Combe Martin St Peter ad Vincula Church

By Combe Martin History and Heritage Project © 2023-2024

Style: Journalistic | Modified by Admin on June 21, 2024 at 10:30 A.M.


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

The North Devon Coast by Charles George Harper (1908)


This article offers a comprehensive history and description of Combe Martin's ancient parish church. The Gothic Church of St Peter ad Vincula, larger than average for the size of the village, is affiliated with the Diocese of Exeter. 

Historic England has listed Combe Martin St Peter's as a Grade One listed building since 1965. To discover this church's ancient and modern secrets, and its original 15th century roodscreen, you can visit during daytime opening hours.

We turn the spotlight on this church's 900-year history, its rare artifacts, its architectural symbolism, and its significance in our local and regional heritage.

We trace the multi-faceted history of Combe Martin's parish church back to the 12th century. We have early documentary evidence from the year 1133 CE, suggesting that a church existed on this spot.

Recently, an ancient Latin charter was provided by Anthony McCarthy, for the Combe Martin parish churchwardens.

This article highlights key features including Combe Martin's early church patrons and secular rectors, as well as the unique 15th-century rood screen. Photographs and pictures are included on this page for illustration purposes, and context.

We discuss St Peter's architectural styles, including its Perpendicular and Gothic features. We also explore its testament to medieval Christian power, and its unique connection to the historic Combe Martin Silver Mines.

Guided tours of this church are available by bookings. Full of history and anecdotes, these summer tours will hopefully continue every Saturday morning, throughout the summer, for parties of ten adults.

Saturday Morning Guided Tours Commencing June 22, 2024

Weekly tours of this church are being organised by Combe Martin Museum, with the first tour planned for Saturday June 22, 2024 at 10:45 A.M. These tours will hopefully continue at 10:45 A.M. on June 29th, July 6th, and weekly thereafter.

All proceeds go to the village Museum. Support Combe Martin Museum and Information Point and buy your tickets ˃ during weekdays 11:00 am - 1.30 pm.

Combe Martin Parish Church: 900 Years of Architecture and Heritage

The ancient Parish Church of St. Peter ad Vincula Combe Martin is a Grade One listed monument of exceptional significance. The oldest building in the village, this Early English landmark features a tapering four-stage niched west tower standing 99 feet tall.

Towers were freestanding structures, commonly with loopholes, attached to the side or front of churches. They often served functional purposes like housing bells and clocks. In some cases, towers were even defensive fortifications.

Political Instability in the Twelfth-Century

Many early English churches were built during a time of political instability and conflict, such as the Norman Conquest or the Wars of the Roses (1337–1453).

The inclusion of arrow slits allowed the church tower to serve as a defensive fortification. They enabled the defenders to look out, fire arrows, or launch other projectiles at attackers.

During the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154), England was embroiled in a civil war known as 'the Anarchy', as Stephen and Matilda competed for the throne.  Stephen garnered support from a faction of English barons. They favored him over the legitimate heir to the throne, Matilda, daughter of King Henry I.

This led to widespread instability and a civil war in England and Normandy between 1138 and 1153. In this period powerful barons vied for control and resources, often at the expense of the Church.

Grade One Listed Since 1965

Combe Martin St Peter's Church has been a Grade One listed building since 1965 (Historic England, LEN 1106799). To discover its ancient and modern secrets, and its original 15th century roodscreen, you can visit during daytime opening hours.

In old Combe Martin dialect, St Peter's has a 'fine cage of bells'. This church has a clock, and eight bells recast by Taylor of Oxford in 1827, and by Mears and Stainbank of Whitechapel in 1922.

There is a record of the agreement made between John Taylor, of Oxford, and Joshua Harris, churchwarden, as to the re-casting of the four church bells into six during 1827.

Photos of Combe Martin Parish Church are included at the bottom of this article.

Inside this church is a chancel rood—'Calvary'— group, suspended over the chancel above the roodscreen. Jesus on the Cross is flanked by St Mary and St John the Apostle. A common motif in Christian art and architecture during the medieval and Renaissance periods, the current rood group was installed in 1962.

The doorways, windows, and arcades throughout the church are constructed with characteristic pointed Gothic arches, rather than the rounded Romanesque type. The series of arched openings between the nave and aisles, supported on c

The Multifaceted History of Combe Martin St. Peter's Church

Some may be surprised to learn that this parish church started out under the secular control and patronage of the medieval Lord of the Manor. And that parishes were, in effect, governed by vestry committees until the 19th century.

In 1135 CE, there was a dispute or complaint regarding the chapel of Combe [capella de Cumba] between the monks of St Pancras and Robert fitz Martin, son of Combe Martin Lord Martin de Tours.

Evidence of this grievance is found in a Latin charter provided by Anthony McCarthy for the parish church officers. This dispute (calumnia et querela) "was resolved before the Bishop of Exeter, William, and in his synod (church council) held at the church of St. Peter".

The monks of St. Pancras may have had some form of ownership or control over the chapel of Combe [Capelle de Cumba]. The resolution was that the monks abandoned their claim (calumniam suam dimiserunt) over the chapel of Combe.

