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Widecombe History Group Talk October 2000

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Widecombe History Group Talk on A Light Hearted look at Local Parish Churches


The History Group's talk, October 2000:-

"A Light Hearted look at Local Parish Churches" given by Michael Vyner".

A talk illustrated with 100 slides, looking for things in our churches that are interesting, unusual and even amusing is very rewarding, but we must realise that all our churches that were here before the era of Queen Elizabeth I or even Cromwell, were Roman Catholic. They were built when England was a Roman Catholic country and for Roman Catholic congregations. You can still see evidence of this in many of our churches today. For example, by the entrance to some churches one can find a small basin shaped hole in the wall which was a receptacle for Holy Water. Worshipers would dip their fingers in and cross themselves, as do Catholics the world over today. In some pulpits etc one can find niches for example in Paignton Church where once stood statuettes. These were removed when the ‘Puritans’ took over as it was felt that they represented the worshiping of idols. Recesses in the wall where the chalice stood can be found, and beneath it another basin-like hollow where the chalice was washed after communion, this water became immediately Holy and then ran down a tube to soak away in the consecrated ground beneath. These were generally secluded by two wooden doors.

Most churches began as a simple construction and were gradually added to, until they became the buildings we see today. The first churches are known as two cell buildings, a rectangular section for the congregation, (the Nave) and a semicircular section on the eastern end for the clergy, (the Sanctuary). Then an aisle was added generally along the North side of the original nave. If a local nobleman had reason to celebrate, perhaps returned from war intact, or succeeded to a title from his forebears, he may pay for such an extension, perhaps simply due to population increase a need for more room, another aisle may be built on the south side. With the improvement of building skills major improvements were made and the extensions to some were considerable, towers, side chapels porches and so on, ending up like miniature Cathedrals. Some have cross-members built into the roof to counter the strain of these additions, as they were making the wall bulge outwards and also buttresses can be seen outside , all methods to prevent the walls collapsing. If you examine the pillars in churches you can find a difference in their design, all pointing to a different era when they were built, in other words when the church was extended. Some churches have doors in their walls and if you explore them you will find they lead to a spiral staircase that leads to a small room. In that room would in fact live a lower order of clergy, responsible for the welfare of the younger members of the community, their task was to see them through the process of development, their communion, baptism, marriages etc. They were also meant to look after the church, see that no-one stole from the church, and there were peepholes from which to keep watch. Sometimes the local squire kept his armoury there, to protect king and country. Due to the Roman Catholic connections everything was symbolic. Where the ordinary folk prayed represented the earth, where the clergy worshiped represented heaven, and in order to get from earth to heaven one had to pass through the day of judgment. The screen represented that partition. In early churches there were no pews, just an open area covered mostly with ferns, leaves or what ever was available. Occasionally around the edges one can find stone benches, these were for the elderly and infirmed to rest. Hence the saying - ‘The weak go to the wall’.

The Screen had another purpose. Above the Screen was a ‘pathway’ several feet wide and it was there that the priest stood to look down on his congregation and preach. When he was there he had a waist high wall in front of him. All this had the effect of cutting the church into two separate parts.

In the centre of this Screen (Rood-screen) would stand three figures, Christ on the cross, (the Rood) and on one side the image of a woman (Mary) and on the other that of a man, (St John). This signified the quote from the bible. "Mother behold thy son, son behold thy mother", this was to make people aware of Christ’s statement from the cross that as he was soon to die, the man and woman would get comfort from each other. There have been times when a choir, and even minstrels to accompany them, were positioned on top of the screen. We immediately thought of the doors on the left hand side of our own church, we have only a small amount of our screen still in situ, but the door and steps leading to the opening some ten feet above must have been for that very purpose. Henry VIII liked the idea of musicians up above the screen, his daughter Elizabeth was quite the opposite. She had the problem of trying to keep the peace between the Protestants and Catholics. So in an attempt to placate the problem she started the process of taking the tops off the screens.

Some modern churches are reverting to the ‘open planned scenario’ where the chairs can be removed and the congregational area is completely cleared, and both the clergy and the congregation are together. The result is that some modern churches are airy and roomy whilst some old ones are dark and cramped. Screens have a secondary role. In the early 1300’s, the days of Chaucer, you had to know your Saints. Many Saints were painted on these panels, and to help you recognise them most had something painted in their hand or near them that had something to do with what they were renowned for. St Christopher had a child on his shoulder, St Athelonia had pliers and a tooth (patron saint of dentists), St Matthew had a quill pen and paper (Tax gatherer), St Peter with keys or something to do with fishing (a fisherman) and so it goes on, even St George in full armour. Cromwell’s Parliament produced a law that called for the destruction of all monuments to superstition and idolatry, and the result was that all statues, books, pictures that in any way had a connection with religion were defaced or destroyed. This resulted in all statues on the exterior of churches, up the height of a man on horseback were decapitated. The Puritans covered all paintings and the like with a lime and water mix, ‘whitewashed’. Hence the saying "Its a whitewash job!" it means to cover up the truth. Hiding the true religion. Many of our local churches still show the signs of this vandalism, even the early stained glass was destroyed. This lasted for about 200 years until William of Orange landed at Brixham, from then on all of our monarchs had to be Protestant. The civil war in effect destroyed all our religious treasures. When France and Russia had their revolutions they preserved the country’s treasures, but here in Britain that was not so. On a lighter note, look carefully at the work of our stonemasons and you can have great fun trying to decide whether it is a lion or a lamb that is peering down at you.

