- Wonderful red stone church in a peaceful spot
- Deep history going back to the Saxons
- An early west tower
- A fine Norman font
- Some fascinating and unusual bench ends
- A collection of brilliant seventeenth century monuments
- A lovely East Window
- An impressive twentieth century stained glass Annunciation
Bickleigh Church of St Mary
The beginning of Bickleigh Church is bit of puzzle, an interesting one to be sure, one open to few viewpoints.
There is one perception that a mile downhill, next to the River Exe, Bickleigh Castle’s chapel is the original place of worship probably dating from Saxon times; there is, sadly, minimal evidence for this and the listed building entry only dates the chapel as far back as the twelfth century.
Another theory is even more interesting.
For back in 904 the top boys from all over southern England plus their attendants met for a royal council at Bicanleag, called a royal ‘hunting lodge’, and Bickleigh seems to hit the spot. It was at the crossroads of the main route North from Exeter, and also the the East-West one from West Devon up to Somerset.
It surely helped that the latter route went straight to Crediton, just then becoming the head of the Diocese of Devon and Cornwall (Exeter took on that role later).
So it seems to have been a major place, and likely enough there was a manor and a Saxon chapel here.
Later, under the new Norman owners, things were rearranged.
The fine west tower
What seems to have happened is that the manor house was moved down to the present Bickleigh castle and the parish church separated from that manor house; this meant more than just a new building/rebuilding/renovation, but also the provision of land for a priest to live on:
An ecclesiastical council in 1102 decreed that no new church could be founded without adequate provision for the priest as well as the church…
… Anglo-Saxon hunting lodge at Bicanleag, Duncan Probert: 2016
Probably as much to make sure the priest was independent of the cajoling and bullying of the local vested interests as to guarantee his food supply.
And here is the wonderful twelfth/thirteenth (probable) century tower, with the chancel and nave around the same date. More importantly, it is a corker, lichen clad Devon red stone on a bluff overlooking the Exe vale.
Inside Bickleigh Church of St Mary
Inside, of course, folk have come and gone with their changes, the righthand south aisle was added in the fifteenth century and a heap of renovation went on in the nineteenth.
The Norman font
Which also included the ‘cleaning up’ of this bonny Norman font, a magical connection to the first stone church.
It is called a ‘tub font’ unsurprisingly, looking like a tub as it does, and the top row of star and pellet ornamentation is original, albeit smoothed and tidied, whilst the bottom seems to be a product of the nineteenth century scrub up. The sides have been made even, destroying the marks of the original axes used to carve it.
But still it stands, a call from the past, a delight for the present.
Fascinating bench ends
Another fine connection to the past is this exquisitely carved dandy lad, Late Medieval as he is, and he most definitely is a he. The clothes and that leg display, so very not a female thing back in the day.
From the sunken cheek to the broken nose, those muscular thighs to bag of tools, this is a working man for sure, and the way the figure breaks the confine of the carved surround gives a very skilled dynamism to the whole composition.
The hat too, is that twine around it for for his work, and is there a badge or buckle there too? Whilst the tools are very carefully shown, bundled up in cloth with a few bits sticking out of the lower end.
Prayers for the dead
So what kind of tradesman is he?
Some think it might be woodworking tools he is carrying, and that it even might be a self-portrait of the carver, which is a fair insight.
Others, moi included, lean towards a suspicion that he is involved in sheep, a very major industry hereabouts then, and carrying sheep shearing and sheep caring tools.
If so, would this be reference to the person who donated money for these particular bench ends, maybe someone who made their money from the wool trade?
There is another mystery here too, that beading, it is not just a decorative device, they are beads, or jetons, strung on cord.
The right hand bench end (detail also below) gives the best demonstration of this, the tassels stopping the object flying off the strings are clearly shown, whilst on the left hand bench end the cords seem to have wooden stops.
Bedes for the donor
So what are they?
