Today I visited the beautiful parish church of St Paul de Leon at Staverton. It’s a church that has been on my visit list for some time as I had seen photos of its superb Rood Screen – I knew I had to see it for real and I was not disappointed.
It being the 29th of December and during the Octave of Christmas it was a joy to discover the church be-decked in festive decorations – a superb and huge Christmas tree alongside a beautiful nativity crib scene and evergreen garlands over the central nave aisle. Actually it was rather reminiscent of the best C19 Christmas scenes one sometimes notices in archive photographs of church interiors from Christmas past… The ability therefore to step back in time, in solitude, within God’s House was most welcome today!
Regarding its history, the 1890 Devon Directory doesn’t provide much information about St Paul de Leon at Staverton, however it does offer us a pre-restoration glimpse at the Rood Screen –
The PARISH CHURCH (St Paul) contains a Perpendicular screen, stretching across the whole width of the church. It is unique in some of its features, but, although patched up from time to time has been and still is in an imperfect state, but through the liberality of a friend of the vicar, it is about to be entirely restored at the cost of £700. It has a curious ‘Prie Dieu‘ monument to members of the family of Worthe, or Worthy, the ancient owners of the manor of Metherell, and the donors of this property to the Chapter of Exeter. Many of the windows are filled with stained glass. There is a good peal of six bells. The registers date from 1614. The living is a vicarage, valued in K.B. at £32. 14s. 9 1/2 d., and in 1831 at £394. The Rev. J. B. Hughes*, M.A., is the incumbent, and has a good residence and 3A. 31P of glebe.
[This is the Rev. John Bickley Hughes, M.A., vicar and rural dean]
The best account of the church from the early C20 is of course to be found in John Stabb’s “Some Old Devon Churches”, Volume 1, published in 1908. Stabb’s view of the church in 1908 nicely bridges the gap and documents developments since the 1890 Directory had been published.
Stabb says –
STAVERTON. St Paul’s. (Three miles from Totnes).
The present Church consists of chancel, nave, north and south aisles, south porch with parvise approached by a broad staircase, and west tower, seventy five feet five inches high, containing six bells.
It is probable that there was formerly a Norman Church on the site, as there is part of a Norman arch on the western side of the churchyard, composed of red sandstone, and stones of the same composition have been built into various parts of the Church. The first mention of Staverton Church is on March 25th, 1148, when it was given to the Chapter by Robert, Bishop of Exeter.
In 1881 the dilapidated waggon roof was replaced by one of pitch pine. The stone work of the east and north chancel windows, and also that of the east window of the north aisle, was renewed in 1869, and at the same time the piscina was moved twelve feet to the west, and in its place a recess formed, now used as a credence. There were formerly chapels at the east end of the north and south aisles, the latter dedicated to the Blessed Virgin; the piscina still remains in the south wall; the north chapel is now used as an organ chamber. For many years it was known as the “Worth Chapel,” and on the north wall is a prie dieu monument, dated 1629 belonging to the Worth family, who are known to have been residing in Devonshire in the time of Henry II; the entrance to the roof loft is from this chapel.
The rood screen extends across nave and aisles and is fifty-six feet seven inches in length. The beautiful 15th century carving of the old screen, in fact the whole of the screen, being in a very dilapidated condition, it was decided to restore it in 1891, and to add a gallery front, the old one having been destroyed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth by order of Archbishop Parker. During the demolition of the screen sufficient remains of the old gallery front were found to determine the height, but not enough to enable the original design to be reproduced, so the screen in the north aisle at Atherington was taken as a pattern. On June 7th, 1891, the restored screen was solemnly dedicated. The parclose screens of 15th century date are in very good condition.
There is a fine peal of bells, the 1st, 3rd and 4th of which were cast in 1761 by Thomas Bilbie, the 2nd and 6th were recast in 1856, the 5th dates from 1798.
The first vicar recorded is Walter de Teignmue, September 12th, 1269. The registers date from 1614.
Today’s visit 108 years after John Stabb’s finds the modern church changed but not substantially altered. Here are my thoughts:
The visitor to Staverton is presented with a wonderful view of the church from the neighbouring roadway. At first the building appears shrouded with large evergreen trees but one can soon appreciate the church in all its glory.
Opening the churchyard gate I made my way to the magnificent south porch – alluded to by Stabb – but in passing note only. I found it to be something of a remarkable porch – much larger than you’ll find at most other Devonshire parish churches. It being the Christmas Season the porch was beautifully decorated – and then your eyes behold the stunning and ancient South Door – the grand wooden door (which takes a bit of a push to open)!
