St Mary’s Church, Totnes in 1850

A Graphic and Historical Sketch of the Antiquities of Totnes by William Cotton, F.S.A, 1850

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The Parish Church of Totnes, dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, was built (or perhaps only rebuilt) about the year 1432, in the reign of Henry VI[i]. It is a handsome structure, of the later pointed style of architecture. Bishop Lacy granted an indulgence of forty days (given in the Appendix) to all persons who contributed to the work, and the original grant, dated from the Bishop’s Palace, at Chudleigh, A.D. 1434, was formerly preserved, with other documents relating to the sacred edifice, in an oak chest, which was kept in the small room, or parvise, over the porch. It is stated in the Beauties of England and Wales, that the discovery of this document was owing to a violent storm of thunder and lightning[ii] in 1790, by which one of the pinnacles of the Church was thrown down, and falling through the roof of the parvise, broke open the chest, and caused the ancient records therein contained to be examined and brought to light.[iii]

That Bishop Lacy[iv] was concerned in building the Church may also be inferred from a shield, bearing his arms, azure, three shovellers heads, erased, argent, which is carved in the spandrils of the arched doorway.

The building consists of a chancel, nave, north and south aisles, with a modern addition on the north side of the north aisle. A picturesque tower, 25ft. by 26ft. 6in. of lofty and handsome proportions, terminates the western extremity of the nave. It has bold buttresses, set on square, of four stages, and ornamented with pinnacles of free stone and canopied niches[v]. The stair turret is in the south angle. The west door is pointed, with a square head, and deeply recessed, and has foliated spandrils.

The south porch, with a dilapidated parvise above, is of good perpendicular character. The outer doorway well moulded, with a square flower; the inner is of the same character, with remains of a Saints’ niche, and shield of arms in the foliated spandrils. The original doors, finely carved with linen panelling, similar to the stalls, still remains, with its appropriate old lock and key. Large and grotesque gargoyles carry off the water from the roof, and an enormous buttress in the exterior of the chancel is pierced by an archway. The original design of this Church is good, and the proportions, with the characteristic carefulness of our ancient architects, have been properly carried out: but the whole effect of the interior is sadly outraged by the incongruities which have been introduced and permitted in later years by those who have been intrusted with the responsibility of keeping the sacred edifice in repair, and cannot fail to excite feelings of regret in the most casual observer.

The principal dimensions of the ground plan are: — Length of the chancel, 41 feet 10 inches; width, 21 feet 10 inches; length of the nave, 64 feet; width, 32 feet 6 inches; north and south aisles, 90 feet by 12 feet 4 inches; the north transept, which is altogether modern, though the walls are very substantial, 15 feet by 39 feet 2 inches.

The aisles are divided from the nave by four pointed arches, and by a similar one from the chancel, they are all four centred, with mouldings; the piers are four engaged shafts, with two ogees and fillets, and compound bell caps.


A magnificent rood-screen of stone, under the chancel arch, extends entirely across the nave and side aisles. It still retains much of its original colouring, and was in former days richly decorated with vermilion, blue, green, and gold, with well executed niches and tabernacle work[vi].

Two parclose screens, one on each side, inclose private aisles, or chantries, belonging to the families of Wise and Martin.

An ugly and cumbrous gallery now usurps the place of the ancient rood-loft, the stone stairs to which are enclosed by a remarkably fine internal rood turret at the east end, ornamented with niches and quatrefoil enrichments.

The corporation stalls in front of the screen, with a canopy bearing the national and corporate arms, were erected in 1636.

The pulpit is on the south side of the second pier north. It is of carved stone, but has been painted to imitate oak, and is ornamented with gothic panelling and shields of modern emblazonment, with devices of the tribes of Israel and Judah. It is surmounted by a heavy sounding board[vii].


The Font is good, of early perpendicular character, octangular, with deeply foliated quatrefoils on each face; but placed entirely out of sight, behind sundry boarded obstructions in the tower.

The north and south windows in the Chancel are perpendicular. The large eastern window has been blocked up by a most inappropriate and misplaced Corinthian altar piece, which was erected about 150 years ago by the Corporation. It is truly lamentable to see so many of our parochial churches disfigured by the introduction of such incongruities.

In the Church are monuments of the families of Smyth, Wise, Trist, Martyn, 1663, &c.[viii]; Walter Smyth, Esq., 1555; Barnard Smyth, Esq., no date; the Wise family monument, in the north aisle, 1670; William, John, Samuel, Wise, 1730; John Wise, gent., Lewis Wise, gent., 1744 (all sons of John Wise); Samuel Wise, gent. (son of Samuel), 1744; Frederick Wise, Esq., 1814.

Ayshford Wise, Esq. was the lay impropriator and owner of the great tythes when Mr. Lysons compiled his work.

Westcote mentions the tomb of John Giles, Esq., of Bowden, 1552[ix].