The Bishop's Charter effectively granted the chapel of Combe to Robert fitz Martin, who was apparently lord of the manor in 1135 CE. 

In return, 'Robert gave the monks half a furlong of land in Combe worth three shillings per year, as perpetual alms (charitable gift) for the acquittal and freedom of the chapel of Combe, as well as for the salvation of his soul, his wife's, and his ancestors' and heirs'.

This was a common motivation for land grants and gifts to religious institutions. The donor hoped it would aid in the spiritual well-being and salvation of themselves and their family (Lyon. J.R., 2020).

The bishop confirmed this agreement with his charter and seal, with the counsel of the whole church, and it was witnessed by various church officials and laymen.
In summary, it records the settlement of a dispute over a chapel through a land grant, with the bishop's formal ratification of the agreement.

Ongoing conflicts over lands and rights continued to disrupt local communities during the high Middle Ages 1000-1300 AD  (Lyon, J.R. [2020], eds. Beach, A.I., Cochelin, I.).

The evolving nature of patronage relationships and family networks over time, repeatedly raised new questions about which nobles actually had valid claims to a particular piece of property, even after it had already been donated to a religious institution (ibid).

The larger-than-average size of this church is likely due to the medieval silver mining in Combe Martin. Located on Church Street, EX34 0LQ, St Peter's has functioned as a manorial and parish church, and a thrill for visitors.

The building and several of its windows have undergone noticeable changes and expansion over the centuries. Moreover, in common with many churches the exterior of St Peter's was evidently lime-washed. Its original masonry was revealed during the High Victorian Gothic phase in the mid to late 19th century.

A History of the Early English Church

By around 1200 AD, a complete Gothic style had emerged, which the Victorians called “Early English” (English Heritage, 2024). The dedication to St Peter ad Vincula is rare; of the very few churches called by this name, one of the best known is the Chapel Royal in the Tower of London. 

These structures showcase the hallmark features of the Gothic style, while exemplifying the skill and craftsmanship of medieval builders, and the predominant architectural influence in thirteenth-century England.

Probably built over a demolished Anglo-Saxon church, the oldest sections of Combe Martin parish church include the chancel, the south transept, and certain parts of the nave. 

According to the signage inside Combe Martin St Peter's church, the current building was constructed in the 13th century. Some accounts specifically date the construction between 1207 and 1272, during the reign of King Henry III.

Additionally, there are indications that some form of church structure existed on the site as early as the 12th century. The approximate age of the chancel, nave and south transept can be inferred from the tall and narrow 'lancet' window (St Peter's Church website).

The chancel with lancet windows is characteristic of Early English architecture; the south transept has a simple pointed arch. The nave was once narrower than it is now, and aligned with the west tower.

During the early 15th century, enhancements were made to this church, including the addition of a north aisle, a north chancel chapel, a north porch, and a 99-foot west tower. A north transept was also added towards the end of the century.

The church underwent restoration twice, first in 1858 and then in 1881 (UKCIV, 2022). The interior of this church is adorned with a remarkable 15th-century rood screen featuring painted figures, and a baptismal font from the same period. The rood on the women’s north side of the church displays images of female saints.

Late in the 13th century, the north wall of the nave was extended outward to form a north aisle, which featured two large four-light perpendicular windows and a north transept. The church's signage directs us to the pier at which point the north aisle and the Chantry Chapel ('Lady Chapel') intersect.

The signage states that the original width of the north wall has been modified with the addition of two niches, making their figures appear part of the 15th-century rood screen. We are advised to observe the west end of this church, where "the current nave awkwardly meets the north wall of the tower".

According to Encyclopedia Britannica (2024), a 'lancet' window takes its name from being shaped like a spear and sharp point. It derives from the Latin word ‘lancea’. Resembling a lance carried by a knight, the term is properly applied to windows without tracery (Engole, 2024).

Most of the medieval stained glass in the windows has been replaced, although there appear to be a few significant medieval stained glass sections in the west tower. The 15th century timber roodscreen in St Peter's Combe Martin, with its well-preserved painted figures of the Apostles, is a very fine survival. 

Perhaps more than any other local landmark, St Peter's represents Combe Martin's medieval status and wealth, and the town's value to successive monarchs. 

Our sources are listed at the end of this article, with a list of Combe Martin rectors from the years 1309 to 1904, provided by architectural historian Allen T. Hussell F.R.I.B.A. (1901).

Thirteenth-Century Early English Gothic Style

In England during late 12th century, the prevalent Romanesque architecture, otherwise known as "Norman architecture", was gradually replaced with a new Gothic architectural style which emanated from France (Buis, A.M., 2024).

The English Perpendicular Gothic architectural style, also known as Rectilinear, features primarily in religious buildings including cathedrals, abbeys, chapels, and basilicas. It emphasises height, with tall walls and windows creating an impression of reaching towards the sky.

