- Deeply rural even for deeply rural Devon
- A beautiful multi-aged structure
- Wonderful windows
- A fine Three Hares medieval roof boss
- More good 18th century roof bosses
- Simple carvings by Violet Pinwill
- Some fascinating medieval stained glass angels
- Other fine Victorian stained glass
- A very nice church indeed
Kelly Church of St Mary and the ancient parish
In the far reaches of West Devon, butting up against a loop in the River Tamar, a backcountry of a backcountry even for Devon, lie three small parishes, Kelly, Bradstone, and Dunterton. They started life as pre-Norman estates, how far back they go we just do not know. Saxon for sure, quite possibly Ancient British little polities, clan lands or sub-clan lands, maybe even deeper into the past.
It is tempting to say pre-Roman, but as the Romans never really made it this far west in any formal sense then they can be crossed off the list. Dunterton itself is an Old Celtic name (Dun: a fort, Ter: an enclosure, farmstead, estate) with an Old English ‘ton’ tagged on.
And Kelly too, from Old Celtic ‘chelli’ meaning grove, or wood. Old languages haunt with echoing whispers out here.
The Kelly family have been the big boys in this parish for a long time, since around early days, and used to have the whole parish as one estate. They still live in the old manor next to the church.
If I was trundling down the byway of deep speculation I would be wondering about that Celtic family name. Hhhhm. Old Devonian-Celtic aristocracy keeping their seats at the top table… ?
The church itself is all a bit newer, the chancel partly fourteenth century but most all of it from the fifteenth century build, replacing an older one. Interestingly the chancel was restored in 1710, and there are windows of that date, whilst there was a major restoration in 1865.
The tower was rebuilt as well in 1865 but the lower part seems to have been left intact; this stone exoticism here so suits the ancient glamour of the timeless West.
Sabine Baring-Gould wrote about an inspector getting flummoxed by the dialect in Kelly when he came to inspect the school
“What is the matter with you?” he asked testily.
“Plaaze, zur, us be a veared of the apple-drayne.”
In fact, a wasp was playing in and out among their heavily oiled locks.
“Apple-drayne!” exclaimed Mr. Arnold. “Good gracious! You children do not seem to know the names of common objects.
A Book of the West, Vol 1, Baring-Gould
Is not an ‘apple-drain’ such a poetic word for a wasp?
Especially as the very same ‘wasp’ seems to derive from a Proto-Indo-European (our deep language ancestor) word relating to ‘weave’ and likely refers to the shape and structure of a wasp nest, a a poem in a word again.
The Victorian porch
The porch was totally rebuilt in the renovation of 1865, all at the expense of the self-same Kelly family, and this doorway too carries on the magic of the west door.
Eighteenth century chancel windows
Whilst the south-side chancel windows area are a rarity, for on their label stops, the square bits at the end of the protruding arches (the hood moulds) over the top of each window, is carved “R E 17 10” for Richard Edgecumbe, rector 1702-1769.
So these are eighteenth century, and a fascinating insight into country design of this time; there are very few church windows of this era in Devon.
And the sixteenth century gets in on the act
These two, in comparison, in the south of the nave and just down from the previous two, are sixteenth century and worth every penny, especially surrounded by such personable stonework.
The smaller one is called a ‘pulpit window’, placed to let light shine on the pulpit for bible reading, psalms and parish affairs as well as sermons.
Inside Kelly Church of St Mary
The calm of Kelly Church almost matches the outside, but as a mere youngster only about six hundred years old it still has a bit to learn about peace and awe. It is getting there though, outstandingly so.
Up the chancel arch, on the right hand side, the supporting pillar is about a hundred years older than the pillars on the left. When the north aisle was added, probably along with a new chancel arch, they left the old pillar (or respond as this type is called) alone.
Most likely to save money, transporting good stone here must have been hard.
A Three Hares roof boss and its meaning
And so the heavens, or the roof bosses which seems a fair substitute, especially as here is a ravishment; one of the famous Three Hares medieval carvings which Devon has a mound of, around twenty or so in about seventeen churches; most are clustered on or near Dartmoor (Kelly is not that far if we squint).
Kelly has two, but one is a more modern replacement, which is kind of cute but the meaning is in the old.
The first thing of course is that these look like bunnies, little-bitty cutesy-wutesy bunny wabbits. Except for their ears, which are too big for rabbits, more hare-like for sure. Also roof bosses in Devon very, very rarely show non-wild beasts by themselves.
And rabbits were farmed animals back in the day, they do not seem to have become majorly wild by this time. They were kept in areas called warrens full of little artificial mounds to make their burrowing arrangements easy and surrounded by a wall and ditch.
Here, very importantly, they all share three ears, all joined together so to speak, very distinctly.
So what do does the Three Hares symbol mean?
Well, there are many interpretations, and the language of medieval symbology was layered and nuanced, just like verbal language; a phrase can have various meanings depending on context, emphasis or different cultural understandings for a start.
We have lost the context and emphasis of this boss because the roof has been renewed; so let us play with one valid interpretation.
Medieval style, all animals showed aspects of God or the Devil, sometimes both; one aspect of the hare was that it was thought to be hermaphrodite, it could pump out little’uns without doing the old rumpety pumpety, thus remaining a virgin.
Which made it a brilliant symbol for the Virgin Mary. Just to prove my point, here is a print of ‘The Holy Family with Three Hares’ by Albrecht Dürer from around 1497, the same time period as this carving.
The Virgin Mary and the Holy Trinity
The print itself is chock-a-block with symbols, because that is so the way medieval peeps rolled. The walled garden, virginity again, the book that baby Jesus is reading, the Old Testament, his connection with the ancient Word of God, the angels with the crown for Mary Queen of Heaven…
And the Three Hares, not only for virginal fertility but also that other threesome, the Holy Trinity, because otherwise old Albrecht could have just drawn one of the little darlings.