In Exeter Cathedral there are 50 seats with lift-up flaps, with small sloping boards beneath, this enabled those elderly clergy that had to stand during a long period to perch their backsides, this emphasises the fact that there must have been a tremendous number of clergy involved during that time if about 50 elderly clergy were there besides the younger able bodied ones. In the days of Robin Hood one in every seven people in the country had something to do with the church, now, its one in every seven hundred.

To the Catholics the most important part of the church was the Altar, to the Puritans the most important was the speaker and his Pulpit. Some pulpits had a sounding board above to help throw the voice out to the congregation. One pulpit we were shown had an hourglass holder on the side for the preacher to help time himself , if he was going well he could turn it over and continue!

In some churches you can find examples of an ‘Acrostic’. This is when the first or last letters of a verse spell out a word. It is used today in poems and advertising slogans. There are cases when this has been done on a headstone or memorial, sometimes the poem or verse was ‘well over the top’ but meant to be very flattering.

There are some very interesting memorials and the one in our own church will never be looked at from now on in quite the same way. If one looks at the memorial to Mary Elford, you will notice a ‘chronogram’ this is where roman numerals replace certain letters, for example a ‘V’ for a u, ‘I’ for a y.

Take this example:- Lord have mercy upon us, = LorD haVe MerCI Vpon Vs

= 50+500+5+1000+100+1+5+5 = 1666 = the date of the Great Fire of London.

She also has another feature on her memorial :-

Mary Elford - fear my Lord. This is an anagram as any crossword enthusiast may notice. The same letters in both halves of the quotation.

There was a time when Fonts had to have covers so that no-one could steal the Holy Water from them, some had lids secured with hinges and locks, some had covers so heavy that they could only be lifted off with a pulley and blocks and chain. There is an old wives tale that during a Christening a baby should cry. This was believed to be the devil leaving the child. This was taken very seriously in the old days, indeed a little door was built nearby, ‘the devil’s door’, it was opened during christening services to let the devil out! It was very narrow and to get out of it one would need to go sideways on and pull yourself in to ease through it. There are a nice collection of such doors at three villages close to each other, Broadhempston, Littlehempston and Ipplepen. Churches were decorated with quite garish pictures until the Victorians rubbed them off and painted them over. There are many interesting items in churches that on first inspection may miss your attention,. In Haccombe Church there is a dark wooden cross, it came from the ship, The Mary Rose, which sank in the Solent. Why is it there? It is because The Admiral of the Fleet, at that time , was also Lord of the Manor of Haccombe, he was a ‘Carew’. The Carew family had been Lords of the Manor since almost the time of The Doomsday Book. We see sometimes today berets of soldiers, or hats of important office displayed or carried on coffins. Knights of old always had their head-dress carried on their coffin but they had a special one made for the occasion used only the once, and there is an example of this, a funerary helmet, from the late 1500’s and belonged to the Carey family, in Cockington Church. All churches have a chest many with iron straps to prevent them being broken into, there they kept the old church documents. There are some interesting bibles with misprints in them! The Vinegar Bible as it is called is an example. Printed by a man named Basket. Hence a basket full of errors. Paignton Church has what appears to be a cat flap in its door but is not so, it is a Dog Flap. The church was a total community place for gatherings . Everyone would come, many would bring their dogs, this could on some days mean people stayed all day, imagine the noise and the smell. A man known as the dog whipper would open the flap and whip them out through the door. There are also many examples of stonemasons leaving little idiosyncrasies in their work, look out for them in churches. Some churches had large wooden bars that could be drawn across the doors to prevent pursuing groups from entering the church, as it was a place of sanctuary. Some old church doors are peppered with musket shot. When you go to church you nearly always step down to go into church. This is not due to subsidence. When the Normans built their first churches they dug out the earth and made a bank around the church, this was to remind the congregation as they left church that Christ was made to walk up to the top of a hill carrying a cross, where he was crucified. When churches were being altered the workers had to live somewhere and in most cases they lived in the church houses, Devon has nearly 100 of them. Outside of these church houses were the village stocks. Women were never put in stocks, women had dunking stools.

Services were held in The Church Houses while restoration and alterations were taking place. In one you can still see today the cross carved in the woodwork, several became hostelries. It was the Church House at Broadhempston, now known as The Monk’s Retreat.

All churchyards should have yew trees in them. It was decreed by the Monarch, way back in the 1300’s. The connection with the yew tree and religion goes way back into mythology. The yeomen of England got their bows from the yew. In 1450 when Edward II was on the throne, he decreed that every man should have a bow of his own height. made of Ash Elm or Yew and he should be given the opportunity to practice archery. On some churches can be seen scratch marks where they sharpened their arrows and of course they practices with Butts, there are fields where this took part still named ‘Butts Park’.

Memorial tablets and gravestones carry some amusing engravings. Example from Kingsbridge:-

Here lie I at the chancel door

Here lie I because I’m poor

The further in the more you’ll pay

Here lie I as warm as they.

Michael concluded by saying that all the examples that he had shown the meeting are in a radius of 15 miles from Torquay. There is plenty more to see, and the further you travel the greater the chance of seeing and trying to ascertain even stranger items of interest. He encouraged us to continue the trend of having a:-

"Light-hearted look at The Parish Churches"

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