History Group Talk September 2011

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Our speaker this month was Sue Andrews of Yelverton, and she gave the group a most interesting and inspiring illustrated talk about “Roof Bosses of Devon Churches” including the Widecombe Church Bosses. 

Sue has spent many years exploring this fascinating project travelling all over the world in search of evidence of the “Three Hares” a symbol found in many Dartmoor Churches and the surrounding area. She has obtained a PhD from The University of Plymouth and her work can be viewed on the world wide web. Search for ‘Late Medieval Roof Bosses’ and you will find about 1130 pages depicting her work, conclusions and thesis.  Her interpretation of the variety of images portrayed on church bosses is intriguing. Basically there are two styles of bosses, figural, showing animals and birds and including human effigies, and foliage, showing plant life including trees and vegetation. Bosses of the style in Widecombe and many other churches are used just to cover the joints in the timber, where in some cathedrals they are part and parcel of the roof structure. Many bosses were created to show the contrast between good and evil. Another expression could be the contrast of Sin and Salvation. Sue explained that the spirit of a deceased person goes first to purgatory, from where the soul is sent either to heaven or hell, much relating to this is portrayed on bosses.  On some bosses the male human head is adorned with a crown, could this be Christ, other female heads with crowns are possibly Saints. The interpretations are worthy of much thought and debate. Then there are the foliage bosses. Some showing humans with foliage 'spewing' out of their mouths, eyes and ears. These depictions were all used to illustrate stories, rather than words, for illiterate people, and appeared on ceilings, walls and screens, wherever they looked the stories could be seen and hopefully understood.  Sue felt that the mouth is of considerable importance when considering these carvings. The apple taken by mouth in the case of Adam, the seeds of the tree of life, the 'Green Man' so called, could have a variety of meanings from fertility, penitence or salvation. She expressed her considered opinions but left us pondering our individual thoughts and interpretations. Was there a connection with North Bovey Church with its wooden wall plates, could some of them have come from Widecombe? According to her research there is a possibility that this could be so.  One has to remember the Great Storm of 21st October 1638 here at Widecombe. It is possible that the Chancel was not greatly damaged, but considerable damage was done to the back of the church and the north aisle, the bosses there may be more modern.. If the chancel escaped unscathed the bosses there could well be medieval but some of the others could well be replacements. We believe that the bosses were repainted about 50 years ago or so. The dates of work done to our church could do with recording accurately. We should look into the old 'Churchwarden's Accounts' and perhaps ask to look through the more modern ones to get accurate dates and details of these happenings.  The chancel was the part of the church used by the clergy and their patrons, the rest of the church being the domain of the parishioners. Many medieval churches were well decorated on ceilings and walls alike.  These decorations explained to the general parishioners the important tales of the bible in a way that they could understand. Much of this was destroyed by the Victorians and 'white-washed' over. This reminded some of us of the 'laurel leaf features' that once decorated the walls above the monolith pillars of our church. Again a date for when these were painted over, would be well worth recording. The image of St Catherine, with the Catherine Wheel on which she was tortured, comes in various styles in several churches, and at Widecombe there is St Catherine’s Chapel. This is recorded in the history of this parish church and the comparatively recent re-creation of St Catherine’s Chapel, on the right when facing the altar, can be seen today. The altar stone in that chapel was found buried in the floor of the church many years ago, and erected as part of a refurbishment. This and several other items like the disfigurement of the Saints on our Rood Screen, could have connections with the Reformation in the sixteenth century.  Illustrations were shown of bosses from many Devon churches and some from far away, some depicting the story of Adam and Eve, others the crucifixion, the seven deadly sins, including lust, and St Michael weighing souls.  Some medieval churches had a chancel arch, again a method of parting the two portions of the building. Did not Leusdon Church, built c1863, have a chancel arch with an inscription on it years ago ? Photographs of this do exist, we should attempt to get the words recorded.  We were also shown examples of stained glass windows, they depict a variety of religious happenings. St Peter with the 'key to hell', people roped together on their journey there. Stained glass windows were used to depict religious stories for the tuition of the masses. Our Rood Screen could do with the type of restoration that has been undertaken at Holne Parish Church recently. The Saints depicted all tell a tale, St Catherine and the wheel, St Peter and the scales, St Anthony with his pig and of course St Margaret, the Saint of childbirth, just some amongst many. Some bosses clearly meant to show Christ with the wounds on his hands and feet. There are many beasts on bosses and we were told of a book on animals, a Bestiary, which mentions animals and the part they played in depicting the religious stories. Was it a goat or an antelope? Was it a pelican or a bird of prey? Was it a dragon or a prime-evil animal? Was it a Lion or the Devil? The quest goes on for the answers. The three hares are generally recognised as being the emblem of 'The Tinners of Dartmoor'. This is now very questionable as the design has been found all over the world from China, the Middle East, Russia, and Europe as well as in Britain.  Could it be connected with The Silk Trade of years ago ? The Rood above the Rood Screen in our church has gone, the cross that surmounted it no longer exists. The stairs and doorway, the way the vicar used to surmount the Rood Screen, are still there to see, all this helps to understand the partitioning of the church from the clergy and the populous.

Sue is a fascinating speaker who left us with much to contemplate. Her delivery is superb and her reasoning's are interesting to hear. To try to take in all she told us of her years of study and research in the hour she was allotted, is no mean feat. A talk that many Parochial Church Councils could do well to hear, as they try to maintain these beautiful architectural buildings, entrusted to their care.  

 Dates and details to research and record:

What was the inscription on Leusdon Church’s Chancel Arch?

When was St Catherine’s chapel reinstated?

When were the ‘Laurel surrounded religious texts’ painted over?

When was the work done on the interior of Widecombe Church when the bosses were repainted?

When was the pulpit moved?



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