- A beautiful Devon red stone exterior
- One of the earliest surviving chancel screens in Devon
- Stunning 1894 pulpit by Harry Hems
- Very good medieval roof bosses
- Fine Victorian stained glass
- One of the best collection of medieval bunch ends in the country
- Complemented by great 20th century benchends as well
- An enchanting 17th century Flemish phoenix
- The bench ends are the star, but so much more to see too
East Budleigh Church of All Saints
There used to be a hustle and bustle in this little village-come-town as it was, folks buying and selling, ships loading and unloading, foreign and local trade, just about a mile and half (two and a half kilometres) upstream from where the River Otter meets the sea.
The river was ‘barred’ (blocked to ships) late in the fifteenth century, some years after the rebuilding work on this church; maybe it silted up because of new weirs upstream, maybe storms and currents changed the river mouth.
But that cosmopolitan trading feel rubbed off on one local Devon family for sure, the Raleighs, whose most famous son is Sir Walter Raleigh, one of the first English colonisers of North America (along with being an early slave trader, a desperate nightmare to partake in). He was born just up the road and his Dad was a church warden here.
It is a pretty church too, with lush Devon red stone and off-white Beer stone edgings.
Rust-red stonework and a good door
Here the West Door. That old red stonework, weathered into myriads of textures, with the nineteenth century door gradually joining the party like a wary ingenue, with hinges to die for.
Inside East Budleigh church
Inside we can see the brand new aisles added in the fifteenth century, maybe for an increase in the congregation, maybe for processions and ritual, maybe both. In truth, processions were becoming more important and aisles were called ‘alleys’, which might give us a clue.
Those Beer Stone pillars and arches, a popular local limestone, came from quarry caves about fourteen miles away along the coast; they would have been carried here by sea, so much easier than roads back in the day.
But oh my, look at the dinky little rood screen. And that opening above it on the right, the top of the rood stairs. They are not in line, and there is a good reason for that.
The early rood screen in East Budleigh church
Because dinky as it might be, this is one of earliest surviving screens in Devon (maybe early fifteenth or even late fourteenth century) and is really a chancel screen, it was never designed to support a rood loft.
A lovely piece of work, that delicate tracery and the square heads, and the simple carved panelling along the bottom. Its job, an extremely important job, was to separate the sacred and the profane, though not in the sense of keeping the unholy locals out; after all, the screen was likely paid for by the parishioners.
The point was that the sacred was so very sacred; Christ existed here in the Mass, really, deeply, believably, inarguably so. The space deserved deep, deep respect, and screening it off was exactly that.
Mind you, it also kept the dogs and children out, there was that too!
Then roods (a rood was Christ on the cross, usually a carving) came to be placed high up under the chancel arch, and a rood loft, where folk could walk on, was needed to look after this rood, to keep candles and incense burning, to clothe Mary and John either side of Christ, to dust and polish…
So usually here in Devon a new screen was built, bearing the rood loft on wooden vaulting, but not here. In this church a beam was placed (the ends have been found) about a meter in front of the chancel arch, on which the loft sat, possibly supported by a pillar or two; more akin to a gallery.
And so those rood stairs come out in front of the old screen, to where the rood loft had been added.
Why the locals did not build a brand up-to-date rood screen and loft is anybody’s guess. I vote contentment. Though the loss of trade and money as the port rapidly became unusable might have had something to do with it as well.
A very fine pulpit by Harry Hems
Wandering around the nave this wonder greets us, an 1894 pulpit carved by one of the best workshops in Devon, Harry Hems, and designed by George Fellowes-Prynne, a famous lad.
Just look at all that Neo-Gothicry, straight and curved, ornamented every which way and then a smidgeon more.
The stoning of Stephen
But look closer and there is more, far, far more.
The passion and intensity carved into this little scene is astounding, there is hate here, and violence upon violence, they are killing a dangerous man, dangerous to their beliefs; the tension in the stoners’ bodies, their muscular arms and legs, those big stones, that promise of more brutality from the man picking up the stone on the right, show this was not a gentle stoning, if such a thing exists.
But then compare the centre figure, smooth, unthreatening, looking up away from his attackers.
And going down on his knees he cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And saying this he fell asleep
Acts of the Apostles 7:60
This is Stephen, traditionally the first martyr of the Christian church, stoned to death for not retracting the heresy of this new Way of Life, as it was called, and the first martyr asks forgiveness for his murderers, practising that ‘Love your fellow man’ thing.
And there, standing on the right, is Saul, I venture, who persecuted this new faith and was present at the stoning yet soon would experience conversion and become Paul, one of the main evangelists of Christ around the Roman world.
And this carving just so does the story justice.
The boss of pride and gossip
Whilst this medieval roof boss is not so much a ‘Love your fellow man’ kinda thing as a ‘Do not wear devils with big tongues on your head’ spot of sensible advice.
Here a little devil is clinging on to the lady’s horned headdress, a very fashionable item, and riding her head like a jockey, taloned claws on either side.
It is just inside the entrance, for all to ponder its meaning.
Which is likely about pride and ‘sins of the tongue’; pride because of the vanity of wearing such fancy headgear, a style often used in carvings to make this point, and sins of the tongue because there you have the demon Titivillus, with its big tongue and wide open ears.
