St Mary the Virgin, Bickleigh

The beautiful semi-rural parish church of St Mary the Virgin, Bickleigh is a church I’ve known and loved for much of my life. Within God’s Acre lay many of my ancestors who farmed within the Parish during the past 300 years, at least.

St Mary the Virgin, Bickleigh

My visit was greeted to find the church open – and what a treat. The last time I visited Bickleigh the church was locked, always a disappointment!

St Mary the Virgin isnt overly ornate, nor that ancient, depending on one’s point of view. The bulk of the building is a product of various C19 restorations and a rebuild in 1838. In many ways the pre-1838 ancient building is one I’d dearly love to have seen and the church today has made great steps in modernity! The great east window, is to me, slightly reminiscent of the modern stained glass at St Andrew’s Minster in Plymouth. Im not sure I can say I love it – but somehow it works -and the reredos is jolly spectacular!

Bickleigh Church, c1908.jpg
The nave and chancel at Bickleigh, c1900-1910
The nave and chancel at Bickleigh, 2016

There are few vestiges of antiquity left within the church, save a few memorials upon the walls of the north and south aisles as well as in the chancel. The Church borders onto the Barracks of 42 Cdo Royal Marines and this close association with the Royal Marines is well, and importantly so, represented within her hallowed walls.

My own associations with Bickleigh stem from the marriage of George SELLECK and Mary CALLARD at the church on 16 December 1757. Mary’s parents, Edward and Elizabeth had arrived at Bickleigh in the 1720s from the parishes of Holne and Buckfastleigh. In the ensuing generations my ancestors married into most of the local families ensuring that many of the early residents in the churchyard are in one way or another relations of mine. In many ways wandering the churchyard here (and at neighbouring Shaugh Prior) is rather humbling and I feel like I’m walking in their own footsteps.

It is always special to locate the final resting places of my forebears. The churchyard at Bickleigh (which contains a majority of headstones from the C19 to current) still hints at the past with a small number of pre 1800 headstones dotted around the churchyard, some marking their original places. There are a good number of SELLECK headstones still visible and in some cases one is able to see head and foot stones in their original places. The footstones being especially interesting as they are often carved with lines of text from scripture.

Footstone for William SELLECK, my 6th great grand-uncle who died on 12 June 1791

The pre-1838 church is one we today can only imagine – although we can find some help from John Cremer BELLAMY, a surgeon in Plymouth, in the words of a newspaper article published in Plymouth during the late 1840s or early 1850s.

Bellamy provides much information of interest. The quotes below are taken from his article.

Bickleigh parish is in the Hundred of Roborough. The population is scarcely 400.

The minister of the church is a Vicar, appointed by Sir R. Lopes, as patron and impropriator; the chapel of Sheepstor is a Curacy, an adjunct of Bickleigh, the two being one gift; by which it would seem as if, when Sheepstor was thus joined as a dependent, the district of that chapel was either part of the parish of Bickleigh, or else not yet parochially constituted.

That an ecclesiastical building for worship existed here in the 13th century is clear from a taxation by Nich. 4th., made during 1288 to 1291, in which “Bikgelegh cum capell (de Shipstor)” is valued at £6, the tenths appearing at 12s., and the ecclesiastical benefice at £4 6s. 8d.

Of the edifice standing in the “Decorated” period, we find no decided remnant. That which stood up to 1838, and of which the present building is the restoration, seems to have been wholly “Florid” – nothing of a previous age, a font excepted, was left to be carried onward in its memory. It was built upon the customary plan of giving sufficient accommodation to the parish in a nave and single aisle, and leaving it to a posterity whose equal or greater devotion would induce it to add the second aisle and complete the plan of symmetry first devised. But it is very remarkable – and I here state the fact, one for all, in reference to a number of our churches, – that before the energy of that posterity had arranged for the addition of such aisles, time had effected such encroachments that the entire edifices had crumbled.