On the south wall is a handsome “prie Dieu” monument of black and white marble, erected to the memory of Christopher Blackhall, Esq. and his four wives. Under the figure of Blackhall, who is represented in armour, and kneeling, is the inscription:—

“In memoriam ornatissimi viri Christophori Blackbal, Armigeri, una cum quatuor uxoribus suis; quarum tres secum agunt vitam in polo, ultima adhuc militat in solo. Obiit 21 die Aug. A.D. 1633.”

And beneath are the kneeling figures of his four wives, Elizabeth Slanning, obiit 1608, Penelope Hele, 1616, Susanna Halswell, 1622, and Dorothea Norris, 1634. On the tomb are several other inscriptions, and the arms of Blackhall.

In the south Chancel aisle is a good ogee canopied perpendicular altar tomb,—the effigy gone,—coloured and gilt; a hagioscope glazed.

The following lines are inscribed on a tablet to the memory of Grace Grylls:—

“Here lyeth Grace, a flower gay,
Far passing all the flowers of May;
A flower to her parents deare,
Even at the spring-time of the yeare,
Was pluckt and feicht as fit to bee
In hands of highest Majestie.
Then let us all prayse God for this,
That she is crown’d with endless bliss.
“Grace Grylls dyed the 27th of April, An°. Dom. 1636.”

The six bells in the tower, mentioned by Leland, were recast in the year 1732, and converted into eight, justly celebrated for their clear musical tones.

The church-yard was formerly open to the public at all times, but is now surrounded by a wall. A considerable portion of it was applied to purposes of recreation; and it contained a fives court, which has since been dug up, and converted into burial ground. Another portion, called the plain, is supposed to have been the place where the bodies of those who died of the plague were buried.

In 1590, during the mayoralty of Richard Savery, the plague broke out with great violence, in the month of July, and swept off 175 people. Again, in 1646, during the mayoralty of Richard Martin, when, it is traditionally said, the town was almost deserted, and the grass grew in the streets.


[i] Lysons states the Church to have been built in 1259, and again in 1432, and quotes Oliver’s notes from Bishop Bronscombe’s Register.

There appears to have been a Church in Totnes as early as the time of William the Conqueror, which was given by Iudhael, or Ioel de Totneis, to the Monastery of S. Sergius at Angiers, and was appropriated to the adjoining Priory of Totnes.

The Charter of Ioel de Totneis, by which he gives the Church of S. Mary to the Monastery at Angiers, mentions a Chapel of S. Peter in or near Totnes.

A record of 1422 speaks of the Chapel of S. Peter, near Totnes, as having been founded by John Thomas, Jane his wife, and Stephen de la Fowril. Probably they endowed a chantry in it. — Lysons’ History of Devon.

In Bishop Lacy’s Register, vol. iii. fo. 502, there is a copy of the will of William Ryder, of Totnes, bearing date 18th Nov., 1432, in which he desires to be buried “In cemiterio Ecclesie B. Marie de Totton in itinere processionali juxta Ecclesiam Prioris et Conventus de Totton, ex opposito magni altaris ejusdem Ecclesie.”

“I observe,” says Dr. Oliver, “in Bishop Stapleton’s Register, that he frequently conferred ordinations in this Conventual Church.”

It would appear from this that there were two churches at Totnes, contiguous to each other, a Conventual as well as a Parochial Church, although one only now remains. And it is so stated in the rough notes printed by the Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society:—” The Conventual Church of St. Mary was dedicated by Bishop Bronescombe, Nov. 27, 1259, and was contiguous to the parish Church. Dr. Oliver says, “It is, however, possible, that the parish Church was the nave of that of the Convent.”

[ii] It is an undoubted fact that the south-east pinnacle has been twice demolished by thunder and lightning; the first shock happened in 1634, during the mayoralty of Richard Lee, and again on the 21st of February, 1799. The Church was then repaired and new seated by the Corporation, after an ineffectual attempt, which involved a law suit, to raise the money by means of a rate on the inhabitants.

The Church and tower are built of a red stone, of which there is no quarry in the neighbourhood.

In 1546, during the mayoralty of Robert Growle, an organ was put up in the Church; and in 1604, mention is made of its having been refitted; but I can find no notice of the time or occasion of its removal. It is probable that this instrument was either destroyed or so much injured by the fall of the pinnacle in 1634, as not to be thought worth putting up again. There have been two organs erected since, and the present instrument is a very excellent one.

[iii] I know not what the library contains. I believe nothing more than theological lumber. It is always locked up, and made no use of by those who keep it, and it is inaccessible to those who would wish to examine it. I was once there by accident, and looked into some books, which were all on Divinity. Yet there may be some documents there which might throw some light on the history of this town.—Mr. Cornish’s MS.

