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Combe Martin St Peter ad Vincula Church

Modified on February 28, 2024

Photos copyright © 2023-2024 Combemartinvillage.co.uk or to their respective owners

“Hartland for length, Berrynarbor for strength, And Combemartin for beauty.”

The North Devon Coast by Charles George Harper (1908)

A History of Combe Martin St Peter ad Vincula Church

The Parish Church of St Peter ad Vincula Combe Martin is a Grade I monument of exceptional interest, and the oldest building in the village. Standing on Church Street at EX34 0LQ, this Early English icon is a long-serving tourist attraction.

Historic England - List Entry No. 1106799 - designates  Combe Martin's parish church at Grade I. This church is one of only fifteen in England dedicated to St Peter ad Vincula ("St Peter in Chains"), after the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome. 

Compared to many other ancient churches in the area, Combe Martin’s red sandstone parish church looks more ornate. This is especially noticeable in its tower and the embattled northern facade of the building, which symbolize its importance, the Norman kings, and the influence of the Church.

Red Sandstone is a type of sedimentary rock common in vernacular architecture. It gets its distinctive red color from the presence of iron oxide, also known as rust. 

Battlements on churches were mainly decorative symbols of status. The gaps in the battlements are called embrasures or crenels, and the raised sections between embrasures are called merlons. Both merlons and embrasures are topped with coping or stone caps to prevent water damage.

While Atherington St Mary's Church, Umberleigh, still has its rood gallery intact: architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner observed that St Peter ad Vincula Church's roodscreen paintings were “the only preserved examples in North Devon” (The Buildings of England: North Devon, 1952, p.76).

The Rood figures of Jesus, Mary, and John the Apostle over the Chancel were carved in 1962 by Colin Shewring. He based his work on a picture in a medieval Book of Hours.

Not often stated is the considerable amount of Spanish mahogany to be found in Combe Martin's Parish Church, or the fine old Bishop's throne in the chancel.

To discover the ancient and modern secrets at our Anglican church, and its original medieval roodscreen, you can visit during daytime opening hours. Photos of Combe Martin's Parish Church are included at the end of this page.

Dive into Combe Martin's long and eventful history >

A Larger Than Average Village Church

Owing to the time when silver was mined in Combe MartinCombe Martin parish church is larger than average for the size of the village. With its Chancel vaguely dated to the 12th century, it was described by architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as "one of the best in the neighbourhood" (1952, p. 6).

St Peter's church boasts remarkably preserved monuments, medieval wood, and carvings. This is due to skilled crafts, the choice of wood, construction and treatments, and also to certain environmental conditions.

Most of this church has enjoyed preservation and luck through the centuriesThe vestry door with its peculiar locks and sanctuary ring, and the old door at the foot of the tower staircase, have been identified by architects as "evidently 15th century doors". 

Nevertheless, there is some evident damage to artefacts in this medieval church. 

Architectural Symbolism

Architectural irregularities seen in churches were possibly emblematic rather than faults. Medieval masons infused their craftsmanship with superstitions, piety, and reverence. Anglican churches contain rich symbolism, often unnoticed (see Masons' marks, Warwick University). 

The significance of architectural symbols, and masons' marks, are understood by those who need to know. They might be purely practical rather than secret, with their arcane meanings not disclosed to the rest of us (ibid).

Architectural symbolism has been called "visual sermons", teaching the faithful about salvation, devotion, and the divine. Combe Martin Church inclines to the north, which may be pure accident. Yet there is a tradition that the old builders sloped their churches in this direction after Christ's head on the Cross.

One continually comes across nave piers leaning to the north and south respectively, forming a shape like the hull of a ship. This is supposed to represent the church being the Ark of God, just as in Noah's Ark.

Among some queer inscriptions in the churchyard is this:—

Here Lyeth
IoHan Ash, she died in september

loe here I slepe in dust till christ my deare
And Sweet Redeemer in the clouds Appeare
Here lyeth the Body of HnmphTy she who
died y 19 day of noVembER 1681.

Combe Martin's 15th Century Workhouse ˃ or Browse our history articles ˃

English Civil War Iconoclasm

During the series of English Civil Wars which lasted from 1642 to 1651: some Roundhead Puritans sought to cleanse the Church of England of elements they considered to be remnants of Catholic tradition, and idol worship. 

Ancient stained glass is very rare in Devon, much having been destroyed by Puritans. In damaging churches such as our St Peter's, they also challenged the authority of the monarchy and ecclesiastical governance.

Religious Conflict During the Rump Parliament 1659

According to architect Alan T. Hussell writing in North Devon Churches (1901): Combe Martin Rector John Newall was "ejected and harassed by the Puritans in 1659". The year 1659 was a period of significant religious and political upheaval in England, following the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658.

This was a time when Puritans had considerable influence, and their actions often led to conflicts and harassment towards those who did not share their views and principles.

Combe Martin's 15th Century Rood Screen | A Comical Tale from 1928

The Earliest Records of Combe Martin Parish Church

In Ward Lock & Co's illustrated guide book Barnstaple &c, published in the 1930s: St Peter's Church chancel is described as "vaguely dated at about the twelfth century, [and it] was built by Lord Martin, a lord of the manor (Combe Martin was originally known as Martin's Combe)".

In 1909 John Stabb stated "the list of rectors commences March 1309. The registers date: baptisms, 1671; marriages, 1680; burials, 1679."

The rector in 1309—Sir William Tracy—held the Living for six months, and is probably the same William Tracey of Morthoe who lived in this time. In the year 1329, "Sir Lodowick de Kemmeys" [Camois and many versions of the name] is listed as rector until 1353, when he was succeeded by Sir Simon Hervey.

