- A pretty little church in a lovely churchyard
- Extraordinary archeology dates this back to at least 800 AD if not further.
- Beautiful Norman doorways in the porch
- A fine and fascinating original medieval south door
- A simple interior with a footprint mainly unchanged for centuries
- A rough old Norman font with plenty of character
- A goodly memorial by famous sculptor John Ternouth
- A collection of very nice floor tiles, from medieval to Victorian
- Some very pretty pieces of stained glass
Jacobstowe Church of St James and deep history
Back in the day Saint Aristobulus is said to have brought the Christian faith to the Isles of Britain in the first century, dramatically early, and was named Bishop of Britain by Pseudo-Hippolytus, writing around the third century.
Evidence is hazy for sure, as it would be, but there was a well-sailed route from the Eastern Mediterranean to Devon and Cornwall trading tin, evidence of which goes back to at least 1800 BC
Then there is Tertullian writing around 200 AD
The extremities of Spain, the various parts of Gaul, the regions of Britain which have never been penetrated by Roman arms have received the religion of Christ
Which pinpoints Devon amongst others, not really a Roman place west of Exeter, though they did dip their toes in the water, even going for a paddle sometimes
Bear with me here, please, Jacobstowe is barrelling down the tracks towards us.
So how early were these Christian churches in Devon? Well, at least by the fifth century, where some evidence of Christianity has been found in Exeter and in Cornwall, but it was likely not a mass takeover of the religious landscape, more a few dedicated saints and holy folk preaching from small chapels and maybe some Celtic-style monasteries, little islets in the sea of paganism, offering a dramatically new faith.
And Jacobstowe… well, Jacobstowe was well likely to have been one of this islets.
An extraordinary discovery
Jacob means James, after one of the main medieval saints, James of Compostella, ‘stowe’ comes from Old English (Saxon speak) meaning a holy spot, and would almost surely have been used to denote a pre-existing holiness. By the times the English (Saxons and their ilk) arrived here, roughly about 700-750 AD, they were good Christian folk and would have recognised such a place.
Also the church is in an embanked oval (slightly changed now, a bit added on a hundred years ago or so) churchyard, which seems to indicate Ancient British origins, or Celtic if you will.
Then there is a groundbreaking discovery from a few years ago. The pew floors were rotted and before their replacement an archeological dig was organised.
They found the foundations of an old curved western wall, an apse, under all the existing stonework. A rarity upon a rarity. A design that pushes the foundation date of this babe back to the eighth century and potentially (even if speculatively) to between the fourth and sixth centuries when we know this style was used on the continent.
And that is without a possible wooden building under all that.
It is also a classy design, a bit of posh if you will. Was it a special shrine, or maybe a monastery from whence priests spread out to water the landscape with love and holiness? All we know for sure is that what we thought we knew we do not; to find proof of a stone built church going back so far, here in Mid Devon, is extraordinary.
The old porch entrances
The oldest part of the present structure is Norman; deep sidewalls, the font, a possible Norman altar just on the right of the porch, and this poppet, the south door; as Norman as a simple Norman door can be, narrow, roundheaded, good stonework with a simple dripstone or hood mould at the top, to stop the rainwater washing straight down over it.
The surrounding stone, Hurdwick stone as it is, comes all the way from near Tavistock, twenty miles away a backbreaking slog when you are the poor sods elected to help drag it all on a sled pulled by oxen and a good portion of manpower.
Beautiful stone though, and nicely contrasted with the sandy, hood mould stone. Though why it had to be used is another mystery, unless it was Tavistock Abbey, which ran this parish, feeling a tad oaty.
But the door though, thereby hangs a tale…
A medieval door
It is a bit of an outlier, regardless of the fact that it from around the fifteenth or sixteenth century or even possibly the fifteenth, the time of the last major rebuild of this baby, when the tower and porch were added, the chancel lengthened, and a few windows lobbed in.
Take a good look, the clue is in the image above. The top and bottom two panels are cut across the grain, they are not planks, they are sections of the tree trunk. And that means they are susceptible to water damage, far more than straight-grained planks which the water runs off easily.
So good evidence that this door was put in at the same time as the porch or slightly after, not being expected to deal with Devon rain and all.
Tell you one thing though, get up close and personal with this sweetie and the textures and colours, along with the old ironwork, will give you a real good time, in spite of moi wittering on about construction techniques.
More Norman work
The porch door is also Norman, same stone too, but this one is not its original place as the porch itself was only built in the fifteenth century.
Was it moved from the west entrance when the tower was built at the same time as this porch? Or is it just design homage to the original doorway inside?
Tucked down on the east wall of the porch, at ground level, often hidden by grass, are these little beauties, a hexafoil and a cross; unlikely to be original to the porch, more likely to be older and possibly as far back as Norman.
The cross, well the meaning of that is a no-brainer, the blessing of Christ be upon this sacredness, but the hexafoil is the Virgin Mary’s. The six leaves or petals reflect the six petal lily, Mary’s flower, depicted in white as a symbol of her purity and holiness.
Some say the symbol is to ward off evil, but that is a tad one-dimensional for my taste; calling down the blessings of the Virgin will likely enough have that effect, but it is a much deeper and more faith-full action than just paying protection money to the mob, however holy a mob it is.
