- An old, well built peaceful church
- A very good 13th century font
- Delicious roof bosses
- A magnificent collection of 16th century bench ends, outstanding
- Good floor tiles
- An excellent sequence of wall memorials
- Entrancing stained glass
Westleigh Church of St Peter
An ancient church this, first mentioned in 1280 when ‘Sanctuary’ had been sought in the church of St Meodam in Westleigh. Who Meodam was we have no idea, unless St Modan was meant, a Celtic saint, which around here, with the Celtic St Brannoc’s church over the river in Braunton, makes things very interesting as to the original date of this one.
But there has been so much renovation and rebuilding that all is speculation.
Lovely position, mind you, in a gorgeously peaceful churchyard.
Whilst here, in the south wall of the fourteenth century chancel, is just the simple softly caressing the heart, the original priest’s doorway with mainly renewed windows in the original style, and well pointed stonework.
Though to be fair, originally the stonework would have lime plastered and lime washed, but we will take what we can and this is taken well for sure.
A Very Good Thirteenth Century Font
An Early English font, around the thirteenth century though fashions change slowly down here, as they should.
It is a beauty, a nicely balanced design with those goodly carved series of horizontal and vertical lines which might have been a tad grim if they were not created by curves; an organic nature, whilst still very much a human creation, and a strong yes from me.
Powerful roof bosses
Looking up, the roof bosses seem a mixture, and it is difficult to be sure if they all fifteenth or sixteenth century or some later replacements. I suspect these might be a bit later because of their strict squareness and unadorned nature, but then again there is no certainty at this dating lark.
They are very characterful, which is the whole point for some of us; dates are interesting but beauty is the purpose of these grand structures, or at least part of their purpose.
Here there a couple of definite early roof bosses with a couple of maybes, all coloured later with a restrained hand.
Bench ends to die for
In truth, the VIPs of this church are the sixteenth bench ends and they are magnificent, not only in the quality of the carving but also in the variety; they seem to have caught the transition of the Gothic to the Renaissance.
The above three demonstrate this transition most excellently; the left-hand one is Gothic, with its beautifully twirling foliage, Devon Gothic at that, though already there is a Renaissance influence in the freedom of that leafage. It is also, by the by, stunningly superb.
Then the middle one, the top panel pure Renaissance, the bottom Gothic.
The right-hand comes into play with total Renaissancery, beautifully done, with the top figure… well, that lad seems to have been spent a bit too long tapping the cider barrel and letting his inner idiocy come dancing out for all to see, very elegantly so, I’ll give him that.
Though there is still Devon Gothicry in all them, in the foliage carving around edges, that is a county tradition from long before the new boys arrive in town, clothed or unclothed.
Carvings of the Ascension
Then there are the religious symbols, possibly from somewhat earlier benches because these would very surely be Pre-Reformation, before they were judged as all kinds of wrong.
The Reformation, to be a tad sloppy, was really the watershed where Renaissance carvings really took over the Devon woodwork scene, though the style was present well before.
Christ’s feet these are, with the wounds of the nails clearly visible and the crowns really underlining their ownership, and the Ascension is what they represent. Sometimes in old carvings of that scene the only visible part of yer man is his feet rapidly disappearing up to heaven.
The care taken with the toes though, is not that marvellous, the edge of detail!
Instruments of the Passion
And here are Instruments of the Passion, with the three iron nails of the crucifixion, the spear that pierced Christ’s side and the sponge that delivered him a drink of vinegar while he was on the cross.
On the right is probably the Crown of Thorns hanging from the cross.
Whilst here we are neck deep in Renaissancery, figures possibly from a pattern book, though that does not mean they did not have meaning.
Some experts (which I am not) suggest that these kind of figures, in their Italian birthplace, have origins in local traditions of the ‘genius’ of things, abstract and real; so love and beauty and anger had a genius, and so did wine and mischief and sex. Which sounds terribly pagan, except that there is overlap with the idea of Elemental Powers, all under God, that were often thought doing a similar job.
After all, before the knowledge of how storms come about, to understand them as driven by an Elemental Power is not totally unreasonable, and even now, whilst science says the love is meeting of neutrons and hormones, we do not write love poems about our brain cells being fired up by a sweet eyelid.
And they do make for the most wonderful fun figures, probably well out of context here, though that laddie on the right really surely seems to be the genius of tooth brushing.
Whether the carvers or the commissioners knew them as anything but delightful patterns is a moot point, but surely old leafy head on the right would rhyme with the numerous ‘Green Man’ depictions found scattered around Devon’s churches?
An Alphabet for All?
But there is another type of decoration here: the alphabet.