Font at St Mary the Virgin, Bickleigh

The restoration of 1838, effected at the charge of Sir R. Lopes, may be thus briefly delineated:- a tolerably large chancel, a nave, a north and a south aisle, a porch near the south-west corner, and a vestiarium on the south side of the chancel. The square tower at the west extremity is the original member.

All this perpendicular work had been, in its pillars, doorways, mullions, etc., wrought in Roborough Down stone, and the same excepting only the shafts of the arches, suffered a re-working with the tool, and looks exceedingly handsome. This porphyry entered into various details of the edifice, seeming to have been a favourite and generally used substance in sacred buildings in that era. However the old shafts of porphyry have given place to some of granite, and these are moulded differently to the original. Of course an arcade had to be formed on the north, where, in the old building, there stood the boundary wall of the nave, with its windows.

At the entrance of the porch may be noticed the remains of the old dedication cross in sunken sculpture, in a slab of porphyry. On the green, without the wall of the grave-yard, is a tolerably perfect Cross, about 12 feet, or more, high, the substance chiefly porphyry. I am told it originally stood within the church-yard. I have elsewhere noted that an antique tomb is of the same substance. So also is the large elegant Font, covered with the foliations and tendrils of the vine, worked on eight sides. The surface produced by the tool on this stone, does not proceed beyond roughness.

The tower, a pinnacled one of fine proportions, had 6 bells, of good tone. They occasionally chime forth a merry peal after evening service, a custom continued down from very ancient times when such things were not deemed – as indeed they are, not yet, proved to be – infringements on the character of the Sabbath. But, I may here say this, that at Bickleigh and elsewhere, generally, many ancient customs, games, and gatherings especially, are being discountenanced, and lost but in the chronicles of the antiquary, not from any vice essentially inherent to them, but, because from the pressure of these times, multiplied temptations and increased population, there is a liability about them to involve the poor in degradations and mischiefs peculiarly their own.

The ancient tower with its amazing pinnacles!

The arrangement of furniture space, &c., in the interior is as follows:

The communion table is raised a trifle and the chancel is here railed across for convenience of communicants; the vestry opens into the chancel just westward of these rails; the chancel is itself sufficiently raised above the church to aid the voice and sight of the minister; the raised flooring extends a few feet into the body of the church, indicating the point where the rood loft stretched across, and on it at the junction of the chancel and nave, are the small reading desk or lectern and the finely carved new stone pulpit, while on either side at the ends of the aisles are respectively the manor seat and the minister’s family seat; the poor have the nave devoted to them, a double row of comfortable oak benches being provided the whole length, the women in the south row and very agreeably to an ancient and faithfully preserved custom; the farmers occupy closed seats in the two aisles; just within the south-west doorway is the font, and a similar enclosure at the west end of the north aisle is given to strangers; under the bell loft of the tower is the small but good organ, and in advance of the tower arch are the singers, school children and clerk with his lectern. The rebuilding of this church on the medieval pattern had secured it the best architectural qualities and the present good management of the church matters in the parish enables the authorities to second those features by admirable cleanliness, and, in winter, by comfortable warmth.

The chancel window is elegant though simple. In the upper spaces of its tracery appear, in the centre the Royal Arms; on the north side those of the See and Province, and on the south side the Arms of Lopes, from whose property the restoration was defrayed. Under this window there is some elegant tabular work to receive texts of scripture, &c.

The only other entrance to the church, besides the south-west one, is an elegant doorway on the west side of the tower, but it admits only the singers, and those who have to ascend the tower by the flight of steps in its north-west angle. Besides the chancel window, the aisles are lighted by 4 windows on the north and 3 on the south, whilst over the tower door is a similarly constructed one lighting the building from the west. The roofs are at several points ornamented with Greek crosses.

The beautiful stained glass window of the south aisle

Interestingly, and importantly for family/local historians, Bellamy provides monumental inscription details from the memorials within the church at the time of his writing.

