History of St Andrew's Church, Donhead St Andrew

The First Millennium

There has been a church on the site of Donhead St Andrew Church for at least a thousand years. It is thought that the first church may have been built soon after the founding of Shaftesbury Abbey by King Alfred in about 875 AD, when much of the land in the village was endowed by the King to the Abbey. The only Saxon work known to remain in the church is part of the narrow arch leading from the Chancel to the Vestry; in Saxon times this arch was possibly an entrance into a North Chancel or a side chapel. One small piece of mediaeval glass survives at the very top of the East Window; it depicts the arms of Shaftesbury Abbey.

The Second Millennium

It is evident that the Church underwent generations of alteration and re-building as the needs of worship, the availability of funding and the fashions of the times had their effects over the centuries.

The following text covers some significant features inside the Church, starting at the tower and moving towards the altar.

When the tower was re-built in 1895, fragments of mediaeval carving were incorporated into the inside walls; these include a ferocious-looking head which may be of the Viking period. There are four bells in the tower, one of them of mid-15th century date with an inscription: “Sancta Katerina, ora pro nobis” (“Saint Katherine, pray for us”). The two Nave arcades are of the 14th century, the North arcade being the later of the two, as shown by the more elaborate bases to the shafts. At the time when the South arcade was built, pews were still not the general convention, the congregation standing or sitting on the rush-strewn floor. An unusual feature, thought to be unique in England, is the face of Christ, supporting the springing of the arch at the west end, with the brow lined with sorrow and the eyes gazing wistfully towards the altar. An attractive feature of the Church is the series of mediaeval carved angels high up on either side of the Nave, some of them shown with musical instruments such as the lute. Just to the north of the Chancel entrance a blocked-up archway hides a flight of stone steps, which in mediaeval times will have led up onto a Rood Screen or Rood Loft reaching across the Chancel entrance; from where choristers would sing a part of the Mass - the Gradual - between the Epistle and the Gospel.

The Chancel was taken down and re-built in 1833. Most of the stained glass windows in it were given by the family of the Reverend William Dansey, Rector from 1820 to 1855.

The following series of photographs and their accompanying commentaries show the Church as it stood in 1804; they help to illustrate the major external changes of the nineteenth century, which are also reflected internally.


The following two photographs are from the collection of paintings of every church in Wiltshire executed by John Buckler to a commission by Sir Richard Colt-Hoare of Stourhead.

St Andrews Church in 1804

Most of what is seen of the Church in this painting is late mediaeval; this view of the south and west elevations show that the Church had a south transept and attached porch; the porch and tower were battlemented. The windows seen above the porch may have been in a chamber above the south aisle.

St Andrews Church in 1804

The view of the north and east elevations show that the Church has a north aisle rather than a transept. The windows on the north wall of the Chancel had been blocked to avoid window tax. Part of the Rectory can be seen to the right beyond the tower.

The end of the Georgian era and the start of the Victorian era saw major changes, starting with the re-building of the south aisle in around 1826 and finishing with the re-building of the tower in 1895. These changes are described in the following paragraphs.

The Victorian Era

 St Andrews Church in 1837


The chancel was taken down and re-built in circa 1833. The tower then had eight pinnacles and a clock on the south face. The south transept and attached porch have been replaced with a south aisle and smaller porch. The Nave roof and south aisle parapets both have battlements. The south aisle stretches the length of the Nave.

St Andrews Church in 1850


The Nave roof has now been lengthened and the Chancel and north aisle parapets both have battlements, whereas the Nave roof does not. The original Church School, built by the Reverend William Dansey, Rector from 1820 to 1855, can be seen in the churchyard to the east of the Church.


By a Faculty of 1875, the Church underwent its most recent major re-ordering: what was described as “an unsightly gallery” at the west end of the Nave was removed; the pews seats and fittings were said to be “in a state of general decay” and “inconveniently arranged”, and all of the “paving, floors pews, seats and pulpit” were removed and replaced. The then-new pine pews on raised wooden platforms provided a total of 300 seats for a growing population.


The tower was re-built in 1895 without a clock.


In the 1920s electric light and central heating were installed; apart from conversion from a solid fuel boiler to an oil-fired one, they remain largely unchanged to this today.


The organ and re-worked choir stalls were moved from the Chancel to the north aisle in the 1930s.


By the 1960s the tower pinnacles had become unsafe and had to be taken down. At some stage a door in the north aisle wall was removed.

The Church was listed Grade II* in 1966.

The Third Millennium

To mark the beginning of the third Millennium, a new west window was designed by Andrew Taylor, a Wiltshire designer, and installed in the tower. Its subject is “Pentecost and the Holy Spirit”. It provides a dramatic flash of colour above the unused west door of the Church.

St Andrew’s Parish Church in 2012

St Andrews Church in 2012

The 19th century extension of the Nave roof over the chancel is clearly shown by the different stonework between the buttresses on either side of the tall Chancel window

St Andrews Church in 2012

The brick-built boiler house and flue are seen in the corner between the Vestry and north aisle.

It is partly on the footprint of this boiler-house that the new extension will be built, reaching a further 2.5 metres into the Churchyard.

Additional Information

There has been a mention of the site of an Aumbry in the current Priest’s Vestry in correspondence with one of the national bodies with an interest in ancient church buildings. This space is to the right as one enters the Vestry from the Chancel. In its current appearance, a wall safe is cemented into the low-set opening with small curved pieces of carved stone let into the stonework above. Late nineteenth-century drawings of the church show a chimney stack rising above the roof of the Vestry in exactly the position of the so-called ‘aumbry’. The provision of a fireplace was presumably to provide some warmth in the Vestry The chimney stack has now gone but the chimney remains within the Vestry. One of the former Church Wardens recalls that, in his youth, this was an open fireplace into which the wall safe was subsequently placed. No one can throw any light on the pieces of carved stone. It could well be that the pieces are fragments of the mediaeval church, incorporated, possibly, in the 1870s, into the new and rebuilt fabric of the church. These early fragments can be seen elsewhere, particularly in one of the Tower walls.

Michael Hockney