Sir Lodowic is said to have belonged to a branch of the great Norman baronial house of Camois, also members of the British aristocracy. The house is traceable back to Henry III (1207-1272), son of King John of Norman Plantagenet descent. 

The progenitor of the related Kemeys family was an Anglo-Norman whose name, Camois, can be found on the Roll of Battle Abbey. This is interesting because we have evidence that the last of the Anglo-Norman baronial Martin family were living at a Great Hall at Combe Martin, during 1326.

In Wales, Martin de Tours, lord of Combe Martin Manor, was called Camais or Kemys; Martyn de Tours, Gen. and 1st Baron of Kemys. He may have been called Cemais or Keymes in Pembroke about 1077.

Following the 1066 Conquest, English monarchs appointed Norman knights to supervise churches. William of Normandy sought to establish dominance, strengthen his reign and secure allegiance within the church. He also began the incorporation of the Church into the Anglo-Norman feudal system.

Rectors were clerics in charge of the parish and owned the tithes, effectively  making them ecclesiastical lords enjoying high status and reverence. Knights continued to be appointed in charge of Combe Martin Parish until the year 1391 (Richard II) when plain John Belle was appointed. 

When a rector held a Living, it meant that they were appointed to a Church of England parochial charge or beneficeThis was essentially a guaranteed income and home for the lifetime of the clergyman lucky enough to be appointed to one.

Founders of Combe Martin St Peter ad Vincula Church

Academic historian W. G. Willis Watson (1906) implied that Lord Robert FitzMartin was the first founder of Combe Martin's thirteenth-century parish church (The History of The Martin Family &c, 1906). The church may have been built earlier.

"The fine tower, 99 ft. high, is of later date. The interior of the church is most interesting. The key by which the door is opened is five hundred years old, and looks its age" (ibid).

Robert FitzMartin was probably the patronymic son of Baron Martin de Tours - after whom the village is named - because Robert appears on a list of the "[sic] men of nobility and woorth that lived in King Stephen's tyme [c1092-1154] within Devon" (Watson, The House of Martin, 1906).

St Peter's church is of thirteenth-century fabric principally on the south side to the chancel and nave. The north aisle and north chancel chapel of this church, north porch and west tower, were added in the early C15, with the north aisle and north chancel chapel, north porch and west tower.

Combe Martin Parish Church Roodscreen

The rood screen in Combe Martin St Peter ad Vincula Church, which once had a loft over it, is dated to the 15th century. In the late C15 or early C16, a north transept  was added. South porch rebuilt 1725; details from Historic England record LEN 1106799

The critical year for the parish churches was 1547 (Edward VI), and a general spoliation of the church fittings took place then, as well as later during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Many of the rood-lofts survived the decrees of Edward VI and Elizabeth I that they should be removed. It is possible that the loft over the screen in Combe Martin church remained until the Commonwealth—1649-60—when the Puritans caused further desecration.

St Peter the Founder of the Early Church

The ancient Christian churches all venerate Peter as a major saint, the founder of the Church of Antioch - the first of the five major churches of the early pentarchy in Christianity - and the Church of Rome.

According to Catholic teaching, Jesus promised Peter a special position in the Church. There are around fifty churches in Devon dedicated to St Peter.

Interior Artefacts in Combe Martin Parish Church

The parclose screen separating the chapel dates to about 1333, when the Chantry Chapel (the present Lady Chapel traditionally dedicated to the Virgin Mary) was added. New choir stalls were added in 1913 and new altar rails in 1914.

The church's interior artefacts include murals, a very old Bishop's chair or throne, and an ornate roodscreen and rood trinity over the chancel. The chestnut parclose screen separates the Lady Chapel. 

Combe Martin's Fifteenth-Century Rood Screen in the Parish Church

Combe Martin's church roodscreen survived through numerous religious injunctions and Cromwell's interregnum. Medieval roodscreens invariably spanned across the chancel arch, forming a legal barrier between Church laity and clergy. See our article on Combe Martin's rood and screen, here.

Additionally, the 14th century ornate Spanish chestnut parclose screen separating the Chancel is a very fine example. Combe Martin's Lady Chapel is unusual insofar as these are more often found in larger churches and cathedrals.

The fifteenth-century roodscreen dado panels in the church still have their original Tudor era painted icons of the Apostles and Christ. They were expertly restored in 2011.

In 1901, Ilfracombe architect and surveyor Allen T. Hussell (in North Devon Churches) wrote that "the date of the oak chancel screen is probably about 1450 (Henry VI) and it retains the original bays and panelling."

Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Hussell's work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and forms part of the knowledge base of civilisation as we know it.

"The length of this roodscreen is 34 feet 3 inches, and the height 11 feet 2 inches. It consists of nine and a half bays with closely reticulated tracery heads of exceptionally neat design." It was restored by William J. Yabsley, in 1913.

Hussell states "that the panelling below the roodscreen contains painted figures of saints, coarsely and conventionally done, it is true, but still very picturesque and very valuable as old figure painting".

In 1909, the screen paintings were "in a remarkably good state of preservation,  and one of the best series of painted screen figure-work in Devon" (Hussell, A.T.).

Torquay historian John Stabb wrote in 1909 that "this church has a good font, a roodscreen, and a bishop's chair [probably dated to the sixteenth-century]. The font is octagonal, the sides of which are carved with arches". 

The Baptismal Font

The baptismal font in Combmartin Church dates to 1415 or 1427; it is Perpendicular with an octagonal lead-lined bowl. The font is decorated with blind tracery panels to each face. It retains traces of its original paint, and alongside the font can be seen evidence of medieval wall paintwork.

