Diocese of Salisbury website

The Benefice of St Mary’s Sixpenny Handley with

Gussage St Andrew and St Rumbold’s, Pentridge


SIXPENNY HANDLEY is the largest village in North Dorset, and has been for several centuries. It was originally two separate Hundreds – two Saxon divisions of land that would support one hundred families each. One was called Saxpena and the other Hanlege. Saxpena comes from ‘seaxe’, being Old English for mountain or hill, and ‘pen’ translating as top. Hanlega translates as the high clearing in the wood.

All in all, this gives the extended name of ‘The Village in the Clearing at the Top of the Hill’. This, many an ageing member of the congregation will vouchsafe for! The two hundreds existed separately, as shown in the Domesday Book, until they were united in 1244. The name of the village reflects its ancient origin and despite a number of old signposts that had shortened the name to “6d Handley” it escaped being renamed “Two and a Half Pence Handley” during decimalisation!

Sixpenny Handley sits on the edge of the Rushmore, Shaftesbury and Cranborne Estates. However, despite its size and importance, the church does not have the support of any landed gentry. This explains the lack of elaborate memorials and tombs, both inside and outside the church. The village today consists of more than five hundred households and falls within the Cranborne Chase AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty).

Road sign with 6D Handley abbreviation

About St Mary the Virgin, Sixpenny Handley

The back of St Mary's church
Church prior to 1876

A church has stood on the current site of St Mary's for almost a thousand years. Indeed nobody can be sure when the first church was built here. One certainly existed here in Norman and perhaps pre-Norman times. The first recorded chaplain was Nicholas de Longespee (here between 1277—1280), who later became the Bishop of Salisbury (1292—1297) and was buried in the North Choir Aisle of the Cathedral. There is some difficulty in completing the ‘Chaplains’ of the parish, as the church was transferred to the Bristol Diocese from 1542 – 1866. The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ.

The chancel and parts of the nave date from 1350 when the church was a much smaller building. It was not until 1831 that the north aisle was added, and two 17th Century Jacobean windows were moved from the south side of the nave to be part of the new outer north wall. These two windows have interesting corbels carved on the outside, one being a hooded lady another the head of a man wearing a ruff, while on a second window are the heads of two hounds, or depending on the writer ‘a dozy looking hound and a fierce fox.’ A third matching but plain window was then added.

Between 1876 and 1878, the church underwent extensive rebuilding. During this time the South Aisle was constructed and the porch, built around 1450, was moved to its present position. Before it had been the entrance to the main body of the church, the nave. A notable feature is its holy water stoup, which can be seen on the right of the main door on entering. The source and history of the photo below is unknown, but appears to show the church prior to 1876.

The builders also moved the late-Norman, Purbeck marble font, with its indented panels to a position under the bell tower. The font was moved again in 2010 to its current position in front of the new tower screen. During this move its was renovated and the missing corner pillar recreated. Also moved from the outside was the carving ‘Christ in Majesty’, which can now been seen on the inner wall of the north side of the aisle.

Another point of interest inside the church is the only tomb, at the east end of the south aisle. It is the tomb of the Alie family of Gussage St. Andrew. This tomb was originally in the Sanctuary, to the right of the altar, but was moved sometime in the twentieth century. The stonemason spells the family name differently on different lines of the inscription. Also on the tomb is the family coat of arms, the only arms in the church. Until 1859, music was supplied by a barrel organ. In that year an organ was installed and a blind 17 year old, James Poolman, became the first organist and remained so for 44 years. The current organ underwent a complete restoration in 2006, thanks to an anonymous donation.

Of the three bells there is little known of their early history, but all were recast in 1881. They possibly arrived in the 17th Century, at that time they did not have to travel far, as there was a bell foundry in Bellfounders Lane (near Culver Street) in Salisbury, owned by John Danton. All three are inscribed with:

God be our Guyde 1584

I doe love the Lorde 1636 J.D. (believed to be John Danton as above)

S. Maria

Outside we can see evidence of the Victorian rebuilding. The four original pinnacles of the tower were replaced, while the original gargoyles were left. It is thought that that these represent the Evangelists, a man to represent St. Mathew, who teaches about the human nature of Jesus, a lion for St. Mark, a symbol of Christ’s royal dignity, an ox for St. Luke, who emphasises the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ life and death, and for St. John, an eagle, who gazes further into heaven than any other creature.

On the outer south wall of the Chancel towards the vicarage is the priest’s door. This has been blocked up and plastered over on the inside. It does have a point of interest though, as a carved sundial, known as a Mass Dial, can be seen to the right of the wooden door on the lower right edge of the adjacent window.

