St Mary’s Church, Plympton

Plympton St Mary Church stands like a Cathedral in the ancient Stannary Town of Plympton; nowadays a highly populated suburb of modern Plymouth.

St Mary’s Church is truly beautiful. Its scale is Cathedral like and surely rivals any church in the locality – its lofty scale reminding me of St Andrew’s Church in Plymouth (although that Church is bigger) as well as St Eustachius at Tavistock.

With Tavistock, Plympton St Mary has a common connection in that they are both ancient religious sites – that of an Abbey at Tavistock – and in Plympton’s case, the magnificent Pre-Reformation Priory. Although the Priory was swept away in the Reformation parts of the foundations survive as well as many stone artefacts. It’s often said that many houses in Plympton were built, at least in part, with stone robbed from the old Priory.


Returning to St Mary’s Church we find ourselves at a building of great interest. It was certainly embellished and restored during the C19, but unlike some restorations, this Church was clearly beautified – as the stained glass windows in the very least will testify. Indeed the stained glass here is particularly fine and varied. My dream!

Of all the windows, I find the East Window particularly stunning. It was installed in the mid-1860s in memory of one of the Lords Morley or Borringdon… more research to follow.

Part of the MAJESTIC East Window

In 2011 St Mary’s Church celebrated her 700th birthday – with historical records informing us that the Church was dedicated on 29 October 1311. The Church was built upon grounds of the Priory burial ground and came about due to the need for a new Church (through increased population, or the pressure of the Community at the Priory).

John Stabb in his Some Old Devon Churches series talks about Plympton St Mary:


The Church consists of chancel with priest’s door, nave, north and south aisles, north and south chapels opening out of the aisles, south porch, and west tower with eight bells.


In the chancel is a trefoil headed piscina with drain and shelf, and triple sedilia with trefoil heads. The east end of the sanctuary is panelled with marble, the modern carved reredos has panels representing the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Entombment.

The east window is filled with modern stained glass.

There is a hagioscope in the chapel at the east end of the south aisle, and in the south wall is an ancient monument with recumbent figure, it is in memory of Philip Courtenay of Loughtor (now Newnham Park). The figure, much mutilated, is arrayed in plate armour. The front base of the monument has canopied niches with figures, they are in a very bad state of preservation, the monument dates from about 1514. There are some small remains of ancient glass in the upper portion of the east window. The walled-up doorway in the south wall conceals the staircase which led to the rood-screen, this, and the marks on the pillars for the attachment of a screen, prove its former existence, but there is nothing remaining now.

The hagioscope, or ‘squint’ which enabled those of former times in the Chapel to view the priest at the High Altar during Mass

There are the remains of a piscina placed rather high in the south wall. On the east wall is a marble tablet in memory of the Snelling family, sometime of Chaddlewood, with dates from 1622 to 1673.

The east window of the north aisle chapel contains in the top lights some remains of ancient glass, bearing the arms of Hill of Shilston on the left, and Hill of Hill’s Court, on the right.

St Katherine’s Chapel

On the north side of this chapel is a very fine tomb erected in memory of Richard Strode, of Newnham, in this parish, who died in 1464. Beneath a canopy rests a male figure arrayed in plate armour, the hands in the attitude of prayer, the head with long hair rests on a helmet. The front of the tomb has eleven niches with figures of monks holding their rosaries. The centre niche has a representation of the Holy Trinity. The Father with His Hand raised in blessing and holding a crucifix between His knees and a dove at the top of the cross. Mrs Jameson says in her “History of Our Lord” that this device, known by the name of the Italian Trinity, obtained a strange popularity from the 12th to the 17th century, exhibiting little variety of composition during all those ages. With the exception of a carving on a tomb in Ashwater Church, this is the only carved representation of this device I have met with in a Devonshire Church. Other niches contain figures of St Paul, St Katherine, the Blessed Virgin and Child, and St John. At each end of the tomb are pinnacles, each with two niches, these niches contain figures of St Matthew, St Mark, St Luke and St John, with their usual emblems.

