- A justly famous medieval church in a very pretty village
- An old tower and old spire
- An absolutely stunning 16th century rood screen
- A very good East Window of the Last Supper
- Fascinating roof bosses and stone carving
- A late 15th century stone pulpit carved with saints and glorious foliage
- Medieval bench ends to die for
- A 16th century font Renaissance cover like nothing else in the country
- These and more make the church a marvel to visit
Swimbridge Church of St James
Saewin the priest had the chapel here in 1086, as well as the local manor; unusually so, as very few Anglo-Saxon priests survived the Norman Conquest, partly because of the Norman’s ultimate nastiness, and partly because they were wanting to make the whole country formally Roman Catholic.
Beforehand there was no Roman Catholic Church, only the Catholic Church, run from a number of centres including Rome and Constantinople, with strong links to the latter here in the South-West, trading with the Eastern Mediterranean as it did. The Romans and the rest had only formally split thirty-two years beforehand, unlikely this news had reached here to any degree.
The first bridge over the little river was likely connected to Saewin, and so the village became ‘Saewin’s Bridge’ or Swimbridge. I so wish that he could see the church now.
Outside it is a beautiful little structure, with that cracking tower and spire, seemingly half buried in the churchyard. Due likely enough to the level of the churchyard rising over the centuries as the parishioners were buried in it.
The tower and spire are beauties, the tower from the 1200s while the spire woodwork has been dated to around 1310. The lead was renewed in 1892, but it seems to have been the original metal re-used. It sure is graceful.
The rest of the church was rebuilt in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the inside… well, the inside is pure magic.
The Swimbridge rood screen
Let us start with the rood screen, every square inch covered in intricacy and imagination. Superb.
That rectangular opening on the left? Well, this one seems to be a later addition, early twentieth century, and it was likely inserted to balance out an original further to the left. And it is all about the lectern.
Pre-Reformation, all the bible readings took place in the chancel as opposed to today, where the lectern sits at the east end of the nave. So the opening over the left was where the readings took place.
Careful scrutiny of old rood screens… occasionally show similar treatment up and down the country… There are those living who can recollect this being the arrangement… on the screen of Holdenby, Northamptonshire
Pulpits, Lecterns, and Organs in English churches: J. C. Cox (1915)
Personally I reckon it was a gorgeous design choice, others claim it was about hearing clearly or saving on buying a lectern; surely, though, that is it to ignore the attention and value the parish folk placed on these enchanting works of art.
The screen was built by a workshop who made at least five other screens around Devon, probably more. We know this because the techniques match up across all the screens.
The magnificent rood screen panels
There is not a single religious symbol on the screen, and no room to paint any; here, on the wainscoting, where traditionally pictures of holy folk would go, there is only magnificent carving.
And oh boy, is it good.
Not only every panel is different, but every detail too. These folks painted in wood. Truly masterly so.
The date was aroundabout 1540, when the Reformation had started grinding its gears and religious imagery was being looked at askance, at the very least, hence the lack of saints.
But it is also the time of the Renaissance in Northern Italy, and there is influence here. This is Gothic carving for sure, but it is bigger, more flowing than earlier carvings in Devon; it is inventive, looking for new forms and styles and succeeding mighty well.
Though to be fair these deeply entanglements of lilies, vines, berries and pomegranates are pure, undiluted Devon Gothic and totally the better for it. Just staring at it turns into a meditation on the Divine Creation, the mystery of the Eucharist (the grapes for the wine), the Virgin Mary (lily), the fruits of the spirit (berries) and the church (pomegranates).
Dividing the wider bits are palm leaves for the victory of the spirit and more berries.
And of course, back in the day, all would have been gilded and painted. What a sight!
And no paper design, no computer, no calculator involved in the making, just the intricacies flowing from the joiners’ hands in a paean to beauty and graciousness down through the centuries.
Popping into the chancel there is a good alabaster altar back (reredos) and there is this, the East Window.
A stained glass Last Supper
The Last Supper, Christ centre left with his disciples around the table, but somewhat unusually Christ is not taking centre stage here, the focus is on the bad lad in the foreground centre right.
Judas in deep trouble
And what a focus! This is a man crumbling before our very eyes, a man who has made a choice that is killing him, and will kill him. Because there are two deaths after the Last Supper, and one leads to Salvation and Eternal Life, and the other, well the other does not.
Then Judas, the one who betrayed him, seeing that he had been condemned, changed his heart and returned the thirty silver pieces to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said , “What is it to us? You will see to it.” And flinging the pieces into the sanctuary he withdrew, and going away he hanged himself.
Matthew 27:3-5 Trans. David Bentley Hart
So Judas dies away from the Divine, tortured and repentant, and I venture we can see the start of this pain here, powerfully painted in glass.
Though I also venture Judas received infinite forgiveness and everlasting love, just because that is the way the Divine rolls; my take only though.
Clergy at work
Mind you, Judas could have taken a leaf or two from this monk’s book, a roof boss in the north chapel; I’m not sure whether he has caught the demon by the tongue or is giving him a good biff in the hooter.