The church clock has only two faces, one to the south for the village, and a second to the east, said to be there for the sake of the (first) National School, built in 1841. The vicarage now stands on the site of the school. The original foundation stone of the school can be found in the churchyard wall.

The Churchyard is maintained under a strict conservation plan, providing a living habitat for many endemic species. The churchyard has had considerable success in the Living Churchyard Competition organised jointly by the Salisbury Diocese and the Dorset Wildlife Trust. A gravestone against the south-facing wall, to the left of the north gate has an interesting inscription referring to the old smuggling days. It tells of how poached deer, smuggled goods and venison were hidden in a dummy, empty tomb. It has been suggested that the ‘tomb’, was in fact under the floor of the porch after it was moved to its present position. Its dimensions certainly fit.

The parish register dates from 1736, and can be seen in the County Records Office in Dorchester. In these records can be found the marriage record in 1768 of the infamous smuggler, Isaac Gulliver. He controlled the smuggling on the coast from Poole to Lyme Regis. Gulliver married the daughter of the landlord of a public house on the main Blandford/Salisbury road, but did not live in the village of Sixpenny Handley, as many locals like to think. He died having never been brought to justice, a very wealthy man. Despite not living here himself, Gulliver is a common local name, some of them claiming to be his descendents.

In February 2010 work began to make the building a more suitable place for the needs of a 21st century congregation. The font was moved out of the tower and the floor of the tower lowered to provide step free access. The Victorian quarry tiles were replaced with Purbeck stone and a toilet cubicle installed. The tower was closed off by a striking glass screen with double doors. To accommodate the toilet, the clock mechanism was upgraded with the installation of an autowinder so that the weights no longer fell all the way to the floor of the tower. Part of the original stone step for the tower was reused to provide a new step to the door of the tower stairs, now required because of the lowered floor level. Drainage for the toilet was routed around the north side of the church and into the mains drainage for the Vicarage.

By the end of May 2010 the two sets of three pews at the back of the church were removed to create an open area. This involved removing the wooden plinths on which they were fixed and laying a new floor with Purbeck stone to match that used in the tower. Following restoration, the font was relocated in the new open space in front of the glass screen across the tower.

Christ in Majesty

The Alie family tomb

15th century porch

A Mass Dial

The Late Norman font

St Rumbold’s Church, Pentridge

St Rumbold's church in Pentridge

The village of Pentridge is hidden at the end of a lane off the Salisbury to Blandford road. It is an irregular string of cottages leading to the church, green and village hall.

The twenty-nine houses nestle under Pentridge Hill, which is topped with an ancient Iron Age hill fort (Pembury Knoll). The surrounding area is rich in ancient barrows, including Bokerley and Ackling Dykes, a Roman road, ancient field systems and the mysterious six mile long Cursus. There is a lot of history in this little place.

St Rumbold’s church has served Pentridge and neighbouring Woodyates since at least the Domesday Book. It was rebuilt in 1855.

The church has a plaque commemorating links with the family of the poet Robert Browning. His paternal great grandfather owned the Woodyates Inn, a major staging post on the London road (now the site of Cobley Close). He was born in 1749 and died in 1833, so may well have been present when the carriage carrying the news of the victory at Trafalgar changed horses there.

The village features in Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘Tess of the D’Urbevilles’ as Trantridge, where Tess keeps poultry for Alec and his mother.

Who is St Rumbold?

There are believed to be only six churches in the country dedicated to St Rumbold, or Rumwold - we can only assume that the different spellings are the same person. There are also different versions of his short life. Here is a brief summary:

St Rumbold was born on 1st November 662 at Walton Grounds near Kings’ Sutton in Northamptonshire. He was the son of King Alchfrith and St Cyneburga, the daughter of King Penda of Mercia. At his birth he said ‘I am a Christian’. He was baptised (on his own insistence) on his third day, recited a confession of faith and died.

He was buried in Kings’ Sutton, but his remains were moved to Brackley on August 28th 663 before his final interment in Buckingham two years later. All this followed Rumbold’s own instructions. Unfortunately, the shrine containing the relics was destroyed in the Reformation.

It is said that Alchfrith became a Christian because his wife would not live with him until he was baptised. He disappears from history around 665, although not before he and Cyneburga had another son, Osric. Cyneburga became a nun and founded a convent in Cambridgeshire. She died in 680.

We know Rumbold’s parents lived in the 7th century, but we cannot say for sure if our saint did, or his story is true. It may be a concentrated version of a much longer story, or it may be a story that contains a great truth about faith in Jesus Christ - or it may be literally true. After all, if God wants to bless us through the words of a little baby, then that is how He will do it.