The font-bowl is deeper than usual, and mounted on a short shaft with supporting pillars. The whole is standing on a deep plinth; the west side has been disfigured. Hussell said it retained traces of some colouring in 1909.

Hussell described this baptismal font as "a good example of Early Perpendicular work, dating to about 1415 (Henry V)". It consists of an octagonal basin, stem, and base, and there is some damage to the rim.

The four little outstanding pillars on which the font basin partly bears, are a nice effect. The basin is ornamented on each side, except the west, with shallow sunk tracery panels representing the various periods of Gothic tracery, from Early English to Perpendicular (Hussell, North Devon Churches &c.,1901).

Combe Martin Parish Church Bishops Chair

In the chancel during 1909, was a well-carved bishop's chair or throne, of Spanish mahogany and, in 1909, over four hundred years old according to Stabb. On the back of the chair are carved grapes and corn, symbolising the bread and wine in the Blessed Sacrament (Devon Church Antiquities, 1909).

Special Points of Interest

Combe Martin parish church has a wealth of historic monuments inside and outside. Hanging above the chancel is the rood group: a life-size trio of Jesus, Mary, and John the Apostle. This was installed in 1962 by Norfolk conservation architect Colin Shewring.

The relic "Poor Man's Oak Box or Chest" in the church is listed in the book by Mrs Toms: Notes on Combe Martin. Mrs Toms seems to be Kathleen, wife of Humphrey William Toms the incumbent rector from 1842-1902.

Mrs Toms cites the Injunctions of Queen Elizabeth in 1559, which applied to such chests. Extract: "Also they shall provide and have within three months after this visitation, a strong chest with a hole in the upper part thereof, to be provided at the cost and charge of the parish, having three keys".

"Whereof one shall remain with the parson, vicar, or curate, and the other two in the custody of the churchwardens or any other two honest men, to be appointed by the parish from year to year".

"Which chest you shall set and fasten in a most convenient place, to the intent the parishioners should put into it their oblations and alms for their poor neighbours".

"And the parson, vicar, and curate shall diligently from time to time, and especially when men make their testaments, call upon, exhort, and move their neighbours to confer and give, as they may well spare, to the said chest"(Hardy & Gee, 1896, pp. 417-442).

Notes on Combe Martin is a book written by Mrs. Kathleen Toms. Published in 1902, the book provides historical insights into the village of Combe Martin.

See our article on Combe Martin sexton James Norman˃

At the front of the church, the flooring seems to have been reinstalled at some stage. In the past, it was a common practice to bury individuals within churches, typically close to where they sat during their lifetime.

The act of lowering the church floor might be related to this tradition. It’s possible that the remains of those interred under Combe Martin church were relocated, and the floor was subsequently reinstalled at a reduced height.

Hussell (1901) wrote that "the church possesses seven stained windows, the east one of the north aisle being very good, and representing the Ascension and scenes from the life of St . Peter".

"And in the south wall of the chancel, next the screen, is a stained window, the centre portion of which consists of genuine old glass, representing the seraphin of Isaiah vi. 2 and the wheels of Ezekiel i . 15-20" (North Devon Churches).

A small stoup or font remains in the south wall at the right-hand of the south door. The plain, pointed recess was formerly a receptacle for holy water. The custom of having holy water next to church doors goes back to the Middle Ages or before.

There are small wood carvings in the chapels, many of them destroyed but others singularly good. Among many survivals there is a finely carved angel, and a wooden fisherman probably carved after St Peter the Poor Fisherman.

In the southeast side is a window dedicated to Captain Irwin - master of Combe Martin's Clyde Cutter Snowflakeand his wife Elizabeth. Inscribed "In Memory of Capt. John Irwin d.1945 and his wife Elizabeth Esther Irwin d.1946. By A.J. Davies, 1949". At the base is also inscribed "The Gift of Their Daughter."

Among several graves worth a visit in the churchyard, a few metres from the  south porch of the church is a C19 stone cist. It is shaped like a box, and bears  Anthemion motifs or radiating petals.

The tomb is inscribed to 'Mary Newton of the Kings Arms Hotel Combe Martin'. Today, the Hotel is known as the Pack o' Cards Inn and the inscription on the cist can still be discerned today.

Mary died at Tavistock "where she had been for the change of air" in 1844.  William and Mary Newton are listed as occupiers of The Kings Arms, in Out of the World and Into Combe Martin (CMLHG, 1989, p. 87).

Combe Martin Parish Church Lych-gate

A “Lych-gate” or lich-gate, also referred to as a “resurrection gate”, is a roofed gateway that marks the entrance to a traditional churchyard in England or those styled similarly. Originally, the roof of Combe Martin's wooden Lych-gate was either thatched or tiled. 

Standing on the south-side of the church, our Lych-gate bears a plaque to say it was donated by local dignitary and benefactor Elizabeth Snell, in March 1888. The date and some evidence indicate that the Lych-gate was originally dedicated to the popular Combe Martin rector Humphry William Toms.

The word “lych” is derived from the Old English term “līc”, translating to “body”. Lych-gates were used for vigils but mainly served as the meeting point for the clergy and coffins on a bier, during burial ceremonies. They also sheltered mourners and pallbearers.

Lych-gates existed in England in the seventh-century, becoming more common by the fifteenth-century when they often included recessed seats. Comparatively few early examples survive since they were usually made of wood.

These gates were revived across Britain in the late Victorian era, continuing with the influential British Arts and Crafts Movement during the early 20th century.

Combe Martin Church North Chapel

The north chapel, separated from the chancel by the oak screen spanning a very wide Perpendicular arch, has some singular chestnut bench ends. Four of these bench ends finish with statuettes.