Titivillus collected all the nasties the folk’s tongues came out with and delivered them to the Devil for use on Judgement Day, the boasting, the dissing, the lying, the hurting, the gossiping, all the tongues’ hurtful tools.
That is not to say that all folks saw him as real, some might have understood the stories as metaphor, but it was all about becoming a better person, kinder, more accepting, speaking with a soft tongue, for those who so chose, and being more mightily modest in choosing head dresses, or all other clothing come to that.
A good sanctuary
Meanwhile in the chancel there is this sweet space with a totally bouncing East Window, not a set world alight one but a big grin one.
The East Window
Just look at all that foliage patterning with scenes from Christ’s life ensconced in them, as if embedded in God’s creation. Just wonderful.
More fine stained glass
Whilst this Annunciation scene is very different and so very formal, with the Angel Gabriel handing the Virgin Mary a lily with such formality, and herself seemingly receiving a suitor, which in a way she is, by proxy.
All very subtle and reserved, very English of its time in a way, none of the worse for it either.
I love Annunciation scenes, there are so many different interpretations of such a deeply moving subject.
The Holy Spirit
This Holy Spirit is along the same style as the previous image, and works well I venture; restrained, quite formal in its design, and totally gets the job done. Good vantage point too.
The fantabulous East Budleigh bench ends
Looking down the main aisle the most famous magic of this church waits patiently for our compliments, very sure that they will start flowing fast and furious.
There are sixty-three sets of bench ends, all carved around 1537 and the most complete set in Devon. They are oak, and there is not a religious symbol on any of them apart from angels.
Probably two reasons, one being the Reformation’s distaste for religious imagery, the other that the Raleighs were a strongly Protestant family and they were the big lads of East Budleigh at this time.
That is not to say that they were religiously Protestant, maybe they were and maybe they were not, but it did not take a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing, and it so was not blowing Rome-wards.
Local life in beautiful carving
One of the huge delights of this collection is the local art on display. On the left is little village scene, a woman with a dressed animal or bird behind her, and seemingly dropping some scraps from a plate for the dog she is holding.
Looks for all the world like a butcher, just getting rid of a few of a few scrag ends, though that could also be a cottage door. A sweet scene anyways, a marvellous slice of life.
On the right is a set of tools that folk would immediately recognise, and likely indicates that the pew owner was a cloth merchant.
In front of the angel is a shield of leaves, no idea what this is doing there, and on that is a ‘handle’ and some cloth shears. The sizes are not clear to us, we have no experience with them, but the ‘handle’ is maybe the site of two or three outspread hands, which makes those shears mighty big.
For good cloth, and Exeter was a big centre of cloth production, folk wanted smooth cloth, and to make cloth smooth they needed to shave off the ‘nap’, all the bits that might stick up (to put things sloppily).
So they filled the ‘handle’ with teasel heads, farmed especially for the purpose, which are bit like very small, dense pine cones only with a natural hook on the end of each of those little things on pine cone sides.
They used this to raise the ‘nap’ of the new cloth, laid on a curved table or frame, and then the bloke with the shears would shear all the sticky up bits with his razor sharp shears. This was repeated a few times until they had smooth enough cloth.
And everybody would recognise these, and likely enough knew someone who was in the wool trade.
Marvellous, that is, to have this little bit of history on a bench end. So much more here too.
Swirling foliage in wood
The life scenes are so definitely attractive, but these designs just waltz straight into our heads. We could call them Gothic carving but they have gone beyond that I suggest. These are artists at work, no longer conforming to the Gothic conventions but still using the bits they like. Especially that Devon carved foliage thing.
And they have done it so well, vigorous and flamboyant foliage on the point of surging from the wood to entangle the church with its passionate beauty, the universe its next stop. Just ravishing.
Moving WWI memorial bench ends
But the bench ends did not stop in the sixteenth century, gorgeously the tradition was revived in the early twentieth century, in a most apposite way.
These two bench ends are WWI memorials by a local woodworker, well scened to bring out the tragedy of war, the oceans of pain and trauma that were surging through society bringing nightmares and dark memories with their tides.
And look, if you will, how the artist has used the grain to let Christ and the angel both emerge from the wood, making them part of the underlying reality of being. It would have been easy to stick them on top, but they have caught an enchanting facet of Christianity.
And the wings of the angel, big enough to envelop the world. They are so gorgeous.
These are for the world too, I suggest, not only for the British, precisely because Christ and the angel are shown emerging from the foundations of the world.
These are everyone’s war and everyone’s memorial, and so much more powerful for it.
A Flemish phoenix
And yet, like this seventeenth century Flemish phoenix (thanks, Marham Church Antiques), us humans still emerge from the ashes, reborn, rebooted, and ready to fly again, though not usually as pretty as this darling, surrounded by such dreamy plant life.
The leaf at the bottom, in front of the bird, also doubles as the flame of rebirth, a fine touch in a very fine piece of carving.
A church for all of us
I love so much about this church, but these sixteenth century bench ends with their gobsmacking designs and their local life, and then the stunning twentieth century ones still in the old parish tradition, really hit the spot. The continuing tradition, not for traditions’s sake, but folk choosing the same path as the ancestors because it is a goodly path.
The parishioners through the ages, keeping faith, revering beauty, carefully adding, carefully nurturing… for all of us, welcoming all.
No wonder this dudette is wearing a jaunty feather in her cap. She is totally East Budleigh and all there so deserve one.