- A history of change and evolution
- A beautiful priest’s door
- Powerful roof bosses in the porch
- A stunning, colourful medieval rood screen with medieval saints
- An even more stunning medieval stone pulpit
- A fine chancel with two delightful 17th century monuments
- Finely carved medieval misericords
- A very pretty 15th century brass eagle lectern
- And many other treasures, making this a very nice church indeed
Bovey Tracey church, the old and the new
The good folk of Bovey Tracey should have been deservedly proud of their grand church back in the sixteenth century, with its beautifully simple fourteenth century tower and fifteenth century rebuilt rest. And they were, until the Reformation said hello, stripped the altars, scrubbed off the colours and imposed a plainer faith.
Then many gave up, which seems to have been a common thing in the West Country, disenchanted and disillusioned. Traumatised we might almost say.
And they really did not want to pay for the new, so very not.
… diverse other inhabitants likewise of the parish of so good ability as they that have yearly paid have still refused to pay or have paid small sums at their own pleasures.
Document of 1596, spelling updated
What had used to voluntary (albeit socially pressured), Pre-Reformation payment for the upkeep of the nave, had become compulsory in Elizabeth’s reign with the introduction of church rates, and some were just not having it.
But folk got accustomed to the new normal, so much so that when the Rev Courtenay, follower of the new Tractarian movement in the Church of England, rolled into town in the 1850s and pushed for a church renovation medieval-style the reception was on the vicious side of viperish.
Before leaving the university he enrolled himself under the Tractarian, or the Roman cross – it is hard to say which because they are so much alike
Western Times 06/02/858
Oooh, now that is a snarl of a snark, more to come too:
… He introduced the usual mummeries in church; set up the crucial sign of his brotherhood; groaned the Gregorians (meaning chants)…
… fit the church for spectacular effects, to which we all know Romish Churches are adapted…
Western Times 06/02/858
And once again folk refused to pay.
The Rev got his way in the end, though at the cost of a fair few of his congregation leaving for the Baptism chapel. I can see their point, change is hard thing after a certain age, especially when imposed, but they did miss out on this beautiful church with its fusion of old and imagined-traditional.
Like this lovely aged priest’s doorway, with bees, always a nice addition. Presumably the exterior ground level has been lowered, or did some jokers steal the steps hoping the Rev would break his neck when trotting off to lunch after a morning of ‘Romish practises’?
The rev did a bang-up job though…
The porch roof bosses
Take these medieval roof bosses in the porch that he preserved, death and the pain of loneliness as our bodies are consumed; the pain of rejecting the Divine I suggest, because alongside these is this honey…
The community of the church
A four headed boss showing folks from all walks of life, representing the community of the church.
So at the entrance to this babe is a simple choice shown, get with the faithful, with the Divine, or not, and the consequences of ‘or not’.
The consequences of ‘getting with’ are inside, beautifully so.
Bovey Tracey rood screen
That rood screen is a real beauty, typically Devon, well carved, dating from 1451 in theory, in practice it has been restored immensely, the vaulting especially, the cornice at least partly so, all by Herbert Read of Exeter.
Apart from the bottom panels the painting and gilding is pure Victorian, and did not they do so well! If it were a symphony, it would be by Mozart, very pretty, a bit flashy, and totally wonderful.
It surely carries the sprit of Medieval screens, if not the total accuracy, and of course the rood loft is missing, probably destroyed in the late 1500s as they nearly all were, under orders from the great and the good.
A charming Victorian Annunciation
But on the door the Rev Courtenay, him of the ‘Romish practices’, got this bit of gorgeous bling painted, the Annunciation. Very Victorian, very radical for its time (I can hear the harrumphing from the congregation even 160 years later), and oh so very delightful.
I do wonder though if this replaced a very damaged medieval scene of the Annunciation. A big, theatrical scene on the doors would make sense, in the Devon tradition at least.
Apostles and Prophets
But these figures on the bottom panels are proper medieval, alternating Old Testament prophets and later apostles; the apostles haloed and red robed, the prophets blue robed and sporting cosy ermine (a kind of fur) hats.
Bet they could see the English weather coming, they are not called prophets for nothing!
There is similar sequence in nearby Chudleigh church, where there is text accompanying each lad in Latin, phrases of the Apostles’ Creed (a summary of the Christian faith), also known as the Articles of Faith, and so there was probably the same here originally, along with the names of each fellow. Churches tended to copy each other.
But there was more to this than just writing out the text. Every Christian was meant to know the Articles of Faith, a requirement from at least the fourth century, and by 1281 the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham wrote:
Every priest must offer an exposition – in English – of key aspects of the liturgy including the Creed, Pater, Ave, Ten Commandments, sacraments and the deadly sins
The Pastoral Reform Movement, Katherine Dixon
One way to teach this was through a painted text, as here, where the literate could read, explain to the non-literate and folk could help each other think it through.
Another way was this…
A stunning medieval pulpit
Another way was to sermonise it from a beautiful pulpit, like, say, this drop-dead gorgeous, stone-carved, painted and gilded pulpit from around1451, re-coloured yet keeping the spirit of the medieval, a spectacular survivor.
This would not have been the first pulpit in the church, they were in some churches from early days, but surely it is one of the best.
That soft, organic carving, foliage seemingly smoothly gliding over the structure, entwining with the words of the priest to settle gently on the congregation in a wonder of magic and awe.
