- Beautiful old floor tiles
- A powerful Medieval granite font
- Granite and local stone used so well
- A modestly beautiful chancel
- A magical carved message from the priest here in 1451, Henry Le Maygne
- Very good medieval roof bosses
- The original 15th century south door
- Beautifully situated in the heart of Devon
Spreyton Church of St Michael
Folk used to be able to see twenty-four churches from the top of Spreyton church tower before Devon became so wooded.
And Devon has definitely become more wooded. Backalong, when trees were a crop, what we consider a mature tree was considered a waste of space; they were kept relatively short and unbushy by coppicing and pollarding to collect good straight timber for local use.
Also winter fodder; cattle ate the dried leaves during winter, holly was a favourite, along with oak, but most near any tree would do. It was a hard life, farming, and every resource had to be used.
But there was fun too, and on Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, the twenty-first of June 1887, looking out from the tower at night:
Previously to 10 o’clock some four or five fires had been lighted…
At about a quarter-past 10 sixty-seven distinct fires had been counted and by half-past at least 80 were visible.
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette: Thursday 23 June 1887
That must have been some sight, especially as they had rockets too. Rockets so hit the fun button on nights like these.
Folk loved their church too, and in the twentieth century restored it greatly…
The walls, where necessary, have been taken down, and reset, and the faulty foundations made good in concrete, showing, in places, the original boulders on which the church was built
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – Friday 30 October 1914
Church foundations down hereabouts, so often a matter of hope over reality; rural medieval builders were many good things, but full scale accredited civil engineers they were very so much not.
This beautiful priest’s doorway though seems to have been kept and possibly rebuilt using the original stonework. I love that little keystone at the top.
Entering Spreyton church
Inside is a place of wondrous simplicity, every texture picked out by the granite-clear light streaming through the nave windows, with just that hint of multi-coloured mystery up at the sanctuary, exactly where it belongs.
But simplicity does not mean lack of interest; there is enough beauty and wonder here to fill our boots…
Aged floor tiles
Which is lucky, because our booties are standing on this, colours, shades, textures, shapes that truly fill our passion for art.
Mainly little stone slabs, with some medieval tiles thrown into the mix, gently breaking and wearing whilst adapting to the many thousands of feet walking here, each leaving their infinitesimal mark. An art work of centuries in the making, every one of us involved in its creation.
And well worth getting down on our knees to absorb every detail, carrying all away reverently in our heart and souls.
The old granite font
The granite font near the entrance is another deep attraction, quite unique for Devon; Norman is the accepted dating, though some put it later but with carving so simple as to appear earlier. But to be fair, why a later medieval crowd would be all gung-ho for such old-fashioned chisel-wielding does not compute for me, especially for such a sacred vessel as a font.
So let us go for Norman, and grandly so, bearing in mind that granite could only be carved very crudely in that period… Their metal tools lacked the hardness of our modern ones, and granite is one of the hardest stones outside of gems.
So the alleged crudeness is just an artefact of the stone, alleged is the important word because the vital nature of the carvings is their meaning and here the meanings rocket up the holiness of the font.
With such symbolic figures
Leaving aside the circles around the top, whose meanings are totally hidden, the plinth is where the action is.
Here, on the left, is St Catherine with the wheel that was used to martyr her, next door is St Andrew who was crucified on an X-shaped cross by special request because he felt he did not deserve the honour of being deaded on the same style of murder machine as Christ.
Others include the Virgin Mary and the Tree of Life, all instantly recognisable to most everyone, especially as everyone grew up with these like family.
Were these painted? Was there a thin layer of plaster over them, with painting on top, taking advantage of the carving to increase shadowing, a three dimensional effect? Or did folk just cluster around this simple granite and pray to a saint for help and intervention with the Divine, to support their health and protect themselves from sin?
Well, no clear answer to any of those questions, except they would have been powerfully full of meaning and treasured for that.
Fine granite work
The restoration uncovered this entrance to the rood stairs fortunately for us, leading up to the rood loft where the wardens and the sexton could light the candles at the door fo the rood, the crucifixion scene of Christ with Mary and John on each side.
Every day, morning and evening (for surely they did not leave the candles burning overnight), and then the dusting and the dressing in finery and maybe the priest going up to pray, no wonder the builders put a classy granite surround around them. They were that important.
A special arch
Walking up the nave this archway says hello, not your average smooth curve. Medieval builders were quite capable of making mistakes above ground, or even bodging up a job or five, above ground as well as below, but this is not one of them.
That opening on high, in the wall at the back, that is where the rood stairs come out onto the now destroyed rood loft and rood screen. The challenge is that the actual rood, the crucifixion scene, would have been hanging in the nave, and to get to it folk would have needed to walk along the loft floor and get under that arch.
So the options were (1) make like a snake and slither or (2) change the arch to be able to walk near upright. Bit of a no brainer, seemingly.