The records of deceased persons buried in the church, with the dates of decease are as follows:


Here lyeth the body of the pious and charitable Madam Mary DEAN, daughter of Sir James MODYFORD, Bart., and grand-daughter of that loyal gentleman Sir Nicholas SLANNING, Bart., who lost his life fighting in the defence of his Royal Master King Charles the 1st. Date 1734.

Here lyeth the body of the pious and charitable Lady Elizabeth MODYFORD, relict of the Honble, Sir James MODYFORD, and daughter of the loyal gentleman Sir Nicholas SLANNING, who valient and heroically ventured and lost his life fighting for the good of his country, and his Royal Master King Charles the 1st. Date 1724. Age 91.

(The annotators of Prince and Risdon mention this lady as sister instead of daughter of Sir Nicholas, and as a daughter instead of grand-daughter of Gamaliel.)

 ___ ROWE, A.M., 1791

Eliza. ROWE, 1795

John HERRING, “Vicar of this Parish”, 1743

Rebecca, wife of same

Thomas Arthur CREW, “Vicar of this Parish 26 years”, 1785

Three of the children of Sir R. LOPES, Bart., and Dame Susan Gibbs LOPES, his wife, of Maristow, 1823, 1826, 1832

Nehemiah Augustus HUNT, 1818

Rev. Warwick HUNT, D.D., “Vicar of this Parish and of Tamerton Foliot”, 1830

Thomas Horatio WALKER, M.A., “10 years Vicar of this Parish”, 1841

Emma Maria and Maria Stevens WALKER, his children, 1837, 1840


John MEARDON, 1812. A faithful steward to James MODYFORD HEYWOOD, Esq., and Sir Francis Henry DRAKE, Bart., and latterly to the Right Hon. Lord Heathfield, and Sir Masseh LOPES, Bart.

Ann, his wife, 1807.


Dame Charlotte LOPES, relict of Sir M. M. LOPES of Maristow, 1833

“Sir Manaseh Masseh LOPES, Bart., of Maristow, in the parish of Tamerton Foliot, who died March 26, 1831, in the 77th year of his age. He established himself at Maristow in 1798. He was for many years a magistrate and Deputy-Lieutenant of this county. He served the office of High Sheriff, in the year 1819, and was Colonel of Local Militia. He was Recorder of the Borough of Westbury (Wiltshire), and a member of the House of Commons in several Parliaments. Sir Ralph LOPES (his nephew), who succeeded to his title and estates erected this”.

(A handsome hatchment of the Arms of Sir M. and his lady, formerly hung in the church. At the renovation it was sent to the school room; but though not legally replaceable in the church itself, it was very properly set up in the vestry, as hereby saving it from the injury it might elsewhere receive.)


Henry BECHER, “nominated to this vicarage, which he lived not to take possession of”, 1753

Caleb MARCH, 1753

Jonathan MARCH, 1892

Daniel MARCH, 1801

James HEYWOOD, 1784

Eliz. Coyte HUNT (widow of Warwick HUNT, Vicar of this Parish), 1849

Eliz. Hill HUNT, 1825

Next, Bellamy provides invaluable information relating to the SLANNING memorial that once stood in the church. The “modern” memorial in the church being also described:

Against the east wall of the south aisle adjoining a door which once led to into the vestry, stood the monumental work in memory of Nicholas SLANNING and his wife, – the grand-parents of the more celebrated Sir Nicholas. It comprised a square, ornamental and sculptured work in divisions with emblems and inscriptions; under which, on an altar tomb, appeared the effigies of the deceased. When Prince wrote his “Worthies”, 1790, this monument was dilapidated and the inscriptions scarcely legible. Accordingly, at the restoration of the church in 1838, one course only remained open to the renovators – the reproduction of the whole (the brass excepted) in facsimile. A gift of £30 from someone kindred I believe to this notable family. I have learnt that a few years since the embers of the race had not quite died out in Plymouth – enabled the parish to produce a very elegant copy. Only, the effigies are not restored and the distich spoken of by Prince, beginning “As time” &c., does not appear. Neither was the same spot chosen, for, the monument now stands over the south doorway towards the west end of the aisle.

