11. St Michael & All Angels Church

Christianity and the founding of the Church in Great Torrington

Christianity arrived in Devon with the Kingdom of Wessex; Wessex had become Christian in 655 AD under King Cenwahl. Although the Dumnonii tribes had been defeated at battle in 825 and 838 by the Saxons it is not clear how much control the Saxon kingdom actually retained on a day-to-day basis over the south west peninsula until Alfred the Great and potentially his Grandson, Althestan, who both had extensive estates in the region, including at Great Torrington.

Whilst Christianity had been adapted by the elites in Saxon Wessex and neighbouring Cornwall, in the rural populations people would largely have adapted a mix of their known localised beliefs and the new religion. Bodmin became the ancient centre of Christianity for the peninsula, with the great Priory of Bodmin exerting real power, having its roots and connections with the church in Ireland and Irish saint preachers. The independent Bishop of Bodmin, eventually acknowledge the primacy and authority of The Archbishop of Canterbury in 870AD.

We known in 937AD Athelstan, the ‘First King of the Ӕnglish’ gifted the tithes (taxes) from his Royal Manor and estates at Great Torrington to the Priors of Bodmin, in a grant which extorts them to pray for his soul. We can assume Athelstan, who died in 939AD was potentially already ill at this time. 937AD therefore is the first date that we can associate the church and Great Torrington as a settlement. We cannot know to what extent the church interfered in the settlement which was already a town by the end of the Saxon period but it was likely that if there wasn’t a formalised church there may have been a preaching cross or similar. The size of Torrington which was already a town by Saxon times would indicate that there was a church, although the early building was likely built of timber and very different from our modern concept of a church building.

In 909AD a Cathedral was built in Crediton by the Saxons, from where a Bishop administered church estates in Devon and in parts of Cornwall, the Saxon Bishop had a palace at nearby Bishops Tawton in North Devon. In 1050AD the Bishopric was moved to the bigger city of Exeter and the Diocese of Exeter formed, under whose authority Great Torrington then fell.

The first recorded church in the Manor at Torrington was built at the castle, a chapel initially just for the Norman residents, dedicated to St James. A document in 1139AD records the castle as being destroyed by fire during a battle and notes that it had a tower, a hall and a chapel. This chapel survived, in an altered state, after the castle was abandoned, having been converted into a school in the 1500s. By 1538, the loss of St James, as an active church or chapel of ease is confirmed by John Leyland, a travelling historian who wrote in his Itinerary of Devon ‘Torington is a great large toune………in the toune is but one paroch chirch.’ In the 1780s when the converted castle-church was found to be in a very in poor state, it was almost wholly remodelled by the town authorities into the Bluecoat school, now called the Palmer centre and occupied by the gym. There is an 1194 reference to a church, but it is disputed if it is the town church or that which was at the castle.

By the 1200s the town at Torrington had grown large and prosperous separate from the castle and the people wanted their own grand church to make a statement about their community, its wealth and piousness. The earliest record of the church in the ‘town’ at Torrington, which we now know as St Michaels is in 1259AD; with the charter recorded instating a priest named Humphrey to a ‘newly built’ church. This could be read two ways, that there was not a previous church or that one has been newly built, replacing an older building.

St Michael and All Angels Church

The church in Torrington is dedicated to St Michael and All Angels; the main fair in the town was held on Michaelmas every year (29th September), the saint’s feast day and would have been as much a religious celebration for the town as it as an important economic event. A series of services, ritual processions and events would have occurred throughout the fair-day, performed by the clergy and lay preachers.

The church building is Grade II* Listed; it was listed in 1951 in one of the first rounds of listing protection surveys after the Second World War. This level of Listing means it is considered of national importance and special architectural interest.

Only the east end of the church and its eastern pillars and arches of the nave are medieval, parts of the chancel and south transept which was formerly the belfry may date to the first church of 1259, much being extended in the 1300s and 1400s. It is believed it was much restored in the late 15th century with monies from patron Lady Margaret Beaufort, with a strong Perpendicular architectural character, who also gifted a portion of her famous library to the town, a small library being built to the south-east of the church, now used as the vestry. This building can be identified by its Tudor Rose crenellations around the roof.

