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You are in: Dorset > History > Local History > Dorset's oldest church

The effigy of T E Lawrence by Eric Kennington

The effigy of Lawrence of Arabia

Dorset's oldest church

St Martin's Church in Wareham is a 1,000 years old and famous for housing a priceless effigy of Lawrence of Arabia. BBC Dorset's Jo Babbage went along to discover more about the church's fascinating history.

In the north aisle of this tiny church, which seats 40 at a push, sits a priceless effigy of T. E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia. 

It was sculpted by the Eric Kennington, the official war artist for both the First and Second World Wars, between 1936 and 1939.

Merville Gover, Church Warden

Merville Gover, Church Warden

It's perhaps not the first place you'd expect to find a tribute by a well-known artist to a man who became famous for being the only British officer on the Arab front fighting against the Turks.  But, as Merville Gover, Church Warden at St Martin's, explains, Wareham wasn't the first choice for the effigy's final resting place:

"The effigy was actually made for St Paul’s Cathedral.  I think the political unrest surrounding his death meant that they wouldn't accept him.  He was then offered to Westminster Abbey and they wouldn't accept him.  Then he was offered to Salisbury Cathedral and they wouldn't accept him.  That's why he came to St Martin's.  They had to put him somewhere."

T E Lawrence's Dorset

The fact that the effigy was finally made welcome by a small church in Wareham is fitting considering Lawrence's ties with Dorset.  The Wales-born writer and soldier retreated to the county after the First World War. He resided for many years at Clouds Hill, his tiny cottage, which lies between Dorchester and Wareham before meeting an untimely death in a motorcycle accident in 1935.  He is buried in Moreton.

Lawrence is depicted in the effigy as recumbent in Arabic dress with a curved dagger in his hand and a whip to his side.  His feet rest against a block of Hittite sculpture of two fighting bulls representing his archaeological research and his struggles in the First World War.

The original 11th Century window

The original 11th Century window

About 10,000 visitors a year come to the church just to see 'Lawrence' and a T E Lawrence society makes regular trips to St Martin's to check that the effigy is being looked after properly, which Merville Gover insists the church is doing, albeit for one rather zealous fan:

"We had an incident a few years back where one of the Parishioners thought he looked a bit grubby.  So they thought they'd get a scrubbing brush and some washing up liquid and started to clean him!  Fortunately someone grabbed me quickly and I was able to stop it."

It's not only the Lawrence of Arabia connection that brings people to this building, as you might imagine with a church that has seen almost a thousand years of history.

Saxon origins

St Martin's, as it now stands, represents the most complete example of a Saxon church in Dorset.  Aspects showing its Saxon origin include a tall, narrow nave and chancel, late Saxon wall-arcading in the North West Isle and traces of a Saxon door.

Fresco depicting St Martin

Fresco depicting St Martin

The building has been adapted and enlarged but the nave and a tiny window in the north side of the chancel are original to the church's construction in around 1030.

The walls of St Martin's are covered with fragmented frescoes: 12th century figured ones in the chancel, black letter inscriptions of the 16th or 17th centuries and even a bond memorial inscription of about 1800.

The St Martin connection

The connection of St Martin with the church can be seen in the 12th century frescoes on the north wall of the chancel.  They depict St Martin on horseback, escorted by attendants, dividing his cloak and giving one half to a naked beggar.  It is said that the saint had a dream in which he saw Christ wearing the same portion of the cloak.

Restoration work has revealed layers of paintings all over the church.  These vary from pretty scrolls to floral motifs.  Above the chancel arch is a Royal Arms of Queen Anne dated 1713, flanked by black letter scriptural texts of about 1600 which overlay earlier scripts.

Red stars indicate plague deaths

Red stars indicate plague deaths

The Middle Ages in Wareham

A number of red stars have been painted on one of the walls which, Merville Gover explains, are a snapshot of the hardships faced by the Parish in the 17th century:

"I'm to understand that these red star shapes were put there during the great plague that came through here and for every person that died there was a red star painted on the wall."

In the Middle Ages, when Wareham was one of Dorset's largest boroughs, St Martin's was the smallest of four flourishing parish churches. There were also two minor chapels as well as the ancient Benedictine priory church of Lady St Mary.

Its size indicates that it was built for a tiny congregation living on the northern outskirts of Wareham.  All of Wareham's parishes were united in 1678 and by 1736 St Martin’s was no longer a place of worship, although there is evidence that it continued to be used for christenings and marriages.

Chancel and fragmented frescoes.

Chancel and fragmented frescoes.

The Great Fire of Wareham

During the Great Fire of Wareham in 1762 the church was used as a temporary refuge for those who had lost their homes.  At this time a fireplace was installed in the north wall of the nave for the refugees. 

It was used to provide warmth and a cooking facility for the displaced residents.  This fireplace no longer exists, but the exterior chimneystack remains and is a visible reminder of this significant time in the town's history.

For the next 200 years the building lay abandoned, its windows bricked up and its walls clad with ivy.  It was probably because of this that it escaped refurbishment or rebuilding in the Victorian period to remain almost entirely intact.

At the beginning of the 20th century the importance of the building was recognised and a programme of restoration began. The church was rededicated on 23rd November 1936.

Today, this little church is once again used for public worship with weekly services, weddings, funerals and christenings.  Merville Gover sees St Martin's as an intimate setting for such an occasion:

"It's a lovely church for these kinds of functions because it’s so small.  If it's not a great big wedding, as they have at Lady St Mary's, then this church becomes quite useful."

last updated: 05/03/2008 at 13:29
created: 07/03/2006

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