Whichever it is, he is definitely demonstrating a technique for dealing with temptation. It is a fun piece, maybe illustrating a local folk tale.
Doing his job again
Whilst this pure boy on a pillar capital in the nave is either sprinkling the church folk with holy water or wafting incense about.
He is probably an acolyte, the highest of the four ‘minor orders’ of the clergy back then, and the last step before fully committing to the priestly path; afterwards came sub-deacon, deacon and then priest.
The thing is, for all its faults as a human institution, the church did offer a potential path out of peasanthood for the right boys and girls, though the boys had it better; girls could only be nuns.
Study and more study could get them to priesthood. It happened, not a huge amount but it did happen.
The gorgeous medieval pulpit in Swimbridge
Back to the intricate carving with this limestone pulpit from around 1490; it is a marvellous beast with saints in the niches, little arches above them sprouting into foliage, grapes scrolling up the sides angels supporting the whole beneath. Fully coloured and gilded and it must have been a beaut.
The whole just whispers ‘importance’ and truly so, as pulpits were coming into their own in the fifteenth century, near most every church had one in Devon. Why in 1529 John Lane from Cullompton (in Devon) left money to a hundred nearby parish churches to ‘pray for me in their pulpits’.
Carved saints in the pulpit
Only the best have survived, and the Devon ones are stunners, this one very much so. All that creativity, carving from blocks of limestone then the painstaking colouring, wondrous.
Here two saints are supporting the words of the preacher.
And with regular sermons and fancy pulpits came fixed benches for everyone; before this folk stood, sat or knelt on the rush-covered earthen floor, or brought their own stools or ‘settles’ (basically boards on trestle legs, easily disassembled); there were sometimes stone benches against the walls of the church as well.
Gorgeous sixteenth century bench ends
So the bench ends here are yet more fancy work, well welcomed too, and well repaired in the nineteenth century; we can see the different coloured wood. Whole new ones were carved too, to match the older.
Benches were not automatically put in when the new pulpit was installed; more money had to be raised after that large expense. Whether informal seating was supplied in greater quantity we do not know.
These bench ends seem later than the pulpit, with again no religious imagery so probably coming up to the Reformation or a tad after the start.
Beautiful work too, once again taking gothic motifs which we find on earlier wood and stone carving and really bigging them up, flowing all over the wood.
The astounding font cover
So there is also this stupendous marvel, so rare that maybe there is probably no other like it in the country; rarity does not mean greatness though, but in this case greatness just sits and preens.
It is a font cover, inside is the lead lined font and those blank panels half way up open to reveal the dunking spot. It is around 1540 like the screen, maybe made by the rood screen artists, maybe not, but it certainly could have been, and it is pure Early Renaissance.
Renaissance carving on the font cover
All these are just so much fun, and I bet the carvers thought so too. This change from Gothic to Renaissance, did they just shrug their shoulders and get on with things or did they thrill with the discovery of new curls and twirls and the permission to be let loose with them?
And those face, with leaf beards and hair, who are they? Well, possibly just patterns from a pattern book or similar, but possibly Elemental Powers, which folk accepted as true to a great extent. Whether they saw them as ideas or truly real is anybody’s guess, they were similar to faeries though probably not as much fun.
And of course they came from Italy, the heart of the Renaissance. That must have been thrilling for a start.
But this whole font cover is wreathed in them, and they are truly extraordinary.
A playful spirit
This marvel really sums it all up. Not an angel, even with the wings, she is almost a traditional faery, wearing a skirt of leaves, but look at her right hand; she is holding it up and a flower is blossoming from it with two leaves either side.
Similar to the leaf beards, these folk are not little humans, with their flowers and leaves and foliage sprouting from their bodies’ they seem to be very much spirits of Nature, of the Elements.
That is not to say they are anything to with paganism, they are not. They are just beautiful editions of what many folk accepted existed in God’s domain; they were creatures of God too.
A leafy lad.
Or this sweetie bursting forth from foliage, or vice versa, with such joie de vivre; it even has leafy hair it looks like.
I venture down here they would have been deeply identified with Puck, faeries and sprites, age-old local folklore. After all, the southwestern ‘pixy’ is just a form of ‘puck’ and even Shakespeare wrote about them in Midsummer’s Dream.
And all this magic around a font, so very brilliant that.
Meditating in stone
After all this, sitting down with nice pint of cider seems just the ticket, and looking at this gent’s face (Tristam Chichester is his name) it seems he has been doing that for nearly four hundred years, since 1654 to be precise.
Sadly no cider, it is a book (or so they say, but I still vote cider, just because), and he seems to be meditating on the Divine surrounded by angels. Brilliant memorial though, even without a heart starter.
It is a powerful church this, so full of wondrous creativity, and marvellous intricacy; there is so much more to see and love than I have shown here. More roof bosses, tiles, stained glass, and of course more and more detail on the font cover, rood screen and bench ends.
And then the chance to sit and absorb it all, just like our friend Tristram above; to be fair, four hundred years seems just about the right amount of time to really start noticing every sinuous strand of beauty here.
Which is real, true magic in itself.