The naked vaulting
And the statuettes, here two of the Evangelists, John with his eagle (possibly self-identifying as a duck) and Matthew with a very tubby angel. Marvellous stuff.
And from the same pulpit rectors carried on the tradition of preaching in English, explaining and teaching, so their flock would have a deeper and deeper understanding of the God of Love.
The chancel at Bovey Tracey
Moving on through the rood screen the chancel says hello, a very quiet and airy space with a modern East Window that is brought to us courtesy of a Nazi land mine that landed just nearby and did its job… though what Hitler had against glorious Devon is anybody’s guess. Jealousy, probably.
But there are two magnificences that he could not destroy. Monuments to be accurate, and they are humdingers.
The Eveleigh monument
The one on the left is a brilliance of late Renaissance…
‘Mannerist grotesquerie including paradisal fruit and flower, deaths heads, panoplies militis (weapons and stuff to us folk in the cheap seats), lion masks etc., and putti sounding the half trump’
Church Monuments and Commemoration in Devon 1530-1640, Christine Faunch
And more stuff, including figures of Justice, Time and Charity along the top.
Justice is in the middle in the image above, holding a scroll, echoing the one that Nicholas Eveleigh is holding, suggesting that Nick, a lawyer and a Steward at the Stannary (tin miners’) Court in nearby Chagford, also was a fine and honourable dispenser of justice.
Sadly the court house did not agree, and collapsed in 1618, killing him and nine others.
His widow Alice got this beauty made up, and what a wonder it is. Just standing in front of it and enjoying every small detail is worth the trip alone.
The Hele Monument
But Alice did not let any grass grow under her feet, and she upped and married her second husband, Elizaeus Hele, who himself died in 1635. This gave her the chance to build another monument the other side of the chancel, this time in Somerset alabaster and Devon marble, in a style to complement her first husband’s across the chancel. It was old-fashioned for its time, likely enough because Alice wanted to keep that same style.
But there is something else going on here, according to Christine Faunch, and that is the growth of the vision of wives as actors in their own narrative, not just subjects or tag-alongs of their hubbies.
Elizaeus is given pride of place, as the husband always got, but in front are his first wife and son, and Alice, and they are given their own faces and clothing. They are individuals in their own right.
Here, look at their faces…
These two ladies (Alice is on the right) have their own lives and status, not just the appendage of Mr Big Boy, and this design would have been a decision of Alice’s. Beforehand on these kinds of monuments
wives and children were only distinguished from each other by size and colour…
(These figures) increasingly reflect a growing emphasis on legitimising, within the realms of effigial subject-matter, the woman in both her domestic and economic roles as loving wife and patron of a monument
Ibid: Christine Faunch
Now for sure, sadly, this was not a seventeenth century ‘Sisters are doin’ it for themselves’ moment, the wives are still portrayed as below the man as well as smaller, but it is arguably a reflection of the start of the long trek to Maggie Thatcher and beyond (regardless of our individual politics).
Personally, design wise, my preference shades toward the first monument with all its imaginative detailing, but its probable maker, John Deymond, was dead by the time that Alice was ready for her second one.
Alice and Elizaeus are buried in Exeter Cathedral, Alice dying a year after her hubby in 1636, donating £100 (big, big money) for the privilege.
A message on a misericord
Still poking around the chancel, lifting some of the hinged, medieval, choir stall seating, misericords come to light like this one. A misericord is a little ledge on the bottom of a hinged seat that serves as a kind of secondary resting place when the seat is hinged upwards. They are found in chancels because that is where the actual service was performed, and the chanting and praying involved long periods of standing, so a little help to lean upon was well appreciated.
And they are often carved, like this one. Here a fox has grabbed a chicken or goose by the neck and is off to dinner. It is a charm of a carving but it is more than that, I venture.
For one thing this is a very emotional scene; in a near-peasant economy the loss of a goose or chicken is mighty upsetting event, and for the poor a potentially life-altering one. Nowadays we can pop down the shops, not then though; they raised what they ate to a hugely main extent, as well as getting a little much needed cash from selling these birds on.
Which segues into the Christian meaning. The fox is the devil, a wily, untrustworthy enemy, and this kind of scene warned folk to be on guard against the devil’s tricks and craftiness, otherwise he can grab our souls and we are neck deep in the proverbial.
It might also be seen as a warning against sloth or laziness. After all, a wide awake bird is not going to be caught by the devil.
But folk would not just have made an intellectual interpretation of the scene, this was a serious injury in real life, folk would have felt it their bones.
The Golden Eagle
Mind you, this darling would scare any devilish fox out of its skin; it is a fifteenth century eagle lectern and it is a beaut.
It was made in a workshop in East Anglia, there are a few survivors of the same design, and the golden brass alloy with those almost bejewelled talons make for a rare sight.
Nowadays we have the lecterns in the nave and only the bible sits on it, because Protestantism. Back in the day they made their nests in the chancel where they were used for hymnals, anthem books, psalters, mass-books, gospel-books, service books and far more; services changed day by day depending on the saint as well as the time of year amongst and many books were needed.
Old faces, old traditions
As I’m sure these medieval aged mad lads (from the choir stalls) would agree, this is a bang up church, well restored, an awesome fusion of Victorian imagination and the Medieval, along with the constant care and love of the parish folk, ever ongoing.
There is far more to enjoy than there is space here to witter on about, and Bovey Tracey is just a minute or three off the South Devon Expressway…
It is a magnificence, truly so. Have a look.