Some Old Devon Churches

By J. Stabb

London: Simpkin et al (1908-16)

Page 238

Transcribed and edited by Dr Roger Peters

Full text available at


Prepared by Michael Steer

Between 1908 and 1916, John Stabb, an ecclesiologist and photographer who lived in Torquay, published three volumes of Some Old Devon Churches and one of Devon Church Antiquities. A projected second volume of the latter, regarded by Stabb himself as a complement to the former, did not materialize because of his untimely death on August 2nd 1917, aged 52. Collectively, Stabb's four volumes present descriptions of 261 Devon churches and their antiquities.

TOTNES. St. Mary. The parish church stands on a site which probably, before the introduction of Christianity, was occupied by a heathen temple. The earliest record of a church is found in the Charter of Judhael [ca. 1066], in which he gave the church to the Benedictine abbey at Angers [Loire Valley, France]. The church, which existed at the time of the Conqueror [r. 1066-1087], remained until the 13th century, it was then rebuilt, and on November 17th 1259, was dedicated by Bishop Bronescombe. The present Perpendicular church was erected in 1432. The tower is 120 feet high and is crowned by four lofty octagonal pinnacles, at the base it is 25 feet square; there are three canopied niches on the south front of the tower. The centre niche contains a carving of a large bearded head, supposed to be that of Bishop Lacy [elected 1420], beneath it is the inscription, "I made thys tore", on the left is a figure of knight, and on the right is that of an abbot. The tower has been struck twice by lightning, in 1634 and 1799. In the parvise over the south door there is a library of about 300 volumes of theological works of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Through the liberality of Mrs. Roberts, of London, a native of Totnes (who gave the greater part of the money), the church was thoroughly restored between the years 1867 and 1897 at a cost of £15,000.

The screen of stone dates from 1450 [plate 238a], the finest in this material in Devonshire, is noted for the richness of its Gothic tracery, niches, and tabernacle work; e.g., the detail of the carving on the north aisle section [plate 238b]. Around the chancel entrance are carved grapes and vine leaves, and over the doorway is a carved angel. The panels at one time had paintings, but these have been obliterated. On the south door may be seen Bishop Lacy's sign - the knot - repeated several times. There was formerly a rood loft, but this was removed by Sir Gilbert Scott [1811-1878].

The pulpit is of the same date as the screen. It originally contained panels on which were carved figures, said to be the signs of the [twelve] sons of Jacob, these had been painted a mahogany colour, and as it was found impossible to remove the paint, the pulpit was re-cut, hence its present modern appearance. The font is of the same date as the pulpit and screen.

The rood staircase [plate 238c] is in rather an unusual position, being situated someway inside the chancel. We generally find the staircases just on the west of the screen, and in a few instances on the east side, but close to the screen. In this case the choir stalls intervene between the screen and the doorway of the staircase. The outside of the staircase is decorated and has niches, which at one time held figures of saints.

It is the existence of these staircases in so many of the old Devonshire churches that proves that at some time the majority of them had rood screens. In many cases when the doorway of the staircase cannot be seen inside the church, a turret for the staircase will be found on the outside wall. The treads of the stairs are often considerably worn, indeed in some cases they have been re-faced, a proof that they must have been used by a large number of people. If they had been used only by the priest and his assistants, it is improbable that they would show such signs of wear. The most generally accepted idea is, that the principal use of the rood lofts was as music galleries, though of course they were sometimes used for other purposes. Lighted tapers were burnt on the rood loft, and this would necessitate people using the stairs to ascend to the loft, but nothing of this kind would account for the way in which the treads of the stairs are worn.

There are eight bells in the tower. The old custom of ringing the curfew bell is still kept up here. Curfew is rung on the treble bell, and then the day of the month is tolled on the sixth bell.

The list of vicars dates from 1260.

The registers date: baptisms, 1560; marriages, 1556; burials, 1556.