Local tradition maintains that Cromwell's soldiers vandalised the chancel. There is a headless eagle, two other birds so mutilated as to be unrecognisable, a dragon, and the four claws of an unknown animal.     

Combe Martin Parish Church Tower

John Lloyd Warden Page (1858-1916) in his The coasts of Devon and Lundy Island; their towns, villages, scenery, antiquities and legends, described Combe Martin St Peter's Church tower in 1895 (pp. 63-65). The tower is described below.

Page wrote that "the tower, ninety- nine feet high, was built in four stages, and tapers considerably. At each angle of the battlements rise slender crocketed pinnacles, surmounted by small crosses."

At the third stage the buttresses have niches, some of them empty and others containing figures. One of the niches on the south side has the effigies of an animal holding a shield bearing three lions passant (Page, ibid).

Page thought that these effigies, forming part of the Royal arms, suggested that the tower was built by Plantagenet King Edward I. His shield was Gules three lions passant guardant, the blazon of the arms of Plantagenet alt. the Angevin dynasty.

The style of architecture, wrote Page, appears later than the reign of Edward I. St Peter's church tower may not have been built earlier than 1350, in the reign of Edward III (r. 1327-1377).

Edward II (r. 1284-1327) was also interested in the Combe Martin silver mines, therefore the escutcheon - emblem displaying a coat of arms - was possibly placed there at his expense. Page suggested that the reign of Edward III tallied with the date of the erection of the tower. 

On the western side is a representation of the Trinity; God the Father holding the Son crucified between His knees, while the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove hovers over the Saviour's breast. 

In another niche is St. Margaret slaying the Dragon. Saint Margaret, whose feast is celebrated on July 20, was historically a virgin and martyr. 

Over the west window is a figure of Christ holding a scroll sculptured with symbols of the Crucifixion. Most of the figures are too weathered for recognition.

In the second stage, at the side of a window which has been partially destroyed to make room for it, is a niche containing a mutilated figure; from the vestments it could be that of a bishop or represent  St. Peter (Page, 1895).                              

Combe Martin's Annual Flower Festival

Stunning arrays of flowers are arranged by the good people of Combe Martin and Berrynarbor, for St Peter's Church annual flower festival held every summer. 

A History of Anglican Church Sanctuary

Premodern English law (1000 - 1500) gave felons the right to shelter in a church or ecclesiastical precinct including cemeteries, remaining safe from arrest and trial in the king's courts.

St Peter ad Vincula Church has retained its sanctuary rings on the C15 vestry door and the north door. Medieval sanctuary was designed for the criminal element among the laity, and granted through the Church as Christian mercy to men and women.

Thus, certain people were rescued from capital punishment they lawfully deserved by their criminal activities. In England up until 1624, all non-convicted felons had the right to claim sanctuary at any church, chapel, churchyard or cemetery.

They could remain in sanctuary for up to forty days before confessing to the coroner and abjuring the realm, or appearing before the coroner for jury trial. Priests who claimed sanctuary were not exceptions to the rule (Butler, Sara M., 2019).

The Ancient 'Green Man' in Combe Martin Church

There is a 'Green Man' foliate face carved on the rood screen, and a similar Green Woman symbol in mediaeval headdress, at the top of one of the stone pillars. 

In legend and pagan mythology: the enigmatic Green Man symbolises the cycle of life, death and re-birth. It's also been called Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood, the King of May, and the Garland.

Green men faces are usually covered in foliage which sprout from their mouths. A common feature in medieval churches, is it is not known why masons included them but they might originate from the ancient Celts.

One of the earliest known examples of this type of foliate face is carved on a tomb in France, and dates back to 400 AD (see The Enigma of the Green Man).

Find out more about Green men carvings in Devon churches.

Sexton James Norman (1844-1896)

The grave of Combmartin sexton James Norman on whom Marie Corelli based her character 'Reuben Dale' in 1896, lies in St Peter's church graveyard, near the Lych-gate.

Marie Corelli, in a foot-note in her novel The Mighty Atom (1898) states that the following description of “Combmartin Church” is reported by her nearly verbatim from the verger James Norman [sic]:—

“Folks ’as bin ’ere an’ said quite wise-like—‘O that roof’s quite modern,’—but ‘tain’t nuthin’ o’ th’ sort. See them oak mouldings ?—not one o’ them’s straight,—not aline. They couldn’t get ’em exact in them days—they wosn’t clever.

So they’re all crooked an’ bout as old as th’ altar screen,—mebbe older, for if ye stand ’ere jest where I be, ye’ll seg they all bend more one way than t’ other, makin’ the whole roof look lop-sided like, an’ why’s that d’ye think?

Ye can’t tell? Well, they’d a reason for what they did in them there old times, an’, sentiment too—an’ they made the churches lean a bit to the side on which our Lord’s head bent on the cross when he said ‘It is finished!’

Ye’ll find nearly all th’ old churches lean a bit like that as a sign of age, as well as a sign of faith.” W. A. HENDERSON, Notes and Queries -1898-05-28: Vol 1 Issue 22. 

Terry Thomas (Actor)

The ashes of actor and comedian Terry Thomas - real name Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens - are interred in St Peter's churchyard on the west side, marked by a head stone. The details are confirmed by Terry's Findagrave listing.

Other prominent personalities, yeomen and entrepreneurs, are also buried in Combe Martin St Peter's graveyard. There is a list of the churchyard graves,  inside the church near the west tower.

The Charley Chest Tomb at the Church of St Peter Ad Vincula in Combe Martin is dedicated to John Charley and his family. John Charley passed away in 1804. The tomb is a significant historical monument and is listed as a Grade II building (Historic England List Entry #1106801).

