- The only parish church dedicated to the Seven Maccabees in Britain
- Very original church for Devon, and very unaltered
- A really splendid little tower
- An enchanting atmospheric interior
- A few good carved benchends
- Some marvellous uncarved medieval benchends
- Superb Jacobean carvings
- Colourful Victorian stained glass
- A fine and very suitable Victorian chancel screen
Church of St John the Baptist and the Seven Maccabees in Cookbury
There is a mystery about Cookbury church, a strangeness that makes it unique in Britain; it is the only church in the whole country dedicated to the Seven Maccabees.
This dedication goes way back; how far is anybody’s guess. We do know that once a year one of the Eastern Orthodox churches in Plymouth holds a service here; the seven Maccabees are saints in their church.
They were saints back in the old Catholic Church too. It was not until Henry VIII and his progeny chased the pope from our land that they were no longer welcome here, leaving dedications like this whispering their names into the ravaged landscape of faith.
The seven Maccabees
The Maccabees were seven brothers who were martyred around 167 BC for their faith and whose martyrdom inspired the Jewish folk to fight against foreign pagans and, against all the odds, kick them out and renew a Jewish culture in their land.
To get a bit sloppy with the very complex theology (how can you have Christian saints before Christ?) they were seen as protecting Judaism and the worship of the one true God. Without them, no Judaism for Christ to come to.
The mystery of the dedication is still there, but with their importance (they even had their own Christian feast day) we might imagine a scholarly dude choosing them for this little church or chapel; somebody like, say, Bishop Stapledon of Exeter, whose family had a local manor and might even have been born in Cookbury.
Especially considering it was the Bish himself who rocked up to perform the dedication of what was then a chapel on August 9, 1351.
Speculative? My goodness yes, but a thought nonetheless.
Oh, and John the Baptist? Quite common back in the day to dedicate a church to a couple of folk, or even more.
The age of Cookbury church
But the dedication is not the only strangeness about this champion church, it is also strange for Devon; not strange strange, just unusual for a country that rebuilt almost every single one of its churches in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
This one they did not, at least not much, and the tower seems to be Norman based though a lot of its work comes from the early fourteenth or even the thirteenth century, as does the chancel; the south transept might well have Norman work as well.
Then there is the way the tower is hugged by the nave and north aisle; delightful and unusual.
More delight with these deeply huggable chancel windows, darling as they are.
The left hand one is fourteenth century, and has possibly been altered; on the other hand it might have been punched through then to allow more light into the chancel for singing. This was a big thing, or at least starting to be, and priests and their assistants were expected to chant and sing the service with help from ‘antiphons’, kind of like old music books.
The East Window on the right is from about 1300 and looks very original. Meeting the old, a powerful pastime, not because old is intrinsically valuable but because we might enjoy these original designs and see them through the eyes of the time, as the cutting edge design that they were.
And here at the top of each window section are three leaves; in fact, that design is called ‘trefoil’ which means exactly three leaves. Stylised to be sure, but definitely leaves. So here we have a stone window referencing foliage.
Maybe this use of foliage reminded some folk of the third day of creation, when God created the land (the stone)and the plants (the trefoil) thereon, maybe it reminded others of the Holy Trinity, the core of Christianity, with that use of the number three… along with the three parts of the window, the ‘lights’, over the main altar, the sacred place…
We cannot say for sure, but churches were so full of meaning and symbolism that I suspect all these little details would speak to folk as they noticed them, without necessarily being formal ‘instructions’; especially the use of ‘three’. The Holy Trinity is a hard meaning to grasp at a deep level yet so important to the Western church at that time, so anything that helped demonstrate and remind folk of the ‘three-in-one’ concept was put to use.
Entering Cookbury church
And these tiles with their age-crackled surfaces and primordial colours, look like they come from that very third day.
Inside simplicity reigns, and a beguiling atmosphere that just invites us to sit and wonder.
Originally the church would have just been nave and chancel, with two transepts going north and south (plus the tower, most likely). Even though it was called a chapel, it was very substantial.
The aisle on the left, the north aisle, is early sixteenth century along with those pillars, and incorporated the north transept into its length. A probable reason why it stops there and does not continue on to the end of the chancel, as many aisles do in Devon Churches.
The ancient benchends
The thing with this church is that it is survivor, and has lots of entrancing survivals like these sixteenth century benchends; the left hand one is especially arresting with its foliage and four heads. Interpretation is an impossibility considering the condition let alone they are no longer in their original positions.
But well worth glancing at the very striking top heads; surely some connection with death? Or dentistry? But I vote death.
Uncarved benchends glowing with character
Equally fascinating, in a totally magical way, are these uncarved oaken benchends from the same period.
Different too. My guess is that the lad on the right has been moved, and originally was the wall end of the bench, so the quality of the work did not matter so much. Nobody would see it.
Medieval uncarved benchends are comparatively rare in Devon, either because they have been seen as not worth preserving or that they were seen as an important part of the pageant of faith that filled the churches. Leaving them uncarved might have been seen as almost sacrilegious.