[iv] Edmund Lacy, S.T.P., Bishop of Exeter, died at his palace, at Chudleigh, the 18th of September, 1455, and was interred, says Godwin, in the south wall of the Presbytery, where many miracles are said to have been wrought, and are ascribed to his holiness. The upper portion of the Chapter House at Exeter is supposed to have been erected by this prelate, as his arms are among those emblazoned in the ceiling.—Britton’s Exeter Cathedral.

[v] The will of Abbot Richard Stoke, who died in 1458, gives us the power of fixing the date of the fine perpendicular tower. He bequeaths £10 by deed, dated 1449. “Operi novi campanilis fiendi in occidentali parte ecclesie parochialis Tottonie.”

This belfry, Leland describes, “as a greate steple tower, and the greatest bells in all those quarters.”

[vi] Rood-lofts, Screens, &c.—The county of Devon abounds in very rich remains of this kind: nearly the whole of them appear to have been the work of the fifteenth century. The greater part are of wood; but there are also several of stone. Among the latter the following may be enumerated: — At Culmstock between the nave and chancel, with a rich doorway ornamented with foliage and a tufted finial. At Colyton, Marleton, and Luppit, with enriched cornices. At Awlescombe, screen of a rood-loft, in the style of the fifteenth century, with angels holding scrolls in the springing of the arches. At Bideford, between the- chancel and south aisle, with several shields of Grenville, connected with the monument of Sir Thomas Grenville, 1513. At Paignton, in the south aisle, is a rich stone screen, with shields similar to those in use in the reign of Edward IV., with monuments of the Kirkham family.

Among the most rich and curious wooden screens, which have the rood-loft remaining, are those of Ashton, Berry Pomeroy, Bradnich (date 1528), West Buckland, Clist St. Lawrence, Collumpton, with a cornice of vine leaves, Dartmouth uncommonly rich, Feniton, Halberton, Harberton, and Honiton, very rich and complete, Kentisbere, Kenton, Marwood, King’s Nympton, Peahembury, Pinhoe, Plymtree, Poltimore, Sampford Peverell, Swimbridge, Talaton, Tiverton, Tor Bryan, Trusham, and Uffculme; many of these have figures of Saints painted on the lower compartments, and were originally richly gilt and emblazoned. At Holbeton the screen at the end of the nave has been cut down; but it remains in the north and south aisles, ornamented with roses, portcullises, and pomegranites, of the time of Hen. VIII. In numerous churches the screen of the rood-loft alone remains. In the following they are particularly rich, and mostly painted and gilt:— Bridford, Bovey Tracy, Burlescombe, Chivilstone, Clayhanger, Clist St. Lawrence, Dartington, Holne, Lapford, Manaton, Ogwell, Pilton, Plymstock, Postlemouth, Shipstor, and Staverton. Those at South Brent, Rattery, and Woolborough, extend across the nave and aisles.

Screens of a less ornamental character occur in several other churches, and are mentioned by Lysons, from whose History of Devon the above list has been taken; but it is highly probable that some of them have been removed since.

[vii] There are, says Mr. Lysons, many ornamented pulpits, both of stone and wood, in the churches of Devonshire. At Bovey Tracy the pulpit is ornamented with foliage and tabernacle work gilt. At Chittlehampton it is ornamented with scrolls of vine leaves and figures of Saints. At Dartmouth several enrichments carved in wood have been added to the stone pulpit, and are evidently of later date. The pulpit at Dittisham has figures under niches, rudely executed, with alternate scrolls of foliage. Those of Harberton, North and South Molton, Paignton, Pilton, Swimbridge, and Witheridge, are also of stone, and are ornamented with figures of Saints and Gothic tracery.

Of enriched wooden pulpits, those of East Allington, Bridford, Halberton, Holne, Malborough, and Ipplepen, may be particularized.

[viii] The ancient house and domain of Dartington was the property of the Martyns, afterwards of the Champernowns, called in Latin De Campo Arnulphi. Robert Fitz Martyn was Lord of Dertinton in the reign of King Stephen.—Domesday Book.

[ix] Bowden, near Totnes, was an old family mansion of the Browses, or De Brose, from whom it passed to Giles, and was repurchased, in 1704, by Nicholas Trist, Esq. (the ancestor of Mrs. Pendarvis, of Tristford House,) who had married the heiress of De Brose, or Browse. He was Sheriff of Devon in the reign of Queen Anne, and M.P. for Totnes.

Arms of Trist:—Azure a quatrefoil argent pierced of the field, within an orle of estoils, with six points or, a canton ermine. Browse, or De Brose:—Azure three garbs or, banded gules.

An old house in Totnes, opposite the church, still retains the initials “N. B.” Nicholas Browse, and the date “1571.”

Bishop Stafford, in 1417, licensed John Shapwick to have service “in capella S. Trinitas infra mansum sive habitacionem suam do Boghedon (Bowden) in parochia do Totton.”