- An outstanding woodland church
- A flood of magnificent bench ends
- An entrancing Virgin and Child and other lovely stained glass
- Worthy monuments
- A John Robinson sculpture on a seriously lush font
- A nationally important roodscreen
Marwood church and Old Devon
In the hills above the ports of Old Devon where wool went out and exotics came in, where the Mediterranean and the Americas kissed the county’s soil, lies a parish redolent of the West Country… Middle Marwood, Blakewell, Farleigh, Guineaford, Kings-Heanton, Muddiford, Prixford, Higher Muddiford, Gotcombe Wood… and of course Cherchemerewode, or Church Merewood – the church of the boundary (mǣre, Old English for boundary) wood, lazing on an old Saxon border.
No village here, the farmsteads sprinkling the landscape probably have borders stretching back to the Iron Age or beyond and the original Britons who called this home.
Wind through the twisted lanes and the church is ensconced on a spur between two streams meeting just below, to the West, where it can wave godspeed to the waters as they join their brethren and spill into the sea, off to pilgrim the world.
Outside Marwood church
The graveyard is narrow here on the south entrance, the church looms over us. The chancel has some thirteenth century fabric and the rest of the church is fifteenth century.
To get a better feel for the place we need to explore.
The graveyard stretches west away from the tower disappearing into a tanglewood of briars and bushes, saplings and creaking branches. This is a woodland church, with foliage inside and out.
There is a striking north door with some handsome original windows. Above the door is an original image niche, the statuette long gone.
It all makes for a very attractive composition, the red and the green highlighting the colours in the wall, the glass reflections, the arch work contrasted with the stonework and that well moulded door surround.
A solid porch
We return to enter through the engaging south porch with its 1762 sundial stuck a touch clumsily on the battlements. The porch is much better built than on the North, the stone neatly coursed; it is the public face of the church, the church in its Sunday best.
The hood mould though, over the door…hhhm. Not sure what went wrong there.
But it is a nice clean porch with clear vertical and horizontal lines. Simple and effective.
Marwood bench ends, bagpiper, preachers, chicken and fox
The benchends are just stunning in their creativity, so many, from the early 1500s.
A bagpiper below an angel holding a scroll, playing the Cornish bagpipes, a style of bagpipe that has variants all over Europe, and two flowers, probably lilies sacred to the Virgin Mary.
But wait, there is far more here I venture with the bagpiper, this is not just a pretty scene, not here, not in a church, not where the faithful walk and pray many a day. This is both a warning and an act of love.
The Late Medieval church was a fan of sacred music, which was mainly vocal… other music, not so much. Popular music was about dancing, about earthly passion, about bawdiness and profane love songs, about the carnal enticements that can attract us away from our Divine nature and everyday musicians were often used to illustrate this tendency.
And oh dear. A double whammy. The bagpiper does not have a naturally proportioned face or body, he is a caricature of a man, and this was a common method of showing a sinful nature.
But this is not a judgement, a moral j’accuse, this shows redemption too. The bagpiper is gazing up to the angel, to the messenger of God, who is holding a scroll, a scripture. This is promise of salvation for all if they follow the word of God in the scriptures and leave their sins behind.
Hope for us sinners then, which really is the point as well as being a scene to commune with during Mass.
Good and bad preachers
And suddenly the benches come alive with meanings. They seethe with significance.
Take these two. The important thing here is that they are opposite ends of the same bench. They are related, I suspect.
Both have a preacher, both have a listener, but the right hand preacher has an apish face and the listener is out of proportion again, while the left hand one is a fine teacher and the listener goodly featured.
Apes in Gothic art tended to represent vice and sin, and here, dressed up as a priest, here is a false teacher, a widespread topic of this period, with the listener being led down away from the high road to heaven.
But the preacher on the left with his humanity on display, his words feed our souls as the well-coiffed gent next to him shows.
True preachers good, false preachers bad, and this to ponder on, in church and out…
Marwood’s fox and chicken
There are fifty-two scintillating benchends, all from the sixteenth century, along with thirteen full benches, thick planked beauties, gnarled and twisting with age. A concatenation of full figures, plants, traceries, heads, demons and renaissance doodles, letters, shields, instruments of the Passion or even a chicken and a fox as above… such a collection of creativity.
Seeing them marching down the aisle in all their variety, surrounded by their foliage edges (very Devon that) is a wonder. A collection worth travelling to see.
And this church reveals more treasures…
Stained glass treasures
This Madonna and Child being one. The way they so tenderly lean into each other, and their faces… oh my beating heart.
Jesus looks like he is seeing the future all the way down and he is blessed with his mother’s love so solid; Mary is aware that she has God in her hands and her heart is going to be shattered into pieces and yet she will be there… always and forever.
Especially as the drumbeat of Christ’s earthly life reaches its nightmarish crescendo and a parent’s worst grief engulfs her.
Three stunning archangels
And then, in contrast, this glorious confection of three archangels, standing proudly in the East Window, Saints Gabriel, Michael and Raphael. Subtle it surely is not, breathtakingly bejewelled it most definitely is.
