently to the Symes and then to the Helyars.

Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, held the land and Manor of Cochra. It was then from the earliest time a royal holding. This is important when it was recently recounted that part of the Church of St Michael has Saxon building stone at the West End.

At Alfred's death in 901, he left the Manor (and the village) with all the adjoining land to his younger brother Ethelward. In 1066, by right of conquest, William of Normandy came into possession. In the Exeter Domesday Book, there is the following record: "The King holds one Manor which is called Cochra".

During the lifetime of William the Conqueror, he had built and endowed an Abbey in Normandy, St Stephen at Caen. Apparently, he bequeathed all the crown jewels to his abbey where they were received after his death in 1087. His son, William Rufus, anxious to recover the crown jewels, offered in exchange to give to the Abbey "a certain manor by name of Cocre"; the Manor included land, dwellings and tithes.

It is probable that William the Conqueror gave the Manor and lands of East Coker to a Companion-in-Arms, de Mandeville by name. The de Mandevilles held the land for 200 years when, in 1275, on of the daughters of the family married Hugh de Courtenat. The Courteneys were Earls of Devon, and lived for many years at East Coker, building and extending the Church of St Michael and the Manor House, now called The Court.

The Mandevilles and the Courteneys established a Chantry at the Church in honour of St John and The Holy Cross. This Chapel is on the North Side Aisle, and has recently been restored with an altar and reredos curtain. A Chantry priest was appointed, as well as the Rector, and paid for by the Lords of the Manor, with the expectation that services were held with special prayers being said for those who had died.

The Cocre Manors

The Cocre Manors were therefore held by staunch Royalist families, hence the building of the Almshouses, founded in 1640 by Archdeacon Helyar. Because of the Plague that devastated the village, in 1645, and the Puritan Revolution of 1649 - 1660, the Almshouses were not finished until 1660. The King had been restored in 1660, and so there were great celebrations and cause of thankfulness to God.

This fact is confirmed by the huge (four times normal size) Royal Arms above the North door in the Church. These Arms once hung where the present War Memorial is. The Arms are for Charles II at his restoration in 1660. The Cipher of William and Mary was added in 1690.

The East Coker Almshouses

The Almshouses

The Almshouses

These were for eleven women and one man (much the same as today), and they are held by Parish Trustees. The last of the Almshouses, nearest the Church, was restored in 2009. For a long time this last house was used as a Chapel where daily prayers were said by the single man who lived in one of the other Almshouses.

The Plague of 1645

This Black Plague that devastated the village killed 70 villagers between April and September in 1645. The dead were placed in a pit "at the end of the Church path" and this was marked and a stone placed there in 2003. The Plague was no respecter of persons, and it is thought that Archdeacon Helyar and the Vicar probably both died of the contagious disease.The Archdeacon had been chaplain to Queen Elizabeth and married a cousin of hers, Mary Carey. The Archdeacon was succeeded by his grandson, Colonel Robert Helyar, who had fought on the Royalist side in the dreadful war caused by Puritans from 1638 - 1649. Indeed, it was said to be a "judgement of God" that caused the quarter of the population dying by the Black Plague in East and North Coker in 1645.

The plague pit

"Sacred to the memory of the seventy parishioners who died of the plague from June to September 1645"

There was also a Chantry Chapel in honour of St Mary Our Lady at Burton in North Coker, and this is probably why the row of cottages in Long Furlong Lane bears the title "Chapel Row". The Chapel probably occupied this site, but it became desecrated "by cock fights, wedding feasts, and revellings", and so was not used for sacred purposes, and pulled down in 1784, and a parish Workhouse built on its foundations.

The Helyar family silver was sacrificed in the cause of the King, Charles II, and was replaced by pewter in the reign of William and Mary. Their Royal Arms are above the North Door in St Michael's, four times the normal size.

South Somerset District Council have made extensive use of the extraordinary and beautiful collection of historical records that belonged to the de Mandeville, Courtenay, Helyar and Heneage families. This collection, one of the best and most complete sets of Manorial Records in the country, is housed at the Taunton Record Office.

Muchelney Abbey

For several hundred years tithes from East Coker were paid to Mulchelney Abbey. The de Mandeville and Courteney families were major benefactors who lived at East Coker Court. This situation arose because the landowners and tenants were all obliged to pay a tithe (a tenth of their income) to Charity every year. This had evolved because of the Christian teaching and long tradition in the Celtic and Anglican Churches of these isles.

