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St Eustachius, Tavistock

A visit to Tavistock presented the opportunity to visit the wonderful parish church of St Eustachius. This is a large church with a fascinating history spanning almost 700 years.

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St Eustachius’ fine C14 tower and south aisle (from SW)

There is much of interest within the church; fantastic ancient memorials and beautiful stained glass windows alongside intricately carved bench ends and an unusual large organ screen which is well worth noting.

The early life of the Church was linked with the neighbouring Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady and St Rumon. The Abbey, completed by 981 remained in existence until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1539. How different our religious and ecclesiastical history might be if this incident in British history had not occurred! But, for the citizen of the C21 we benefit from viewing some of the wonderful relics of the former Abbey still in existence in Tavistock today.

The parish church is one of only two in England dedicated to the roman soldier martyr, Saint Eustachius. Records exist which refer to this dedication at Tavistock as early as 1265.

No remnants of the earliest church survive; the building we see today being largely a product of a rebuild by Abbot Robert Champeaux and dedicated in 1318 and of a later rebuild towards the end of the C14.

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Interior of nave looking towards chancel

During my visit today I paid special attention to the many varied stained glass windows. The windows are the work of many different companies and portray a wide range of stunning images.

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There are no windows existent in the church prior to the mid-C19 and the church guide makes clear that the most ‘notable’ window is that erected in the St Mary Magdalene Chapel which was made by William Morris from designs by Edward Burne-Jones. This window which dates from 1876 is magnificent indeed.

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Morris window to the memory of John Hornbrook Gill, died 1874 and erected in 1876

Gerry Woodcock’s “Homage to St Eustachius: a history of Tavistock Parish Church” reveals some of the background to this window:

The second Gill window was the work of the renowned designer William Morris. He was the nephew of Thomas Morris, the first managing director of the spectacularly successful Devon Great Consols Mine, who lived at Abbotsfield Hall, where William was a regular visitor. In 1864 Alice Morris, Thomas’ sister and William’s aunt, married Reginald Hornbrook Gill, heir to the Gill family’s commercial and industrial fortunes. Ten years later Reginald’s father, John, died. Reginald requested his wife’s nephew William, by now an eminent public figure, to design a memorial window. The result is near the north-east corner of the chancel, and is the single most visited, and most admired, piece of art and design in the building.

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Detail of Prophet Daniel from the Morris window, 1876

There are two particularly interesting monuments in the church; the Fitz monument and the Glanville monument.

The Fitz monument commemorated the memories of John Fitz (1528-1589) an his wife Mary Sydenham. An effigy of their son, John, kneels behind them.

I found the Glanville monument especially interesting. This monument was erected in 1615 to the memory of Sir John Glanville (1542-1600) by his wife, Alicia (then married to Francis Godolphin). The life-size effigies of Sir John and Alicia are really remarkable; although the smaller effigies of their children (minus their heads!) is somewhat disturbing. Perhaps these smaller effigies suffered during the English Civil War in the C17?

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The remarkable Glanvill[e] memorial in the Lady Chapel

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Lady Alicia Glanville, nee Skerritt, buried 26 April 1632

The font dates from the C15 and bears a modern cover and pedestal. The church guide informs the reader that there are no surviving Baptism Registers prior to 1614 which is rather a shame. It’s been though that Sir Francis Drake could have been baptised at this font since the Drake family of Crowndale resided in the parish.

Interestingly, inside the porch remain the carved stone Arms of Queen Elizabeth I. These probably came from a memorial to the Queen once inside the church and likely removed during a restoration of 1844-46.

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Arms of Queen Elizabeth I

The churchyard retains only a small portion of ancient headstones. These are the family historians dream not only for the surviving inscriptions but also from their intricate carving and style. These really are a rare treat and deserve special attention.

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Mary, the wife of William Gill, buried 3 September 1746

Many of the headstones are mid C18 with one or two exceptions; the large stone to John Cornish, Gent., of 1625 is a very special survivor. Probably this stone lived in the church for much of its early life and was possibly moved outside during the C19.

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John Cornish, Gent., buried 14 July 1625

In all, I consider this to be one of Devon’s very finest parish churches. Its size and spendour are evident signs of the importance of Tavistock and its place within Devon’s history for 700 years. No visitor to Tavistock should bypass this wonderful House of God!

© Graham Naylor

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