- Origins going back to the C6
- Beautiful south tower and spire
- Astounding spacious interior
- Good late 1200s font
- Marvellous C15 roofbosses
- Screen probably late C14
- Magnificent C16 benchends
- Very nice C20 stained glass
A holy man comes to Braunton
A man arrived here in the sixth century, a rare man, a heart-whisperer, a soul-speaker, a sea-wanderer, beaching on shore and marsh, finding a flatland rilled with streams, hills behind, ocean in front, a boundary land, a marginal land, a no mans land far from anywhere except for the Divine… and he talked…
… About a religion that lived on the boundary, about souls able to be on earth and with the Divine at the same time, a Kingdom of God in heaven that is here and now… and he won the joy of women and men.
He settled where stream meets river, where hills meet plain, another boundary, and where folk could be baptised, immersed in the waters as Christ was immersed in the River Jordan, crossing the boundary into the blessed.
Saint Brannock and the care of souls
And he built a church, a minister, a place for priests to live, to roam from, criss crossing the boundaries, introducing souls to heaven and heaven to souls…
He did not come to a land of pagans; the South West was still Christian more or less, the religion that the Romans had first brought to these isles now being fed and nurtured in the Celtic lands but preachers were rare and faith so often needs a shepherd. This man, Brannock, or St Brannock as he became, was here to feed Christ’s sheep.
Not to convert…well, in a way but not as in keeping score. He came to look after souls, he came for the Cure of Souls as it is known, because that was his mission, to show the way to the Divine for the souls in twilight, in darkness, in light, to bring the reality of God’s love, to help folk look beyond this world yet still be part of it, to be on that boundary… a marginal religion for this marginal place, beauty for beauty.
Brannock lived forever in the community’s memory and the place became Brannock’s Town, later Braunton.
The present church is a glory, a Norman south tower, a striking spire, a fifteenth century nave, a thirteenth century chancel… it does St Brannock proud.
The church entrance
We enter through this beautiful aged door, a forecast of what it to come and what has been, because inside we will see how this church, and all others, was part of the Cure Of Souls, the care that goes back many centuries.
And it is a door that many a folk has entered, because this church was a place of pilgrimage for the local area, if not the whole of the south west, until the Reformation. We think of pilgrimages as being long journeys, but shorter pilgrimages were mighty popular too, and travelling twenty or thirty miles to sit with St Brannock…well, I can think of many a worst thing to do.
Braunton Church Nave
The nave is huge, the aisles taken out around the fifteenth century leaving a huge barn of a space, with a small chancel entrance and, on the right, the south chapel, also added in the fifteenth century. It is astounding.
At the entrance is the font as it should be, being baptised is entering the church, and here this thirteenth century beauty, windows lining the sides, the physical church with the spiritual, says, ‘You are welcome here now, open the windows of your soul, the Lord’s love enters, your sins depart’.
The Lord is here too, the Lamb of God his symbol, carrying the cross and banner of the Resurrection just as the baptism is a sign of spiritual resurrection. The face? Looks like the lad has a tonsure, and it is very likely to be an image of St Brannock himself. A wonderful touch.
So this is the first step on the care of the soul…
Braunton’s stunning roof bosses
Then we have sin, because we are shades of grey us humans, and sin takes us towards bodily desires and away from the spiritual, and up on the nave roof there are many wonderful roofbosses (bring binoculars or a long zoom) laid out to help folk understand sin and redemption.
Seemingly in three distinct areas, West, Central, East, the entry of sin, the consequences of sin, salvation from sin, not just to teach but for a meditative journey, of self examination, of repentance, of turning to a new life.
Here, at the west end, are heads; the eyes, nose, ears and mouth, the start of personal sin.
On the left is a three-headed being with a headdress…
As sin this beast captures, as death it devours, and as hell it swallows down. Peter Chyrsologus, via Sue Andrews and her wonderful study on Devon roofbosses.
And on the right the tongue is the clue, the tongue that is used to voice the inner sins, lying, flattering, boasting, backbiting, tittle tattling, cursing… and more, much more…
In the central area are the consequences, and here are two. The left is a sow and her piglets, which arguably has two connected meanings. Mankind sins (and loves, remember the loves) and sadly likes to return to sinful habits, just as a sow returns to wallow in mud.
And the piglets? Sin is so attractive to sinners, and we so easily suck on its teats.
Then there is the man in moon, who in one medieval tradition was banished to the moon for stealing brushwood or, in another version, working on the Sabbath.
But really I suspect it goes back to the Old Testament…
…they found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day…(they) brought him forward to Moses and Aaron…And the Lord said to Moses, “The man is doomed to die…”. And all the community took him outside and pelted him with stones and he died… Numbers 15: 32-36 – Translated by Robert Alter.
Which on the surface sounds well hard core, stoned to death for collecting wood, but this is not history, it is not a true story as we might understand truth, it is about our relationship with the Divine. We die a spiritual death if we ignore God, if we just concentrate on the material… a hard stoney death.
