St Werburgh’s Church, Wembury

There can be few, if any, parish churches in Devon sited in a more beautiful and picturesque location than St Werburgh’s. Standing as it does above the beach, opposite the Mewstone it is easy to see why the church has become a favourite to couples planning a wedding.

St Werburgh’s Church, with Mewstone in background

There is of course more of interest to St Werburgh’s than its location. The church itself, dedicated to St Werburgh is of interest. Wikipedia helpfully says that St Werburgh:

…was born at Stone (now in Staffordshire), and was the daughter of King Wulfhere of Mercia (himself the Christian son of the pagan King Penda of Mercia) and his wife St Ermenilda, herself daughter of the King of Kent. She obtained her father’s consent to enter the Abbey of Ely, which had been founded by her great aunt Etheldreda (or Audrey), the first Abbess of Ely and former queen of Northumbria, whose fame was widespread. Werburgh was trained at home by St. Chad (afterwards Bishop of Lichfield), and by her mother; and in the cloister by her aunt and grandmother. Werburgh was a nun for most of her life. During some of her life she was resident in Weedon Bec, Northamptonshire.

 Werburh was instrumental in convent reform across England. She eventually succeeded her mother Ermenilda, her grandmother Seaxburh, and great-aunt Etheldreda as fourth Abbess of Ely.

 Werburgh died on 3 February 700. She was buried at Hanbury in Staffordshire and her remains were later transferred to Chester, of which church and monastery she became the great patroness.

So Wembury’s parish church carries an unusual dedication for a church on the south Devon Coast; there being no apparent connection to St Werburgh in this part of the country.

The church building we see today dates largely from the 15C although it is of course much changed, internally at least – latterly during a restoration of the church in 1886.

The chancel at St Werburgh’s Church

The tower contains six bells, the ‘newest’ bell was added as a war memorial in 1949.

There is much to see of interest inside the church. The font, pulpit and pews are especially beautifully carved. These are the work of Mr Hems of Exeter in 1886.

Two stained glass windows in the church particularly interested me, being the work of Fouracre and Watson, of Stonehouse; these windows being the chancel window and the tower window. The chancel east window is unusual being made up of geometric patterns instead of figures. The dedicational panel running across the bottom of the window is obscured by the reredos but it is probably a memorial to the Cory family. The tower window acts as the dedication window, depicting St Werburgh holding a church or cathedral, possibly Chester Cathedral?

St Werburgh Window in the Tower, 1886

Of the other stained glass windows the best by far, in my view, is the east window of the south aisle. It is a modern work, the ‘Millennium Window’ installed in 2004. It is particularly attractive and casts a beautiful light into the church.

The church contains a great number of memorials – a real treasure trove. The most splendid of these commemorate the Hele Family and Calmady Family (in the chancel) and Dame Elizabeth Narborough (SW corner).

The Hele memorial stands to the memory of Sir John Hele who died in 1608 and his family. The memorial holds small figures of the Hele children whilst Sir John is semi-reclining, proped up on one elbow. Below and in front of him is his wife, recumbent, with their little girl seated on a chair by her feet.

On the opposite side of the chancel stands a large memorial to Elizabeth Calmady, who died in 1694. It carried a long epitaph in Latin. This is one of many other memorials in the church to the Calmady family. There are some ancient ledger stones in the chancel to members of the family.

The memorial to Dame Elizabeth Narborough is a remarkable free-standing memorial surrounded by a contemporary iron railing. It is made of black and white marble and is incredibly striking. Dame Narborough was the daughter of Josias Calmady, of Wembury and the wife of Sir John Narborough. She died in January 1677/78 after less than a year of marriage.

Also of interest in the south aisle is an Australian flag and Western Australian flag. The Western Australia flag was presented to St Werburgh’s in 1941 by the Australian Government to commemorate the unfurling of the first Union Flag in Western Australia by a Wembury man, Major Edward Lockyer, in 1826. At the presentation ceremony in August 1941 the Australian flag was unfurled by Australian Airmen, presumably based at the nearby RAF Mount Batten at Hooe. The Australian flag was presented to the church in 1979.

Millennium Window in south aisle, St Werburgh’s Church

The church is surrounded by an interesting churchyard filled with lovely ancient stones. There can be few more beautiful locations to rest in God’s-acre than here in Wembury. Overall this is one of my favourite places to “get away from it all” – even if just for a few minutes. The peace and tranquility are hard to beat – not least as its almost impossible to get a phone signal at the church!

© Graham Naylor