St. Michael's Church, Honiton

Devon & Cornwall Notes and Queries vol. VI, (January 1910 to October 1911), illus. pp.193-195.


Maxwell Adams

Prepared by Michael Steer

Honiton has been ravaged by fire throughout its history. In 1896, its main church, St Michael’s, was renovated for the princely sum of £800. This investment appeared a subsequent waste of money when the building was gutted by fire on March 26, 1911. The Sexton arrived at the church at about 10.30am to prepare for that morning’s service, only to discover the roof ablaze. His wife called the fire brigade and they rushed to the scene. But at that time they only had a manual pump and there was no water source near enough for them to use. They called for help from Exeter fire brigade which transported their steam engine to the town by train and were able to transport water from a nearby stream to the church. But their efforts were all in vain. The church was completely gutted with only the outer walls and tower remaining after the blaze. The church was restored in 1912 at the cost of £2,900. And this high profile incident no doubt prompted the town to purchase its first steam fire engine in 1911. 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 186. ST. MICHAEL'S CHURCH, HONITON. - The destruction of this ancient church by fire on Sunday, the 26th March, 1911, is a calamity that will be mourned by all lovers of our ecclesiastical antiquities. This interesting building stood on a hill within a mile of the town of Honiton, and tradition says that the selection of the site was due to the machinations of the devil, who removed the materials for its construction to the top of the hill as fast as they were collected at the foot. But the same story is told of many of our churches up and down the country, which are built on hill-tops, and particularly of the little church of Chosen in Gloucestershire, where the tradition also says that the name of Chosen was given to it on account of the evil one's insistence. It will be found, however, that most of the churches and chapels dedicated to St. Michael are built on hill-tops or eminences, and it is known that a small chapel with this dedication existed in 1406 on the site of the now destroyed church, showing that the site was already sanctified. A cruciform church with a tower at the west end replaced this chapel, and is said to have been built towards the end of the 15th century by Peter Courtenay, Bishop of Exeter and afterwards of Winchester, and lord of the manor of Honiton, who died in 1491. There was no chancel arch, and at the intersection of the nave and chancel with the transepts, there was a curious dome-like arrangement of the roof, supported on four large oak beams, two of which will be seen in the illustration of the screen which accom- panies these notes. Subsequently, north and south nave and chancel aisles, the arcades, and the south porch, with its beautiful doorway, were added by John Takell, a wealthy merchant and burgess of Honiton, tempo. Henry VII. On the capitals of the piers of the arcade were scrolls bearing, in medieval characters, the legend, "Pray for ye soull of John Takell & Jone hys wyffe" and shields with the monogram “J.T.” * and in a window in the south transept were the impaled arms of Bishop Courtenay's father and mother, the Courtenay arms also appearing on the capitals of the piers and on some of the arches, and the Bourchier knot on the bosses of the north aisle.

But the chief feature of this ancient church was its glorious screen. It stretched in one unbroken expanse of elaborate carving across the entire width of the chancel and aisles. There were three patterns of tracery on the lower panels, of which illustrations are given, and the rood loft was supported by richly carved fan-shaped spandrels beneath an elaborate frieze. The date of this screen was between 1525 and 1530, and its erection was largely due to the benefaction of John Takell mentioned above, who, with his wife, were generous benefactors to the church. Mr. F. Bligh Bond, writing of this screen in 1903, says that "it is a fine screen of the Exe Valley type, 46 feet in length, with eleven bays and three sets of doors. It retains its groining and cornices with crestings. These are similar to those at Kentisbeare, and the tracery of the arcades exhibits the tilting shields between the cuspings. The screen was restored in 1880 under the direction of Ashworth, but not in an entirely conservative or judicious manner. The removal at this date of the interesting old armorial panel which, prior to this restoration, surmounted the screen, seems an amazing piece of vandalism. It was a fine example of the Royal Arms of George II. (1730) quartered with those of France and Hanover, carved on a wood panel 3 feet square and retaining its original colouring. It is said to have been taken to Exeter " (Trans. Devon. Assoc., xxxv., 464, 5). From about 1732 until recent years this beautiful screen was covered with white paint, grained with blue, to represent white marble. The last restoration of the church was completed on the 3rd September, 1896.

Of the memorials of the dead, the principal were: A stone slab to the memory of John Rigge, a former rector and treasurer of Crediton, ob. 1459 ; another slab in front of an ancient altar in the north chancel aisle, with a Latin inscription, commemorated "Joan Takel, widow, ob. 21 July, 1529 "; a black marble monument to the memory of Thomas Marwood, physician to Queen Elizabeth and builder of Marwood House in Honiton, was inscribed "who practised Chirurgery above 75 years and being zealous of good works gave certain houses and bequeathed in his Will to the poor of Honiton 10 pounds and being aged above 105 years departed in the Catholic faith September ye 18th Anno Domini 1617." Another stone recorded that Thomas Baker, a butterman, was robbed and murdered near Exeter, April 17th, 1724; and on the south side of the church was a memorial to James Sheppard, Esq., Member for Honiton, who died in 1730.

All that now remains of this historic church are the tower and portions of the exterior walls and arcades. Fortunately Mr. John Amery, to whom archaeologists are so much indebted for his photographic survey of the antiquities of Devon, has preserved photographic records of this old church and of its wonderful screen, and to him my thanks are due for the plates which illustrate these notes.                                       Maxwell Adams.

* For an account of John and Jone Takell see "A Tudor Merchant and his Wife" in West Country Stories and Sketches, by W. H. H. Rogers (1895), p. 150, where there is also given an engraving of one of the capitals of the piers with the inscription, from a drawing by Roscoe Gibbs