Holcombe Burnell Church

Devon & Cornwall Notes and Queries vol. IX, (January 1916 to January 1917), p. 183-5.


F. Fulford

Prepared by Michael Steer

Holcombe Burnell church is about 4 miles west of Exeter City centre. There is no village clustered around the church, rather the nearest village within the parish is Longdown. Holcombe Burnell occupies a narrow spur on the west side of high ground at the northern end of the Haldon ridge. It is an unusually exposed site that offers no protection from prevailing winds and storm fronts. Conversely, the site is dramatic, prominent and offers a fabulous panoramic view of surrounding farmland and the moors. Holcombe Burnell is an ancient hilltop settlement. The Note provides a great deal of interesting information from documents on the Church’s early history. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers .

Note 153. Holcombe Burnell Church. — This church described by Dr. Oliver, and more recently by Miss Cresswell in her interesting notes on the Churches of the Deanery of Kenn, is dedicated to St. John the Baptist. It is evident, however, from Charters in the Liber Albus, preserved in the Chapter Library of Wells, that the original Church at Holcombe was dedicated to St. Nicholas.

These Charters were published in 1907 in The Calendar of the MSS. of the Dean and Chapter of Wells, Hist. MSS. Commission, pages 19 and 20. As the information contained in them appears to have escaped the notice of our local historians, the following extracts from the Calendar may result in further light being thrown on the history of this Church and other matters of interest in the locality.

"Gift by Ralph son of Bernard to Simon 'my clerk' in almoin of the church of Holecumba. Witnesses Henry de Sicca Villa, Herbert the chaplain, Adam de Risford, Richard Rufifus, William the Marshall, Croc, John Colle.

"Charter of Leticia de Say, reciting that Ralph son of Bernard her lord in his last will, in the presence of Stephen chaplain of Dinid his confessor, of the said Leticia, Jordan de Wethemed William de Rifford and others, restored to St Nicholas and the Church of Holecumbe the land and wood, with a villein named Semar tenant thereof and all that goes with him, whereof he had wrongfully deprived the said church ; and whereas he had given the said manor to the said Leticia in dower, requested her to ratify the restitution thereof; and granting the same to the said church and the parsons thereof in accordance with the charter they have of Robert de Renni. Witnesses Osbert dean of Dunesford, Jordan de Westmed (sic), Robert de Cortelega, William de Rifford, Ralph de Eueroriz, Richard Ruffus, Richard Bucell, Gervase Capun, Robert Russell."

"Charter of Robert de Renni (in the rubric Robert Fitz Payn), confirming a gift made by William de Renni his father to Robert his chaplain as well in the church of St Nicholas Holecumbe as in lands pertaining thereto; and giving further lands extending from the cross of Edric Borda (Gorda) to the water leat on the south side, and from the leat all the lands and thickets between the Birigg' road and between the water of Cotteleg' as far as the paved road (strata ferrata) Dated 1150. Robert being Bishop of Exeter, Walter, Hugh de Auco, Ralph son of Gocelin being Archdeacons, and Alvred archdeacon of Cornwall. Supplementary gift to the chaplains of the said church of common of pasture in all the grantors land in Holecumba. Witnesses of all these gifts : Cradoc de Sancta Julitta, Simon de Bonavilla, William de Mirl', Nicholas de Holecumba, William son of Hugh, Richard Penna. Dated at the Castle of St. Julitta."

In a further Charter of Robert de Renni, dated 1156, confirming a gift by his father to Robert his chaplain, in almoin in the church of St. Nicholas, Holecumb, the description of the lands gifted is practically the same as in the Charter above, saving that "Herbethleg' road" is substituted for "Birigg road."

It would seem from these Charters that here we have either a case of re-dedication similar to that referred to by Mr. Windeatt in his article on Teigngrace, D. & C. N. & Q., Vol. ix., page 73, or that St. Nicholas was the patronal saint, vide Mr. Reichel's article, Vol. ix., p. 109.

From the description of the building in Miss Cresswell's notes it appears probable that portions of the original church remain embodied in the existing building, and, therefore, no reconsecration was necessary.

Is it possible that the shaft of the cross, mentioned by Miss Cresswell, on the south side of the churchyard is that of Edric Borda?

Was the "strata ferrata" part of the Ichneild way or Fosse way which passed through Kennford, Sandygate to Totnes, described by Mr. Cotton, Trans. Devon. Asso., xvi., or is it possible that this is evidence of a Roman Road which, I think, some writers believe ran from Exeter across Dartmoor.

The tragic story of the martyrdom of the child saint St. Cyriacus or Cyres and his mother Julitta, in 303 a.d., is told by Mr. Oldham in his paper on church dedications in Devon, Trans. Devon. Asso., xxxv. Can anyone say where the Castle of St. Julitta was ? There was a castle for the Canons of St. Mary in Exeter, recorded in Domesday Survey, but according to Victoria History of Devon, page 398, vol. I., there were only one or two others in the county.

Cotteleg is Cotley, in the parish of Dunsford, but I cannot identify Herbethleg or Birigg with any existing names in the locality, unless possibly Birigg was the ancient spelling of Perridge.

                      F. Fulford.