Romanesque and English Perpendicular Gothic look very different to the earlier Anglo-Saxon turriform or tower-nave churches, which were among the first churches built in Anglo-Saxon England (Fisher, E.A., 1959).

See our photos of Combe Martin Parish Church ˃

Perpendicular Style Architecture

According to British Listed Buildings (2024), Combe Martin St Peter's is constructed in Early English Perpendicular elegance, with 13th-century materials surviving in the south transept, and on the south side of the chancel and nave. The church also features large Perpendicular style windows with stained glass.

Perpendicular style windows feature intricate stone tracery, or mullion divisions, of open work pattern defining the windows. Unlike the flowing, curvilinear patterns seen in earlier Gothic styles, Perpendicular tracery is characterized by its straight, vertical lines, creating a grid-like pattern that gives the style its name.

Combe Martin's Early Ecclesial Community

St Peter's church likely stands upon an earlier Saxon wooden structure. Apart from the oldest wooden church in the world at Greensted, Essex, with its ancient timber walls, and split oak tree trunks forming the nave (998 - 1063 AD), none of these wooden churches survive above the ground (Johnson, B., Historic-UK).

Historically, dedicated churches were the nucleus of community identity; a place where members gathered not just for worship but also for social events, community service, and more (

Devon architectural historian Allen T. Hussell F.R.I.B.A. (1901) suggested that Combe Martin's Anglo-Norman ecclesial community was founded under the first Martins; namely Lord Robert Fitz-Martin who was born in the late 11th century.

Robert was the son of Lord Martin de Turribus otherwise known as Combe Martin overlord Martin de Tours. Originally, not every settlement had churches and priests which were introduced much later. 

The Martins' biographer George Willis Watson (1906) states that Robert is listed in the nobility during the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154). And that Robert was the first of the Fitz-Martin lineage.

Combe Martin Parish of St Peter 

Naming Early English churches after St. Peter the Fisherman [Simon/Cephus] celebrated his prominent position in Christianity, and was rooted in apostolic lineage (Hoare, 2014).

St. Peter was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ and one of the first leaders of the early Christian Church. The first Pope, his leadership skills and unwavering faith made him a key figure in the expansion of the church (O'Connor, 2024).

The early parishes introduced under Edward III (r. 1327-1377) originally represented a local community connected to a particular church. Residents lived in close proximity and worshipped together (Peacock, 1888). 

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 with evidently 13th century fabric.

Ward Lock and Co. suggest the church "was built by Lord Martin [possibly Robert], a lord of the manor". They add that "Combe Martin was originally known as Martin's Combe".

In 1909, Torquay ecclesiologist  John Stabb stated "the list of [Combe Martin] rectors commences March 1309 [Edward II]. The registers date: baptisms, 1671; marriages, 1680; burials, 1679." According to Stabb's information, the early records show that this church was originally under the control of secular nobles. 

The rector listed in 1309—"Sir William Tracy"—held the Living for six months, and is probably the same William Tracey of Mortehoe who lived in this time. An Oliver de Tracey was rector of Ilfracombe in 1263 (Hussell, A.T., North Devon Churches).

In the year 1329, "Sir Lodowick de Kemmeys" [Camois and many versions of the name] is listed as Combe Martin 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 the 1300s.

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.

Combe Martin Parish Registers

Combe Martin St Peter's parish register of baptisms, marriages, and burials reportedly starts from the year 1736 (UK Genealogy Archives). Yet this church’s history extends much further back.

Parish records held by The North Devon Register Office contain data beginning in 1671 (Southwest Heritage Trust, 2024). Some of these are partial or fragmented.

Norman Influence and Ecclesiastical Manorial Rights

Following the 1066 Conquest, 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; they owned the tithes and received the income, effectively with ecclesiastical manorial rights. 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 benefice, which was a grant of land for life. Rooted in feudalism, in return for services this was essentially a guaranteed income and home for the lifetime of the clergyman lucky enough to be appointed to a Living.

Orientation of Parish Churches

In many churches, the altar is aligned towards the east. That's not a universal rule, and the actual geographical positioning of the altar can differ depending on several considerations including the church’s architectural design.

In a church shaped like a cross, the transept refers to the arm that cuts across the building. The liturgical tradition is to conduct services facing east, known as ‘ad orientem’. As a result, the transept’s left side is referred to as the North transept, and the right side is known as the South transept (Britannica).

This naming convention holds true even if the church’s actual orientation doesn’t place the altar on the east side. Interestingly, some churches, particularly those built in the English Gothic style, feature transepts at the west end as well.

Regardless of a church's geographical layout, the altar end is often referred to as the “east end” (facing east). This is rooted in the ancient Christian practice of praying in this direction. And in church graveyards, gravestones often face east, as by tradition the Second Coming of Christ is expected to occur ex oriente.  

Similarly, terms like “west door” often based at the tower, or the “north aisle”, are based on medieval Christian liturgical or symbolic orientation (Pierce, Joanne M., 2016), instead of the cardinal points on a compass.

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 devoted 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. 

