The Parish and Priory Church of St Mary, Totnes

At the end of November I was lucky to find myself with time to visit St Mary’s Church at Totnes. I had visited the church before, but that was many years ago, so I decided, armed with my camera to repeat my visit. I was not disappointed.

The weather was extremely fine, clear blue skies and the late autumnal sun cast its light perfectly upon the solid and beautiful tower of the church.

St Mary’s Church, Totnes – November 2017

There is certainly much to see and enjoy at St Mary’s; her general accolade being the wonderful stone rood screen dividing the chancel from the nave – and what a rare thing it is in Devon to have a stone screen!

Modern historians are lucky to find John Stabb visited and included St Mary’s in his series Some Old Devon Churches (volume 1, 1908). I’ll be using his text alongside other church guides to illustrate my visit more thoroughly. What follows first then are Stabb’s words:

TOTNES. St Mary. The Parish Church stands on a site which probably, before the introduction of Christianity, was occupied by a heathen temple. The earliest record of a Church is found in the Charter of Judhael, in which he have the Church to the Benedictine Abbey at Angers. The Church, which existed at the time of the Conqueror, remained until the 13th century, it was then rebuilt, and on November 17th, 1259, was dedicated by Bishop Bronescombe. The present Perpendicular Church was erected in 1432. The tower is 120 feet high and is crowned by four lofty octagonal pinnacles, at the base it twenty-five feet square; there are three canopied niches on the south front of the tower. The centre niche contains a carving of Bishop Lacy, beneath it is the inscription, “I made thys tore,” and on the left is a figure of a knight, and on the right that of an abbot. The tower has twice been struck by lightning, in 1634 and 1799. In the parvise over the south door there is a library of about three hundred theological works of the 16th and 17th centuries

Through the liberality of Mrs. Roberts, of London, a native of Totnes (who gave the greater part of the money), the Church was thoroughly restored between the years 1867 and 1897 at a cost of £15000.


The screen of stone dates from 1450, and is noted for the richness of its Gothic tracery, niches, and tabernacle work. Around the chancel entrance are carved grapes and vine leaves and over the doorway is a carved angel. The panels at one time had paintings, but these have been obliterated. On the south door may be seen Bishop Lacy’s sign – the knot – repeated several times. There was a rood loft, but this was removed by Sir Gilbert Scott. The pulpit is of the same date as the screen. It originally contained panels on which were carved figures, said to be the signs of the sons of Jacob, these had been painted a mahogany colour, and as it was found impossible to remove the paint, the pulpit was recut, hence its present modern appearance. The font is of the same date as the pulpit and screen. In the chancel, on the north side, is the original stone staircase which led to the rood loft. The position of the staircase, is, I think, unique in a Devonshire Church.

The lovely and unique in Devon (?) rood-loft staircase in the chancel – November 2017

There are eight bells in the tower. The old custom of ringing the curfew bell is still kept up here. Curfew is rung on the treble bell, and then the day of the month is tolled on the sixth bell.

The registers date from 1556, some of the earlier pages are missing. The list of vicars dates from 1260.

We can see from the above that Stabb is able to provide much information of interest – but left open many questions I’d like answers to. For example, those books in the parvise. Are they still there and if so I want to see them! Also who on earth gave the permission to recut the pulpit? I think any visitor to the church would not fail to be unimpressed by the pulpit, ancient as it is but of virtually no interest!

The nave looking E – November 2017

By 1932 a church guide had been produced for visitors. It is rather more detailed than Stabb’s notes. What follows is taken from this 1932 guide:

The present Church of St Mary, except for the thorough restoration it underwent during the period 1867-1907, and the addition of an outer north aisle, is substantially the building erected under Bishop Lacy’s auspices…

The building, then, comprises a nave of five bays, with a south aisle and two north aisles; chancel of two bays, with south and north chancel aisles continuous with the nave aisles, but terminating some yards to the west of the line of the chancel east wall; west tower, south porch with upper chamber, and clergy vestry. The total length of nave and chancel combined is 106 feet; the aisles are about 16 feet shorter. The height of the tower is 120 feet…

Stone rood screen – November 2017

The outstanding feature of the interior of the church is the remarkable canopied screen of stone which extends across the church, separating chancel from nave and chancel aisles from nave aisles. There is documentary evidence that the erection of the screen dates from the period 1459-60, in Henry VI’s reign, and that for its conception and execution the parish is indebted to the Totnes Corporation of that date, and not only their generosity but to their personal exertions. When the members of the Corporation decided to embellish the church with a screen, they patriotically desired to ensure that it should vie with the best in Devonshire; and with that end in view they visited Exeter Cathedral, and examined and weighed the merits of its various screens; finally deciding to commission a screen that should resemble those dividing the Lady Chapel of the Cathedral from the choir, and to have the design executed in the most beautiful stone for the purpose known to them – the renowned Beer stone. Happily the craftsmen employed improved upon their model both in general design and execution and in delicacy of detail: such, at least, was the considered opinion of the late Sir Gilbert Scott, who pronounced this to be the most perfect stone screen of its date to be found in an English parish church…