The Royal Arms on Display in St Peter's Church Combe Martin

The large rectangular painting of the Royal Arms - at the west door tower - was one of many compulsorily placed in churches, after 11 years of republicanism, at the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland during 1660.

Displaying the Royal Arms with crown and cushion in churches was a compulsory reminder of the monarchy’s authority, in all aspects of life including religion. 

Samuel Pepys records in his diary (April 1660) ‘how the King’s Arms are every day set up in the houses and churches’. Evidence from the Henrician Reformation onwards - The Act of Supremacy was passed in 1534 - shows that parish churches were actively encouraged to display the Monarch's Arms.

Combe Martin War Memorial

The stone granite Grade II listed monument stands in a walled garden with wrought iron gates, near the Parish Church of St Peter ad Vincula on Church Street. Historic England listed LEN 1391933; OS Grid Ref: SS 58626 46306.

The war memorial lies to the south of Christmas Cottage. Prior to 1909 the war memorial was the village pound for enclosing stray animals; described in the 1842 tithe assessment as 'waste' (Paynter, Dunkerley and Claughton, 2010).

Combe Martin War Memorial was erected in 1921 and opened by the Bishop of Exeter. Made of light grey dressed granite with bronze relief plaques, the War Memorial honours the memory of the men of this parish who gave their lives for their country in the Great War 1914 -1919 (35 names). They died that we might live.

A further bronze plaque on the steps, added in the late 1940s, records the names of the fallen of WWII: Also to the honoured memory of the men of this parish who gave their lives for their country in the World War 1939-45 (24 names).

Combe Martin Church Organ and Choir

Allen T. Hussell wrote that the organ was erected in 1905 as a memorial to the Rev. Humphry William Toms, M. A., rector of Combe Martin 1842 - 1904. It was placed in the chancel aisle.

The choir and instrumentalists were at one time in a gallery at the west end of the nave. The tower archway was plastered up, and the window in the west wall of the tower filled with slates (North Devon Churches, 1909).

Combe Martin Parish Church Bells and Clock

In the Middle Ages, parishes sometimes kept items of importance or of great value in belfries. St Peter's has a clock, and eight bells recast by Taylor of Oxford in 1827, and by Mears and Stainbank of Whitechapel in 1922.

Mrs Toms referred to the agreement made between John Taylor, of Oxford, and Joshua Harris, churchwarden, as to the re-casting of the four church bells into six in 1827: “ [sic] The tower Bells of Comb Martin was taken down and Cared to Buckland Brewer Febery 14, 1827, and cast Febery by John Taylor from Oxford”.

“[Sic] Joshua Harris, Churchwardin, went down to Buckland Brewer with the bells, and had the bells cast at the time he was there, and brought agin. March 3, 1827, 4 ould bells cast into 6 bells”.

“[Sic] Joshua Harris made the agreement with John Taylor for new castin the bells for the sum of 125 pownes, findin of Everything taken Down and Caring away and bringen agin, and pouting oup new weels and clocks and brasses".

"[Sic] And clapers, and timber, and iron, and everything excepting reps. And keep the bells in repear 12 months at his own expence. ( signed) John Taylor.

Taylors (now at Loughborough) cast the Great Paul Bell for St Paul's Cathedral in 1881, and their foundry was once located in Buckland Brewer near Bideford. In 1827, six new bells cast by Mr Taylor of Buckland Brewer were installed at Combe Martin St Peter ad Vincula Church.

Murals in Combe Martin Parish Church 

Devon is rich in monumental brasses, most of which date from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the chancel aisle of St Peter's is a wall monument, with a finely carved effigy to the wife of Thomas Ivatt, c.1634.

Thomas Ivatt alt. Ivat (gent) had a reputation for 'good and civil behaviour', and 'remarkable forbearance'. "Ivat's family had been ancient gentry for up to 300 years", according to a court case report during 1637-1638.

Ivatt is mentioned in The Court of Chivalry 1634-1640, for an altercation and libel case versus one Amyas Harding (husbandman or farmer) at Combe Martin, between February 1637 and April 1638 (British History Online [AC.UK] 326: Ivat v. Harding).

There are portions of carved oak benches in the chapel. On the south side there is a well-preserved monumental brass inscribed in Latin to William Hancock esq. (gentry) dated 1587. It includes William Hancock's coat-of-arms.

Author S. Baring-Gould reported in 1899 that "behind the brass in the wall of William Hancock, Gent., 1587, is his skull in a recess".

Gould also describes "a curious double lock to the vestry; a small key has to be turned before the lock can be made to act under the large key. An Early English triplet [window] is in the south aisle".

William Hancock of Combe Martin (c1530 - 1587)

The 'gentle family' of Handcock resided at Combmartin in the 16th and 17th centuries (Thomas Westcote's "Devonshire" c. 1630); Edward Hancocke represented Barnstaple in parliament in 1602 (Cribble's "Barnstaple").

William Hancock (c1530 - 1587) was a gentleman and servant of the King, probably a Surveyor to Speaker of the House of Commons Sir John Pollard (c.1528-75). Sir John Pollard sold the manor of Combe Martin to his tenants.

The demesne lands (all the land retained and managed by a lord of the manor under the feudal system for his own use) was "sold to William Hancocke", who served as lord of Combe Martin.

In the parish records: "Edward Hancocke" was the rector from 1681-1708. During his tenure under King Charles II and Queen Anne, the King's Arms [Pack o' Cards Inn] was built. 

The Hancock Brass Inscription Translated from the Latin

William Hancock, gentleman, once an inhabitant of this parish, in firm Christian faith and certain hope confiding in eternal life in perpetual Heaven. Departed from this life on the 4th day of February in the year of Our Lord the 1587th, of whom the body was buried on the 19th of the same month, with survivors remaining three daughters and one son.