Throughout this fine church there are several stained-glass windows, monumental tablets and brasses, plaques and dedications. Many of these are dedicated to high-ranking local families and benefactors including the Leys, Hardings, Hancocks and Ivatts.

In the north aisle there is a plaque dedicated to Edgar Raymond Irwin, "Rector's Warden" for 24 years until his death in July, 1971, aged 76. In Anglican churches, the rector’s warden or senior warden was a lay member of the parish who advised and supported the rector.

In some dioceses and congregations, the rector selected the senior warden from long-serving candidates. Edgar Irwin played a significant role in leadership and administration as the highest non-ordained elected authority in the congregation. 

If the rector become incapacitated, leadership in the eyes of the law would fall directly to the rector’s warden. This information can be found in MICAH, 2009: The Leadership Structure of an Anglican Congregation.

There is a monument to George Ley (squire and benefactor, d.1716) in the north aisle. George Ley is known for building the nearby Pack o’ Cards Inn, originally a standalone townhouse (1690) and eventually The King's Arms until 1933. The house was supposedly built after George Ley's large win at cards.

The Combe Martin War Memorial tablets, symbols of the community’s respect and remembrance, are located on the liturgical south wall in the eastern end of the nave, the long central body of the church. Adjacent to the church you’ll find the Grade 2 listed granite War Memorial and Garden.

Dive into the history of Combe Martin˃

The Anglo-Norman Era

The Catholic Church was the central, dominant institution from the early Middle Ages when the Church held political power, and fundamental Christian doctrines were established. This lasted until the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. 

In the Bayeux Tapestry which tells the story of the conquest of England in 1066, it is twice depicted that the Normans went into battle under a banner adorned with a cross (English Heritage, 2024).

This banner received a personal blessing from Pope Alexander II, who was the leader of the Roman Church that all Christians were a part of. It was then sent to William of Normandy (Morton, 1975).

In the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the newly established Norman nobility assumed control over the churches (Blair, 1998). And in certain aspects, the Normans assimilated a great deal from England’s history.

They adopted many Anglo-Saxon customs, laws, and traditions, and intermarried with the Anglo-Saxon nobility, leading to a blend of Norman and English cultures. Yet other than Westminster Abbey, no major English church survived the first fifty years of Norman rule (Garnett, 2009).

By the early thirteenth-century, almost all the Anglo-Saxon wooden churches and minsters had been torn down. They were replaced by large stone edifices as a testament to Norman power and the permanence of Christianity (English Heritage, 2024). 

Under William the Conqueror and Archbishop Lanfranc, most of the Anglo-Saxon clergy were replaced by Norman nobles and officials. Manorial lay rectors were appointed by patron lords, according to manor customs and Church regulations (Durham World Heritage Site, 2024).

This country experienced a unique fusion of Anglo-Norman cultures after 1066, and became a European state. New cathedrals, castles and manorial churches were established, bringing England into line with continental European religion. The English landscape was transformed beyond all recognition (Garnett, 2009).

When the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086, these substitutions progressed to the peak of secular control over the churches, changing England's religious  fabric and culture (ibid). Moreover, Garnett states that the Normans changed the English language and laws.

In summary, the establishment of churches and monasteries was a strategic move by the Normans to consolidate their power, control the religious institutions, and integrate their culture into their conquered territories.

Pre-Reformation Segregated Seating

According to Professor Nicholas Orme in The Medieval Church, 2022: in medieval churches the seating arrangements segregated men and women, though not always. This did not apply to affluent nobles, gentry, or merchants, sitting with their spouses in the chancel or side chapels.

There are several interpretations of these practices, and various customs influenced seating arrangements. Moreover, church seating was also associated with specific properties (Orme, 2022).

The rest of the congregation or laity in the nave might have been segregated by gender. This probably varied from one church to another. According to E. den Hartog (2021), segregating the sexes in church was "quite normal in western Europe through the medieval period" (q.v. Aston, M., 1990).

When segregation did occur, states Orme, women typically occupied the north side of the church while men were seated on the south side. Orme attributes this arrangement to religious symbolism; the north side was viewed as the ‘safe’ side and the south as ‘unsafe’.

In the Middle Ages, the west-facing rood, a representation of Christ on the cross, was always positioned above the chancel entrance. To its right (north) was a figure of the Virgin Mary, and to its left (south), Saint John. Take for example the rood suspended over Combe Martin St Peter's Church chancel.

The north side, under the auspices of the Virgin Mary, was reserved for the 'saved'. Women were seated here as they were considered more susceptible to temptation. Men, believed to be more resilient against evil, were seated on the ‘unsafe’ side (ibid).

These arrangements appear to have been not only physical; symbolism and spiritualism reflected the beliefs and teachings of the Church during the Middle Ages.

There are several interpretations of these practices, and other customs influenced seating arrangements. 

Combe Martin's St Peter's Church Architecture

Hussell (in North Devon Churches, 1901, pp. 39-45) noted that St Peter's tall tower bore a resemblance to the classic Somerset Perpendicular style. It must have been a sight to behold in its early days, when its intricate niched sculptures and carvings were untouched by the ravages of time.