The south tower, with broach spire dated to the 14th century; sadly huge parts of the church required repair and it was significantly rebuilt in 1651 after an explosion of accidentally lit powder kegs during the 1646 English Civil War battle between the Royalist and Parliamentary Armies. There is a stone outside the church on the south transept, inscribed: ‘This church was blowen up with the powder Febrye 16th Anno 1645 and rebuilt Ao 1651’.

The pulpit is considered particularly fine and it is speculated may even be by a London manufacturer. The town had a period of regeneration after the 1660s after Charles II ascended the throne; Royal grants were levied in benefit of towns and parishes who had been loyal to the crown.

The tower was rebuilt again in the 1800s, moved to the west end of the church, finished in 1828 by local architect W.B Cock; however the new steeple blew down in a storm in 1838 and the church was heavily restored in the 1860s by nationally famous church-architect William White, drawings of the church from the early 19th century show it looking quite different.

The church has eight bells that hang in the tower, one dates to 1632, six date to 1718 and one to the 1800s. They have been rehung several times, including in the recent renovations in 2018/2019.

Rectors and Clergy of St Michaels Church

In the 16th century Master Thomas Wolsey, later Cardinal Wolsey was Rector for Great Torrington, when he was chaplain to young Prince Henry in Henry VII’s court. He added the patronage and tithes of the holding to his new college set up at Oxford, when he was Archibishop of York. The name of the college was later changed after his downfall to Christ’s Church College. The college is still patron of the church today.

The second famous clergyman is John Howe; a Puritan theologian, famous as a preacher he was known to stay in the pulpit between 9 and 4 on Sundays; he was appointed to Great Torrington in 1654. So famous did he become he was impressed into Oliver Cromwell’s service as private chaplain in 1656 after a brief trip to London. He returned to Torrington, which he loved in 1662 but an influential dissenter he left England in the 1680s at risk of trial and imprisonment, returning to welcome William of Orange in 1688.

The third is Hugh Peter; a fanatical Presbyterian minister, who was half Dutch. He became army chaplain to General Fairfax and the New Model Army. He became Rector for a period at Torrington, however was unpopular with the formerly Royalist townspeople, having been present during the 1646 battle. He was executed for regicide upon the Restoration of the Monarchy for his active involvement in King Charles execution.

In the 20th century William Kemble Martin, the famous naturalist was Vicar, whilst he wrote ‘Concise British Flora’.

Interesting Features of the Graveyard

The domed cobbled grave planted with trees opposite the church is supposedly the mass grave of the victims of the explosion in 1646 during the Civil War battle; a large hole was dug the remains which were unidentifiable and rubble etc was buried. The churchyard was remodelled in 1813 and again in the mid 19th century and the trees planted here date to that time, so it is not clear, if this is the site or was associated with it at that time. Divining in the 1990s did identify disturbance but further archaeological study of the location has not occurred. Colloquially the mound is known as the giant’s grave. Every February a procession in the town recalls the battle and the mound is the focus of the short service of commemoration for all of the lives lost in 1646.

The sunken earthworks east of the church, between it and the pedestrian gate onto New Street are the remains of the medieval almshouses, demolished in the 1800s and rebuilt on New Street. The Almshouse was built by local philanthropist John Huddle in 1604; the almshouse could accommodate 8 people. By the early 1800s the buildings were in poor condition in the 1840s there was an investigation of commissioners into how the rent on the lands owned by the almshouse intended to support the incumbents and was being spent, with a suspicion of fraud. At this same time the church was also undergoing various phases of repair and restoration and the almshouses, clustering the chancel were demolished so it could be extended. Much of the stonework was used to rebuild a new set of Gothic almshouses on New Street, in 1843.