Combe Martin archaeologists state that the Hancocks had a manor house in Combe Martin. This would be typical for the contemporary C16 high-class English landed gentry or peerage-class nobility.

In common with Combe Martin's heritage including Knap Down engine house, Hancock's manor house was dismantled and the stone taken to build dwellings in the village (Dunkerley, 2023). 

Monument to Judith Newman

The monument to Judith Newman (1608-1634): "firstly wife of William I Hancock (d.1625), secondly of Thomas II Ivatt 'his Majesty's principal sercher [customs officer] in the port of London'. Inscription: "Memoriae Amoris Sacrum (Sacred to the memory of Love).

"Here lyeth the body of Judith first the wyfe of William Hancock Lord of this mannor by whome she had issue John & Ann, after the wyfe of Thomas Ivatt Esq some tymes His Ma(jes)t's printcipail sercher in the Port of London at whose cost this monument was erected."

"Shee had issue by him Thomas & Judith Ivatt. Shee departed this life May 28 1634 A(nn)o Aetatis 26. (in the year of (her) age 26) Solus Christus mihi salus". (Christ alone is salvation to me) "Grace meekenes love religion modistye Seem'd in this mirrour of her sex to dye For hir soule's lover in hir lyfe did give To hir as many vertues as could live And thus full beutifyed by heavenly arte Earth claim'd hir body Heaven hir better parte".

The Judith Newman effigy is said to be adorned with Honiton Lace, or filet lace known as lacis in the 16th century. On close inspection of Judith's effigy, intricate lace embroidery with ornate motifs and complex patterns can be seen. The source for this information is F.J. Snell (1904), Memorials of Old Devonshire.

Honiton Lace was once also called Bath Brussels lace but it became generally known by its original name of Honiton bone (or thread) lace. Specimens may be seen on three Devonshire monuments dated to the first part of the seventeenth century. 

On the effigy of a Lady Pole in Colyton Church, her cape is edged with three rows of bone lace. Another is on an effigy of Dorothy Lady Dodderidge, in Exeter Cathedral, her cuffs and tucker being a good pattern of geometric design. The third is on the effigy in Combe Martin Church, 1637. 

Stained Windows

Seven stained windows including two in the chancel painted by Mrs. Tyrrel. Another contains ancient glass formerly in an old window. The church's other monuments are listed at Historic England Listing LEN 1106799.

Known Renovations to St Peter ad Vincula Church

In 1905 a new organ was provided as a memorial to the Rev. Humphrey William Toms M.A. (rector 1842-1904). In 1912 the roodscreen was restored at a cost of about £330. New choir stalls were added in 1913 and new altar rails in 1914, the gift of A. B. Baldwin esq. The church was restored in 1881 at a cost of £500 and has 450 sittings.

Hidden History in the Church

Interments are often seen in, or close to, chantry chapels. Church folklore mentions a ‘crypt underneath Combe Martin’s chantry chapel, where treasures were hidden during the Reformation and during Cromwell’s commonwealth’. 

Church elders think this particular crypt might have hidden Combe Martin silver. In 2005 after a high-tech geophys scan of the chapel floor, there did in fact appear to be a void looking more like a pit than a crypt (NDAS, 2005).

The 18th Century Handiwork of Two Churchwardens

The upper part of the screen which can be seen today, above the arches in the chancel, is plastered and finished with a moulded ornate plaster cornice of all things. This unattractive and perhaps ill-judged plaster work was done in 1727 (r. George II).  

Churchwardens John Peard and Timothy Harding left their initials on their handiwork, with the date (Hussell, A.T., 1901, inter alia). The plasterwork and signatures can still be seen in St Peter's chancel today.

Roods Were a Vital Part of the Medieval Church

Rood screens were a vital part of the medieval church. Roods - a large sculpture or painting of the crucifixion of Jesus - hung at the entrance to chancels, and screens segregated the priest's sacred rituals from the congregation.

Rood or rōd is the Middle English word for cross, and in medieval times a rood symbolised the True Cross of Christ’s crucifixion. Originally the focus of veneration, the iconic corpus was commonly flanked by figures of the Virgin Mary and St John (the Holy Rood group).

In the Middle Ages, carved roods of various sizes were mounted on a beam or screen, at the entrance to the chancel of a church, and commonly in Britain. 

Nearly all roods in the Elizabethan queendom were destroyed or hidden. Combe Martin’s screens are of the ordinary English Gothic Perpendicular type. Its spandrels are Renaissance in style. 

The rood trinity, fronted by an elaborately carved roodscreen or jubé (barrier), and a gallery roodloft, was universal in English parish churches between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries (Williams, 2008).

Fortunately, as seen in the photo above, Combe Martin St Peter ad Vincular Church has retained its fifteenth-century roodscreen. The rood gallery or loft depicted in our photo would have been much more ornately carved, and much larger.

The C15 polychrome painted wooden roodscreen (alt. jube) in our parish church represents a medieval legal demarcation, between the Nave and the clergy. Its three-year restoration was reported in the local Journal during 2011.

According to Historic England, “all of the rood [dado] panels in [Combe Martin] church, except for three, still have their original Tudor painted icons of The Apostles and Christ” (Nat. Her. 1106799).

Venerated Icons Banned In Churches

Arguments against idolatry began on the Continent, with Martin Luther's and John Calvin's polemics against Rome. New mantras spread across the English Channel including the belief that salvation could be achieved through faith alone.

