- Hidden away in a beautiful landscape
- A beautiful selection of original windows from the 14th century onwards
- One of the best, if not the best, early 17th century monuments in Devon
- Good Victorian tiles in the chancel
- Powerful 14th century sedilia (seats for the clergy) next to the altar
- Good Victorian pews
- An excellent Norman font
- Charming carving on the pulpit
- A lovely atmospheric church
Marystow Church of St Mary The Virgin
Hidden away in the hills of west Devon, Marystow Church of St Mary the Virgin is a one of many churches around here that are so dedicated to proving how underrated this region is… if, of course, it can be dragged away from admiring itself in the mirror.
A big if that, because it houses one of the grandest treasures of Devon’s churches… and that is saying a lot.
But starting at the beginning, the Priory of Plympton was given this church back in the 1100s, the original Norman church having been built some years previously. It is a handsome structure, originally with a south and north transept, and it served a wider parish than now.
Marystow church age and the porch
Indeed, one of its chapels was Thrushelton, written about already on this site.
Most of the present structure is from the fifteenth century, though the chancel is probably a mix of twelfth and fourteenth as well.
The tower was hit by lightning in 1729 and though repaired was not properly rebuilt until 1829 with the old pinnacles put back on. To be fair, this lackadaisical attitude to church upkeep is a very eighteenth century thing, rightly or wrongly.
That porch now, that does hide a little secret. Until at least 1887
On its western side is a small fireplace, with a chimney, which would lead one to suppose that it had been at some time or other used for other purposes than as an entrance into the church.
Devonshire Parishes, Charles Worthy, 1887
And here Charlie hits the nail on the head, in his roundabout manner. Because, of course, porches were never just porches. They were places for oaths, business agreements, marriage ceremonies (the Nuptial Mass took place inside the church, not the actual marriage), shelter for the poor and homeless and likely enough for a darned good natter.
They tended to be built in the fifteenth or (as this one was) sixteenth centuries as an extension to the main structure, and of course having a fireplace was dead classy.
Beautiful stone windows in Marystow
Another classy thing about the exterior of this church is a handsome collection of old rustic windows showing changing styles through the centuries.
Here is a fourteenth century one in the chancel, in the Decorated style, a flowerhead rising from that central stalk.
Here on the south wall the fifteenth century bounces on stage, Perpendicular style this one because it is far more up and down.
And here, again on the south wall, the sixteenth century takes a bow, very plain and modest in one way, but still showing the fancy stonework that good quality plain and modest demands.
Might almost say that it is more Protestant, this one, what with that new vision trudging down the track, but some might almost say that is a bit of fanciful thinking, there is that.
On top of it all is the lovely contrast between the glass and the roughly hewn, well-weathered stone.
Inside Marystow church
Entering the church is a delight, with a very well-cut and well-shaped arcade of granite pillars and arches flowing down the nave, separating off the north aisle.
A wonder in the north chapel
Ah, that north aisle…
I remember the first time I visited Marystow, enjoying the outside, expecting a little country church full off little beauties, entering and wandering over to the north aisle.
Wonder and awe blossomed in my head as, softly dusked by the gloom of the church and backlit by an east window, a dusty remnant of an ancient civilisation appeared, a sphinx emerging from time-blown desert sands.
A magnificent monument
An extraordinary monument for such a country church, so out of scale and so unexpected.
And, of course, so magnificent. It owns this end of the church and it surely means to do exactly that, and it is well discussed in Christine Faunch’s thesis ‘Church monuments and commemoration in Devon c.1530-c.1640‘)
It is for Sir Thomas Wyse, who died in 1629, and his wife Margaret. It is nearly 18 feet high (5.48 meters), that is more than one average house storey, and it is called a ‘triumphal arch’ monument; no surprise there on that name.
It is also an exact copy of the Francis Popham monument in Wellington, Somerset, as well as being derived from the Elizabeth 1 monument in Westminster Abbey.
So this critter has legs and then some.
The colonisation of the church
Look how that arch not only frames the east window but also how the light from that window highlights the main effigies lying under it. The monument has become part of the structure of the church.
This, in other words, is a power grab, an invasion, a colonisation of the church by outside forces (on-the-make English, as it happens. Quelle surprise!). The Wyses have not only taken over what was the Lady Chapel but have used the actual structure to make it all about them.
Because make no mistake, Tommy Wyse was part of the new breed of the rich and very, very capable, and boy did he want to show it; admirably so in many respects, though I might question his use of the church to do so.
And whilst monuments in churches were no recent thing, usually aristocratic until relatively recently mind you, they had been connected with faith and more often than not stayed humbly in the nave or occasionally off to one side in the chancel or chapel.
Here not so much as a dickey bird. It is all about Tommy and his dynasty.
Sir Thomas and Lady Margaret Wyse themselves
Lying up there taking in the morning light every day, dressed up to the nines with Maggie in all that exquisitely carved lace, they have taken Christ out of the church efficiently and remorselessly. This was more business than religion.
Though this was also probably the growing pains of the idea that the being rich reflected God’s favour on you, with the converse that being poor meant you deserved it. Not exactly Gospel but they could get to that with a few mental twists and turns.
