Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh

Holy Trinity, Buckfastleigh (2014)

Since my childhood I’ve been fascinated by Holy Trinity Church at Buckfastleigh. The terrible fire of July 1992 occurred just before I started secondary school and I remember visiting the ruin soon afterwards. It left me with deep and profound memories. Now I’ve discovered that I have ancestry at Buckfastleigh and the church has taken on an even greater interest for me…

I have in my possession some typescript notes written about Holy Trinity Church circa 1935. The authorship is uncertain, although it’s clear they were written by someone knowledgeable in church history and architecture…


Not the least interesting the feature of this ancient building is its situation, on a great rocky eminence, which is being slowly quarried away on the north side, so perilously near the church, it would seem, that one hopes that operations in that direction will soon cease [!]

In spite of the somewhat “new look” imparted to the church by the stucco which covers almost every part of the exterior, the building has an interesting and attractive outline which is best appreciated if one takes one’s stand in the south east of the fairly large churchyard, which ought to be approached by the flight of 195 steps, and a long path, from the town below.

The plan of the church is identical with that of Rattery, not many miles away, though Rattery is a smaller building, albeit of approximately the same period: west tower, with stone spire; nave with north and south aisles; south porch; north and south transepts; and chancel, with chapels in the angles between it and the transepts.

It would seem that the earliest structure of which remains still exist was a rebuilding of a C12 church, probably of the simplest rectangular plan, to which, late in the C13, a west tower and transepts were added, to produce a simple, yet perfect, cruciform plan. Of this rebuilding, the tower, the chancel, and probably the transept walls still survive. It is quite likely that the aisles and a porch were added not very long afterwards, and the latter additions, including the spire, the chancel-chapels, and the nave arcades, were made early in the C15. Since then, the church has been a little altered in detail: a number of debased and modern perpendicular windows having been introduced, e.g. the side windows of the aisles, the transept windows, etc. The two circular windows over the chancel-arch, flanking a central one of the late C13, are unusual, but are most likely quite late pseudo Gothic intersections. The middle window, however, the west window of the tower, and the east window of the chancel, are all interesting examples of an early stage in the evolution of window-tracery; by the close grouping of lancet-windows (three in these cases) under one head.

Holy Trinity: Then (c.1900) and Now (2014)

As there is no reason whatever to suppose that the Font was brought from elsewhere, we may safely assume, on its evidence, that the church had a Norman of C12 predecessor. This Font is one of about a dozen similar examples in Devon, with a hemispherical bowl, made of a kind of sandstone (in this case with traces of colouring). Around the top runs a cable-twist mould; then a broad band of anthemion, or palmette design; then a mould of trowel-joints. The stem is round and short, had two half-roll moulds to its base, and stands on a 2-stepped square plinth. The bowl is curiously, and one would think unnecessarily and awkwardly supported, apparently, by four round shafts, three of which have plain neck-moulds, while the fourth has a kind of slightly recurved broad-leaf ornament to its cap. These shafts are said to have been taken from the sedilia and the piscina; if so, probably during a misguided restoration. But, unless the sedilia and the piscina had side-shafts, there is either one shaft too many round the font, or three have been lost! Besides, they appear too short for their alleged original purpose, and only one seems to belong to the period to which the sedilia and piscina have been ascribed, i.e. the late C13. The Font-cover appears to belong to the C18.

Buckfastleigh font
Holy Trinity: Font (c.1900)

The nave arcades are of 5 bays, with wider arches to the transepts; they have, nevertheless, fairly wide obtuse arches of two chamfered orders; and the piers are octagonal and plain, with plain and low bell neck caps, cavetto-moulded. The two west piers on the north side are monolithic; and the third pier from the west, also on the north side, and the west respond, still on the same side, are of greater girth than the rest. The plinths vary in size, but are all, as far as can be seen, octagonal and unusually large. The other arches, those to the transepts, between the latter and the aisles, between the aisles and the chancel-chapels, and those between the latter and the chancel itself, are of the same character, though the heads of the arches associated with the chancel and its chapels are more equilateral.

