There have been many George Herbert biographies, covering his life and works in much more detail than is possible on this website. We have not attempted to do more than summarise his life before he came to Bemerton, and then to tell something of his brief years as the local Rector. Those seeking fuller biographical details should follow the relevant links and consult the list of references .
Herbert's fame derives mainly from his religious poetry, and the best known of his writings is a collection of over 160 poems, published under the title of 'The Temple' in 1633, the year of his death. Over the next 60 years the popularity of this collection grew so strongly that by 1709 it had passed through 13 editions. He also wrote, while in Bemerton, a prose work popularly known as 'The Country Parson', first published in 1652. We have provided on this site a brief summary of his works.
A pack of downloadable resource material suitable for use by young people exploring George Herbert and his works is also available on this website.
In common with most of us, George Herbert struggled for most of his life with conflicting desires. On the one hand, he was a gifted scholar who shone at school and university and for whom a glittering political career seemed to beckon. On the other, guided by his mother, he was conscious of a constant leaning towards a calling to ordination as a priest. This persistent inner turmoil was the source and inspiration of much of his poetry.
It was not until the age of 36, after considerable soul searching, that he resolved his innermost doubts. He gave up any aspirations to public life, embraced the priesthood and accepted the living of the small, insignificant parish of Fuggleston-cum-Bemerton in Wiltshire. Here he found inner peace at last, serving God and the local community, and here his poetic talent was able to flourish. Sadly, this tranquillity lasted for only three years, brought to an end by his early death just short of his 40th birthday.
People from all over the world come to Lower Bemerton to see St. Andrew's, the little church opposite the Old Rectory where Herbert lived. Its Visitors' Book is filled with the names of those who have travelled from every continent, having been deeply influenced by his poetry and wanting to see for themselves where George Herbert worshipped and spent his final days. In recent years there has been a resurgence of academic interest in the life and work of Herbert, with a great many papers, seminars and conferences seeking to expand further the boundaries of understanding and knowledge of his writings.
St. Andrew's is a small single room chapel, with a raised single step chancel at the East End. Although there have been incumbents here since at least the 14th Century, and the building retains its original shape, most of the structure has been replaced over the years. The interior has some very interesting features: there is a medieval arch in the north wall, and what is thought to be a 'leper’s squint' in the South wall.
St. Andrew's was built where the Roman road to Old Sarum crossed the River Nadder, before the Harnham crossing was built in the 8th century. It is entirely possible that this had been a site of worship, and indeed of Christian worship, long before the current stone structure was erected. The lane (now a busy road) joining the village of Bemerton to Fugglestone and Wilton separated the church from the Old Rectory, which lies directly oppposite and dates originally from the same period.
We know of Herbert’s restoration in the 1630s, and the church door is at least this old. The building was extensively repaired in 1776, and there were two further restorations in the 19th Century (1866 and 1894-6). Although the church bell is still the one tolled by Herbert, the present bell cote, weathervane and cross are Victorian additions, probably from the time St. John's was built in 1860. A few years ago the fabric was again causing anxiety, and between 1976 and 1979 the sum of £10,000 was raised, mostly by local efforts. The west wall was reinforced, the roof partly re-tiled, and other necessary repairs were carried out. As with all old churches, there is a constant need for maintenance and this is one of the responsibilities of The Friends of St. Andrew's.
Not surprisingly, Bemerton has changed a great deal since the time of George Herbert. Bemerton Parish is now the largest in Salisbury with a population of over 15,000. Two newer churches have been built - St. John's (just 200 yards to the West of St. Andrew's) and St. Michael's, built in 1957 on Bemerton Heath - but St. Andrew's is still in regular use. Although there are seats for only about 30 people, there are regular communion sevices on Friday and Sunday mornings, and evening prayer with hymns on the first Sundaty of every month. The church is frequently used for christenings. For details, see the Church Calendar.
