- Awesome granite magnificence
- Ground zero for the Devon part of the Prayer Book Rebellion
- Lovely original entrance door
- Stunning medieval roof bosses
- Spacious and light-filled
- Some beautiful medieval glass
- A powerful tower
Sampford Courtenay and the Prayer Book Rebellion
The English were overflowing with faith back in the sixteenth century; an Italian guest wrote
… they all attend Mass every day, and say many Pater Nosters (the Lord’s Prayer) in public… They always hear Mass on Sundays in their parish Church, and give liberal alms… nor do they omit any from incumbent upon good Christians
And the South West especially worshipped hard, Devon rebuilding magnificent new churches all over the county in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, full of theology and passion; Sampford Courtenay folk were no slouches either, their new church was a doozy.
And then miserable armageddon. Henry the Robber King thieved all the monasteries and decided he was better than the Pope… and his son Edward VI with his sharp faced posse forbade services in Latin, made everybody use their new prayer book in English in 1549… erasing the worship and traditions of two thousand years because… because Londoners wanted it.
Sampford Courtenay says NO!
The Sampford Courtenay folk said ‘Enough’. The new prayerbook…
“Tis but a Christmas game”
They did not even speak London English, they spoke Devon and Cornish, and after a thousand years understood the Latin Mass like it was their mother tongue.
The Prayer Book Rebellion was born.
They stood unbowed along with their Cornish cousins, and marched for freedom, for religious liberty, and the English State marched too, with their killers and their foreign mercenaries…
A few months later, here, the last main battle, blood flooded the streets, liberty had its throat cut, its corpse defiled, and the English State’s viciousness had only just started, with hangings and killings throughout the two counties, not even counting the nine hundred prisoners slaughtered earlier because… barbarity and humans… ham and eggs…
Sampford Courtenay Church in granite
But the church remained, and what was left of the folk recovered slowly, and the pain of that time lessened, to leave a beautiful parish church, stunning in its use of granite and a tower to stick an enormous finger up at the new religion forever.
The priest’s door
A church that almost preens itself with its dramatic charm, if it was not so butch with it; that early sixteenth century window above the priest’s door, all surrounded by the stone of the wealthy, granite as if you could not guess, and it really must have cost a pretty penny to use so much.
This porch, squat and strong, a striking entrance, colonised by lichen, the buttresses and string courses (the horizontal sticky out lines) and battlements, almost a mini-brutalist design awash with the centuries…
Entering the church
And talking about time, glance back at this door as we go in, probably the same age as the porch, and it is a cracker, with its wooden lock and split design only needing to half open on a cold day. Reckon this will last the millennium out and the next one.
Marvellous space and light
The first thing that strikes us is the light, and then the space; the large clear windows illuminate the stark pillars, the high roof underlines the expanse, the open chancel, the chairs instead of benches, there is a true grandeur to this, a memory of worlds lost, a loyalty to dreams of freedom…
It is a deeply eloquent area, somewhere to sit awhile and discover ourselves, to rearrange our thoughts in new ways…
Of course this is not a view the Prayer Book rebels would have seen, their church was a church of colour, of incense, of carved and painted screen, of altars… but it is the church they built.
Masterful roof bosses surging with significance
Magnificently, roof bosses still survive… uncoloured nowadays but still very much whispering their hearts to us…
Christ is here, on the left, or is he God the Father? A face of compassion shines out undoubtedly.
Adam could be on the right, looking similar to God because we are created in God’s image, the branches growing out of his mouth reflecting a legend that when Adam died a seed from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was placed under his tongue, and from that seed grew the tree that supplied the wood for the cross that Christ was killed on.
A story full of meaning, of salvation and repentance, a beautiful story. As ever, there are other interpretations, and folk in no way felt obliged to choose just one.
A pig and a saint
Then we have the sow and her litter, the sow that returns to her filth like a sinner returning to their sins.
It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.
Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud.”
2 Peter 2 21:22
So who does return to their sins? Hands up any takers… ? Said him sitting firmly on his digits…
And this is the point, not to castigate but to help the parishioners, looking up to heaven, to reflect and understand their own sins and temptations so they can bring themselves closer to the Divine through repentance and rejection of sin.
Now who would not want to keep such a loving faith?
The queen on the right is likely not a true roof boss; the framing is wrong and the whole is far too flat. Bosses are meant to at least make an effort to fit around the ceiling ribs.
Far more likely it was originally part of an altar back, a reredos, as maybe the Virgin Mary or a female saint, painted and gilded and all glammed up. A striking face though, even without her slap on…
A charm of a dragon
Here, on the chancel wall plate, is a darling of a dragon, with the scales so well brought out and cute little wings that really are not going to get it far. A baby dragon, I venture, munching grapes, and I will settle for a playful little carving just because…
When I first started hanging around churches seriously just a few years ago I was fascinated by figurative bosses, what they might mean, how they beautifully reflected the mindset of the times. The foliage ones… meh. Lots of foliage. No figures.