So, as there was no need to pay for the local parish upkeep or Priest (as this was paid by the Lords of the Manor as part of their duty to the Church), the parish then made the decision to five the tithe money to a suitable charity (mush as we are doing today by our grants to St Margaret's Hospice, Yeovil, and to the other ten Charities to which the Church gives every year.

Now this was all very well, however, occasionally estra pressure was put on the Abbey at Muchelney by the Bishop of Rome to pay more taxes. In times of hardship or war, this became extremely difficult, as it meant that vast amounts of capital was flowing out of the country, and the English Exchequer lost out completely.

During the reign of Henry VIII, the delicate balance between the State and the Church in Rome was lost. Rome wanted more funds to pay for her expensive wars, and finally the Chancellor of England and the King could bear the loss of revenue no longer. Monasteries and Abbeys were told that they were no longer to give these vast amounts to Rome. Many of the refused to comply.

The Church in England had always been separate from Roe, and was always referred to as Ecclesia Anglicana. But now Rome wanted more revenue and power, and this was the breaking point.

The Chancellor and Privy Council, together with the King, told the Monasteries and Abbeys (including Muchelney) that, unless they complied with this order, they would be dissolved. Such was the stubbornness of many of these that they were literally destroyed. Muchelney an Glastonbury never agreed and were finally lost. Only then did the Privy Council take control. All the Cathedral Scholls and old Grammar Schools were then established, and the system that we have now of State funding for the colleges and schools started.

The Manor

The Helyar family bought the Estate of East Coker in the reign of Elizabeth I. Archdeacon Helyar was 'Chaplain to the Fleet' and had married a cousin to the Queen, Mary Carey, whose family came from the isle of Wight. It was William Helyar who built and endowed the Almshouses which are still held in trust to this day. Their Heraldic Arms are to be seen in the South Transept windows. William Helyar died in 1645 and Mary died in 1607.

The Revolt

The Puritan revolt between 1645 - 1660 dealt a terrible destruction to the window, paintings, Rood screen, Chapels, silver and altars. The Baptismal Font was damaged and cast outside into the Churchyard. The Courteney stone and marble family tombs were damaged and also cast outside. Such blatant violence and destruction were done on the orders of the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell.

It was particularly severe in East Coker because the village and Manor were known to be staunch Royalists. Hence, when the King was restored in 1660, the Royal Arms were installed 'four times the normal size'. This can be seen with interest with the dates altered to 1690 for King William and Queen Mary.

A member of the Courteney family became Bishop of Exeter from 1478 until 1487. His heraldic Arms as Bishop and Patron of the Parish (a sword and a key crossed) are also in the tracery windows of the South Aisle. It was he who gave the Advowson (right of the appointment of the Vicars of East Coker) to the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral.

The Church of St Michael and All Angels

The Church is a light handsome structure, in the form of a cross, with a tower in the centre containing a clock, chimes and eight musical bells.

In the Chancel by the side of the north wall is a mutilated effigy in stone of Lady Margaret Courteney, many of whose family are interred within the Crypt.

There is also a stone to the memory of Robert Paul, priest of this parish, who died on 22 August 1673.

The church of St Michael in East Coker has been designated by English Heritage as a Grade II* listed building. The church is the final resting place of the ashes of T. S. Eliot, whose ancestors came from the village.

Written by the Reverend Roger Burt

List of Rectors and Vicars of St. Michael's, East Coker

   Robert de St Nicolas
   William de Middleton
   Willaim de Weston
   John de Southdon
   Philip Le Doo
   Robert de Bockton
   Peter Falewell
   Robert Box
   Thomas Hitchecok
   John Hoper
   John Loder
   Richard Spicer
   Thomas Mapoudre
   John Balam
   John Rene
   Robert Gefferey
   William Pasley
   John Godefellow
   John Ashe
   Richard Elys
   Robert Philipson
   John Gold
   William Buckland
   William Ford
   William Walwyn
   Richard Gove
   Lewis Geanes
   Robert Paul
   Michael Cory
   John Stanbury
   Richard Short
   Peter Bellinger
   Henry White
   William Short
   John Free D.D.
   James Carrington
   Rowland Huyshe
   Willaim Gee
   Charles Powell
   Herbert Candland
   Maurice Bailey
   Leonard G Coates
   Ivor G Sanders
   Geo E Mullard
   David J Hunt
   Roger Burt
   Charles Hatton
   Formation of Cokerridge Benefice
   Colin Simpson (Assistant Priest tbc)