North Devon Churches: Tawstock

Excerpt from North Devon Churches: Studies of Some of the Ancient Buildings[1]

Parish Church of St. Peter

Parish Church of St. Peter

This fine church stands in a verdant glade near the west bank of the river Taw, two miles south of Barnstaple, on the outskirts of the village of Tawstock, and from where the valley of the Taw may be said to commence; gradually contracting in width, and increasing in beauty, until Eggesford is reached (about fifteen miles south-east by rail) — a lovely spot, in the very heart of Devon, surrounded by wooded hills, with the river flowing past, as it comes away fresh from its source on Dartmoor. Tawstock is a place of very ancient origin, the terminal stock being the Saxon stock or stoke, prevalent in the West and North, and meaning settlement or homestead. It dates back as the residence of the Lords of Barnstaple to the reign of Henry II., and has been held by the Tracey, Martin, Bourchier and Wrey families. Tawstock Court — a modern mansion and the seat of Sir Bourchier R. S. Wrey, bart., the present lord of the manor — is situated overlooking the church, and commands magnificent views of the surrounding country. The ancient residence was burnt down in 1787, the only portion remaining being the gate-way, with tower over, dated 1574, forming an entrance leading to the present mansion.

The church has a plain exterior, although the centrally placed tower gives it a distinguished appearance. The interior gains greatly in effect from the position of the tower, the plan resembling, on a smaller scale, the western part of Crediton Church, with its centre tower. Of all the churches dealt with in this book, Tawstock has struck the writer as being the most romantic — this word seeming best to convey the impression that the actual building makes on the observer; for there is about it an air of unspoilt 14th century beauty, and to all in search of genuine structural work of that period in this part of Devon, with enough of ornament to give it added interest, Tawstock Church is the one to visit.

Embowered in massive trees which shelter it from the north, its plan, on examination, will be found to have been originally cruciform, and now consists of a nave, with north and south aisles, chancel with south aisle and vestry, north and south transepts, south porch and central tower. The interior length is 113 feet, the combined width of nave and aisles 44 feet 6 inches, and across from end to end of transepts 70 feet 6 inches. The register dates from the year 1538 (Henry VIII.), and there are 350 sittings. The interior is well proportioned, the vista looking down the church from either end being very fine indeed; and a striking effect is produced by the well managed arches at the crossing and transepts. It is recorded that a church existed here in Norman times, but no traces of it remain. Thanks chiefly to the well preserved mouldings and carving, the history of the existing structure can be easily read. It was built in the Decorated or 14th century period of Gothic architecture, and is one of the few Devon churches upon which the 15th century builders did not lay a heavy hand; therefore the bulk of it is of the former period, and consequently of exceptional interest. The mouldings and carving show that it was erected about the year 1340 (Edward III.), and consisted of the present nave and its aisles, the chancel, transepts, and tower. In the Perpendicular period — probably about 1480 (Edward IV.) — the nave aisles were raised, but not widened ; and it is owing to this fact that the church remains so well proportioned. At this time, the western doorway (now disused and hidden from view inside by the organ) was constructed, and the west window shortened to get height for the doorway, as can be seen by the old window jamb stones in the walling. The vestry is also probably of this date. Over it is a room said to have been a priest's chamber or parvise, and in which can be seen some remains of old armour and weapons; also a dilapidated iron arm and stand, to hold a hour glass — formerly attached to a pulpit, like that in Pilton church. Later, in the 16th century (and judging from the debased Tudor style of the windows and carving, of date about 1540) (Henry VIII.) the chancel aisle was built. The detail and workmanship of the roof of the porch indicate that it is of late 17th century date. Structurally, the most interesting thing about the building is the line of demarcation showing in the exterior of the walling of the west end of the nave south aisle, between the 15th century raised portion and the 14th century walling below, and being extremely valuable as evidence to prove that the nave and aisles were originally under one roof only. Usually in old churches such lines of raising do not show, or have been obliterated by works of repair; but such, fortunately, has not been entirely the case with this church. The line does not show in the corresponding position on the north aisle, but it was doubtless there at one time.

Figure 1 & 2The nave is of three bays, the piers being square and very massive, measuring 3 feet by 8 feet, with a series of shallow Decorated mouldings run on the chamfer plane at each angle, continued up and over the equilateral shaped arches, which have boldly moulded subarches — contrasting well with the more delicately cut pier and main arch mouldings (see fig. 1). These latter mouldings finish near the floor on to very neatly designed stops (fig. 2), and the sub-arches of each bay finish on to carved corbels where the main arches spring from the piers. The corbels are fine specimens of the "natural" Decorated type of work, principally carved with human faces and oak leaves (see figs. 3, 4, and 6). Fig. 5 is a plain but very effective corbel, each block being chamfered, finished with little trefoil-headed cusps. In common with many of the Devon churches containing Decorated work, the stone dressings and carving in this church are of the yellow oolite stone from Hamhill, Somerset, some being of coarse, and others of the fine grained variety ; and of the winding stairs of the tower are of this stone, showing that no expense was spared in obtaining what was considered a suitable material. The warm, rich effect produced by its use is admirable in the interior of this fortunate church ; and it is evident that the 14th century builders valued colour in their stone dressings more than evenness of texture, the contrast between the Hamhill and the comparatively cold-looking Beer and Bath stone, used in the 15th century and later work, being very marked.

