St Mary & All Saints, Plymstock

I am sometimes privileged to be known as Plymstock’s local historian. My interests in local history were sparked at a young age in Plymstock and my special interests lie in the history of our beautiful and ancient parish church. A building I love like no other.

I have given a number of talks over the years on the history and development of the church and the parish of Plymstock. What follows here are notes taken from my various scripts in the hope that some of it will be of interest…

St Mary & All Saints, Plymstock (2014)

EARLY HISTORY – Plympton Priory and Tavistock Abbey

From its earliest days Plymstock’s chapel belonged to Plympton Priory. The Priory, which had its origins in the late C10 had been re-founded from a secular collegiate church in 1124 as an Augustinian Priory. The early origins of the Priory give a potentially early date for Plymstock’s chapel. The clergy belonging to the Anglo Saxon collegiate church at Plympton were removed by the Norman Bishop of Exeter, William de Warelwast in 1121 since William (who was nephew to William the Conqueror) considered that the secular clergy were guilty of disobeying Canon Law by having wives. He removed the five members, a Dean and four Canons to Bosham Collegiate Church in Sussex and replaced them with Augustinian Canons from Aldgate. William de Warelwast richly endowed the Priory and it rapidly became the wealthiest in Devon.

It seems likely that Plympton Minster possessed a number of other chapels before 1121 [including St Andrew’s, Sutton]. In 1124, Bishop William Warelwast granted Plympton Priory “and all its chapels, especially Plymstock” exemption from various payments due the Bishops of Exeter. Unless the Augustinian Canons had been especially zealous in setting up several chapels within three years of their foundation, these chapels were almost certainly originally established by or given to the secular canons of Plympton sometime between the foundation of the Minster and 1121. Indeed it would be surprising if a collegiate church founded in the Anglo-Saxon period had not presided over several chapels.

Throughout the earliest centuries Plymstock’s chapel does not appear to carry a dedication – the building is simply referred to as Plymstock chapel. The chapel is referenced to in an Episcopal Charter of 1334 and is later expressly referred to as All Saints Chapel in 1352. Perhaps the chapel received its dedication between 1334 and 1352 – perhaps to coincide with its rebuilding or enlargement? That would seem most logical.

Plymstock’s Norman Font, (2014) – is it original to the Church???

It is worth recording that Plympton Priory took control of the spiritual and day to day needs of Plymstock’s chapel whereas Tavistock Abbey owned the ancient Manor of Plymstock. This was a often a cause for dissent between the two religious houses.

Tavistock Abbey had been the owners of the Manor of Plymstock from before the days of the Norman Conquest. At the time of Domesday in 1086 it was recorded that:

 The Abbot has a manor called Plemestocha, which Abbot Sitric held on the day on which King Edward was alive and dead, and it rendered geld for half a hide. This can be ploughed by four ploughs. Of it the Abbot has half a virgate and a half and three ploughs. There the Abbot has four villeins and nine bordars, and five serfs and four head of cattle, and seventy sheep, and thirty four goats, and hald an acre of meadow, and thirty acres of pasture. This Manor is worth forty shillings; and when the Abbot received it, it was worth twenty shillings.

The “joint ownership” of Plymstock’s chapel was contentious to both religious houses for a simple reason – money.

 The Abbot of Tavistock, as Lord of the Manor, owned the land upon which the chapel stood; however, the Prior of Plympton claimed his ancient right to the chapel which included the appointment of the chaplain and, more importantly, his right to the tithes. Understandably friction arose from the Abbot at Tavistock because of the wealth created from tithes being received by the Prior at Plympton!

THE CHURCH BUILDING and brief chronology

At the time of Domesday Plymstock’s early chapel would have consisted of a small nave and chancel – large enough to accommodate the relatively small population of Plymstock at that time.

As a relatively wealthy parish and with a growing population the chapel was extended during the C14 to accommodate the south aisle and with this the creation of the south porch (which is now the vestry). It would be nice to think that the south aisle was erected at around the same time as when the dedication of the chapel as All Saints appears in Episcopal papers. If this were to be the case, we could roughly date the building work to between 1334 and 1352.

