The village of Lytchett Matravers, to the north of Poole in Dorset, is one of my ancestral places. Several times in the past I had tried to find the parish church, but with no luck. We had driven around in circles in the middle of the village and there had been no sign of a tower that could have been St Mary’s.
Then in summer 2014, when we were killing time for half an hour by driving around the country lanes, we took a “wrong” turn in the vicinity of Sturminster Marshall. And there, surrounded by patches of woodland and farmers’ fields, was a church. I was amazed – the nearest village was Lytchett Matravers, so this must be St Mary’s!
On another day we went back and I took the pictures featured here. Sadly the door was locked (a sign of the times) and we could not look at the interior.
But why was this church in the middle of nowhere?
The mystery of St Mary’s all became clear when I got home to Wales and Googled it. But first a mention for my Lytchett Matravers forebears.
My great great great grandparents were married here on December 21, 1830. Joseph Giles was a farm labourer from Winterbourne Whitechurch, a village to the north-west, and Ann Masterman was from Sturminster Marshall, to the north.
They had two sons. George Giles was christened here in January 1833 and then my great great grandfather William Masterman Giles in August 1835. George became a carpenter and wheelwright and William graduated from farm labourer to gardener before the age of 25 and ended up in Poole.
Joseph turned from farm labourer into “common carrier”, which I suppose means he had a cart or wagon. He and Ann are to be found in Lytchett Matravers in the censuses from 1841 to 1871, but Ann died in 1872 – and I suppose she is buried in St Mary’s churchyard. By 1881 Joseph is running a public house in the New Forest with son George and his family, although he then died a year later.
But let’s get back to the mystery of the church in the middle of nowhere. Most of the information is from the Wikipedia page, to which “SMLM” church members themselves have been encouraged to contribute.
The church was probably built in Norman times, though an exact date isn’t known. At the time of the Domesday Book (1086), the lord of the manor of Lytchett Matravers was Sir John Maltravers (the name lost the L eventually). By the way, the Lytchett part of the name means “grey wood” in the old British language. Which isn’t too far removed from Llwydcoed, which means the same in Welsh.
It’s possible Sir John’s descendant Sir Walter Maltravers had the church built next to his manor house around the year 1200, while he was away on a crusade to the Holy Land.
The west tower, nave and chancel were built at this time, followed by the north aisle in the 14th century. There are six very old bells in the tower.
In the church graveyard is a yew tree much older than the church, suggesting this has long been a holy place and there may have been a Saxon church made of wood here before the Norman conquest. In the 1980s the tree was dated at 1700 years old or more.
The answer to the mystery of why the church is not in the middle of the village seems to be the Black Death. This plague peaked between 1346 and 1353 and killed maybe 200 million people across Europe. In the middle of this period it halved the population of England.
The first case in England was not too far away from here – it was a seaman who arrived at Weymouth, Dorset, from Gascony in June 1348. The plague was carried by rat fleas and the black rats hosting these fleas were common on merchant ships travelling all over the world.
It’s a local tradition in Lytchett Matravers that the surviving villagers moved away from the location of the manor and neighbouring church during the Black Death, to higher ground. The church fell into disuse and the villagers used a chapel in the new village centre.
It was not long after this, in 1365, that the then lord of the manor, Sir John Maltravers died. His claim to fame was that he probably killed King Edward II. There was a lot of civil war in the land at the time.
His eventual heir, granddaughter Eleanor, took the manor and title to her husband’s family, the Fitzalans, Earls of Arundel, who later became the Dukes of Norfolk and are still Barons Maltravers.
Time passed and in the 1600s the Arundel family restored St Mary’s and built the newer north aisle of the church. The chapel in the village was closed and St Mary’s once again became the centre of worship.
Most of the congregation probably had to stand up until the Victorians put in pews. They also installed a pipe organ in 1891. A century later an electronic organ took over.
The parishioners seem to be doing a good job protecting and restoring the inside of the church in the 21st century, but as we were not able to enter the church, I can’t say much about it!
There are no longer lords of the manor here at Lytchett Matravers. The Arundels sold the estate to the Trenchard family, who demolished the old manor house and built a new one. The family foundered and the Dillons took on the estate and became Dillon-Trenchards. Then in the late 20th century they went off to New Zealand.