Once inside the church my eyes were drawn initially to the scale of the nave – it’s a large building and perhaps not exactly what I’d expected. At first my eyes were not fixed on the rood screen or any other item of furniture – no, it was upon the subtle beauty of the festive decorations within the building. The evergreen garland hanging over the middle aisle and decorations around the nave windows were most beautiful.
The church doesn’t contain much stained glass in the nave – two windows only carry stained glass – one of them, a modern one in the north aisle is particularly effective. This window depicts Christ in Glory and is a memorial to the Rev. Edward Drake-Brockman who was vicar from 1922-1957. The stained glass window in the south aisle (nearest to the south porch) is clearly C19 and remarkable for its deep and effective colouring.
All windows, except one carry replaced window tracery – i.e. this was replaced during the restoration of the church of 1873-82 by Ewan Christian. Although the new window tracery is of a uniform but interesting design it is a shame that more of the old doesnt remain here.
The church has a “modern” nave altar – possessing a lovely frontal – and although I’m not a huge fan of nave altars (!) this works very well – the rood screen acting almost as the most breath-taking reredos!
The chancel is filled with stained glass – the east window as well as the north and south chancel windows. The High Altar dates from 1949 and represents the work of the locally-famous and renowned wood carver, Violet Pinwill. The former High Altar being considered too small and unsuitable was relocated to the Lady Chapel in the south aisle.
The former chapel at the east end of the north aisle is still used as the organ chamber, referenced to by Stabb. This chapel was known as the Worth or Preston Chapel. The unusual feature of the organ here is that there no case on the sides or rear – this enables one to see inside the organ and notice all the inner workings – remarkable and very interesting. It was last restored (and improved) by Hele of Saltash in 1996. It is not only the organ however which drew my attentions here. This former chapel also holds the 1629 Prie Dieu memorial mentioned by Stabb – now a little neglected and slightly obscured – but of remarkable preservation and definitely worth the attention. It’s called a Prie Dieu memorial of course as the family elders are depicted as kneeling at a Prie Dieu.
The other item of interest in this former chapel is the rood loft staircase. In many churches the rood screen was lost after the Reformation, and of those which gladly survive, some have been moved or much mutilated since. Although the rood screen at Staverton isn’t all “original” – being in great parts restoration work, it was of the utmost joy for me to enter into the pre-Reformation world and ascend via the staircase to the top of the rood loft. I didn’t stop here for long – but for a moment I could see how, in practice, ancient rood lofts could be used to house an altar, singers, musicians, etc., etc. A unique experience, perhaps not appreciated by many others than myself, but one of the best highlights of my church visits this year!
The restored rood screen itself is a magnificent piece of work – clearly the work of the mightily talented, Harry Hems (1889-1891). Ancient fragments of the original screen remain alongside the restoration work. As was, and is usual, a rood stands at the centre of the rood loft. The rood with its attendant figures was given in memory of Mrs Drake-Brockman in the mid C20. Staverton’s rood screen provides a rare opportunity to fully appreciate how a rood screen physically looked before the mid C16 and although it’s not gaudily painted, as was typical of those years long ago, it really is a superb piece of church furniture and worthy of a visit to this church alone.
Oh, and what of St Paul de Leon – an unusual, (or unique?) church dedication in Devon – the following (and more) is taken from the ever-useful Wikipedia! –
Paul Aurelian (known in Breton as Paol Aorelian or Saint Pol de Léon and in Latin as Paulinus Aurelianus) was a 6th-century Welshman who became first bishop of the See of Léon and one of the seven founder saints of Brittany. He allegedly died in 575 at the age of 140 after having been assisted in his labours by three successive coadjutors. This suggests that several Paul’s have been mixed up. Gilbert Hunter Doble thought that he might have been Saint Paulinus of Wales.
© Graham Naylor
Some notes and dates of interest in the long history of the Church and Parish of Bigbury, c1970
NB – the East window in the Chancel does not date to 1804 as mentioned in the chronology above. Instead the window is a memorial to the Rev. J. P. Harris who died at sea in 1864.
To give the modern decoration of the Church some context here are two postcards which depict the previous chancel arrangements; the earliest postcard dates to circa 1920 and shows the mosaic “alpha and omega” reredos; the second dates to 1957. This shows the earlier reredos covered, or cleared away, and prior to the current arrangement.
© Graham Naylor
A Short History of St Lawrence Church, Bigbury, c1934
The early history of this Church is shrouded in the mists of obscurity. Said to have been originally built in the 12th century, it was dedicated to St Lawrence and became a conspicuous land-mark for mariners out at sea, and the whole Bay, from Stoke Point to Bolt Tail, became known as “Bigbury Bay”.
