The Church of England parish church of the Holy Trinity is a 15th-century Perpendicular Gothic building, restored and partially rebuilt in 1847–48 after a fire. The tower has six bells, three of which were cast in 1781 by William Bilbie of the Bilbie family. Holy Trinity is still in use today. You can find out more here. This article explains the history of the church.
The Holy Trinity of today was built at varying intervals over a period of about 800 years. It is thought that a Saxon hermitage or small chapel was built near the present day church. 1115 is the first date put on construction. The original crypt has been filled in, and the nave is probably 13th century, the south aisle is probably 14th century with the tower mid 15th century. The small door in the south wall was the entrance to the pew for the Lord of the Manor.
‘Lega’ means wood or meadow or possibly camp – lee, lea, ley all meaning the same in Anglo-Saxon. A Saxon hermitage or small chapel was built at ‘lega’ perhaps on a Celtic burial ground or holy place. This became the basis of the chancel of an enlarged church.
There is evidence that in Edward the Confessor’s reign, 1042-1066, there was a Prebendary of Lega. He is mentioned in the Gheld Inquest of 1084; the son of this priest, Turstin by name, held it after him, but William the Conqueror gave Lega to one of his barons, Geoffrey de Mowbray, Bishop of Coutances. The Domesday Book tells us that Lega, which later became the Manor of Leigh, was comprised of ploughland of 180 acres and two cottages. Although situated within the Manor of Leigh, the chapel held title to its own land.
In 1115, Henry I gave his chief minister, Roger of Salisbury, a gift of 231 churches. Included in this gift, was the Parish of Bedminster, to which the chapels of Redcliffe and St. Thomas were attached. Meanwhile, the Manor of Leigh had passed through several hands until purchased by Robert Fitzharding, a Bristol merchant. He was reputed to be a grandson of King Harding of Denmark and one-time Lord Mayor of Bristol. He had been rewarded by Henry II with the Berkeley estates for services rendered, and he was not only wealthy, but pious.
In 1143, he founded the Abbey of St. Augustine, subsequently to become Bristol Cathedral. He also endowed the Abbey with his estate of the Manor of Leigh. Later the Abbey built a rest house for the monks in the village. The rest house was built near the present site of Leigh Court. The church at Leigh was still part of the Parish of Bedminster and referred to as a chapel of ease (a chapel built for the convenience of worshippers who lived too far away from the parish church). The parish was very much under the influence of the Abbey, but was administered by the Diocese of Bath and Wells, with the Diocese of Salisbury appointing the Rector. The Rector of Bedminster Church assigned a monk to the cure of Leigh.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 brought change to the Manor of Leigh, but little to the chapel. The Manor became the property of Paul Bush, the first Bishop of Bristol. On his death, Edward VI gave it to the Norton family; under them the estate prospered and the population increased. Sir George Norton is particularly remembered for sheltering King Charles II at Leigh Court during his flight after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester. The Nortons were followed by the Trenchards in 1715. There was no enlargement to the church during this period.
Through the centuries, land and property had been acquired by the parish, since disposed of. The George Inn, to this day a popular public house in Abbots Leigh, was once ecclesiastical property. It was known in those days as ‘Church House’. Visitors and worshippers at the chapel coming from afar made use of its stables and hospitality. It was also used for Church festivities. Close by the Inn were the parish stocks, mentioned in the Vestry Book in 1816 as having been renewed.
In1845, the parish of Bedminster and the chapels were returned by the Diocese of Bath and Well to the Diocese of Bristol. It appears that at this time the parish was poorly served by the Mother Church. Joseph Leach, in his ‘Churchgoer’s Rural Rides’ in 1847, states that having no permanent incumbent, worshippers never knew from one Sunday to another who was going to take the service. Leach also described the chapel as ‘venerable and plain’ outside while the interior he considered to be in a condition of ‘primitive and almost rude simplicity’. There was no record of an organ, but Leach mentioned a balcony under the tower where musicians played.
On 21st February 1848, the church was gutted by fire. The villagers helped to fight the flames, Leigh Court’s private fire engine was put into action, with a horse-drawn fire engine arriving from Bristol only some three hours after the fire had started. The tower and the chancel were saved and William Milles, son of Philip John and later 1st Baron Miles, paid for the rebuilding of the church. The vestry and north aisle were added and an organ installed. Little has changed since the rebuilding after the fire. Holy Trinity is a 15th-century Perpendicular Gothic building, restored and partially rebuilt after the fire. The tower has six bells, three of which were cast in 1781 by William Bilbie of the Bilbie family.
In 1852 Abbots Leigh became a parish in its own right. The first Vicar, the Reverence Charles Morgan, moved into the residence which is now known as the ‘Glebe House’. The present vicarage down the road was built in 1924 and initially occupied by vicar Walter Brinkley.
Another fire occurred in the church in 1972. By a coincidence the date was the same as the previous fire, February 21st. The consequence of this fire was not nearly so serious; the organ was destroyed and one or two pews; the roof was badly scorched. In 1976, the churches of Abbots Leigh and Leigh Woods were united under one Vicar. This union between the parishes has been a great success, bringing the two villages together, sharing services and activities. In 1985, the vestry was extended to include a kitchen and a lavatory, bringing piped water into the church for the first time.
Inside the church the oldest monument is The Norton Canopy Monument in the south aisle. Although damaged over the years it shows the Norton coat of arms. On the north wall of the chancel is the marble monument to Sir George Norton (who died in 1715) and his wife. Although she remarried, it is thought she was the only resident of Abbots Leigh to be buried in Westminster Abbey, London. The Trenchards are commemorated by two plaques in the chancel and around the walls are monuments, plaques and tablets to village notables – Philip John Miles, the Brights, the Miles and many others.
During the 1914-1918 war men from the village enlisted, not all returned. A Roll of Honour is on the north wall, the churchyard cross was restored as a war memorial, and in June 1921 there was an unveiling by Colonel H. Cary Batten OBE, with a dedication by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.
Within the upper churchyard is an ancient yew believed to be over 800 years old. There are two graveyards, the upper one with many of the older graves of the village, the oldest legible grave being 1699, with the lower graveyard holding graves of many dating from the twentieth century. Maps of both graveyards mark the burial places of some four hundred villagers.In the churchyard the octagonal stone steps supporting the War Memorial are thought originally to have been the base of an early Preaching Cross. There is an ancient font beside the South porch which may have been used for christenings from the earliest days of the church, until replaced by the existing one which is 19th century.