Well, I would bet my bottom dollar they are a form of rosaries, carried as mementoes to aid in regular praying throughout the day, each bead a prayer; indeed, that is where the word ‘bead’ comes from, as the original word was ‘bede’ meaning prayer.
So given that this has some truth in it, then the figure of the man and the bedes (beads) suddenly come together, this is an illustration of the donor and his business (not a realistic portrait necessarily) and this is highly religious pair of bench ends.
For prayers for the dead were a huge thing back in the day, they were (sloppily) believed to help the deceased get to heaven quicker; so here, the deceased donor was surrounded by prayers, and everybody who looked at these knew exactly what this meant, and likely enough uttered a short prayer for the man.
And suddenly these carvings come alive with the faith that they lived far back, that in itself is a wonder and a half.
An early wall monument
As it does with this bonny, though maybe not so much deep as somewhat interesting.
For those figures, they really do not seem to belong; they have no context.
Where is his prayer desk? whose kid is that and where is her mother? Why is kneeling man so far to the left? And why or why is the same dude blocking the inscription-to-be?
Two possibilities spring to mind: One is that the figures do not belong there, the other is that there were originally two figures facing each other praying over a desk (with or without the babe).
What we do know is that the memorial is to a member or members of the Carew family, their family coat of arms is on that shield up top, the same folk who lived in Bickleigh Castle.
A little girl lost
Though to be fair I am writing this the day before Halloween and maybe it is wiser not to argue with this alabaster lass and her skull BFF.
Which likely means that she died at an early age, sadly so.
A brilliant seventeenth century tomb
As did this colleen, Elizabeth Carew, who married Richard Erisey and who seems to have died in childbirth.
It is a beautifully carved and a very expensive piece, and there is more going as well.
The Carews and Eriseys were landed gentry, big boys in the county and region but not national movers and shakers (that was the aristocracy’s privilege), and this quality of monument carving was traditionally their bag.
On top of this, it mourns a lass dying in childbirth…
Carew’s daughter Eriseyes wife
Elizabeth that hight [named]
Exchanged life for death to give
A sonne this world’s light
To God she lived to God she died
Young yeered in virtues old
And left until it rise again
This tombe her corps to hold.
Ano. Do. 1618.
Inscription on the monument
Confusingly, Elizabeth Carew’s Mom was not only called Elizabeth Carew as well but also married an Erisey lad, though Lizzie’s Ma came from Cornwall and she herself from Bickleigh. Also, this Lizzie had a son in 1616, and not a peep thereafter… so maybe a second child was a stillbirth, or died very soon after, in 1618; there is no record of a child born then for sure.
The bairn who is depicted below her might be her surviving child or the one who she died giving birth to, the jury is out.
But I do love that phrase ‘young yeerd’; I am not getting older, I am just ‘well yeerd’…
And I do so love the carving on this one as well, all that Renaissancery up top and the very fine figure below.
Elizabeth Carew in detail
Very fine indeed, down to bodice and dress ties and that well starched ruff. Note too, if you will, the book she is holding, likely a prayer book or equivalent, a sign of her religious life.
The only sign surprisingly, because this is a modern monument of its time; it is to a woman, no sign of the hubby, and it is mourning a lass dead in childbirth, a sentiment that was relatively modern to display publicly.
Indeed life was getting more emotional in many ways, woman were being seen as having their own feelings (gasp!) and their own struggles in life, and marriage was becoming a greater emotional commitment rather than just an exchange of property; the rise of the ‘companionate marriage’ as it has been called.
Not that loving marriages had never been a thing, history is fuzzy not digital, but they were becoming more the norm.
A more sober monument
Here another Carew monument, very good in a very different way, lifelike busts of Peter and Elizabeth Carew, modestly clothed as suits the age of Puritanism in which Peter died (1654), his wife preceding him in 1619.
Whether these are accurate or stylised portraits is an open question, but more important is what they show; modesty, humility even, Pete wearing armour (reasonably, considering a savage civil war had just finished) but with his hand on his heart.