A triumphal arch for a new world
And this triumphal arch thing was all part of the piece too; it was a very modern design, especially down here in the cultural boondocks, but it also referred back to Antiquity, using very classical motifs. Their new society, along with the new Stuart dynasty, had deep roots was the message, but so not Gothic roots. A New England for New Men (and men it usually was, apart from an occasional effigy).
This was such an early seventeenth century thing, and by using all this on a grand scale Tommy and Maggy were planting themselves and their kin in the forefront of New Times.
Never forgetting that they had taken over the Lady Chapel and the church in a deep and forceful way, using the traditional aristocratic-type armoured-folk monuments to make very clear, very, very clear, that they were the community big boyos now.
The Wyse children
Whilst from Tom and Maggie’ big effigies their (probable) son and wife are shown smaller, being dutiful Christians by praying (ever get the feeling that that horse has bolted)…
And what could well be a granddaughter all dolled up sitting primly in an armchair, as little girls so like to do not. She is a sweet little poppet though, so very so.
Fine funerary achievements
What is more, as the cherry on top of this lad’s importance, are his ‘achievements’ Probably over that monument until the ceiling height was lowered, the gauntlets there being real, the rest in wood.
Bearing in mind that Sir Tom only became a knight in 1603 (of the Order of the Bath) this is quite a thing to have, and a beautiful surviving example.
It was probably displayed at his funeral and then reverently deposited in the church.
The chancel, on the other hand, was modestly renovated in 1866 along with the rest of the church, and a fine job was made too. Good floor tiles setting off those entrancing wall ones.
Enchanting Victorian tiles
Here is a closer look; very delicious they are. That border along the bottom really brings class into the picture I am thinking, and using the fleur de lys (the lily shape) is just right for a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Lilies after all are sacred to the Lady herself.
A fourteenth century sedilia
Across from the altar are these darlings, both from the fourteenth century, the window above and the sedilia below, the latter carefully preserved during the last restoration, or even revealed by the same.
We do know that the Victorians loved to strip the plaster from church walls, which likely happened here, and we also know that come the Reformation in the sixteenth century folk did like to hide overly ‘Catholic’ bits of the church under plaster instead of destroying them, so maybe this was hidden away too.
Basically, they are seats for the clergy officiating at the Mass, somewhere to sit when they are on stage so speak.
They are beautifully cleanly cut, fine curves there, to frame the clergy as they rested during the holy liturgy.
Victorian pews in the Gothic style
One thing replaced in 1866 were “the old high seats by others of a more comfortable character” and this really is of importance, I venture. Some of us might eye askance the changes made by the Victorians but in truth it was not the ‘Victorians’, it was local parish folk and they cared, deeply.
About their own comfort amongst many other things, but not in a luxury bubble bath kind of way, but more in a ‘let’s not cause folk pain and have them die’ sort of way.
Comfort was helping bodies deal with the aches and pains of decades of hard, grinding farm work, of constant draughts and cold inside houses, of an environment far more challenging to the elderly, let alone the younger folk, than we dream of now.
So more comfortable pews were a care of folk, which sounds on point to me.
Besides that, I do like these a lot. They are in the old Devon tradition of Gothic carving, well done too, yet with a modern twist, the doors for one, the pine wood for another, the sharp rectangulations for another.
The excellent Norman font
At the other end of the age spectrum, this Norman font basks in well-deserved applause, a fine carving from the twelfth century.
I love the foliage there too, the four leaved plants at the top and the three-leafed ones below, all slightly different. The pillars and arches probably symbolise the church, a church in a church so speak, very apt for a ceremony where the baptised are being welcomed into the church.
The foliage? Jury is out on that one; I suspect it is to do with the God’s Creation, his Garden of Paradise if you will, of which the church is part of and at the same time the Paradise which the faithful are building.
Gorgeous simplicity in this modest oak carving
Which is a very apt segue to this darling little carving on the pulpit, twentieth century(1903) this time, oak leaves and acorns.
Honestly, you can offer me a dozen grandiosities to the sirs and ladies Not-So-Wyses of this world, and I would not swap half a square centimetre of this for them. That is not say I do not love that grand monument, I do for sure at that, but this is better. My reckoning only, naturally, others might differ.
Beautifully, artfully carved, by who is not known, a modest little offering to the church, the Divine, and the folk of the parish, summoning up the spirit and life force of oak and acorn in a most painterly way, truly enchanting whilst holding a powerful truth in its creation.
A church of deep feeling
It is a thrilling church this, in a quiet sort of way, full of unexpected little pleasures and one ginormous one.
The Archdeacon of Totnes preached a sermon here in 1866 at the reopening after the restoration, and as the Tavistock Gazette reported he said.
Amid all the din and strife of words, amid all the heat of controversy, amid all the heart-burnings of past and present, there had been, and was still a sure though gradual advance of Church principles and gospel truth.
Now maybe that is true and maybe it is not in our days of controversy and heart-burnings, but for sure
He cautioned his hearers not to mistake the ceremonial and outward drapery of the church for the grace of God which bringeth salvation…
And I would like to think that he was not so much throwing shade on a humongous monument that hastily incorporated a couple of kneeling figures as a sop to its placement in a church, but more to the grace that an anonymous carver brought to their art of oak, or the way a drift of light through a window can quiver a soul.
No ceremonials and outward draperies, just a scent of the Grace of the Divine for some, or a quietness that means just as much to others.
Beauty in and out, wonderful as that is.