Whether the change was done after the arch had been built or it was part of the design I have no idea: it does look pretty original and the aisle (and the arches) were formed in the fifteenth century which was the same period that rood screens were going up all over the place, so my vote is for original.
The simple sanctuary
The chancel is another exercise in gorgeous simplicity, that rough wooden cross, and the modest flowers on the altar really put the grace notes into the whole scene.
The altar, while we are on the subject, is granite and was found hidden away as part of the south wall during the twentieth century restoration, almost definitely put there after the Reformation to avoid it being smashed to pieces by the new fundamentalists.
Its age is moot; does it go back to Norman times, or even before, or was it part of the 1451 rebuild of the church? And anyway, how do we know that the church was rebuilt in exactly 1451?
Now this is magical tale, a wonder upon a wonder in an ocean of awe…
A magical message from the Medieval
In 1451 England was losing the Hundred Years War against the French, there were stirrings of civil war, and the priory of Cowick, near Exeter had to get out of town; Cowick was the daughter house of a Norman-French abbey and the English king Henry VI thought that an involuntary Frexit from jolly old Albion was a mighty good idea, so off they went, leaving him all their dosh…
But they also bade adieu to the vicar of Spreyton, Henry Le Maygne, probably a monk from that priory which had the right to the tithes and to appoint the priest for the parish. They had probably placed their own man in the position, receiving most of their tithes for their mission in Exeter.
There he was, left all alone, far from home, just finishing off his new church, and he carved on the ribs of the chancel an entrancement to float down to us through the centuries (in Latin)
Henry le Mayne, priest, vicar of this church, caused me to be built AD 1451.
… This Henry was a native of Normandy and wrote all this with his own hand.
And then he wrote one of the most moving declarations of Medieval Christianity ever in this little rural church:
Sweet friend of God [viz Holy Virgin] blooming as a lovely star,
Be mindful of me when the hour of death shall come
Father Jesus, nourish the people who pray from their heart;
Thou who art spotless renew the minds bound in the filth [of sin].
This house shall be called a house of prayer,
in which everyone who asks receives, who seeks finds,
and to him who knocks [the door] shall be opened.
O Christ, bear witness that he writes not these words,
that his body be praised, but that his soul be remembered.
Pray for us St Nicholas; St Edward the Martyr intercede for us,
Let sin ever be thought folly;
For one apple all mankind is ruined;
A virgin brought forth God, if anyone asks how
It is not mine to know, but I know God is able [to cause it]
Faith, Hope, Love, all present, saints our buddies, the Divine open to all just for the asking… This was, and is, the core of the Faith here in Spreyton that is still so much part of our culture, even if it is now sometimes only soft echoes that whisper through our lives.
Hopefully the beauty of this message high up in the rafters still glows for us all, of any faith or none.
The three hares roof boss
And Henry added two cracking roof bosses up there, with a meaning as clear as a sunny day, I venture.
The Three Hares, a symbol found so relatively often in Devon, here is for the Holy Trinity, three in one, to complement Henry’s words on the nature of the Divine, the God he lives with as his fellow monks take ship to France.
With a design so dynamic, those hares are bouncing around the field, as they do, having the time of their lives.
The Green Man roof boss
Whilst here, another figurative roof boss in the chancel, is Christ, I suggest, crowned king with a headpiece of foliage it looks like, and from Christ, or God if you will (that Holy Trinity strikes again) comes creation, the foliage flowing from him.
Or it could be God the Father, what with the beard and all, but the main thing is that again this complements the words on the rafters.
Beautiful foliage roofbosses
And to hammer home this ‘all creation’ thing there these gorgeous works of art, beautifully dynamic depictions of foliage, probably recognisable to someone more skilled than me.
These, admittedly, are the go to roof bosses for Devon’s churches, though the style varies, and Henry here was using the meanings to totally match the two figurative ones and his text. The whole chancel roof seems a work of religious art in its own right.
Granite and grief
Back down to earth, just at the eastern end of the nave nest to the chancel, lies this painstakingly carved granite floor memorial
Agnes Hore, daughter of Thomas Hore junior, was buried September ye 18th 1711.
Dear father and mother, grieve no more, I am not lost but gone before.
Henry Le Maygne would have been so proud of this faith over two hundred and fifty years later.
The Medieval door
But here is some more extraordinary magic, the original medieval south door, the main entrance, and when the church was finished this was put in place.
Were Henry’s hands the first to open it when the new church was consecrated? How often did he touch it, look at it with love, as he led through a religious procession, the faithful clustering behind, allowing himself a glimpse of the sin of pride at his gorgeous achievement?
Dream on, Henry, dream on, still after all these centuries your name is revered.
Light and serenity
Or did wander into the nave in late afternoon and lose himself in the play of light and stone? Did he think of the priests and the parish folk who had all come before, maybe reminded of their presence by that old Norman font?
Or stand here, surrounded by this prayer in stone and wood and glass, and just be, silently, peacefully, beautifully… as do so many visitors now.
Sometimes history so shivers the soul.