About the Church of St Mary Magdalene, Castleton

Extract from a book written by G. H. D. Pitman (First Published 1970, Revised editions 1975 & 1996)

Castleton and Newland, now integral parts of Sherborne, were once separate Boroughs, each with its own court and its peculiar rights and liberties. Newland Borough was created in 1227-8 by Richard le Poore, Bishop of Salisbury, as was Castleton slightly later. Castleton, from its founding in Norman times and for several centuries thereafter, lay apart from Sherborne and, as its name implies, was an isolated adjunct to the great 12th century castle built by Bishop Roger of Salisbury. Outside the curtain wall of his castle, Roger built a Norman church, dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene, “visible on the isle where the castle stands”. This building – Castleton’s earliest parish church – the bishop intended, no doubt, for the use of his tenants and retainers who, drawn into a close colony outside the Castle walls, formed what was to become some hundred years later the Borough of Castleton. This church stood overlooking “Maudlin Close”.

The little Norman building was still standing in its tiny churchyard of one-third of an acre when Sir Walter Raleigh first came to Sherborne in 1592. Raleigh got permission to demolish the old church; this done, he built a new one where the present church of Castleton now stands. The new building, finished in 1601, appears to have been structurally a very poor substitute for the 450-year-old church he destroyed, since it was described as “very ruinous” a mere hundred years later. It is possible, however, that the new church may have suffered damage in the two sieges of Sherborne Castle during the Civil War. Anyway, in 1714, the 5th Lord Digby built the present church, partly at his own charge and partly by subscription. It was dedicated as before to Saint Mary Magdalene and consecrated on 7th September, 1715.

2The lay-out of the new church showed a break with earlier tradition. Now the object was to emphasise the importance of Bible reading and preaching. Chancels at this period disappeared or became, as at Castleton, mere recesses. To begin with the new church had an east window, but soon after this was blocked; its outline is still visible on the outside. The Church is remarkable in that, while it was planned as a “preaching” church, it continued the Gothic tradition in its arcades and window arrangement; it must have been one of the last. More than a hundred years was to elapse before Gothic was revived as a church style in this part of the country.

The Church was full of character – and was justly admired by Alexander Pope who wrote:

“The next pretty thing that catched my eye was a neat chapel for the use of the town’s people (who are too numerous for the cathedral). My Lord modestly told me he was glad I liked it, because it was of his own architecture.”

Castleton church, fronted by the pleasant 17th and 18th century buildings opposite, is now a quiet bye-water of Sherborne. It is good to think that the solitary bell of St Mary Magdalene, as it calls worshippers to church, continues a tradition that has lasted more than 800 years.