Monument for Richard Stode, d.1464 in St Katherine’s Chapel

On the north wall of the chapel is the monument of William Strode. In the centre is a kneeling male figure in armour with his hand on his sword; on either side of the centre figure are effigies of females kneeling at a desk; on a panel beneath the left hand figure are the half figures of the seven daughters and three sons of Sir William. The two female figures at the desk represent Mary the first wife, who died in 1617, and Dyonisia the second Lady Strode. Underneath the right hand figure is a representation of Death cutting a flower with a sickle, the flower is held by a hand appearing out of a cloud.

On the third pier from the east end of the north aisle is an image niche, and on a line with this pier, in the north wall, a filled-in doorway.

Statue of Our Lady on the niche (pillar of north aisle)

The south porch with parvise is worthy of notice. Above the doorway are three canopied niches. The highest of these, above the parvise window, has a representation of the Holy Trinity; the Father is seated with the cross in front, the dove is missing. The lower niches have figures of the Blessed Virgin, and the Angel Gabriel; in the centre between the niches are the remains of a tree with helmet and wreath, the crest of the Strode family.

South Porch with niches above



The roof of the porch has carved bosses, the centre one bearing a representation of the Crucifixion. There are three niches over the inner doorway, but the images are missing. In the south-east corner is a holy water stoup, and the eastern wall has a window which has been filled in.

Another historian, this time the Rev. Mercer Cox, of Plympton, wrote a detailed history of the Parish in the early part of the C20. It takes the religious history of Plympton through the days of the Priory and the creation of the Parish Church.

His work proves very interesting as it fills in much that Stabb doesn’t include. For example the Rev. Mercer Cox says:

The massive tower at the western end of the church rises to a height of 91 feet measured from the ground to the battlements, and the turrets with their pinnacles are 20 feet in height.


The tower contains a remarkably fine peal of eight bells, two of which bear the date 1614. These probably were two bells in use previously. Down to the time of the Reformation we believe even cathedrals were restricted to five or seven bells, and parish churches to three or two. Four bells were added to our tower in the eighteenth century, and two more in the nineteenth, thus completing the peal of eight.

With regards to the chancel, the Rev. Mercer Cox completes more history for us:

Passing into the chancel, the choir seats and side screens should be noticed. They are beautiful examples of carving by the Misses Pinwill from the designs of Mr E. H. Sedding. The former were given by the late Earl of Morley as a memorial of his mother, the Dowager Countess of Morley. The latter were erected by the present Earl in memory of his father.

The organ is a fine instrument by Messrs Lewis of London, completed by Messrs Hele of Plymouth. It was given at the cost of nearly a thousand pounds by the late Mr W. H. Osmond, who amassed a large fortune in Australia. He ever retained a strong affection for Plympton, and before his death left directions that his remains should be buried in St Mary’s Churchyard. His body now lies in a vault near the churchyard cross. A kneeling angel on a pedestal forms the monument over the vault.

Happily also, the Rev. Mercer Cox says much of interest about the altar and reredos:

The altar consists of a fine slab of Devonshire marble mounted on a plain wooden substructure which contains part of the wood work of the communion table before existing.

The reredos is of Mansfield red stone with panels of Caen stone representing in relief the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Entombment. On the left hand side are angels bearing musical instruments mentioned in the Bible; and on the right hand side, angels with instruments of the Passion. The whole stands above a panelling of Devonshire marble. It was erected by faculty in 1885 by the family of the Rev. Merton Smith in memory of their brother, who for eleven years was the respected vicar of the parish. It was designed by the late Mr J. D. Sedding and executed by Mr Seale of Brixton.

[The brass cross in the centre of the reredos is said to have been presented to the Rev. Merton Smith by some parishioners prior to his death.]

High Altar and Merton Smith memorial reredos

The reredos previously existing was given by the late Colonel Symons, of Chaddlewood, and a portion of it now stands against the east wall of the exterior north aisle. When this was erected in the chancel in 1845, two aumbreys were discovered on the south side in the east wall. The larger of these was about three feet high and four feet in width. Both are now concealed by the panelling.

Late C14 Font of Roborough Stone

© Graham Naylor