Church House's Earliest Years (1515 - c.1660)
What led to Church House being built?
Church House was built in 1515 to hold Church Ales when it became unacceptable to hold them in the nave of the Church.
Churches had yet to install pews and the nave was the largest indoor space in the village - an open area, separated from the sanctuary by a rood screen. It was the natural place to hold 'church ales' - celebrations to raise money for good causes. The word ‘ale’ indicated not only the liquor that was drunk, but also the party itself. Ales were often linked to specific dates in the church calendar, such as Whitsun and the church's Patron Saints Day. Sometimes there were Bride Ales to help poor couples fund their wedding, and Clerk Ales to help pay the parish clerk.
By the early 1500s, however, Church authorities were uncomfortable about alcohol being consumed on church premises. Ales were often banished into the churchyard. Eventually parishes were encouraged to build ‘church houses’, leaving the Church building for worship.
A move away from the Church Nave
In 1514, the Lords of the manors of Crowcombe Biccombe and Crowcombe Studley, Robert Biccombe and the Prioress of Studley, made a joint gift to the parish of a house and garden, opposite the churchyard, to build a 'church house' within four years. The aim was to meet the communal needs of the village that traditionally the church nave had served - and specifically for the holding of 'church ales'. The churchwardens were responsible for the building and paid an annual Lord’s Rent of 4d to each manor - the equivalent of just over £10 a year today.
Church Ales - Brewing and Baking
The main community room where ales were held, was upstairs - what we now call the Gallery. Until the mid-1600s, Church House provided facilities to brew ale and bake bread, which villagers then consumed upstairs where they could dance and celebrate.
Downstairs housed an enormous open fireplace at the north-western end with two bread ovens, and where the ale would have been brewed. With no internal staircase, the food and ale was carried in procession out along the front of the building (sheltered by a lean-to roof), and up into the Gallery via the external steps.
After the Reformation the view that secular celebrations should not take place on Sundays gradually undermined the traditional role of church houses. At Somerset assizes in 1632 there were even several indictments for alleged murder of illegitimate children conceived after church ales.
The next phase: Home for the Destitute and Charity School (c1660-1872).