Christianity brought a new phase to the town with theology, literature and new thinking

Christianity: more than just a religion with architecture, learning, literature, music and philosophy to name but a few improvements

This is an extract from the programme for the Axbridge Pageant due we hope in 2021 written by Harry Mottram. The pageant directed by John Bailey was originally due to be performed this month but has been put back 12 months due to Covid-19 with even a question mark over that date due to the ongoing problems of social distancing.

The church of St John the Baptist set above the Square dates to the late 13th century but there was almost certainly a wooden Saxon church before it. The church chose as its icon the Lamb of God which was combined with the cross of St George to give the town its symbol – and the name of the pub.

Christianity was prevalent amongst some Romano-British families from at least 313 AD after Constantine the Great sanctioned it in the Roman Empire although it had spread in Britain before that. When Augustine arrived on a mission to convert the pagan British in 597 AD Christianity was already partly established but from then on it became increasingly the religion of the court and was widely practiced in the decades that followed.

Most people couldn’t read or write so to bring to life the Bible stories the church had brightly painted frescoes on the walls inside and residents performed the Mystery Plays that allowed ordinary people to act out the Bible stories.

The parish church of St John the Baptist stands above the Square and has seen many theological and social changes ranging from Catholicism to the Reformation, from priests and evangelists and from Sunday Schools to Christingle services

Performed on carts these plays gave a vibrancy to some of the best known chapters of the Bible. From Adam and Eve to the Nativity and from Cain and Abel to the Crucifixion they were immensely popular – until the Church establishment felt they had become too dramatic and banned them.

Axbridge has its own link to early Christendom and even a miracle. Let the Chronicler take up the story:

“A certain wood covers a mountain of great height, which being separated at its summit and exhibits to the spectator an immense precipice and horrid abyss, called by the local people Cheddar Clyff.
“When therefore the King was chasing the flying stag hither and thither, the stag, on coming to the chasm broken in the mountain rushed into and being dashed to pieces, perished.
“Similar ruin overtook the pursuing hounds. The horse too, on which the king was riding, having unbroken its reins and becoming unmanageable, carries the King after the animals. The abyss, lying open before him, threatens the King with instant death. He trembles and is in great distress.
“Meanwhile his recent injustice to Dunstan comes to his mind: he bewails it and instantly promises God, with an unspoken vow, that if only God would avert the death, which deservedly threatened him, it should be speedily remedied with manifold recompense.
“God, immediately hearing the repentance of his heart took pity on him, inasmuch as the horse immediately stopped short and King, delivered from the danger of death, most truly gave thanks to the glory of God from the depths of his soul.
“Then the King returning to his lodging that is to the Borough of Axbridge and being rejoined by his nobles, recounted the course of the things that had happened and commanded Dunstan should be recalled with honour and reverence and thence forth held him to be a faithful friend in all things.
“And Edmund did make amends. He made Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, all due to the miracle that saved King Edmund certain death in Cheddar Gorge.”

Roman Catholicism was the state religion from the mid 7th century to the reign of Henry XIII in 1534. The Tudor age saw the Christian schism of the Reformation leading to the banishment of the Catholic clergy and the establishment of the Church of England. Later the church was whitewashed inside and those colourful paintings were covered and the statues of the Virgin Mary and all the Saints were taken down as the new broom of Protestantism swept away the old practices and even the priest was chased from his sacristy (now a broom cupboard in the church).

Today the Church (together with the Methodist church in the High Street) remains one of the towns key social networks and apart from the religious services it takes an important part in the town’s life. From the annual fete, Open Gardens, the Carol Service, Christingle Service, Remembrance Sunday, Messy Church and countless other activities it remains part of the town’s beating heart.

The pageant with a cast of 300 is now scheduled to take place from Saturday to Monday August 28-30th, 2021 – having been put back a year due to Covid-19. Please note due to the ongoing pandemic the date may have to be altered again.

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