Stone rood screen – November 2017

A large proportion of the heavy cost of restoration, which exceeded £15,000, was defrayed by the munificence of Mrs. Roberts, a native of Totnes, and of her husband, W. H. Roberts, Esq., a prominent London stockbroker. Mrs. Roberts also made a special donation of £1000 in memory of her parents to discharge the cost of restoring the screen; and Mr. Roberts presented the brass eagle-lectern in 1890, and, on his wife’s death in 1898, erected to her memory a stained-glass window – the first placed in the church. The lectern commemorates the vicariate of the Rev. J. W. Burrough…

The Altar and Reredos – November 2017

A carved oak reredos, the gift of T. C. Kellock, Esq., has been substituted for a former altar-piece in the Classical style strangely out of keeping with the Gothic style of the chancel. The fine brass candelabrum of 18 lights hanging near the screen came into the church’s possession in 1701, and was formerly the sole illumination of the nave. It is lighted on all Festivals. The organ, originally built by Willis for the Great Exhibition of 1851, was acquired for Totnes Church in 1861 and erected in the west gallery. It has been restored and enlarged, and has been in its present position in the north chancel aisle since 1896.

Blackhall memorial (now located in N aisle) – November 2017

The earliest of the sepulchral monuments is that to Walter Smith (d. 1555), on the south wall of the south chancel aisle. On the west wall of the south aisle is the South African War Memorial. Below the tower is a quaint memorial to one Christopher Blackhall and his four successive wives; and the south chancel aisle contains memorials to members of the Martyn family, of Dartington. In the churchyard, immediately outside the south porch, stands the Totnes War memorial. It was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield…

The church does not possess any ancient glass, but there are a number of modern stained-glass windows, which include the large east window of the chancel, one in the south wall erected to his parents by S. P. Adams, Esq., who left £100,000 to his native town, and one (the east window of the south chancel aisle), erected by Mrs. Earle of Torquay to her husband and son, which shows portrait-heads of Bishops Bronescombe and Lacy.


Another church guide produced perhaps twenty years or so later, c1950, continues to elaborate on Stabb and the earlier 1932 guide. There are new facts, perhaps having only become known during that 1932-c1950 period. For it is in the new guide book that we find new information on the architecture and master mason of the tower in the 15th century.

The later guide book by Joseph E. Morris, M.A., F.S.A (and assisted by Mr E. Masson Phillips) records:

…What is certain, however, is that the existing parish church was built independently of the Priory, the nave between c1400 and 1445 (“when it was still incomplete”); the chancel between 1445 and 1448; and the tower from 1448 onwards. Of the erection of the last we are lucky in possessing some minute and peculiarly interesting details. Thus, in 1449, six supervisors were appointed, with Roger Growdon as master-mason, and an “over-seer” was instructed to visit the belfry-towers at Kelington, Bokeland, Tavistock and Asshberton, “and according to the best of them should make the tower at Tottonia”. “Kelington” is clearly Callington, in Cornwall; and “Bokeland” is sometimes identified* – I do not know for what reason; there are two other Buckland’s in Devon – with Buckland Brewer, near Bideford.

*I suspect this is really Buckland Monachorum, near Tavistock.

The three niches on the S side of the tower – the central niche is occupied by Bishop Lacy – November 2017

This information about Roger Growdon and the research undertaken to provide a suitable tower at Totnes is very interesting. One cannot help but wonder on which other towers Roger Growdon worked upon.

There is surely much else that could be said about St Mary’s Church, Totnes. I shall finish however with a few lines recording my personal connection to St Mary’s for it was here in July 1641 that my 9th Great Grandfather, the Rev. Christopher Furneaux (of Paignton and Buckfastleigh) is reputed to have been buried. I say reputed as the existing records are a little confusing…

Christopher Furneaux son of William Furneaux and his wife Jane, nee Chaddor, was baptised at Paignton in 1601/02. Christopher went on to study at Balliol College, Oxford [matric. 15 Oct., 1619, aged 17; B.A. 20 Feb., 1622-3, M.A. 22 June 1625].

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From: Visitation of England and Wales, volume 6, 1906

On 5 September 1625 Christopher married Sibilla Dolbeare, daughter of the Vicar of Buckfastleigh. He then appears to have worked as the Schoolmaster at Buckfastleigh until his ordination to the Priesthood in 1628.

His entry within the records for Oxford University record that he was buried at Totnes on 7 July 1641. Strangely however the Burial Register at Totnes records “The 7th was Buryed Mr Henry ffornace, Mynester of Gods worde”

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Extract from the Burial Register for St Mary’s Church, Totnes – 7 July 1641

So this record sort of works, as in, it records the burial of a Minister with a (nearly) right surname but the priest or clerk made a mistake with the Christian name when adding this burial entry to the Register. Most intriguing!

NB – the subject of stained-glass at Totnes will become the subject of another post to follow in due course… as may another post on the Church in general… there is so much to see!

© Graham Naylor