The tower is a standout beauty in North-West Devon, and could even hold its own when compared to the likes of Chittlehampton and Cullompton, located further south (Hussell). There are several other clues to this church's status.

Hussell considered the northern porch tall enough to have once housed a Parvis, or room, in its upper section. Before the Reformation, this space might have been utilised by the keeper of the sacristy, or by the sexton. In some histories the Parvis ["Paradise"] served as a secure storage area for the church’s treasures.

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, symbolising its importance, the Norman kings, and the influence of the universal Church.

St Peter's is built from stone rubble with ashlar dressing, and its red sandstone is a type of sedimentary rock common in vernacular architecture. Sandstone 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.

Medieval Rood Screens

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

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

Read more about Combe Martin Parish Church Roodscreen˃

Combe Martin's rood effigies of Jesus, Mary and John the Apostle, suspended over the chancel, were carved in 1962 by Colin Shewring who 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.

Dive into Combe Martin's long and eventful history >

A Church Representing Combe Martin's Status

Combe Martin was designated as a market town in the year 1264, through its royal charter granted to Nicholas Fitz-Martin (b. c1236) by Henry III who reigned between 1207 and 1272 (Lewis, Samuel, 1858).

The town was elevated to a chartered borough in 1246, providing the community with autonomy and rights independent from administrative shires and hundreds.

In his Topographical Dictionary of England (1858), Samuel Lewis described this church as "a handsome structure, with a fine tower, and built about the time of Henry III" (p. 654).

Notable for its tall tower and niches with finely carved effigies, architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described Combe Martin St. Peter ad Vincula Church as "one of the best in the neighbourhood" (1952, p. 6).

Our church boasts remarkably preserved monuments, artefacts, medieval wood, and carvings. These survivals are 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 oaken plank vestry door with its peculiar locks and sanctuary ring, and the old door at the foot of the grand west tower staircase, have been identified by architects as "evidently 15th century doors". 

Waggon Roofing

The waggon roofing characterised by its arch or curved shape in this church features finely-aged timber, creating a sense of space and symmetry throughout. Allen T. Hussell (Ilfracombe, 1909) wrote that the plastered roof would originally have been open-timbered to the rafters.

Waggon roofing has aesthetic qualities and structural strength. The curved shape of the roof can help to distribute weight and resist wind forces, making it a practical choice in addition to its visual appeal. 

The south transept features a simple barrel roof with a flat ceiling, adorned with decorative moulded ribs and purlins intersecting with intricately carved bosses.  The roof in the north transept is made up of smaller panels, each embellished with a carved rosette at its centre (Historic England).

Architectural Symbolism

Combe Martin Church supposedly inclines to the north, which may be a myth, accidental, or intentional. Architectural symbolism has been called "visual sermons", teaching the faithful about salvation, devotion, and the divine. 

Building 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).

Nave piers have been observed leaning to the north and south respectively, forming a shape like the upside-down hull of a ship. In some Christian traditions, this is linked to churches representing the Ark of God.

The term “nave” in the context of a church comes from Medieval Latin navem (nominative navis) "nave of a church". However, like all church architecture, the leaning of the nave piers might also be due to structural or foundational issues, changes over time, or specific architectural styles. 

Among some unusual 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.

This graveyard tablet is dedicated to Johan Ash (d.1668) and husband, and is located on the outer south wall of the church.

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

The Parish System

During the reign of Edward III (1327-1377), the parochial system was established across the entire kingdom. Parishes served as local administrative units within the broader ecclesiastical structure, and each parish had its own church building named for a specific saint.

Boundaries were often defined based on geographical features such as rivers, hills, or landmarks. Edward III’s rule was characterised by significant historical events, including the Hundred Years’ War with France and the devastating impact of the Black Death pandemic.

Our parishes as we see them on the map today owe their origin and even their existing names to the building of a church (J. Horace Round). The parish is the original secular division of the land . . .

There were by no means originally churches and priests to every parish. These were things of much later introduction (Toulmin Smith, in Pounds, N.G.J., 2008).

Throughout the Middle Ages and until the late nineteenth century, the parish served as the fundamental territorial unit in the organisation of this country.  N.G.J. Pounds (2008) states that English parishes initially reflected the boundaries of manorial estates, symbolising the manor’s religious community. 

During the Middle Ages, England alone had approximately 8,500 parishes, although the exact number remains uncertain for any period preceding the seventeenth or eighteenth century (Pounds, Norman G.J.).

Whitewashing of Churches

Limewashing, also known as whitewashing, was a widespread practice in English churches due to its practical benefits and symbolic significance. Limewash made from a mixture of slaked lime or lime putty and water, was favoured for its  affordability, ease of application and antibacterial properties.

Although it was caustic and off-white, it was thought this paint prevented disease transmission in crowded places like churches. In terms of symbolism, limewash is benign, and traditionally linked with purity and sanctity in Christian culture.

Religious art adorned the interiors of most Anglo-Norman churches. Frescoes, mosaics, and painted sculptures were some of the artistic forms used. These artworks usually portrayed scenes from the Bible, saints, and other sacred symbols. Most of these church artworks were eventually whitewashed.