Memorial to Nicholas SLANNING above south-west doorway

The SLANNING monument as it now exists, is a square work in several compartments, the whole bordered. Just over the top border is Slanning’s coat of arms complete, with those of his wife; beneath that border is a horizontal rib of stone having three other coats of arms cut in it; then follows a semicircular sunken space with a Latin inscription; then an oblong slab having a death’s head and motto, and on either side, a coat of arms; then, inserted in an ornamental division of the work below the bottom border, is a plate of brass with some lines of poetry, date of decease, &c. Surmounting the entire work is a helmet and glove of steel.

The Latin inscription is this:

Idem caedis erat nostrae simul auctor et ultor

Trux homicida mei mox homicida sui

Quemque in me primum mox in se condidit ensem

O! nostrum summi judicis arbitrium

Round the sculptured medallion-like skull are the words, “O man remember thy end”.

The moralities and reference to the qualities of Mr SLANNING on the brass tablet, are engraved in the old English characters, and are as follows:

Mans lyfe on erth is, as Job sayth, a warfare and a toyle

Where nought is wonne, when all is donne, but an uncertayne spoyle

Of things most vayne, and for long payne, nothing to man is lefte

Save virtue sure, which doth endure, and cannot be berefte

A prouffe of this apparent is by Nicholas Slannyng here

Who, as we sawe, alpt for God’s lawe right famouse did apperee

In just and right was his delyght to exercise the laws

To wrong no weigh but as he myght to help the friendlesse cause

The fere of God and his rod was styll before his eies

Constant in fayth and no wise the truth would he disgies.

Each line of the above contains in itself a rhyme complete, besides a terminating syllable to rhyme with another line.

Immediately below this effusion we have in the same characters and on the same brass:

“Nicholas SLANNYNG, Esquier, lyvd 59 yeres, and endid the 8th day of Aprill, in the yere of our Lorde God, 1583”

The several armorial coats represent families into which the Slanning’s married, one of the nearest being the Champernon’s.

Inscription panel to Nicholas SLANNYNG, 1583

Also, of special interest is the information regarding the supposed tomb of a medieval priest buried in the churchyard. Happily the slab described still exists in good preservation:

The only monument of high antiquity, and that but medieval, in connection with the church, is one belonging to a series now, through the work of time and carelessness, becoming extinct. It is a low altar tomb external to the southern aisle. The stone employed is the same porphyry as that used for the pillars, mullions, and arches of the church; the covering slab has on it a very strange device unaccompanied by any direct intimation of name, circumstances, or date – a Latin cross raised on a pedestal, the three points with a fleur de lis to each, and each of the arms of the cross supported, as it were, by a long rib or stay reaching nearly to the foot. At a certain point in the left hand stay occurs the interruption of a figure like a goblet or chalice, and in the opposite rib, at a similar spot was some other interrupting figure (query the “Host”), but it has been broken off. Conjecture as to the party entombed seems to promise no satisfactory result. The Rev. Mr. Cork seems to think the emblems denote the deceased to have been a Roman Catholic Priest; and, I think it may safely be said, the work is nearly coeval with the last medieval building of the church. A tomb, somewhat of the same kind in symbol, but having a date occurs at St Burian, in Cornwall, and those are churches where such tomb coverings, or slabs in pavements are not few.

Medieval Priest’s tomb – oh! to know more on the history of this…!

On the exterior of the east wall of the north aisle, there is a monument to John HERRING, apothecary of Plymouth, son of Rev. John HERRING and Rebecca his wife. Died at Bickleigh, his native place, 1778.

So thanks to Bellamy, we can glimpse something of this beautiful church 160 years ago. But as is importantly the case, the church at Bickleigh is a living church and changes to the church since then reflect changes in liturgy and taste. St Mary the Virgin is a special church indeed, one I love to visit and contemplate in, and one I hope to visit again soon!

© Graham Naylor