Dedicated to God? Or maybe showing his undying devotion to the Royalist cause?
Elizabeth is holding a book, a prayer book or bible almost surely. This is a period of of deep personal religion, and it shows.
Another seventeenth century beauty
While here another Carew couple, Sir Henry and and his wife, Henry dying in 1681, with their two daughters at either end.
Once again, the man is in full armour and the woman is holding a book, war and religion like chalk and cheese, though in violent times violence is less a choice than a necessity for most.
More importantly, these monuments are a reminder of the colonisation of churches by the great and the good, turning them into their own mausoleums, stating their social status and clean living to all who entered.
Though as ever this was very different culture to ours, and social standings were far more set in stone, albeit a stone that was being eroded somewhat by new money. There were no Marxists around, and the passionate Protestantism of southern England was not really a thing here in rural Devon, life and society was what it was and deal with it as thou wilt.
In any event it is quite the experience to be surrounded by all these country-grandiose carvings in a pretty little country church in this bucolic landscape, a fine experience at that.
An enchanting flower
My favourite bit of carving in all this is here, on Henry’s tomb, and it is a peach, totally darling. That decorative pot, the the lush growth, those pretty flowers, roses and others, all delectable. Even the edges of the leaves carefully carved.
Just adorable, and for me one of those ‘ooomph’ moments when I found it.
The east window
And that window truly is some splendiferous stained glass, made by William Wailes, a justifiably famous artist and installed in 1857.
It is the deep patterning that really makes this a stunner, with a gentle, meditative crucifixion, angels and the Lamb of God above, and below…
The nightmare of Mary
Sumptuously robed Mary and John, showing John leading the grieving mother away to care for her forever in his own home, as instructed by Christ from the cross.
But less leading than accompanying, the gentleness of this scene is brilliant, the way that Mary softly places her hand on John in an expression of trust, John’s own sadly tender gaze and Mary with her inscrutable face, processing, processing…
And look at their feet, if you will. John is ready to take her to safety, to a home of love, and he is already walking. Mary, on the other hand, is static, leaning slightly towards John but her feet will not carry her from this nightmare where she has just seen her son savagely slaughtered.
Psychologically astute too, though usually we just think that John took her in and they lived peacefully ever after. But here we see Mary’s physical inability to leave the crucifixion as a psychological manifestation as well. If anything is guaranteed to ram post-traumatic-stress-disorder down your throat, it is seeing your bloodied and tortured child brutishly butchered, leisurely and in public.
But yet, the beauty of the clothes, the intricate foliage background, the surrounding pattern, that trusting hand placement, that kindly gaze, indicate there is still beauty in life, the beauty of other folk caring and, so very so much more importantly yet so very much so not, the wonder of the resurrection of the Son of God.
The gal done good.
The altar back
And here in St Mary’s church, on the altar back, is Mary’s symbol, the white lily, repeated twice just in case we miss it. Colours somewhat faded but still glowing, nicely framed by a trefoil arch symbolising the Holy Trinity, the Divine Godhead, which she is so intimately connected to.
A modern Annunciation
Whilst here a later window by Maria Forsyth from 1939 of the Annunciation, a fine vision as well. The wildness in the robes, the colours, the shadings offset by the stylised formality of the figures, the winds of the Divine already blowing hard around them as Mary is offered her choice.
The first choice in the gospels, very importantly so. Mary was not ordered, not forced, she was asked, and she had some fair objections, from ‘who, me!?’ To ‘I have never had intimacy with a man’.
But she chooses, and the gospels are full of stories of choices, taken, refused and not sure, with that wild sacred waiting to be invited in and change the person, change the world.
Once again, there is not need to be a Christian to appreciate the symbolism behind this art, both of the parts and the complete church, there are so many ways to respect the meanings.
And this church in particular has a lot of different art, varied symbols, potential meanings, assorted interpretations, all very beautiful indeed.
Very, very beautiful indeed.