National Heritage Records for the Church and Churchyard

Church of St Michael and All Angels
Listing Date: 19 March 1951
Last Amended: 24 September 2010
Grade: II*
Church of England Parish: Great Torrington St Michael
Church of England Diocese: Exeter
Plan: Four-bay nave with aisles, two-bay chancel with flanking vestries. Big north and south transepts at the third bay of the aisles. South-west porch, west tower.
Exterior: The west tower has grey ashlar facing, of three stages with battlements and pinnacles, then a slim spire rising from within the parapet. Angle buttresses, two-light bell openings, a lozenge panel in the second stage for a clock face, and large west window above a door. The aisle walls are part medieval, part 17th century, with rebuilding c. 1861. There are parapets to the tower and south vestry only. All window tracery to the nave, aisles and chancel is Geometric, by William White c. 1861, replacing plain 17th or 18th century mullions. South-west porch, also by White, in Early English style. On the west face of the south transept is a plaque inscribed “THIS CHURCH WAS BLOWEN UP WITH POWDER FEBR. YE 16th ANO. 1645 AND REBUILT Ao. 1651”. Another on its east wall says “THIS CHURCH WAS RE-ERECTED ANO. DOMINI 1651”. In the return between chancel and south aisle is a fine early 16th century vestry with square-headed windows (cusped ogee lights with cusped roundels in the spandrels). Exaggerated battlements deeply carved with two tiers of quatrefoils containing shields. It may originally have served as a private chapel. The chancel projects strongly between the aisles; it was lengthened by one bay during the restoration c. 1861.
Interior: The eastern piers of the nave arcades are Perp, of lozenge plan with four shafts and wave mouldings in the diagonals (Pevsner’s `type B’ standard Devon pier). The frieze-like capitals have big leafy bands, and in one or two cases, more delicate vine carving. The arches continue the moulding pattern of the piers. Two south arcade piers (eastern respond and the next pier west) have between them three Perp statuary niches, probably associated with medieval altars, and defaced at the Reformation. At the west end of the nave are three coarse square piers with chamfered angles. Some have on their east and west faces block- or cushion-shaped corbels outlined with roll mouldings (probably 17th century), from which rise double-chamfered arches. Their positions correspond with the projected direction of blast from the former tower base. The roofs are of wagon-vault form with big square panels and bosses, possibly c. 1646-50 with repairs. The chancel floors are of patterned tiles (probably Minton) c. 1861; the nave and aisles have boarding beneath the benches, and stone flagged walkways with tiled borders. A west gallery with kitchen and toilets were created beneath the tower in 2008; architect Michael Willis. Principal Fixtures: Exceptionally refined pulpit of oak, c. 1670-90, with paired Corinthian colonnettes at the angles, a moulded arched panel to each face, and dentil cornice above a frieze of richly gilded carved scroll work with lion masks and cherubs¿ heads. Matching tester with similar gilded frieze (ejected from the church c. 1861, acquired by the Victoria & Albert Museum, and loaned back in 1960.) Stone and marble reredos, 1878, including relief of the Last Supper; sculptor Harry Hems. Octagonal font, 1914 of red-veined marble with richly carved quatrefoil panels. Font cover of oak, in open swept spire form. Hanging rood 1920, installed here in 2002 from St Oswald, Small Heath, Birmingham. Willis Organ (1864) from Sherwell Congregational church, Plymouth, installed here c. 1989. In a very big and elaborate Gothic case with pinnacles and crocketed gable. Oak tower screen by Herbert Reed, dedicated 1928, incorporated in the gallery of 2008. South transept chapel refitted 1938, with 17th century communion table, Neo-Perp oak reredos, and a 19th century oil painting by Catherine Doe copying Caravaggio’s Ecce Homo. Monuments: chancel north; Sarah Gooding, d. 1698; elaborate, somewhat provincial Baroque tablet with busty caryatids. South chapel; Judith Hancock d. 1676; a more refined design with oval plaque in a leafy frame, Corinthian columns and segmental pediment. Pine benches c. 1861. Stained glass: Thirteen windows in all, mainly late 19th century. Four by Lavers & Barraud, probably including the big five-light east window and one beneath the tower. Later glass (e.g. a four-light Crucifixion c. 1893) typical of that date. Subsidiary Features: Set immediately north of the town centre, an alley leads from the High Street into the south-east corner of a big densely-planted churchyard, lined on the south side with cottages like a village green. Paths attractively paved with local pebbles and dated “1813 WBC”. South-east of the church is a big cobbled mound, reputedly the burial place of those killed in the explosion of 1646. History: The first recorded rector was in 1259, though a dispute occurred over the advowson in 1194, and the Saxon settlement doubtless had its parish church. The destroyed south tower and broach spire were probably 14th century, and there must have been significant renewal in the 15th century. In February 1646, the church suffered one of the English Civil War,. Fairfax’s Parliamentary forces, driving the Royalists into Cornwall, captured Torrington in a night assult from Hopton’s Royalists. About 200 men – mainly Parliamentarian troops who had been captured – were killed when the Royalist gunpowder store was sest alight. Fairfax narrowly escaped death. This marked the end of the First Civil War in the west. The resulting explosion and fire left the church ruinous until repaired in 1651. The question of how much fabric survived has been a vexed one. Hussell believed the Perp piers and capitals to be 17th century copying. Pevsner saw the western piers as shapeless 17th century rebuildings; others suggest they are 13th or early 14th century, presumably because of the double-chamfered arches which were fashionable at that time. That the piers and arcades eastward of the explosion site survived and were repaired is borne out by the pre-Reformation niches and vestry at the south-east. William White’s restoration of c. 1861 overlaid much new detail.
Link to Record: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1104787