It originally consisted of Chancel, Nave and Tower, and the Lords of the Manor were the Knightly family of de Bikebury, who gave their name to the Parish – Bigbury. The last male representative of this family was killed in a duel at Morley Bridge, near Woodleigh, and the North Aisle of the Church is said to have been added by his two daughters, in memory of their slain father, and they themselves are commemorated to this day by two graceful Brasses in the North Aisle which must be more than 500 years old. Ancient Brasses in West Country Churches are somewhat rare.
[NB the Brasses are now in the S. transept – they must have been moved at some stage in the C20]
Other features of interest in the Church are
The ancient carved Oak Pulpit, said to have been the work of a celebrated wood-carver in the year 1509 – one Thomas Prideaux, of Ashburton.
The painted carved Oak Lectern, also made by Thomas Prideaux. After being in use in Ashburton Church for 268 years, they were brought to this Church in the year 1776 by Charles Powlett, Curate of Ashburton, on his presentation to the living of Bigbury by Harry, Duke of Bolton, the then Patron of the Living. Thus they date back for 425 years.
The large slate Tombstone on the wall of the South Transept, depicting two figures in Elizabethan costume, with the following quaint epitaphs, which shows that Limericks were not unknown in the days of Queen Elizabeth:
Here lies the corpses of John and Jane his wife
Surnamed Pearse whom death bereaved of life
O lovely Peirce untill death did them call
They objectus were to love in generall
Living they lived in fame and Honesti
Dieing they left both to the Progeni
Alive and dead at wares their charitie
Hath doth and will help helples Povertie
By nature they were two by love made one
By Death made two againe with mournful mone
O cruell Death in turning odde to even
Yet blessed Death in bringing both to Heaven
On earth they had one bed in earth one toombe
And now their soules in heaven enjoy one roome.
Thus Pearse being pierced by death doth peace obtaine
O happie Peirce since peace is Pearses gaine.
He dyed the 10 day of December 1612.
She dyed the 31 day of Julie 1586.
Notice also the Easter Sepulchre in the North wall of the Chancel. This was covered up during Holy Week, and the Easter service began with the drawing aside of the curtain, and the joyful chanting of the refrain; “He is risen, He is not here. He is risen, as He said.”
There is a peal of 6 bells, dating from the year 1788, which were re-hung on steel girders and frames in the year 1908, during the incumbency of the Rev. H. Bowden-Smith, Messrs. J. Sparrow Wroth and B. J. Hooppell being the churchwardens.
One of the two windows in the North Aisle was given in memory of John Sparrow Wroth, and his son, killed in the war, Walter Wroth, and the other of Ellen S. Adams, wife of Dr. John Adams, and are the work of Beatrice Cameron, Mount Street, Grosvenor Square, London.
An Oak Tablet in the Church Porch shows the names and units of Parishioners who served in the Great War.
Read some more of St Lawrence’s Church history here – with archive photos from my personal collection.
© Graham Naylor
Incredibly, its been almost two months since my last update – and that page was about St Lawrence’s Church at Bigbury. At the end of that page I mentioned that a full history of the Church must exist somewhere… and like with buses, I found three in just one week!
This first post on the church’s history therefore is taken from some typescript notes from an unknown source, and alas, unknown date – but I expect them to be mid C20. The notes (which follow) provide some interesting insights into the Church.
BIGBURY CHURCH (Devon)
St Lawrence: although this Church was almost entirely rebuilt in 1872-73 by the architect, J. D. Sedding, with the exception of the W tower and spire, which were restored in the process, the bulk of the fittings and some of the fabric of the earlier building were fortunately preserved, viz: –
- a. the tower and spire, as already stated
- b. the N nave arcade and the S transept arch
- c. the S doorway to the nave
- d. the font
- e. the pulpit
- f. the lectern
- g. the wall-tomb in the N aisle
- h. the Bigbury brass and the Pearse monument; and
- i. the sedilia, piscina and squint
a. the tower is mainly of the C13, of 3 stages, with a slightly overhanging embattled parapet (stuccoed); lancet top windows; diagonal buttresses to the base of the top stage; a plain equilateral arch; slits N, S and W; and an octagonal stone spire, with lights in alternate faces.
b. the arcade is of 4 bays, and apparently of freestone, well-finished, with well moulded heads to the arches, and piers with round angle shafts, which have octagonal caps and high bases, and a curious wavy mould following the contour of the whole pier in each case above the shaft caps. The transept arch is of the same type, but depressed, and has rect. foliage ornaments between the shaft caps. C15 – early.
