Combe Martin Parish Church Rood and Screen

Modified on April 14, 2024

Combe Martin Parish Church, North Devon

Combe Martin St Peter ad Vincular Church has retained its fifteenth-century timber roodscreen. In the Middle Ages (1066-1485), carved rood trinities of various sizes were mounted on a beam or screen, at the entrance to the chancel of a church in the eastern part.

The holy trinity of statues (rood) was fronted by a roodscreen and a loft or gallery, legally separating the chancel, clergy and choir from the congregation or laity. The rood screen at St Peter ad Vincula Church in Combe Martin is primarily of the English Gothic Perpendicular style, with some foreign influences.

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).

This roodscreen consists of  9½ bays restored by William J. Yabsley in 1913. The painted panels include tiny icons of heraldry over the figures. The intricate details observed in the cornices, spandrels, and tracery of the roodscreen could suggest a variety of influences (Williams, 2008).

Notably, elements of the Renaissance style appear. And in Devon there are occasional indications of foreign influences. These aspects can provide valuable insights into the time period when the screen was constructed (ibid).

The patrons who commissioned the rood screen might have admired elements of foreign styles that they had seen elsewhere, leading the craftsmen to incorporate these elements.

Combe Martin Parish Church has a replacement rood group – by Colin Shewring, 1962 - hanging over the entrance to the chancel where in the Middle Ages they were customarily sited above the roodscreen. Combe Martin’s screens are of the ordinary English Gothic Perpendicular type.

Combe Martin parish church, north Devon was no exception; the medieval Church was a pervasive force in people's lives, under the power and influence of the Catholic Church which was the only Church in western Europe at the time. 

Unbroken communion with the Holy See of Rome lasted until King Henry VIII ended it in 1534. 

Deep Dive into Combe Martin's History and Heritage

What is a Church Rood?

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 of Christ crucified was commonly flanked by life-size figures of the Virgin Mary and St John (the Holy Rood group).

The Rood Trinity and Rood Loft

This 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).

Rood stairs led up to the rood loft or gallery, giving access to the rood group and gallery from where the priest conducted the Liturgy. Galleries or lofts also allowed the rood group to be cleaned, and the stairs were more often used by the laity. 

The Veiling of Church Icons

Church practices have changed, but in the Middle Ages the veiling of statues and crucifixes was common during all of Lent. This was the period for giving alms, and practicing self-control through fasting.

The old tradition of covering up icons for Lent has an interesting history and there are quite a few interesting theories behind it. Some say that it might be a remnant of the ancient practice of public penance and expiation.

Penitents were ritually expelled from the church at the beginning of Lent, but veiling church icons might simply have been a warning to parishioners that the prescribed period of Lent was approaching.

Rood lofts made space for votive candles and even a small altar. The roodstairs-to-nowhere in Combe Martin Parish Church have survived, and can be seen on open days.

Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian Alterations of Churches 

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there was a significant transformation in church architecture. Novel notions leaned towards open-plan interiors, offering panoramic views (Williams, 2008).

In attempts to foster a more cohesive and communal environment for worship, these revolutionary changes arguably wrought the most damage particularly to rood screens (Williams, 2008 ; Whyte, 2020). 

About Combe Martin's Rood Screen and Doors

The spandrels of Combe Martin's roodscreen are Renaissance in style. The original rood, loft and gallery are long gone. Repairs to our roodscreen were carried out in the eighteenth-century, and in the early twentieth-century.

The C15 polychrome painted wooden roodscreen (alt. jube) in Combe Martin parish church, represents a medieval legal demarcation between the Nave and the clergy. St Peter's roodscreen was evidently neglected over centuries.

Screens might have been tolerated, but most roodlofts – once used for a variety of purposes including giving access to the Holy Rood - have vanished. St Mary's, Atherington, Devon, reports it has the only original pre-Reformation roodloft remaining in the county of Devon.

The majority of the iconostases in North Devon include renaissance ornament (Williams, 2008). Combe Martin St Peter's roodscreen retains its doors - which supposedly never close to sinners - but the groining (the edge between the intersecting vaults), and the original cornices, are gone (Stabb, J., 1908-16, p. 69).

Intricately crafted openwork rood screens gave skilled artists opportunities to create and display elaborate carvings and paintings. St Peter's roodscreen doors are either original or they were altered sometime during the last three centuries.

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. These devices are found in other faiths.

Restoration of Combe Martin's Rood Screen from 2011 - 2014

In 2011, local newspapers reported a three-year restoration and repair project on Combe Martin's roodscreen. The conservators included Eddie Sinclair, Cameron Stewart & Hugh Harrison.

Spanning three years, their work consisted of attending to the cleaning, uncovering and consolidation of the 16th century painted decoration.

The work included treating the 1912 replacement vaulted cornice, and consolidating pockets of fragile carving. Analysis revealed some fascinating results (Eddie Sinclair, 2011-2014).

"A host of fascinating discoveries were coming to light" and, somehow, the roodscreen escaped Tudor and Puritan iconoclasm. 

About 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. 

The Reformation of the Church in England

The English Reformation took place in C16 England when the Church of England broke away from the authority of the pope and the Catholic Church.

After the Reformation and in Elizabeth’s reign (1558-1603), church iconography and 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. 

The Removal of Rood Galleries in England

Michael A. Williams (2008) states that most rood galleries were removed in the 1560s and 1570s, following a 1561 Royal Order. However, what remained was often untouched 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". 

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

Fritton St Catherine Church in Norfolk

To see how a 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. Its loft and stairs were reinstated in the early 1900s but they show how things would have been.

Combe Martin Church Original Rood Screen Paintings

In 1952, Pevsner observed that our roodscreen paintings were “the only preserved examples in North Devon” ("The Buildings of England: North Devon", p.76). Our elaborately carved roodscreen was lucky to survive several reforms and injunctions over the centuries.

Combe Martin Parish Church Parclose Screen

The church also retained its late C15 parclose screen, separating the chantry chapel. Stabb wrote in 1908 that “Combe Martin's ornate Spanish chestnut parclose screen is a very fine example”.

Combe Martin's Medieval Church Hall (Now the Community Centre)

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

The End of Church Halls in C16 England

During the Reformation and the dissolution of religious houses, church halls were closed and ceased to be built. Later, 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.

© Author: J.P. (2023) 


References accessed Jan-July 2023:

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

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

Sinclair, Eddie BA ACR (2011-2014): Restoration of Combe Martin Parish Church Rood Screen.

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

Conlin, J. (2012): Development or Destruction? E.A. Freeman and the Debate on Church Restoration, 1839–51. Oxoniensia Journal (OAHS). 

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

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

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

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

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

Whyte, William (2020): Chap. 26 "Ecclesiastical Gothic Revivalism". The Oxford Handbook of Victorian Medievalism. Oxford Academic.

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