The use of images in Eastern and Western churches was universal, until the proscriptive Protestant Reformation swept through Europe in the 1500s. Venerated icons were rejected in favour of Scriptural literalism (prescribed biblical teaching).

Displaying holy images was deemed idolatry, on the grounds that it was a clear violation of the second Commandment: "Thou shall have no other gods before me" (Exod. 20:4–6).

The Bishop's Chair of Ornate Mahogany

In 1910 it was reported that a mahogany chair was in the chancel of St Peter ad Vincula Church. It was decorated with wheat and grapes apparently referring to the sacramental bread and wine. The chair had been for many years in the family of the [1910] incumbent, Rev. F. W. Jones, who presented it to the church.

It is possible that this chair was originally made for a church. A similar chair is still in the church today although it is not known if this is the same one seen in 1910. The report is found in Some Old Devon Churches (Stabb, J., 1908-1911):

'The chair is of Spanish mahogany [Swietenia macrophylla], and is said to be 400 years old [i.e., crafted ca. 1500]. On the back are carved grapes and corn, emblematical of the bread and wine in the Blessed Sacrament.'

Combe Martin Church 16th Century Alms Chest

'In the vestry is an old oak chest; it has three key holes for the three keys which, according to the old injunction of Queen Elizabeth [r. 1558-1603], were to be held by the vicar and churchwardens.' It was reported that this chest contained some Communion Service paraphernalia.

Tudor Church Iconoclasm under Thomas Cromwell 

Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), chief minister to Henry VIII at the time of the Henrician Reformation, unleashed and encouraged a campaign of iconoclasm, altering the fabric and appearance of thousands of churches in England and Wales.

It all suggests a violent state-sponsored Protestant iconoclasm, with the  'stripping of the altars' (Duffy, E., 2005). Cromwell masterminded the English Reformation, when the Church in England broke away from the Pope in Rome. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was a momentous act in history. 

The Reformation in England

Unbroken communion with the Holy See of Rome lasted until King Henry VIII  ended it in 1534. After the Reformation and in Elizabeth’s reign (1558-1603),  church iconography, rood screens and rood galleries, were too rood for some.

The break with Rome eventually triggered England’s transition to being a Protestant country, and the roots of Puritanism are to be found in the beginnings of the English Reformation. 

Williams (2008) states that most church rood galleries were removed in the 1560s and 1570s, following a 1561 Royal Order. However, what remained was not always destroyed by Puritanism in the late sixteenth-century.

The communion with Rome was finally broken by Elizabeth I's 1559 Religious Settlement, which made "no significant concessions to Catholic opinion represented by the church hierarchy and much of the nobility". 

Elizabethan Religious Injunctions

Elizabeth I enforced the Royal Injunctions Act 1559, ordering clergy to ban 'fake' miracles and to ban and report recusants. Over 120 commissioners toured the country, checking that rules were being followed.

Combe Martin Parish Church Roodscreen

Our elaborately carved roodscreen - originally featuring an ornate rood gallery or loft over the chancel - was fortunate to survive religious reforms and injunctions over the centuries. St Peter's also retained its late C15 parclose screen, separating the chantry chapel.

Stabb wrote in 1908 that “the ornate Spanish chestnut parclose screen is a very fine example”. Screens might have been tolerated, but most roodlofts – once used for a variety of purposes including giving access to the Holy Rood by stairs - have vanished.

St Mary's, Atherington, Devon, reports it has the only original pre-Reformation roodloft remaining in the county.

Combe Martin Parish Church Chancel Screen Restorations

The original rood, loft and gallery are long gone. Repairs to our roodscreen were carried out in the eighteenth century and early twentieth century. In 2011, local newspapers reported a three-year restoration and repair project on our roodscreen.

"A host of fascinating discoveries were coming to light" during the renovations. And somehow the roodscreen escaped the Tudors and the Puritans.

About Medieval Church Rood Lofts

A roodloft was the flooring of the structure above the vaulting of the roodscreen, not the carved gallery which, on most pre-Reformation screens, formed the front of the roodloft. These screens and lofts - from where the clergy might conduct liturgical worship - were commonly made of oak. 

Rood iconology had to go, yet a lot of our medieval church archaeology, and Renaissance carpentry, survived. Patently, Royal Orders were often disregarded.

Combe Martin Church Rood Stairs Still Survive

The ‘roodstairs to nowhere’ in Combmartin Parish Church, which once led through a door up to the original rood group and gallery, were re-opened in the early-twentieth-century. Thus the original roodstairs can be viewed today.

Prior to the stairs being reopened, architects suspected the semicircular-headed doorway, at the base of the stairs, consisted of stones repurposed from an earlier church. These stones appeared to be positioned in reverse, revealing their back sides.

Additionally, the door frame’s rebate was set up in such a way that the door would open outward, ensuring it cleared the stairs. The original stone doorway to the rood stairs was destroyed by builders in the early twentieth-century.

Further Destruction to Roodscreens and Lofts After the Tudor Era

The most destruction to church roods and screens happened in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when Church leaders and people opted for open-plan panorama church interiors (Williams, 2008).

And in the mid to late 19th century – a high period of church restoration – ecclesiastical ideas were at their most influential.

Combe Martin St Peter's Church Roodscreen and Gallery

Roodscreens were usually of waist height with doors and squint holes, for example allowing the laity in the Nave to see the clergy elevating the consecrated ‘host’ at the high altar. This all originates from mystery, concealment and divine revelation in medieval church worship.

To see how our rood and gallery may have looked pre-Reformation, Fritton St Catherine Church in Norfolk has a staircase still leading to a loft and giving access to the Rood group. That church roodloft and the roodstairs were reinstated in the early 1900s, but they show how things would have been.