Now of course I have grown in wisdom (oh really… ?) and taste (ahem!) and understand how stunning foliage bosses are, how essential to the visions of a Devon church they were; in Devon roodscreens are covered in foliage, benchends are surrounded by foliage, window tracery has foliage, ceilings grow foliage… seeing a pattern here… ?
And God said, “Let the earth grow grass, plants yielding seed, and trees bearing fruit of each kind, that has its seed within it upon the earth.” And so it was. And the earth put forth grass, plants yielding seed, and trees bearing fruit of each kind, and God saw that it was good. And it was evening and it was morning, third day.
Genesis 1:11-13 Trans. Robert Alter
But beauty is the real reason I haunt churches, my kind of beauty anyway, and foliage is a constantly changing beauty. And stunning. And awesome.
And these, their near abstract nature, their inventiveness, their understanding of green growth, their composition, their power, their dynamism, their total magnificence… perfectly my kind of beauty…
The chancel itself with its massive East Window is as fresh as a daisy, these Victorians sure did know how to renovate these areas.
A sorrowing angel
But it is the frontal altar cloth (the antependium) that is the real star here; such a beguiling angel, potent and humble, kneeling amongst flowers to the side of the Lamb of God, head bowed in reverence for the Sampford Courtenay folk and their comrades who died so many years ago, with respect reaching deeper than the ocean of tears their royal murderers released.
Such outstanding needlework, truly so…
The village plough
Up high is a piece of medieval country life still instantly recognisable, a plough whose descendants still till the soil hereabouts. Ploughing traditionally started on the first Monday after the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and the Sunday before is Plough Sunday when a plough was often brought into the church and a farmer offered the work of the countryside to the service of God; the plough was then blessed.
Happily, this church still has a blessing of the plough on Plough Sunday, as it should.
Around England there were various pageants and folk processions connected to this day, such an essential part of not so much life as being able to continue living; roads were only good for packhorses west of Exeter, and if there was a local famine then importing grain in quantity would have been next to impossible.
These piscinas, simple remnants of a faith deeper than the oceans, little granite niches with drains where the Communion vessels could be rinsed. The drops of wine clinging to the chalice and the crumbs of bread on the wafer plate were so sacred; sanctified, they became the body of Christ, and could only be released onto consecrated ground, such as the church foundations.
Every Easter the congregation could receive the Eucharist, the sacred bread (though not the wine), or the ‘housel’ as they called it, an English word, a Saxon word, a country word for folk with roots, folk with deep dreams, folk who knew their God had lived with their ancestors, from the Old English hūslian meaning ‘to administer the sacrament’.
So sacred were the crumbs that, below the pieces of transformed bread placed into their mouths or on their hand, was held a houselling cloth to catch any speck, carefully retrieved by the priest afterwards.
This was the profound wonder that the state wanted to murder. Starting with Devon blood.
The tower arch
At the other end of the nave is one of the grandest tower arches in many a mile, a hugely impressive creation just underlining how much money was raised and spent on this glory to the Divine, and doubly underlining how much this church meant to the community. Though it is deeply anachronistic to talk about the ‘community’ as if it was a separate being from the church, the church and faith was as much part of near all folk as, say, an acceptance of Democracy is to us modern sophisticates.
That, I hasten to add, is not a criticism of our Democracy; jolly good things, democracies. After all, jaw jaw is better than war war as Winston Churchill never said, and it might have avoided the heart-hurt lamentations of the soul-anguished survivors of that calamitous Rebellion.
The soul of Sampford Courtenay
But imagine for a moment, just imagine, in the sixteenth century, this parish, ranging from the rolling pastures of north Devon to the foothills of Dartmoor, isolated, its own little universe, ox-ploughed, sheep-grazed, priest-cared, sweat-worked, imagine a maid looking at this church, this modern magnificence unlike anything ever seen… .that she contributed to, with her family, with her relations, with her recent ancestors, with her fellow folk, with her day-in day-out, hard, hard toil…
And within was a touch of heaven, a place of dignity, where another world is possible, a world where we all are the children of God, we all are equal, where there is a glimpse, a signpost even, of a path to the joyful, peaceful existence of love…
What a feeling that must have been…
The soul of love
Until it was not.
Until Edward the Slaughterer King with his slithy coven of grey faced gangsters decided humans were less important than words, than pieces of paper, than their own bleak visions of control…
And a nightmare was let loose around the country…
The Devon and Cornish folk were not the first to rise up, nor were they the last, many other unsung heroes and heroines bravely resisted that savage infliction of a new doctrine, with a courage that defies understanding…
Maybe this roof boss sums up the horror, and maybe, just maybe, it foreshadows the Slaughter King and his thugs plunging into the mouth of Hell, still insisting they were right, still claiming that right is better than love, still refusing Christ’s forgiveness, still shrieking ‘but we did it in your name’.
And Christ, flooded with compassion and sorrow, replying ‘no, not in my name, never in my name’.
No wonder Jesus weeps.