The act of limewashing church interiors could be interpreted as a manifestation of spiritual values, historical tradition and dissent, or merely aesthetics. However, limewashing was not a universal practice across all English churches.

Churches were also limewashed and plastered on the outside, mainly as weatherproofing but also to hide their stone rubble and flint walls. To determine whether the exterior of a church was initially finished in this tradition, one should inspect the outer walls of the church.

If the original construction of the church involved rubble walls made from local field stone and flint, it’s likely that both the interior and exterior were treated with plaster and limewash (Courtney, Ashley, 2021).

The exterior of Combe Martin St Peter ad Vincula Church has many interesting patches resembling lime. From records, it seems this church had its exterior limewash removed during the late 1870s.

In The Examiner (Sept 09, 1879), Issue 3738, p.1217: Combmartin, with a beautiful old village church which was much injured by the Roundheads, and is only now being freed from whitewash and restored. The land round Combmartin is very fertile, and provides large quantities of fruit and vegetables for the Welsh people opposite.  

On St Peter's church there appear to be exterior areas where the original render was not completely removed. However, we would have to consult experts to determine whether or not the church at Combe Martin was originally plastered and limewashed (Courtnay, Building Conservation Directory, 2021).

English Reformation c1527-1590

Used as a surface coating, limewash has served as an architectural finish throughout the world for thousands of years. During the time of the English Reformation, the birth of the Church of England, the act of whitewashing was commonly employed to eliminate religious symbols from churches. 

Most of the sixteenth-century was marked by significant religious, political, and societal shifts. England severed ties with the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church (Duffy, 2005).

Whitewashing inside churches continued until the Victorians stripped interiors and exteriors of their render and lime finish, primarily to reveal the medieval masonry.

English Civil War Iconoclasm

During the series of English Civil Wars which lasted from 1642 to 1651: some Roundhead Puritans, critical of Catholic influences, 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 ours, 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 (1909): 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

Academic Historian George Willis Watson

Academic historian W. G. Willis Watson (1906) implied that Lord Robert FitzMartin was the first founder of Combe Martin's manorial church in the twelfth-century  (The History of The Martin Family &c, 1906). 

 Watson stated that Robert appears on a list of the "[sic] men of nobility and woorth that lived in King Stephen's tyme [c1092-1154] within Devon" (ibid).

"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).

Watson states that 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.

In the late C15 or early C16, a north transept  was added. South porch rebuilt 1725; details from Historic England record LEN 1106799

Critical Times for Churches

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.

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.

Within the Tower of London, the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula is known for its beautiful Spanish chestnut roof. This particular feature is steeped in folklore; the story goes that the roof was constructed from Spanish chestnut trees.

The Tower Chapel's roof is supposed to have provided a sense of familiarity and comfort for Queen Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of King Henry VIII. The idea was that she might feel closer to God beneath the trees of her homeland.

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

Ilfracombe architect and surveyor Allen T. Hussell wrote that "the date of the oak chancel screen is probably about 1450 (Henry VI) and it retains the original bays and panelling." (1909).

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.).

The Baptismal Font

Torquay historian John Stabb wrote in 1909 that "this church has a good font, a roodscreen, and a bishop's chair [dated to c16th century]. The Combe Martin font is octagonal, the sides of which are carved with arches".

Like the original 12th century font at Ilfracombe's late Norman Holy Trinity Church (present structure c1321, Edward III): St. Peter's font has been moved between various positions in the church and is visibly injured. It dates to 1415 or 1427 and is Perpendicular style with an octagonal lead-lined bowl.

The font is decorated with blind tracery panels to each face and retains traces of its original paint. Early twentieth century inspections reported evidence of medieval wall paintwork alongside the font.

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 reported 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 the Perpendicular era (Hussell, North Devon Churches &c.,1909).

Combe Martin Parish Church Bishop's Chair

In St Peter's chancel during 1909, was a well-carved Bishop's chair or throne, a rare and historic ecclesiastical artefact. A beautifully preserved Bishop's chair can be seen in St Peter ad Vincula Church chancel today. 

"Made of Spanish mahogany", in 1909 the chair was "over four hundred years old" according to Torquay antiquary and ecclesiologist John Stabb. 

There are modern and early twentieth-century photographs of this chair  included in our Church photo gallery. On the back of it are carved grapes and corn, symbolising the bread and wine in the Blessed Sacrament (Devon Church Antiquities, 1909).

In 1910, ecclesiologist Francis Bond (in Wood Carvings in English Churches) also reported the mahogany chair in St Peter's chancel, noting it was decorated with wheat and grapes, apparently referring to the sacramental bread and wine.

Bond and Stabb state that this Bishop's throne "had been for many years in the family of the [1909] incumbent, Rev. F. W. Jones, who presented it to the church". Nothing more is known about this chair

It is possible that this chair was originally made for a church. The report is found in Some Old Devon Churches (Stabb, J., 1908-1911). The Swietenia macrophylla, a contemporary evergreen tree, originates from the neotropics, tropical America, Mexico, and South America.