Further population increases saw further enlargement of the chapel and by the late C15, say 1480, the chapel had been extended with the completion of the north aisle.

Plymstock Church, 1910
St Mary & All Saints, Plymstock, c1910
St Mary & All Saints, Plymstock, (2014)

We can assume that the Rood Screen and Loft was also erected at around this time. Therefore by the late C15 or early C16 the physical church as we know it today was in existence.

The Reformation put an end to all squabbles between the two religious houses. The dissolution of the monasteries saw the end of Tavistock Abbey, surrendered in 1538, and Plympton Priory which was dissolved in 1539.

On 7 October 1547, King Edward VI granted to the Dean and Canons of Windsor, the rectory and church of Plympton, with the chapels of Plymstock, Wembury, Shaugh, Sampford Spiney, Plympton St Maurice and Brixton.

During the English Civil War, Plymstock was witness to various camps of Royalist troops who based themselves in and around the village. The Parish Registers for 1643 include a very long list of burials; including that of Revd Nathaniel Adams, of Plymstock, either there was great loss of life though fighting in the area (most of the names are of men) – or there was plaque or pestilence in the area.

The dedication of the church to St Mary and All Saints becomes standard only from about 1742.

Of all the sources available to paint a picture of St Mary’s during the C19 the most informative is the Rural Deans Visitation Book which begins in 1823 and contains an almost annual account of items relating to the church fabric, both internally and externally. The Visitation Book is the only source to provide a record of the embellishment of the church and provides interesting information about the beautiful stained glass windows we see in church today.

Plymstock’s C15 Rood Screen – a shell of its medieval form but a wonderful and very important ecclesiastical survival, (2014)

In 1866 the church underwent a typically Victorian “restoration”. Of the “great” 1866 restoration, archive local newspapers have proved a valuable source of information. The restoration of St Mary’s was comprehensively covered by the Western Morning News during November that year, its key paragraph reads as follows:

The battlements have been restored, and the tower denuded of its plaster coverings, picked over, cleaned and pointed; three entirely new roofs are fixed, covered, plastered, and completed; the southern aisle rebuilt; the internal arches and pillars restored to the perpendicular, picked over, cleaned and pointed; the unseemly pews removed; the stone work of most of the windows replaced; and the cumbrous galleries pulled down, throwing open the west window and the arch which connects the tower with the body of the church, both of which were obliterated. Numerous other minor but important repairs are in process of execution.

The C19 was one of great development inside St Mary’s in terms of restoration and beautification. Five of the eight stained glass windows in the Church were installed prior to 1900 and during the incumbency of the Reverend Arthur St Quentin Sproule (1884-1895) the Church subscribed itself to the Anglo Catholic tradition – as can be evidenced by the beautification of the chancel during this period. The High Altar carried a dedication panel to him which informs us it was dedicated at Easter 1895.

Chancel mosaic surrounding High Altar – focusing on the Eucharist, dating from the mid 1890s, (2014)

Under the Revd Sproule, five of our most beautiful stained glass windows were erected. Three of the windows, by the Hardman Company of Birmingham are of the very best quality possible whilst the east window and south chancel window are the work of Fouracre and Son of Stonehouse, Plymouth – the east window being considered a “masterpiece”.

The C20 undid a great amount of the nineteenth century beautification and this saw the removal of the reredos, tiles and other Victorian “improvements” in the chancel.

The stunning High Altar Crucifix and great East Window, (2014)

The Lady Chapel and Memorial Chapel were creations of the C20 which saw the removal of the organ to the tower arch and removal of the tower stained glass window to the north aisle.

Since the early C21 the Church has continued to be restored and reordered – much like it has been for the previous 1000 years – although I’m rather a traditionalist and cannot profess to love the modern changes as much as I’d have loved to see all the beautiful C19 embellishments!

The history of St Mary & All Saints is our history and marks the real history of Plymstock.

 © Graham Naylor