Unless of course it was a chapel and it was poor; Cookbury probably hit both targets. And even for rustic work these do look mighty rustic, gloriously so, wonderfully so. Golly gosh, they so hit the spot.
The old wood, textured and axe-baked, carved green, now dried and twisted with age, seemingly colour-shifting to match the whole interior… magic, pure magic…
More lovely carving here, this is early seventeenth century (1600-1620) piece, and… well, let Paul Fitzsimmons of Markham Antiques, an expert in Devon wood work, explain:
These panels are superb east Devon work pieces and circa 1600 – 1620 in date, they look more like they came from a chest, but it is possible they came from the pulpit too if dimensions are the same. The inverted shell decoration on the arcade is very Exeter derived, as is the botanical imagery within.
The plant here seems generic, though I would love a botanist to correct me, but the meaning… oh yes, the meaning…
Y’see at the moment this and four other similar carvings form the back of a pew in the south aisle…
and the Jacobean pulpit
Yet John Stabb in his Some Old Devon Churches (1908-16) says
This carving has probably been removed from the pulpit, and the spaces thus left have been filled in with tracery of the same design as the tracery of the screen.
And indeed it surely does look as if the carving would fit into those spaces, especially as the fill-in tracery is nineteenth century yet the best of the pulpit is seventeenth.
And the meaning? Why the tree of life and fruits thereon, especially the fruits; very suitable for a pulpit. Listen to the word of the Lord and
Those that be planted in the house of the LORD shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing; To shew that the LORD is upright: he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.
Psalm 92, VV 13-15
Fruit as metaphor for spiritual beauty is common throughout the bible, and no wonder that it appears so much in the carvings of a deeply rural county like Devon.
The pulpit itself comes from another church, which might mean that it was seen as fair game for taking apart.
Bright Victorian stained glass
Meanwhile this little bejewelled and bedazzled stained glass detail brings a blast of colour to the party, fabulously so. That foliage background is a tiny magnificence too.
Mark and John in stained glass
And here, in the same window, the East Window above the altar, surrounding that glittering cross, are the symbols of the Four Evangelists, two of them shown here, Mark and John.
The shading of the brown on the symbols, giving prospective and depth, is mightily well done and the other colouring equally so. A delight.
The Early English style chancel screen
Stepping back a tad, the nineteenth century chancel screen is a bit of slow-burner. When I first saw it I did not so appreciate it, now I think it is a beauty; unusual too for this neck of the woods.
The sentence at the top is a beautiful welcome into the chancel, where the mystery of the Eucharist takes place, and the design fits the church windows well. Most screens carved in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Devon seek, usually magnificently, to riff off the Late Medieval eye candy that Devon is so astoundingly good at, but this goes back to the time of that earlier East Window, around 1300. Those arches are in ‘Early English’ style.
It is also simple and elegant, with those long openings and round columns with the plain arches, and all in brown apart from the gilded lettering.
So what happened to the old Late Medieval rood screen… ?
Bits of the old rood screen
Well, parts of it were salvaged and now make up the altar, as here.
Likely enough salvage is what had to be done, as in 1852 the church was in an atrocious state
“the Dunsland aisle needs reroofing… the wooden windows should be replaced with stone… all the floors need relaying… the Halsdon pew is a disgrace to any church… the chancel needs extensive repair to roof, floor and seats”
Rev John Yule (from the Black Torrington Benefice website)
And once damp and water get into wood it does like to rot, especially considering the church was not restored until 1870.
A restoration that gave us these handsome poppy heads that go on the end of the choir stalls in the chancel, along with…
A muppet eagle head
… this refugee from an early version of the Muppet Show, permanently grumpy at having to hold a humongous bible on its head. Well, it is surely coping better than most of us would anyways.
Peter’s rooster, Cookbury’s weather vane
Outside a cockerel stands over the church, the weather vane on that modestly awesome tower reeking of age and parish history.
Pope Nicholas I (AD 858-867) decreed that this symbol of St Peter should be displayed in some way on every church, and many chose to do it with a weather cock, reminding folk of Peter’s rejection of Christ and, more importantly, his repentance.
Suddenly, Jesus’ words flashed through Peter’s mind: “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny three times that you even know me.” And he broke down and wept.
Because is not that what a church is ultimately for, repentance? Not the guilty ‘I am sorry’ kind of repentance, but the change of world view kind of repentance; arguably, true repentance means deeply altering our lives in interestingly better ways.
Admittedly this was taught by a dirt poor Palestinian rabbi without even a social media account, but surely he changed the world, even reaching this little West Devon spot thousands and thousands of miles away to create this enchanting church.
Even more wondrously, this little place takes us even further back, to the Maccabees and their martyrdom, the only spot in the country to do so; truly a landscape of faith.
If the Maccabees are looking down on Cookbury, they must be so proud to lend their name to such a beauty.