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).
The church 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”.
A parclose screen is a barrier or partition utilized to isolate or segregate a chantry chapel, tomb, or manorial chapel from the general sections of a church.
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 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.
The church has a replacement group of life-size rood figures – by Colin Shewring, 1962 - over the entrance to the chancel where they were customarily sited above the rood screen.
Combe Martin’s screens are of the ordinary English Gothic Perpendicular type. Its spandrels are Renaissance in style.
Combe Martin's original rood, loft and gallery are long gone, but repairs to our roodscreen were carried out in the eighteenth century and early twentieth century. A full restoration of the rood paintings was carried out in 2011.
In 2011, local newspapers reported a three-year restoration and repair project on our roodscreen. "A host of fascinating discoveries were coming to light" and, somehow, the roodscreen escaped Tudor and Puritan iconoclasm. Conservators at the time included Eddie Sinclair, Cameron Stewart & Hugh Harrison.
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. 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 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.
Williams 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. The mural ‘roodstairs to nowhere’ which once led up to the rood and gallery in our parish church, were re-opened in the early-twentieth century and they can be seen today.
The most destruction 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.
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.
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 2011.
According to Historic England, “all of the rood [dado] panels in Combe Martin Parish Church, except for three, still have their original Tudor painted icons of The Apostles and Christ” (Nat. Her. 1106799).
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.
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.
The majority of the iconostases in North Devon include Renaissance ornament (Williams, 2008). Our roodscreen retains its doors but the groining (the edge between the intersecting vaults), and cornices, are gone (Stabb, J., 1908-16, p. 69).
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.
Alcohol funding the parish church was sold in nearby church houses after services, and Historic England suggests Combe Martin’s current Community Centre on High St, began as the medieval village church house with a brewery.
During the Reformation and the dissolution of religious houses, church halls were closed and ceased to be built. Seventeenth-century taxes and legislation additionally impacted public houses.
According to Michael A.Williams in 2008, there were 120 pre-Reformation roodscreens in Devon; 110 were complete and the vast majority date from the 15th century.
Information about Combe Martin St Peter ad Vincula EX34 0LQ and its roodscreen, can be found at Historic England: List entry No. 1106799 (online).
General information can be found in Friar’s Companion to the English Parish Church (1996). Leaflets and small books are available in St Peter ad Vincula Church, and from Combe Martin Museum.