Figure 7The moulding of the nave piers is repeated on the tower and transept piers and arches. The south transept was at one time a chapel, as there is an old Decorated piscina in its east wall (see fig. 7), and it also had a separate entrance (now built up) in the south wall — probably a somewhat ornamental shallow porch, part of which, consisting of the archway with its label mould, still stands. (See the exterior sketch of the church.)

Both of the transepts have end windows of the Decorated period, with flowing tracery of the same design as the north transept window of the same period in Westdown Church. The chancel aisle is in two bays, the arches being depressed four-centred, and the piers and arches moulded. The piers have coarsely carved narrow caps or bands, of conventional foliage design. The two large four-light straight-headed south windows are of very debased Tudor style, but give contrast. The south doorway in the aisle has a large coat-of-arms over it, on the outside, carved in stone.

The tower is 76 feet 7 inches in height from the ground to the top of the battlements, and 86 feet to the top of the pinnacles, and contains six fine toned bells, dating from 1753 to 1794 (George II. -III.) Below the battlements it is very plain in appearance, and in the 15th century it was possibly altered somewhat, e.g., the belfry lights filled in with Perpendicular tracery, new string-courses built, and perhaps the battlements and pinnacles rebuilt. Access to the tower is obtained in a roundabout way by a winding stone staircase, starting from the north-west comer of the north transept, and leading up to a gallery (fig. 9), which crosses the west wall of the transept, from which a step-ladder rises to the ringer's stage. From there, the steps ascend in the north-west corner of the tower, to the roof. The oak gallery — 16 feet long and 3 feet 9 inches high — shown in the sketch was fixed about 30 years ago, and is a good specimen of Late 16th century work, but there appears to be no record as to what building it was obtained from, or for what purpose it was used. It has been suggested that it was a rood-loft over a screen, but it is hardly elaborate enough for that. It may have been a minstrel or other gallery in another part of the church, or may have come from an old manor-house. The sill is carved with a running floral design, and the rail is ornamented with carved paterae in two rows. Before the gallery was fixed here, the ringers crossed to the tower by a gallery or bridge on the opposite side of the wall (the east end of the nave north aisle), and the old door which led to it still remains in the north wall of the aisle. The tower is groined in stone beneath the ringer's stage, forming an unequal octagon, the central part of which is again groined, but in oak, rather elaborately, with lierne ribs, the effect looking up from the floor of the church being excellent. The object of this groining was apparently partly constructional, viz., to give extra support to the floor of the ringer's stage, and partly ornamental.

The roofs are of oak, and are fine specimens of their period. In the l5th century the church was probably re-roofed, and some of the existing roofs are of that period. Those of the nave and chancel are of open-timbered " cradle " variety ; the nave aisles having fiat panelled roofs, the ribs being heavily moulded and ornamented with richly carved bosses, and the panels boarded. As the aisles are only 9 feet wide, this form of roof was a necessity, because cradle roofs would have been unsuitable with such narrow aisles. Over each pier, in both aisles, are 14th century carved stone heads, forming corbels, which supported the tie beams or struts of the Decorated roof trusses in the aisles, before they were raised ; and the line of the abutment of these trusses on to the nave arcading can be very plainly seen in the plaster. The chancel aisle has a fine 16th century open-timbered cradle roof, with ribs forming open panels, and ornamented with carved bosses. The ribs are also carved, which gives a rich appearance to this roof. The cradle roofs of the transepts are plastered on the underside, left white, and ornamented with beautiful modelled plaster flowers, arranged in the form of a cross, in the central part of the ceiling, of English Renaissance style — probably Early 18th century work. The roof of the porch is panelled, with moulded main and diagonal ribs, carved bosses and carved wall plates. This roof (except the wall plates, which are of 16th century date) is possibly of Late 17th century date.

Figure 9

There are two old oak screens, probably of Early 16th century date — one between the crossing and the chancel, and the other between the south transept and the chancel aisle. The former one closely resembles the south parclose screen in North Molton Church, consisting of a series of tall and narrow lights, which are filled in at the top with ogee-shaped crocketted arches, interlaced with tracery. The cornice is moulded and surmounted with high cresting, and the panelling in the lower portion is quite plain. The screen is of light construction, and cannot have been a rood screen, for it was evidently never meant to carry a rood-loft. It may be one of the "secondary " screens which were placed in the larger churches to mark off the limits of the choir and sanctuary. The chancel aisle screen has the head and shoulders of two figures — possibly of its donors — carved in the upper part of the tracery of the doors, and the middle member of the cornice is in carved floral Jacobean work — quite foreign to the screen itself, and evidently planted in to repair it at this part. In the crossing are four old oak benches of 16th century work, with well carved outer ends— the Italian Renaissance style being very marked ; and on the opposite side of the crossing are four modern oak benches, in the outer ends of which are inserted carved Jacobean panels.