It is a spiritual centre and place of pilgrimage for visitors from all over the world. For more details, download our Guide for Visitors.
In and around Bemerton, within a short distance of St. Andrew's, there are some other buildings connected closely with George Herbert that no visitor should miss. A little further afield, Salisbury and the surrounding area offers much to the visitor wanting to appreciate the greater setting for George Herbert's ministry, not least the magnificent Cathedral.
Bemerton today looks very different from George Herbert's time, but the changes have largely occurred over the last 180 years, since the sale of the Manor in 1838. For perhaps 800 years before that the place described as Bymerton in the Domesday Book of 1086 changed very little. It was a small farming community, with a few scattered houses and a tiny 'Chapel of Ease', St. Andrew’s church.
Many of those who have written about George Herbert, starting with Izaak Walton, have talked about Bemerton as a tiny, remote and rural parish. But Herbert's parish was not just Bemerton, it was Fugglestone-with-Bemerton, and Fugglestone was very much a suburb - not of Salisbury but of another ancient town, Wilton, seat of Herbert's kinfolk the Earls of Pembroke. Local historian John Chandler has given us a splendidly descriptive picture of the whole parish in George Herbert’s time. So the major link in the 17th century was with Wilton: even in 1773, the local map (below) shows a lane linking Bemerton with Wilton but no direct road into Salisbury. We believe that when George Herbert went to the Cathedral to pray and make music he walked across the meadows to the Cathedral, a walk the George Herbert in Bemerton group often retraces today.
Bemerton remained a small, mostly tenant farming community until well into the 19th century even though there were changes to farming methods that affected both the landscape and the way of life. In South Wiltshire the continuing development during the 18th century of the water meadows, which had started shortly after Herbert's time, had a real impact on everyday life for with them came an early spring crop of hay that meant that animals could be over-wintered so that there could be fresh meat all year around.
When changes came in the 19th century they were dramatic:
The development of the great cornfields in North America and the advent of steam ships in the late 19th century led to a major agricultural depression in England. Employment in agriculture had dipped very sharply, and many farms around the village had become small scale dairies. By 1901 (see map) the population had grown from about 200 in Herbert’s time to over 1200.
The village was absorbed into the expanding City of Salisbury in 1929 but its character was changed into that of suburb, less by this than by the many social changes of the 1960s, especially the coming of mass car ownership and the impact of television on the way people chose to spend their time. Bemerton as we know it today is effectively two largely separate distinct suburbs of Salisbury:
George Herbert's successor, the Rector of Bemerton, has pastoral responsibility for both these suburbs.
This website is published on behalf of two local organisations, both of which exist to celebrate George Herbert and his association with the parish of Bemerton. We welcome enquiries about and support for our activities.
The Friends of St. Andrew's have two responsibilities devolved to them by the Parish of Bemerton:
The church dates back to at least the 14th century and ongoing repair work is always required. Our aim is to keep the church open every day and in good repair so it is available for lovers of the poetry of George Herbert and pilgrims to visit. More details, including how to make regular or one-off donations towards the upkeep of the church, can be found here.
The George Herbert in Bemerton Group is an informal grouping of local enthusiasts for the life and works of George Herbert. The purpose of the Group is to promote and celebrate George Herbert and his works in Bemerton and Salisbury and all are welcome, whatever their faith (or lack of it).
We meet regularly and organise a number of events over the summer months each year. Most of these events are free, with retiring collections which go towards defraying our expenses. Please contact us if you feel you might be interested in contributing to our programme.
If you want to make any comments about this website or would like to know more about any of the information here, please get in touch using our Contact Form.
In St.Andrew's Church, we offer for sale a small range of goods linking George Herbert and Bemerton, with the proceeds going towards the upkeep of St. Andrew's church. The cards were originally intended as mementos for visitors to the church, but they make charming gifts and are now available for purchase through this website. Please note that, although the CD and books are obtainable elsewhere, the notecards and postcards can only be obtained from us.
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