The tree has successfully adapted to the Asia-Pacific region, and is now grown in plantations and used as wind-breaks in various other locations.

A more plausible scenario is that the chair was acquired much later, perhaps in the 17th or 18th century when Spanish mahogany had become more accessible available and used in Europe.

The 400-year age estimate cited by Stabb was possibly an exaggeration or misunderstanding of the chair's true origins.

Victorian Reformations

A revival of the Gothic style took place in the mid to late 19th century (Victorian Gothic), when there was a strong desire to bring churches back to what was believed to be their original medieval appearance (Conlin, 2012). 

This even extended to often unsightly removals of interior and exterior lime render. The Victorian Gothic architectural movement—Victorian Medievalism—was characterised by elements such as pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses typical of medieval Gothic architecture (Whyte, 2020). 

In the era of Victorian restoration, a wave of extensive renovations took place across many churches. Victorian ecclesiastical concepts were particularly influential, leading to the restoration or rebuilding of numerous roodscreens.

These restorations were frequently based on the restorers’ ideas of medieval church architecture, which might not have been completely accurate.

Despite these modifications, the custom of keeping the roodscreen doors open has been preserved in many churches, including Combe Martin St Peter ad Vincula Church.

Victorian Gothic led to churches becoming more open plan, representing a welcoming spirit and openness to everyone. High Churchmen revived rituals, images, incense, and vestments not seen in England since the Reformation.

Yet in many cases these reforms destroyed medieval architecture. The removal of renderings caused lasting damage and vulnerabilities, and churches were especially exposed to the elements and water ingress.

More information can be found in The Victorian church : architecture and society (1995), published by St Martin's Press.

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 Evangelist. This was installed in 1962 by Norfolk conservation architect Colin Shewring.

In the American Antiques magazine (July 1923, Vol. IV. No.1), there is a photograph and description of a pewter Communion flagon, "the earliest known characteristic type of English flagon dated to circa 1600". Many of these unused relics were stored in churches and eventually sold to collectors. 

In 1923, Antiques magazine claimed that "a magnificent example is or was in its original place in Combmartin Church"..."How beautifully it illustrated the simplicity of the earlier pewter ! How eminently suited to withstand hard usage and the ravages of time!".

The c.17th century pewter flagon attributed to Combe Martin St Peter's Church could well have been kept in the relic 'Peter's Pence' chest (still in the church). Those relics would have been shown to 19th century visitors by sexton James Norman of Marie Corelli fame. It is included in our photo gallery below.

The c.16th century 'Peter's Pence' chest in Combe Martin church is listed in the book Notes on Combe Martin (1902) by Mrs Toms. This lady was Kathleen, wife of Humphrey William Toms the incumbent rector from 1842-1902. Several sources state there was an old pewter Communion set kept in that old chest.

Elizabethan Injunctions 1559

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).

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 wrote that "the church possesses several 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".

A small stoup or font remains by the entrance to the church from the north graveyard. A plain, pointed recess, it 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 ornamental wood carvings in the chapels, many of them destroyed but others singularly good. Among many survivals there is a finely carved angel, a Lion among several 'God's beasts', and a wooden fisherman obviously carved after St. Peter [Simon] the Poor Fisherman.

Primarily artistic expressionism, figure carving often symbolised moral and spiritual qualities, such as the Lion for courage and resurrection. They were also scriptural and moral teaching aids, scenes from the Bible, or from the medieval Book of Beasts (Bestiary c. 500-1500 CE).

In the southeast side is a window memorialising 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 may have been thatched but it is listed as being tiled. 

Standing on the south-side of the church, our Lych-gate bears a plaque to say it was dedicated to local dignitary and benefactor Elizabeth Snell, d. 26 March 1888. The date and some evidence indicate that this gate was originally dedicated to Humphry William Toms, Combe Martin rector from 1842-1904.

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 commonly made of oak.

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 St. Peter's 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 St. Peter's 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 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. 

On the western side of the tower 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 Former Rectory

The Grade 2 listed 'Old Rectory' on Rectory Road, formerly the Rectory Manor, is dated 1847. It is constructed of local stone rubble with Bath stone dressings (Historic England LEN 1106806). 

According to White's Directory published 1878-1879: the incumbent rector, for over sixty years from 1842, was the Rev. Humphry William Toms, the parish cleric in charge at Combe Martin and controller of the tithes.

In England, tithes were initially a form of taxation where a tenth of all farm produce was required to be given each year to sustain the parish clergy and church.

The rector's living or benefice was a rectory manor, in the patronage and incumbency of the rector. "The Rev. Toms had a good residence situated in a romantic combe, and 72 acres of glebe [45 average football pitches]" according to White's Directory.

A glebe is land in addition to or including the parsonage house/rectory and grounds which was assigned to support the priest.             

Combe Martin's Annual Summer 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 (McSheffrey, Shannon, 2017).