Back to the boss symbol. In this interpretation (and it is a mainstream one, somewhat at least) we not only have the hares for Mary but also the ear sharing along with the number of hares; the Holy Trinity, three in one and one in three.
This intense little carving contains the Mother of God and the Divine herself. Intense is the mot juste for this symbol in a devout Catholic era.
Though this is just one approach to the Three Hares symbol and there other possible meanings.
More roof bosses in Kelly Church
Here are some marvellous medieval flower heads as well, with traces of old colouring or gilding.
Skulls and snakes
Whilst here are some later bosses, eighteenth century I suspect, or within a few pennies of that century at least.
For one, they are much more sharply carved than the medieval (stronger metal in their tools is why), for another work was done on the church in that century as we know, and for yet one more thing they did like their death’s heads backaway.
They mainly show the Kelly’s family crest, a bird with a snake in its beak, and, lower right, their coat of arms, three blocks divided by a chevron, and a doggie from another family, demonstrating a marriage between clans. The skulls probably mean they are referring to a deceased ancestor.
The lower left, a deer pursued by a hound, is a bit of puzzler for its time. Maybe a copy of a medieval boss?
Kelly Church sanctuary
A simple sanctuary, like many around here, and beautifully so, helpfully cleaned up by the Victorians, with some interesting panelling.
Carvings by Violet Pinwill
Because they contain these sweet little carvings by Violet Pinwill, one of the three biggest church wood carving workshops in Devon, and a businesswoman before many were around.
The whole was dedicated in 1932 in memory of the Revd Maitland Kelly, who was the squire of Kelly House and sometime vicar of the parish. He was, as might be guessed, a keen bell ringer and a member of the Devonshire Guild of Ringers.
A medieval stained glass angel pulling strings
But back to the Medieval, this time angels, with this sweeting in stained glass, Late Medieval to be more exact.
There is something deeply interesting about this, the cords going through the wings. This is not a depiction of an angel, it is of a person dressed up as an angel, religious cosplay if you will, and rather wonderful.
So why would folk dress up as angels? Religious processions and pageants which shot up the pop charts in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Folk still dress as angels and saints for processions in many Roman Catholic countries.
These performances were deeply religious, deeply emotional and probably had their fair share of slapstick too, early theatre if you will.
Could well be the cords were used to flap the wings, or maybe just to hold all together, but they are there and this is interesting evidence of the cross-fertilisation of religious practice and imagery.
We also have written evidence from York for the paraphernalia used in processions and church plays:
So my witterings seem to have some truth, now there is a thing to behold!
Angels displaying coats of arms
They are also holding coats of arms of the Kelly and other local families, as like as not all showing the Kelly’s connections by marriage with these locals.
The one on the left is the coat of arms of the Talbot clan from a few miles away; it has three dogs, also called talbots back then. The right hand one is the Trenchard coat of arms, three scallop shells, from nearby Lamerton parish.
It all gets terribly complicated, far beyond my interest to be fair, but it is a little piece of Late Medieval zeitgeist; especially as the first angel in this article (see the image above these) has both a scallop shell and part of the Kelly coat of arms; my guess that this indicates a Kelly-Trenchard marriage at some point.
One big takeaway from this is just how important all these connections were to powerful families, reinforcing and clarifying their social status and connections; these coats of arms might even have been paraded by the angels in a pageant.
A medieval stained glass crucifixion scene
Here is the beautiful medieval stained glass window associated with those angels. It was originally in the East Window of the Chancel, moved in 1720 to the north chancel; it shows Edward the Confessor and the Crucifixion scene.
On the 3rd of July 1833, having lately visited it as Dean Rural, I took Mrs Bray to see the painted glass in the church at Kelly; which , though much mutilated, is by far the best, and most in quantity of any in the vicinity…
…Some of my old friends, now no more, of the Kelly family, used to amuse themselves, when boys, with what they called shying at the heads of the apostles.
Legends, Superstitions and Sketches of Devonshire on the Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy, Letter from Rev Bray, 1844
Checking stones at medieval glass windows, that will do mutilated for sure!
So in 1879 it was extensively repaired by Baillie and Son of Wardour St., London and it is a mixture of old and new.
The crucifixion scene is apparently mainly a replacement; this head of christ certainly leans that way. A right corker all the same, just a bit too clear and not enough blood for the medieval.
Mary’s face on the other hand is fully medieval I venture, a real doublepluscorker. The slightly winsome face, full lips, tears starting from her eye and an inner determination all show grief and strength together.
There is love there as well, very surely so, a love that viewers can share in.
A magnificent Victorian stained glass window
Having a healthy inner shallowness, a bit of kaleidoscope bling always gets my juices flowing, and this window fits the bill to a T. All those colours mosaic style, with the figures emphasised by being picked out in larger blocks, an enchanting work.
Commemorating Admiral Benedictions Kelly,1867, probably by Lavers, Barraud and Westlake of London and my sons truly dodged a bullet that I had not come across this personal name when they were born.
The Four Evangelists at peace
One of the many things I like about churches is their immediate magnificence on so many different levels along with their powerful sensory enfoldment, and more…
Because taking just a simple rural church like Kelly, in a simple rural parish, as deeply hidden from the world as this one, and then doing a tad of delving and diving, all those layers and sensory oceans just go deeper and deeper, more and more powerful and oh so much more fun.
Sometimes though, after all that, a return to simplicity is just the ticket, like here,
“Matthew, Mark and Luke and John
Bless the bed that I lie on.
Four angels to my bed
Two to bottom, two to head,
Two to hear me when I pray,
Two to bear my soul away
And so to rest.