The tower-arch is lofty and plain; over it is a small gilt national coat-of-arms; in the north wall is a pointed simply moulded doorway to the stair-turret. All the windows of the aisles are of a debased or modern perpendicular type, either with segmental or rectangular heads; but the chancel-chapels retain, fortunately, their obtuse C15 windows, with good cusped reticulated tracery, north, south and east. The rather wide chancel-arch springs from large corbels.

The chancel, of the late C13, has four lancets, two north and two south, splayed internally; the doorway to the north chapel appears to be of the same date, as does the priest’s doorway. A narrow squint on the north side enables one to see only the southwest corner of the altar, a recess in an angle of the north wall of the chancel having been made, it would appear for the purpose of obtaining the view.

Holy Trinity: chancel and lancet east window (2014)

The screen across the tower-arch is modern; and of the former rood-screen there perhaps remain one or two traceried panels at floor level. The prominent stair turret to the loft remains, however, on the north side of the church. There are three stoops indicating the presence of former side-altars; in the north chapel, in the south chapel, and in the south transept. The present sedilia, a triple one, and the piscina, a double one, have all had their decorative features completely swept away. The undercut cornice and perhaps two of the panels, well carved, resembling window-tracery, etc., of the pulpit, perhaps from screen. The woodwork is not particularly notable: the early C19 box-pews, the modern pulpit, and the roofs. The last are rebuildings, all of open timber, with moulded ribs and carved bosses to that of the chancel; arched-braced, with collar beams, queen posts, struts, and wind braces to that of the nave; and pent roofs and flat ones to the aisles and chapels respectively. The roof of the porch resembles that of the nave.

Holy Trinity: sedilia and piscina in chancel (2014)

The south doorway is perpendicular, with an old door; and in the porch are side benches, and a pair of 6-holed stocks. Here too was preserved a loose heart-shaped stone bowl, perhaps a domestic mortar (?).

The tower though plain, is fairly imposing, with thin double angle buttresses; an obtuse chamfered doorway of the simplest design; a low embattled parapet on a corbel-table; and a prominent central octagonal stair-turret on the north side, slightly higher than the tower and also embattled. The spire is fairly lofty and octagonal: it is a very good landmark. The top windows, each formed of a pair of cusped lights, look like C15 insertions.

Holy Trinity: tower, spire and Cabell Tomb in foreground (2014)

The only old monument is a huge slab in the south chapel, with a small cross in bas-relief in each corner. The slab measures c.7’3″ by c.2’9″, and is to William, 1653; Peter, 1691; and Katherin ILBERT, 1699 (son and wife respectively).

There are three objects of interest in the churchyard:-

(a) The Chapel: the ruins of a late C13 building, rectangular on plan: half the south wall, the whole of the east wall, and a little of the north wall. In the south wall are the remains of two lancet windows, that eastwards retaining a part of its head, and a plain segmental-headed doorway. Traces of a third lancet may be detected in the fragment of the north wall; and in the east wall is a large single light, with a cusped head. The east wall retains most of its gable. Externally are several putlog-holes; and a row of what appear to be joist-holes at a rather low level which suggest a former undercroft, to which the south doorway may have led. The Chapel proper was on the upper floor, and probably reached by an outside staircase. The windows retain their internal splays. It has been suggested, however, that the Chapel was on the ground-floor, and that over it was a Pardoner’s Room, the evidence of the remains rather scouts this theory.

Holy Trinity: remains of ancient chapel (2014)

(b) The Cross: the upper part of the shaft, with head complete, of a late medieval granite cross, of square section, with chamfered angles; most likely the old Churchyard Cross.

(c) The Cabell Tomb: a curious square structure, an enclosed tomb, or Richard CABELL, who died in 1677, the last male of his race. The heavy chest-tomb, with the plainest of slabs, around whose edge can be detected an inscription, the penthouse, with its granite corner-posts, and single grating, were erected to prevent the deceased from emerging after death and haunting the neighbourhood, as he had died with such an evil reputation!

© Graham Naylor


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