St Peter ad Vincula Church has retained its sanctuary rings on the C15 vestry door and on 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 (ibid).

Thus, certain people were rescued from capital punishment they lawfully deserved by their criminal activities. In England up until 1624 (King James I), 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 Combe Martin sexton James Norman on whom Marie Corelli based her character 'Reuben Dale' in 1896, lies in the 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 the parish church graveyard. There is a list of the graves, inside the church near the west tower.

The Charley Chest Tomb on the southeast side is dedicated to John Charley and his family. John Charley passed away in 1804. The tomb is designated a significant historical monument, listed as a Grade 2 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 the 17th century Christmas Cottage. Prior to 1909, the war memorial was the village pound for enclosing stray animals. This pound was described in the 1842 tithe assessment as 'waste' (Paynter, Dunkerley and Claughton, 2010). Cottages on Church Street [Figgy Street] are 400 years old.

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. Many churches across the world have bells cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (closed 2017).

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. "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].

“[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.

Combe Martin Parish Church Curiosities

In his Book of The West (1895) author and Anglican priest Sabine Baring-Gould claimed that "behind the brass in the wall of William Hancock, Gent., 1587, is his skull in a recess". This has not been proved and it would be highly unusual.

Baring-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". This shows the importance of the vestry room when it was the office for local governance.

In many places in England and Wales, the vestry, working together with the rector or the priest in charge, had responsibilities for managing the community's spiritual matters, goals and objectives, and administrative and fiducial matters.

For many centuries, the vestries acted as the only local government when there was no formal city or town council. Besides legal and civil administration, vestries were in charge of community fiscal affairs.

Under the leadership of the local established Church, vestry governance continued up until reforms in the middle and end of the 19th century (The growth of civic and parish responsibilities).

The Hancocks at Combe Martin (1500s - 1700s)

The 'gentle Hancocke family' resided at OId Combmartin in the 16th and 17th centuries (Westcote's Devonshire c. 1630). Edward Hancocke represented Barnstaple in parliament in 1602 (Gribble's "Barnstaple", 1830).

The family tree is listed in the Visitation of the County of Devon, In the Year 1564, edited by Dr Frederic Thomas Colby D.D. (Exeter, 1881). These visitations were conducted by heralds of the College of Arms, who would travel around England to regulate and record the coats of arms of nobility and gentry. 

William Hancock [Handcock] (c1530 - 1587) was a gentleman and servant of the King, and 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 or held the principle estate.

The feudal tenure, which included the system of manorial lords, was finally abolished in England, Ireland, and Wales in 1660. 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, and an Early English triplet window is in the south aisle. 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 roodscreen which can be seen today above the arches in the Lady Chapel, was 'repaired' by two churchwardens in 1727. Finished with a peculiar, moulded ornate plaster cornice: this ugly addition would be better suited to a parlour room.

John Peard (a local miller) and Timothy Harding left their initials on their handiwork, along with the date (Hussell, A.T., 1909, 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, the triangular spaces between the tops of adjacent arches and the ceiling or roof above, appear to be Renaissance in style. 

The rood or 'Calvary' 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).

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". 

The impact of the English Reformation, and subsequent reformations in the Anglican Church, can be seen as lasting for at least two centuries. Some scholars talk of a "Long Reformation", from which the effects are still felt and seen today.

Elizabethan Religious Injunctions

During the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, Queen Elizabeth I (ex-communicated in 1570) enforced the Royal Injunctions Act 1559, ordering clergy to ban 'fake' miracles, and to ban and report recusants (Cartwright, 2020). 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 (Williams, 2008). 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 rood 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 offer reasons for it.

Church roodscreen doors were replaced during the 18th and 19th centuries, especially during the Victorian Gothic revival period. Yet Combe Martin roughly attributes its open roodscreen doors to the Book of Revelation, Chapter 21:

According to Combe Martin sexton James Norman, as told 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. 

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 the church, and from Combe Martin Museum.

Unfortunately there’s no beer.

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 of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and from modern academics. Our references are listed below.

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

Article is © Author J.P. 2023-2024. All Rights Reserved.
Article created on 12 April 2023. Modified at 00:01 A.M. UTC, June 20, 2024.
Photos copyright © 2023-2024 or to their respective owners.


The central narrative of parish history during the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries revolves around the diminishing influence of minsters (superior churches). An increasing number of secular lords established manorial churches, such as Combe Martin St Peter's, under their direct authority (Blair, 1988).

After the Conquest of 1066, King William began to wipe out Anglo-Saxon minsters and churches, along with allegiances to the customs of the dispossessed Anglo-Saxons. By the year 1200: almost all the churches and minsters had been replaced by Norman structures (Blair, 1988, in Anglo-Saxon Settlements).

By the time the Domesday Book of 1086 was compiled, this transition had significantly progressed, with the late 11th century representing the peak of secular control over churches. 

Blair (1988) states that by the year 1200 and subsequent changes to Church rights, the control that late Saxon and early Norman ‘owners’ had over churches had diminished to something akin to a mere right of presentation, advowson or patronage (ius presentandi).


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