But oh my, is it not just such a sweet little carving? Almost worth sinning to make it. Almost…
Then to the east end, the salvation end, and here the Pelican in her Piety, a bird that was thought to stab her own breast to draw blood to feed her young, a strong symbol of Jesus’s sacrifice to redeem us of sin, a reminder of the love that we are all capable of.
On the right an angel, the promise of heaven though this one is more like Farmer Giles leaning on his gate gazing down at us mortals. Leaves me with a big goofy grin it does, but for sure this is an aspect of salvation (well, not Farmer Giles himself).
And these rood bosses were not to warn, not to condemn, but to care, and the congregation understood this. As Julian of Norwich said (a woman mystic from the later 14th century)…
It is a supreme favour from our kind Lord, that he should watch over us so tenderly while we are in a state of sin; and furthermore he secretly touches our inner hearts and shows us our sin by the pure, sweet light of mercy and grace.
Eucharist at Braunton church
And then the east end of the nave the salvation end, leads to the sacred space where the Eucharist is celebrated and where the consecrating of the host brings Christ into the very bread and wine. That is real salvation.
The screen is strikingly early, fourteenth century, the crucifixion on top more modern.
Now the folk in the nave hardly ever took the Eucharist, only once a year at Easter, but the vision of the sacred bread, which was no longer bread because it literally held the body of Christ in it after consecration, was seriously powerful medicine for the soul. The consecrated bread, was held high and the ‘sacring bell’ was rung so folk outside could also share in this event, and turn and pray as they would.
The screen served to mark out the sacred space and also to allow this vision, this sharing of the space. It was a sign of care.
And afterwards a pax-brede was passed around, an ivory or metal disc with a religious symbol, which everybody kissed (pax-brede means peace-prayer) as part of the community of the faith, and a loaf blessed by the priest (not consecrated) was split up and everybody shared a morsel.
Make no mistake, this was not obeisance to a far-off God, a mighty king who demanded worship, this was Christ here and now, and in each person.
Very much the care of souls.
Bench ends full of faith
Then we come to the bench ends, early sixteenth century as they are…
Possibly St John on the left and definitely St Brannock on the right, both earlier figures placed in seventeenth century frames…
While these magnificent sweethearts in the nave are breathtaking.
On the left two of the Instruments of the Passion, the whipping post that Christ was tied to and his smock (those sleeves!) that was stolen and gambled over by the Roman soldiers. On the right is a bible and an asperge, used for sprinkling Holy Water on the congregation.
And here the Five Wounds of Christ, on a shield as if a coat of arms…and a coat of arms that resonated hard up here. This was on the flag of two of the two major rebellions against the Reformation, the Pilgrimage of Grace in Northern England, and Devon & Cornwall’s Prayer Book Rebellion.
But the care of souls…? Strongly so, in a different way now at this later date. The bench end symbols were placed here for folk to meditate on, to follow the Passion of Christ in their imagination, to pray with and to, on their own or with fellow lay people, even reading from a prayer book as they did.
The parishioners chose and paid for these, their view of religion was changing, becoming more personal, more individually spiritual…
…And those new fangled benches…? They also wanted somewhere to perch their bums while listening to the sermons growing more popular, being in English while the rest of the service was in Latin, bearing in mind there was no full English Bible that was not considered heretical yet.
Sermons preached from this intricately carved bonniness of a pulpit from the seventeenth century, full of plants and foliage, with that golden angel giving the seal of approval on the preacher’s words, comes from a time when all the rituals and images were no longer valued, and the word was the thing, the scriptures, speaking now to each individual.
Still the priest though, still responsible for ministering to the soul, still love…
Later still, this humble shabbiness to a few generations of the Shepherd/Hooper family, this peopling of the church by lesser folk, gentry but no longer squires and Lords, reflected (amongst other things) the growth of the individual’s importance in the church and in spiritual life.
Obviously some folk thought they were more important than others; twas ever thus, sadly. Detailing the line of the Incledon family from 1558 to 1746, created in 1698, quite frankly I can forgive a heap of self-regard for something as gloriously in your face as this poppet; it has angels, guns, coats of arms, more angels, foliage, a winged skull, spears, a mace, swords, pistols… and the motto at the top ‘Mors Janua Vitae’, ‘Death is the gate to life’.
With all this weaponry, sooner rather than later I would hazard.
Now in the twentieth century and we are both back in the Medieval with an adorable Madonna and Child, baby Jesus bouncing away with total confidence.
The way of love
Here, coming full circle, this is the mesmerising truth that St Brannock survived the wind-tossed waves for, reaching the tide-wracked shore of North Devon to bring, this is the good news in a late twentieth century window, the good news that this church was built on and still is, and why it cares so much for the soul.
It is a Pentecostal window, a mighty wind and tongues of fire descending not on the Apostles but on all the peoples of the world, all those who can come to faith, giving them the gift of tongues and the ability to miracle. St Brannock surely believed that, washing up here as he did amongst suspicious strangers and building with them their own new Jerusalem…
Just as the folk in the window see the new Jerusalem that they can create, together with the Holy Spirit.
Hugely, gloriously, exquisitely.
Here and now…