c. the S nave doorway is of unusual type, of freestone, with a 4-centred head, under a label with foliage stops; the architrave is embellished with a mould of interlaced vine stem, boldly carved in a hollow; and the jambs have semi-cushion shaped plinths. C15 – early.
d. the font, of granite, is rather curious, and probably dates from the C16; the octagonal bowl has large plain lozenge flowers in low relief, and the lower parts merges into a round 4-foil ornament at the SE and SW angles, the 4-foils enclosing shields, with a round flower on a star thereon at the SW and a Latin Cross at the SE. The others being plain (there is also one heraldic shield on the bowl, SW); between the angles below the bowl are panels with cusped heads; the stem is short and cylindrical, with four round shafts; and the base is square, with double rams-horn volutes at the angles, with angular cusps between.
e. the pulpit, octagonal, of wood, is of the C15, and came from Ashburton; its chief ornamentation consists of plain shields under crocketed and finialled loges heads, panelled in the spandrels, and with architraves of bezants; the cornice has square-flower mould and a crest of Tudoresque flowers; the whole rests on a slender wine glass foot, with a moulded octagonal centred knop.
f. the lectern also came from Ashburton, and is said to have been made by Thomas Prideaux as a present from Bishop Oldham of Exeter (1505-1519), which not only dates it, but probably accounts for the fact that the original head of the bird was an owl (rebus for Oldham: Owldam); the pulpit and the lectern are said to have been sold by the Ashburton Church authorities for II guineas, and the Bigbury authorities changed the owl’s head for that of an eagle; but whether the body remains that of an owl is perhaps a matter for ornithologists to decide! The lectern is coloured and gilt, and the claws of the bird grips a red ball.
g. the wall-tomb is round-headed, and appears to be of the late C14- early C15; it has four depressed ogee foliations at the apex, quarter-round arch moulds and a moulded label.
h. the brass is very interesting, though it has been mutilated and robbed; the monument is held to be that of two sisters, Elizabeth and Margaret Bigbury, daughters of Sir William de Bigbury; they are credited with the building of the N aisle and the transept in c1400; at present, the brass consists of two standing effigies, with an heraldic shield and four inscribed scrolls (two incomplete), mounted on wood, near the matrices which still remain against the E wall of the transept; thus there were originally two brasses; the matrices are two-thirds hidden by the wainscot; on them may be detected an heraldic shield, five inscribed scrolls, and parts of an inscribed surrounding fillet, besides traces of the indents of the figures themselves. Each matrix probably bore the effigy (of one of) the sisters and her husband: Margaret married John Champernowne of Bere Ferrers; and Elizabeth first married James Durnford of Stonehouse, and then Thomas Arundell of Ewall. The father of the ladies, the last of a long line of the name, was killed in a duel in Edward IIIs reign. Elizabeth wears a mitred headdress, variously described as a heart-shaped, or horned, with a cross hanging from a double chain from the neck; and at her feet is a dog, with collar and bells; Margaret is similarly attired. The scrolls are inscribed THU MERCY and LADY HELPE, and formerly sprinkled the field of the matrices. The fillet bears the following inscription, as far as can be seen: __ ET DOMINA ELIZABETH UXOR EJUS NUPER USOX THOME ARUNDELL DE COM__ (in Gothic lettering).
The Pearse monument on the W wall of the transept is interesting, as it somewhat resembles a brass in its treatment, with two incised figures and an heraldic shield; it is to John and Jane Burnamed Pearse, 1612 and 1589, with the following punning epitaph: ‘Thus Pearse being pierced by Death doth Peace obtain. Oh Happier Pierce since Peace if Pearces Gaine’.
i. the sedilia are good, of the early C14, to which period also belongs the piscina; the former are triple, with moulded ogee heads and jambs, under a continuous and well-moulded label; the piscina has a moulded corbelled bowl, an 8-foil head, and a label. The squint, SW to the transept, is rect. and ogee.
In addition to the above, there are also:
- a pair of stocks, with 6 holes, the two to the left smaller
- a cusped ogee-headed stoup in the transept, C14 also
- two pieces of old heraldic glass in the NW window of the aisle
- in the churchyard, S, a chest-tomb to Richard and Ann Coulton, 1791, 1814.
The roofs are new throughout; the chancel windows are in the Decorated style; Decorated and Perpendicular in the transept and Perpendicular to the nave and aisle.
NB – shield on brass: a cross quarter-pierced a fleur-de-lys on each arm impaling an eagle displayed.
Two further shorter histories of the St Lawrence’s Church will follow on separate pages:
- A Short History of St Lawrence Church, Bigbury, n.d., c1934
- Some notes and dates of interest in the long history of the Church and Parish of Bigbury, c1970
© Graham Naylor