HER Number: MDV426
Name: Sundial, Great Torrington Parish Church
Grid Reference: SS 495 191
Map Sheet: SS41NE
Admin Area Devon
Civil Parish Great Torrington
District Torridge
Summary – Gilded sundial now on south transept, formerly on chancel.
Monument Type(s) and Dates
• SUNDIAL (XIX – 1832 AD to 1832 AD (Throughout)
Link to National Record: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV426&resourceID=104

HER Number:
Name: Old Sexton’s Cottage and Outbuildings, Great Torrington
Grid Reference: SS 495 191
Map Sheet: SS41NE
Admin Area Devon
Civil Parish Great Torrington
District Torridge
Summary – Early 19th century cottage with adjoining early 18th century cob outbuilding and late 19th century warehouse.
Also a Listed Building: Probably early C19 2 storey, roughcast, 2 windows, upper floor has gabled half-dormers, with pointed wood casements. Ground floor has 2 similar “Gothic” ” casements and central pointed doorway. Adjoining, west, probably early C18. 2 storey ancillary building, cob walls, plank door with heavy frame. 1 window only remains at 1st floor, right, casement with exposed frame and glazing bars. Further west adjoining, 2 storey 1 window each floor, warehouse door 1st floor, right above garage double doors, late C19.
Link to National Record: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1249318

HER Number: MDV17120
Name: Huddle’s Almshouses
Grid Reference: SS 495 192
Map Sheet: SS41NE
Admin Area Devon
Civil Parish Great Torrington
District Torridge
Monument Type(s) and Dates
• ALMSHOUSE (XVII – 1604 AD to 1604 AD (Between))
Summary – John Huddle founded almshouses in the north-east corner of the churchyard in 1604. They were later demolished, and rebuilt in New Street in 1843.
Link to National Record: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV17120&resourceID=104

HER Number: MDV12389
Name: Almshouses,
90 and 92 New Street, Great Torrington

Grid Reference:
SS 492 192
Map Sheet: SS41NE
Admin Area Devon
Civil Parish Great Torrington
District Torridge
Stone range containing eight dwellings, set back behind a front court, dated 1843. Link to National Record: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV12389&resourceID=104

Also a Listed Building: Grade II (UID: 1104780):
Summary: Dated 1843, stone range containing 8 dwellings. Set back behind front court. Coursed rubble with rendered dressings. 2 porch winds with gables and finials. Tudor doorways with hood moulds. Slate roof. Ranges of chimneys set diagonally. Restored 1933 – leaded windows probably of this date.
Link to National Record: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1104780