Usually letters on bench ends are just interpreted as the initials of the owners or renters of the pews, a practise which was common. Often seats were attached to houses and not families; even as late as 1862 a farm was being advertised on a fourteen year let, in the North Devon Journal, with ‘a good Seat in Westleigh Church’.
But this theory seems to evaporate in Westleigh (and can be mighty tenuous in other churches too).
AB could also be just initials, but it’s becoming a less-believable coincidence…. Now I’m convinced. Nobody has the initials XY (apologies if you’re reading this Xavier Yetminster).
AB, BC, CD, OP, QR, ST, and XY have survived, but there are numerous bench ends missing… We can only guess at their purpose. Perhaps they were a literacy-teaching tool, made at a time when we know the ability to read (if not write) was becoming more important to the common people, or perhaps they are just a symptom of an unimaginative mind. Who knows?
Tudor Bench Ends of the West Country blog, Dr E.T. Fox
Though as someone who has dabbled in teaching kids, one way to introduce them to their letters is to put alphabet posters up on the classroom walls, to ensure a constant stimulation and make the alphabet part of their general experience and letters part of the daily lives, not just put away when books are closed.
So maybe not exact teaching as we know it, but a form of habituation, purposeful in some way or another. But then again, as the Dr Fox says, who knows?
The sanctuary is a serious one, with the old Victorian Ten Commandment board sternly gazing over the congregation, and seemingly later woodwork which has left the medieval piscina free to see (on the right) as it should have.
A serious place for serious sins, as if there are any other kind.
Victorian floor tiles
Though the floor tiles in the central chancel sure brighten things up, a very lovely layout.
And then there is this deliciousness.
In 1707 the churchwardens of Westleigh, George Sherman and John Philips, visited over sixty-five properties to collect the church rates, and one of this was John Challacombe at ‘Weech’ who paid £2.6.6. This here memorial was probably his Dad’s, who died in 1681.
A very handsome baroque one too, with that little face right at the top, the fruit and flowers pouring down from the family coat of arms, and the skull and hour glass to keep death at the forefront. The rest rocks too.
The Progression of Fashion
Two more memorial here, from 1734 on the left and 1813 on the right, clearly showing the progression of fashion from that first ornament to stricter Classicism. Art history in a church. It happens. A lot.
Social history too. The dude on the left, William Clevland, seems to have married a fifteen year old lass when he was forty which is all colours of wrong, judging old cultures by our modern standards as it might be. The past could be an extremely ugly place.
But then sentimentality comes roaring into the picture a few years later with this 1849 memorial to another Clevland, a lass weeping under a weeping willow tree (symbolism and subtlety were not bosom buddies in this age, if any to be fair).
The whole is to Augustus Clevland, who survived the Battle of Waterloo and died in a happy old age after inheriting this local estate from his uncle, unlike his son Archibald who has a very interesting window here.
A Stained Glass Memorial
Archie toddled off to war like his Dad had, but sadly it was not a good toddle. He rode in the Charge of the Light Brigade, one of the most famous British military actions, though severely pointless and a complete disaster, and was one of only three officers who survived it unwounded. Sadly he did not survive the battle of Inkerman six weeks later.
The window though is more than a memorial to a soldier, it is a fine and interesting design, not usually seen.
On the left is Samuel anointing David, marking him out as very special and king worthy, and in the middle is Saul arming David with his own personal weapons before David tootles off to slay the giant Goliath. That shepherds crook in the first scene also refers to the Old and New Testament ideal of leadership, which is to protect the flock, compassion and dedication, also a constant metaphor through the Book of Psalms which was traditionally connected to David.
The last panel shows Jesus and the Virgin mourning the death of St Joseph, Jesus’s Dad, and by implication the death of the righteous, with the Garden of Paradise seen in the background.
It is a lovely piece of Victorian stained glass, well thought through and beautifully composed.
More Dandy Glass
Whilst this little detail from another window is a wonder of busy-ness, difficult to make any busier it would seem, festooned with vines and Gothicry, another delightful piece.
The Clevland Hare
And to zip back to that Archibald window, it does have this stupendously brilliant hare against a background of deliciousness. The hare was the coat of arms of his family, thus the design, very nice indeed.
A goodly church
It is an engaging church is Westleigh church, the bench ends especially are worth appreciating for a long time, but it is more than the parts, just as this fine west door is more than the stone and ironwork, the raying arch and the weathered wood; it is a very handsome whole.
From the powerfully elegant thirteenth century font to those very special carvings, that goodly sequence of memorials, the Clevlands commemorating their dead, not forgetting the modern care shown by the parish folk in looking after this treasure, something that takes time, money and, most importantly, deep love.
A fine church finely loved, more praise cannot be said.