It is an act of recognition, and connection full of emotion and faith and heart, a reminder of the sacred in life and how we can all live that, it is a deeply religious action.
And these were probably placed here from an older church to embody the persistence of connection back to the first church here and that astonishing wonderment way back further in little old Bethlehem town down in Israel.
Inside Jacobstowe Church of St James
Jacobstowe church, has a modest interior, and all the better for that; quiet, plain, calm, a goodly place to sit and ponder.
It also has a fireplace (just out of sight to the left), which is rare enough in a church, let alone in the nave. It is probably eighteenth or nineteenth century, but that is not to say that churches were not heated beforehand. Portable charcoal braziers were likely a big thing, and with the high church ceilings and the lack of well-sealed doors and windows the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning low to zilch.
The Norman font
There is also a stinkingly in-yer-face Norman font, called in a guide ‘crudely carved’, which might have a tad of righteousness in it but is not something that I would say to this bruiser’s face.
It is also a bit Thor’s Hammer-ish, a savage old god’s weapon now depurposed and given over to a religion of light and love. Nice that, if true, which is debatable to be fair.
But allowing for the alleged crudity, why keep this? Two probable reasons, intertwined as they are, the first that the right to baptise was a very valued right, one of the two most important Sacraments in the church and not always early obtained. A goodly proportion of Devon’s churches only got this right later on in the Middle Ages, as they transformed step by step from being outlying chapels of mother churches to getting baptismal rights, then burial rights and then becoming a separate parish.
But an early church such as Jacobstowe already baptised its brethren from time far ago, and keeping the Norman font was probably a statement and reminder of its age, as well as the connection washing back and back to the River Jordan and the Baptism of Christ.
And who knows, maybe folk memory went back to its oh so early origins and folk knew the age of the faith hearabouts.
A John Ternouth memorial
And then there is this beauty by John Ternouth of London, a well known sculptor who made a panel of Nelson’s Column.
Ternouth died of tuberculosis in December 1848 a few months after the lady here, Lady Ellen Astley, which makes this a very late work and may I say, very cautiously, not one of his total best. Little muscle detail, a rather clumsy left arm on the standing lady, not the most elegant hands, detract somewhat, but then again there are some lovely aspects too.
The curve from the mourner’s foot and her back coming together, segueing into the hand and arm of the comforter and then sweeping around to the upraised arm is a beautiful bit of composition, with the attention drawn to the finger pointing up to heaven and all its power, and the cross on the left to underline that big point.
The drapery of the clothing, very nice as well.
The isolation of grief
Underlined by the strength of these lines to form a powerful little vignette, with the hand very lightly touching the grieving lady’s head, as if the comforter knows that nothing can bring consolation in the darkness of mourning.
So a memorial well worth a good look see for sure.
The chancel was lengthened in 1903, presumably including the lovely tiled floor and that early twentieth century style woodwork.
Lovely floor tiles
Those tiles are wonderful, a fine selection from a most underrated art form; they are scattered all over the church, with another especially good selection in the tower room.
As here, with a quietly tremendous mixture of foliage and geometric patterning, the floor is lush with them.
Medieval floor tiles
And around the font some of the medieval tiles have been preserved, dating from between 1330 and 1500, probably moved here from elsewhere in the church, the chancel is a good contender as nave floors in medieval times were usually of well beaten earth and clay, strewn with rushes, sometimes mixed with animal bones for extra strength.
This one usually thought to be a swan, but is it? A Pelican in her Piety might be a more suitable contender for a church, a pelican feeding its young by pecking its own chest to draw blood for the little rug rats to lap up (as they were thought to do)…
The pelican was used not only a symbol of resurrection, but also as a short-hand method of depicting the entire Passion and sacrifice of Christ
Virtue and Vice. The Personifications in the Index of Christian Art: Hourihane C (via Sue Andrews)
Ah, but the young, and the blood, why not a sight of these?
The pelican is also found in manuscripts where it can sometimes be identified without its usual attributes of young and nest but simply by its action of pecking at its breast
Late Medieval Roof Bosses in the Churches of Devon; Sue Andrews
And it does not need to a photo-realistic picture, it just needs to hit the memory banks of the individual, and this might well do as a pelican bleeding and feeding.
Plus those things bottom right, which personally I initially took for plants, could they be drops of blood?
This rose meanwhile is the Five-Petalled Rose, symbolising the Five Wounds of Christ, another deeply meaningful symbol of the Five Wounds of Christ. Amongst other things, from those wounds flow the seven Sacred Sacraments of the church, as well as the rose being associated with the Virgin Mary.
So suddenly these tiles leap from pretty decorations (and they are so very pretty, that is sure) to revealing deep and wonderful meanings which medieval Christians would read immediately, they lived with these intimately, day by day.
Beauty and mystery
All in all, this church is very much a through a glass wondrously type of thing.
There are some obvious darlings, like the decoration on this window, but there is so much peeking though the warp of age, open to interpretations and speculations, some very so (looking at you, St Aristobulus), some closer to realistic.
We do know there was that much earlier stone church here, much more basically built with it boulders from a nearby stream and the local clayey earth used as mortar, how old it is we just cannot be sure. What we can be sure of is that there is strong magic in this discovery, and in the other mysteries more wonders.
Luminous beauty and deep mystery in a church of extraordinary history, what more can we ask for?