Saint Michael all glammed up
With St Michael (bring your binoculars for this) just rocking the ‘dragon on the helmet’ look, as one does if you are an archangel. Here in this window Mikey has slain the dragon of sin and with his clear otherworldly stare invites us to do the same.
A memorial of comfort
More carving of a different age with William and Anthony Peard tragically dying within a month of each other in 1652, aged 16 and 19.
In the same year the Dutch colonised South Africa, Russia and China fought along the Amur River, England was a new Puritan Commonwealth ruled by Parliament, Rhode Island banned slavery…
… but for William and Anthony’s family and friends their world was only grief and pain. Nothing else mattered.
And these two roundels on their monument address this head on with Bible verses that would have been as much part of popular culture then as pop music is in ours.
On the left:
How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.
1 Cor 15:36
On the right:
All people are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of the Lord endures forever.”
1 Peter 1:24-25 (the verse numbers are very faded)
Unflinchingly honest as the bible always is… people, nature, beauty they die in their glory, as these young folk did, but the Lord is always there, for them and everybody.
Which were comforting words to the religious of the day, or any day in truth.
These, though, were not just words on the walls of the church, they were part of the scriptures that formed the background to individual lives and national culture, that were read, listened to and pondered on throughout the days.
A beautiful font
Still the church accumulates riches with this nineteenth century intricately carved font; The shape, the foliage and the supporting pillars are all marvellous. A twentieth century font cover by renowned sculptor John Robinson tops it; a powerful composition of a priest blessing a boy.
The Marwood rood screen, a national treasure
At the top of the north aisle we meet a scintillating piece of work, said to be one of the best in the country, the last piece of the original roodscreen. Well balanced, it punches way above its weight, just hiding there, away from most of the church.
The cornice alone is worthy of fine praise; three different bands of foliage work with a more arabesque narrower one at the bottom. This work is beyond great.
Beautiful Renaissance work
There’s an inscription here: SIR JOHN BEAPOL PSON OF MEREWODE . Sir John Beaupul (as his last name is usually written) was rector of the parish from 1520 to 1561 and is assumed to be the donor and the screen is usually dated to between 1535-1540.
The panels are full of spins and fancies, of heads and hellions, all posing or playing in a mass of renaissance foliage. It is a masterpiece. It is also full on Renaissancery, far more decorative than meaningful.
So what does this mean… ? Well, contrast the benchends and the screen. The benchends are the end of the Gothic period (borders are always fuzzy), with a very different style and also rich with religious meaning. Here decoration rules. The meaning has gone. Admittedly a lot of the figures use older concepts, that combination of foliage, faces and heads for example, but in such a concatenation of twirls and whirls the whole subsumes the parts.
This lack of meaning was ultra-important, potentially life-preservingly so.
This wasn’t the Roman Catholic Church anymore. Henry VIII had taken over the church in England and the country was in flux with the early Reformation in full swing, and swing it did, from one prescribed belief to another and back. Even Continental European commentators were flummoxed, unable to work out if the new Church of England was Protestant or Roman Catholicism 2.0 (The Church of England is still wondering about this itself!).
Though there was one thing that was pretty regular, at least for a period. No idols. No praying to saints. No worshipping bits of wood or stone. No having a quiet chat to a painted figure. Just no. The Bible was your man, and all the writings in it, and the preacher would help you understand that.
Very help you. Not an invitation. No RSVP required. Attendance hugely obligatory.
So the Renaissance style, which had been incorporated into church carvings before but not so full-blown (wood carvers, like all creative folk, like to experiment) came roaring into Marwood with the new screen, built just after the start of the Reformation. Fantastic carving, tentacling and floriating all over, but no idols here.
Mick Jagger makes an appearance…
The details, as we look closer, are both astounding and full of joy. The poor couple who have been about to kiss for over 450 years, the leaf sprite with what seems to be a child’s rattle or a whistle in his mouth, Mick Jagger getting in on the act (well, he never was a wall flower!), two beasts seemingly united by… a rosary, of all things… just astonishing.
And this was expensive, a glorious donation, and through it we can glimpse the worldly riches pouring through the nearby ports of Bideford and Barnstaple in that period. Riches that were so often converted into church beauty for all to experience the wonder of creation and, possibly, have your name passed down the ages to be remembered in people’s prayers.
But this was a new religion, none of that nasty Roman Catholic praying for souls stuff, no purgatory for our English boys any more.
Yet here was Johnny Beaupul putting his name front and centre, on the rood screen, in arguably one of the most Catholic areas of England. A bit like saying saying ‘This is me and I am so not asking you all to pray for me’ with a few winky face emojis thrown in.
Plausible deniability I think it is called, the cheeky monkey.
The boundary church
After so many deep details, so much glory, so deep a history, the art of peace is still here, quietly inviting, gently soothing…
Waiting patiently for all in this glorious boundary church, intricate carvings and glowing colours gliding marvellously through imaginations, a threshold between the world of the physical and the universe of soul…
A goodly place for them to meet…