The tower from NW

The tower of St Rumbold's church, Pentridge

The churchyard

Churchyards hold a unique place in our history, culture and environment. They play a large part in defining who we are and what we believe. They are also virtually the only places that have never been treated with pesticides or fertilizers. As such they provide a unique home to local flora and fauna.

We ask you to tread respectfully and tend any graves with consideration for their natural surroundings.

It is wonderful that we have such a beautiful, living reminder of the amazing world God has given us to care for, and to remind us of His amazing love for us.

Thank you.

St Andrew’s Chapel, Gussage St Andrew

The name ‘Gussage’ means a small stream or spring (as in ‘gush’). Nearby Minchington comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for nun, ‘myncheon’ and the chapel of Gussage St Andrew stands on the site of a nunnery. King Alfred built a wooden chapel here as part of Shaftesbury Abbey. When it burned down it was replaced by the present building in the 12th century. On the walls are stunning late 12th century wall paintings which were discovered (or rather rediscovered) in 1951 when the walls were being prepared for decoration.

About the medieval wall paintings

The paintings that can be seen on the North wall of this ancient chapel were first rediscovered in 1951 during routine work of re-plastering. An expert on such paintings, Clive Rouse MBA FSA, has the opinion that they date from the late 12th or early 13th century. It was not until 1966 that the work of uncovering and restoring what still remained of the painting was undertaken under the supervision of Mrs E. Baker ARCA. The simple pattern of masonry lines was the first stage of painted decoration, done in the late 12th century, and subsequently over-painted with scenes showing Our Lord’s Passion. The masonry lines now show once more through the later work. Later still, texts in black gothic letters were added, and the remains of these can be seen above the dado ridges. Although they are now fragmentary, enough of the Passion cycle of paintings can be seen to deduce what the whole once was. The figures in general are well drawn, any apparent distortions being the result of style rather than incompetence – the hands and feet in particular are well done. The work was probably done by itinerant craftsmen, who plied their trade from church to church, probably in return for very little more than their board and lodging.

The upper register begins on the left for what may be Jesus, in the Temple, driving out the money-changers. On the extreme left is the representation, and the figure of Jesus seems agitated. Next comes the betrayal of Jesus. The figures in this group, left to right, are Peter, carrying a torch in his left hand, and fingering a sword in his right. He is shown bald – an old tradition. Next Judas leans forward to kiss Jesus – he has his hand on Jesus’ shoulder. On the right, two men seize Jesus. One of them armed with a stick. The suicide of Judas is next – he has hanged himself. This is believed to be unique in English medieval murals. The next scene is fragmentary, but centres on a seated figure, which probably Jesus, as the hands are bound. The scene is most likely of Jesus enthroned and mocked – the figures each side would be paying homage. The last scene on the upper register is even more fragmentary, but from the activity of the figure on the left, it is likely that this is the scourging of Jesus, of whom only the face remains.

The lower register shows, on the left, Jesus carrying the cross, led by a smaller, armed figure, and looking backwards and down, perhaps to Veronica, who according to tradition, wiped his face and received his image on her towel. Next is the crucifixion. Jesus is shown, arms outstretched and two thieves, one each side, are shown upright. Very seldom are the thieves shown crucified in the same manner as Jesus. Immediately on the left of Jesus, a soldier pierces Jesus’ side with a sword with a spear. (Legend calls him Longinus, and tells that his blind eye was healed). On Jesus’ other side, a soldier offers vinegar on a sponge on a stick. Jesus removed from the cross by Mary and John (kneeling) is shown next, in a very touching scene. The next scene almost completely obliterated by a newer plaster, may well have been the resurrection. A hand is outstretched, as if showing a wound. To the right of this scene, two figures look left towards a third. This may be the appearance of Jesus to his disciples after the resurrection. The last fragment, by the window seems to show a man kneeling, with his hands clasped in prayer – suitable end to a cycle if it shows Thomas, kneeling before his risen Jesus, with the acclamation, “My Lord, and my God!” Remember that when these paintings were executed, no English translation of the Bible existed, and while a preacher might tell the stories, the churchgoer in the Middle Ages could not read for himself. So the pictures were scripture to him. The Victorians saw them as only crude and ineptly painted, and had no hesitation in whitewashing over them – besides they had their own Bibles, and could read the stories themselves. But once, the little chapel was decorated in colours – red and yellow ochre, black, brown and white, and now we have only the ghosts of the old paintings to treasure.

Inside the chapel

The Altar

The Font

Photos © Colin Austwick

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