Figure 8A remarkable looking old oak private pew is to be found in the north transept, of Italian Renaissance style, and about the same date as the old benches before mentioned. It measures 4 feet 4 inches by 4 feet 7 inches, and is 8 feet 3 inches high ; has plain panelled sides and back, a carved segmental panelled and carved ceiling, richly decorated and supported in front with two carved Ionic pillars, the cornice and other portions also being carved.

The font (fig. 8) is square, of plain Norman design, on a cylindrical stem, and has an old oak octagonal cover, with carved ribs and crockets. The detail and workmanship of the cover points to its being of 17th century work, and the font may be contemporary with it, as there are no indications that it is an original Norman one.

In an arched recess in the north wall of the chancel is an old oaken recumbent effigy of a lady of the 14th century, dressed in a wimple and mantle.[2] It is 4 feet 5 inches in length, and in a very good state of preservation. The effigy may have surmounted an altar-tomb at one time, and they are rather rare. (There is one in Westdown Church, to Sir John Stowforde, also of 14th century date.) On the north side of the chancel, within the altar rails, is a magnificent altar tomb, bearing the recumbent effigies of William (Bourchier) 5th Baron Fitzwarine and 3rd Earl of Bath, who died in 1623 (James I.), and the Lady Elizabeth (Russell), his first wife; and on the tomb are also three smaller kneeling effigies. It is entirely covered with coloured and gilded decoration. In the chancel aisle are two very handsome tombs, one of them being to Frances, wife of John (Bourchier) Lord Fitzwarine, who died in 1586 (Elizabeth), and the other to Henry, 5th and last Earl of Bath, died 1634 (Charles I.). This latter is a sarcophagus tomb, of uncommon and massive design, consisting of carved white marble sides and ends, and on the top four splendidly carved griffins support a large block of polished black marble, and placed on this is a coronet. At each corner of the lower part of the tomb are tall black marble pinnacles, each resting on four balls. Close to this tomb is a standing figure of white marble on a stone pedestal, to Lady Rachel, the wife of the above named Henry, Earl of Bath. She died in 1680 (Charles II.).

There are also several fine old mural monuments in the church. The reredos is modern, of handsome design, in stone, with a carved representation of the Lord's Supper. It was presented to the church by the late Sir Henry B. T. Wrey, in 1888, who also gave the oak seats in the chancel, and the glass in the south transept window. The organ was built in 1902, and stands at the west end of the nave, occupying the entire width, and has a fine oak case. The former organ stood in a gallery in the north transept.

The altar frontal cloth is a very beautiful piece of needlework, and contains figures of three angels. In a glass case in the north transept is displayed a copy of the book, " A Defence of the Apologie of the Church of England," by John Jewell, Bishop of Salisbury, published in 1609 (James I.), by John Norton, " Printer to the Kings Most Excellent Majesty." A chain is attached to the book.

The most peculiar feature about Tawstock Church is that the floor descends instead of ascends to the chancel, there being altogether seven steps down. The sloping ground on which the church is built no doubt accounts for this, as it falls from west to east. A little bit of scarlet glass, showing high up in the apex of the chancel gable, gives quite a piquant and charming effect.

Figure 10

List of Rectors

1273 — Robert Burnel.
1275 — John de Pointes.
(No date) — Robert de Stapledon.
1311 — Edward de Sancto Johanne.
1313 — Thomas de Bradford.
1313 — John de Galmeton.
1328 — Thomas de Hegham.
1366 — William Woolaston.
1384 — William Parkere.
1390 — Walter Gybbes.
1404 — William de Pilton.
1435 — John Pulton.
(No date) — Thomas Ludlow.
1460 — Sampson Combe.
1460 — John Bourchier.
1468 — John Bryte.
1469 — John Uffculme.
(No date) — Oliver Dinham.
1500 — Thomas Bourchier.
1503 — William Horsey.
1543 — George Wyndam.
1543 — William Hodge.
(No date) — Richard Wondon.
1577 — William Wyot.
1578 — Simon Canham.
1632 — Oliver Naylor.
1636 — Richard Downe.
(No date) — Oliver Naylor.
1705 — George Bull.
(No date) — William Mervin.
1710 — Chichester Wrey.
1756 — Charles Hill.
1801 — Bourchier William Wrey.
1840 — Henry Bourchier Wrey.
1883 — Charles John Down.
1893 — Albany Bourchier Sherard Wrey.

The first name in the foregoing list is still a familiar one in Devon, and so are some of the others.

[1]Hussell, Allen T. North Devon Churches: Studies of Some of the Ancient Buildings. Barnstaple: Herald Press, 1909. Print.

[2]The effigy is now located at the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon in Barnstaple.