Site Visit: Wareham, St Martin’s – a Dorset church with Saxon origins

St. Martin's On the Wall

St Martin, the church high above North Street as you arrive in Wareham from the north, is the most complete example of a church with Saxon origins in Dorset.

It is placed on the northern line of the earthen banks which make Wareham’s Saxon town walls. These banks were first built in the 9th century under instruction of Alfred the Great as part of his strategy to defend Wessex towns from the threat of Viking attacks.

The church is also positioned adjacent to where the northern gateway into the town once stood.

by Andy Whiting
by Andy Whiting

There are a number of wall paintings inside the church, in both the nave and the chancel.

On the north wall of the chancel there is a fresco of St. Martin. It seems to feature St. Martin on horseback and also him giving his coat to a beggar. Little more of it is clear. However, there is a consecration at the very bottom of the image.

Above the chancel arch, on the east wall of the nave lies a variety of paintings. There is a complex sequence involving two overlapping Coats of Arms, two overlapping versions of the Ten Commandments and curiously, fifteen red stars. It is suggested within the church that these may represent victims of the Black Death and that these stars and masonary pattern on the northern aisle arcading are 14th century in date. Following the shape of the chancel arch is the message:


There are various other paintings around the nave which are indecipherable. However, there is a creed in a cartouche on the south wall and a memorial on the north wall of the nave above the arcading. The paintings were covered with a lime wash at some point, possibly during the Reformation.

One painting is particularly interesting due to its position. On the north wall of the nave is a painting, with text, that is either cut by the western most bay or continues around the corner. However, this painting would then have been behind the column if it was still standing. This suggests either the painting has been added after the date of the column removal, or that this may have been a text painted inside an original North Door entrance. Unfortunately, there is no conclusive evidence for this.

In the northern aisle there is an effigy of T.E. Lawrence, designed by Eric Kennington in1936. It is made from Portland stone with a Purbeck stone base.
In the northern aisle there is an effigy of T.E. Lawrence, designed by Eric Kennington in1936. It is made from Portland stone with a Purbeck stone base.

St Martin’s has a number of phases in its development; some can be clearly dated and placed within the overall sequence whilst some are rather more difficult. Below is a discussion on the overall sequence with difficulties of interpretation being explored further. It once again seems necessary to follow a chronological route for this.

The earliest phase of the church is in little doubt, whilst lacking a precise date, the evidence of the small Romanesque window in the north wall of the chancel, along with the ubiquitous alternating long and short quoin stones in the eastern angles of the nave and chancel, clearly suggest early- to mid-eleventh century beginnings for the building currently standing on the site. As previously mentioned, there is a belief that the present church is on the site of a church of Aldhelm constructed in AD 700.

The chancel arch is Romanesque in style, but its decorated architecture may place it later in the eleventh century, perhaps post-Conquest. There remains a problem regarding the rounded arch, constructed from brick, to its south, seen in the east wall of the nave. In its present context, it would not appear to be either a doorway or a window as it would be entirely within the interior of the chancel if it was seen on its western wall. This perhaps suggests that the nave was extended southwards at an early point and made this Romanesque window redundant, however, there is no evidence of this on the exterior and thus this must be left as a supposition.

Later, at the end of the Romanesque architectural sequence, the northern aisle seems to have been added. Two bays with Romanesque arches suggest a date before AD 1200. The columns appear to be of much later date despite their current poor condition. They are rather ornate and thin to be of such an early date and perhaps represent a replacement of the original columns. It is not entirely apparent for what reason this may have happened; perhaps it was a precautionary measure to prevent collapse, or perhaps it was to increase the line of sight and lighting in an otherwise poorly lit northern aisle.

chancel arch

Another problem relating to the northern aisle is the presence of two squints, or hagioscopes, in the eastern wall of the nave, either side of the chancel arch. Whilst the northern squint is perfectly acceptable as its angle is such that it provides a rather good view into the chancel. It is the one to the south that poses a number of questions that do not seem to have answers immediately apparent. The southern squint is aligned similarly to the northern one, providing a view into the chancel if there was to be an identical southern aisle to that on the north side of the church. Clearly there is no evidence in the southern wall of the nave to suggest that a southern aisle stood; blocked arcading would be most apparent on the exterior and possibly on the interior too, yet there is none. There is perhaps some evidence in the interior of the southern porch/tower; however, this may be unrelated to a possible aisle. Whilst it is apparent from a slight change in fabric, and the offset windows in the south wall, that the porch tower was constructed in at least two phases, the fabric inside the porch, approximately 50cm above the height of the exterior south door, is remarkably different from that down to ground level. It is almost as if the first phase constituted a small porch with square roof, or perhaps this lowest, suggested first phase, represents the remains of a northern aisle that was removed shortly after. It is also worth noting the curiosity of the exterior door in the porch tower, the archway on the interior is in the Tudor Gothic style, whilst on the exterior it is Romanesque in style, perhaps a modern version based on the masonary. This may suggest an external facade encasing an earlier shell which was the remains of either a small single-floor porch or the western remains of a southern aisle.

In the thirteenth century, work was done on the chancel, with an Early English window and Priest’s Door being put in. The window may have replaced a Romanesque window similar to that on the north wall of the chancel.

An Early English window, with Ogee arches, at the east end of the southern nave wall may be of thirteenth century date also.

The east windows of both the chancel and the north aisle show a development during the Perpendicular Gothic stage of the 15th century. At about this time the west end of both the north aisle and the nave was extended by approximately two metres. This is evident on the interior of the south wall of the nave and the exterior of the north wall of the north aisle. Excavations also provide evidence of this event (Keen, 1979). The windows in the west wall may have come from elsewhere (Hinton and Webster, 1987: 49) on the basis of the poor matching of lintels and jambs. The latest evident stage of church development is the heightening of the tower to at least a third storey in 1712 dated by the plaque on the south porch tower wall.

east window


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