The majority of the iconostases in North Devon include Renaissance ornament (Williams, 2008). Combe Martin's roodscreen retains its doors but the groining (the edge between the intersecting vaults), and cornices, are gone (Stabb, J., 1908-16, p. 69). 

Combe Martin's Roodscreen Doors Never Close

Anyone trying to close the doors in the chancel roodscreen is going to be surprised, for they were deliberately designed never to close. Historic texts describe the conundrum and the reasons for it.

According to Victorian sextons' tales related by Charles G. Harper in 1908, the roodscreen doors ("altar gates")  in Combe Martin Parish Church "won't shut; do what ye will wi' 'em. That shows they was made 'fore the days o' Cromwell [sic]".

"For in they times all the gates o' th' altars was copied arter the pattern o' Scripture which sez: An' the gates o' Heaven shall never be shut, either by day or by night [sic]". " (Harper, Charles G., The North Devon Coast, 1908, p. 80).

Combe Martin's 15th Century Church Hall

Alcohol funding the parish church was sold in nearby church houses after services, and Historic England suggests Combe Martin’s current Community Centre on High St, began as the medieval village church house with a brewery.

During the Reformation and the dissolution of religious houses, church halls were closed and ceased to be built. Seventeenth-century taxes and legislation additionally impacted public houses. 

According to Michael A.Williams in 2008, there were 120 pre-Reformation roodscreens in Devon; 110 were complete and the vast majority date from the 15th century.

Information about Combe Martin St Peter ad Vincula EX34 0LQ and its roodscreen, can be found at Historic England: List entry No. 1106799 (online).

General information can be found in Friar’s Companion to the English Parish Church (1996). Leaflets and small books are available in St Peter ad Vincula Church, and from Combe Martin Museum.

Unfortunately there’s no beer.

Pamphlets and printed guides are available in Combe Martin St Peter's Church.  Read more at Historic England (online): Church Of St Peter Ad Vincula Combe Martin.   

Facebook: Combe Martin St Peter ad Vincula Church 

Research and Sourcing

This article was sourced from reliable historians writing in the 19th and early 12th centuries. Our references are listed below.

Combe Martin Museum and Information point (Cross Street) also has information and leaflets on C parish church. Our Combe Martin photo gallery has a few pictures of it.

© Author J.P. (2023-2024) 

Article created on 12 April 2023

References accessed Apr 2023 - Feb 2024

Baring-Gould, S. (1895): A Book of The West. London. Metheun and Co.

British Listed Buildings (2023): https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101106799-church-of-st-peter-ad-vincula-combe-martin

Britannica 2024 [Architecture]: Lych-gate https://www.britannica.com/technology/lych-gate .

Building Conservation Directory (2023) online: Llannano , A Welsh Treasure.

Bulmer, J. (2011): North Devon Gazette: Heritage secrets revealed in Combe Martin. Barnstaple.

Butler, Sara M. (2019); Could Priests Claim Sanctuary in Medieval England? – Legal History Miscellany. Accessed Aug 27, 2023.

Combe Martin Parish Church Visitor Guide (2023). Available in Combe Martin Parish Church.

Duffy, E. (2005): The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England,1400-1580. Yale University Press; 2nd edition (11 Mar. 2005).

Evans, G, (1950): Coat of Arms no 2 April 1950. The Heraldry Society, Hatchments. 

Findagrave: actor and comedian Terry Thomas.

Former Workhouse: https://historicengland.org.uk/services-skills/education/educational-images/former-workhouse-church-street-combe-martin-7026.

Friar, Michael (1996): Companion to the English Parish Church. Sutton Publishing Ltd. Stroud.

Gee, Henry; Hardy, W.H. eds. (1896): "The Injunctions of 1559". Documents Illustrative of English Church History (New York, 1896), pp. 417-42.

Harper, Charles G. (1908). The North Devon Coast. London: Chapman & Hall Ltd.

Historic England (online): Church Of St Peter Ad Vincula Combe Martin. Reference: IOE01/16233/25.

Historic England (online) 2023. List Entry Number: 1106799.

Historic England (online) 2023. List Entry Number: 1106803.

Hussell, Allen.T. F.R.I.B.A. (1901). North Devon Churches. Palala Press (2015) [Herald Press, Barnstaple].

Imperial War Museum (IWM): War Memorial; Cross, St Peter Ad Vincula Church.

James Norman (Marie Corelli's Reuben Dale) in St Peter's Church graveyard

North Devon Archaeological Society (NDAS), Issue 10, 2005. "A New Technique?". Aiken Graphics.

Page, John L.W. (1895): The Coasts of Devon and Lundy Island &c. London, Horace Cox, 1895.

Pevsner, Nikolaus (1952): North Devon -The  Buildings of England Series No. 4.  Goldstone Rare Books. Llandybie.

Risdon, Tristan (1811): The Chorographical Description Or Survey of the County of Devon. Rees and Curtis, Plymouth. C16 chorography was the art of describing or mapping a region or district.

Rood loft | architecture | Britannica

Snell, F.J. (1904) Ed. Memorials of Old Devonshire. London: Bemrose and sons.

Stabb, John (1908): Some Old Devon Churches, their rood screens, pulpits, fonts, etc. Simpkin et al. London.

Ward Lock & Co. (c.1930s): Illustrated Guide Book - Barnstaple, Clovelly, Ilfracombe, North West Devon. 

Watson, William G.W. (1906): The House of Martin; Being Chapters in the History of the West of England Branch of That Family. Exeter: William Pollard & Co. Ltd, 39 & 40 North Street.

Williams, Michael A. (2008). Thesis for PhD submitted to Exeter University: Medieval English Roodscreens: with special reference to Devon. Public Domain.