- A near unaltered 14th century structure
- The interior is beautifully kept
- A fascinating range of memorials from the 14th century to the 19th
- A 14th century stone knight
- A stupendous 18th century monument by John Bacon the Elder, the ‘Father of British Sculpture’
- Another 19th century marble magnificent by Peter Rouw the Younger
- A very sweet chancel space
- All in all, a rural treasure with museum quality art still in its context
Widworthy at war
Bravery comes in many a form, and being prepared to die for your friends is surely one of them.
Here in Widworthy, just uphill from the church, a few broken ventilation pipes, remnants of a dugout, remembering the courage of a couple of parish folk, Rev Frederick Coplestone and Stanley Lawrence who operated a top secret radio station from here.
They were part of the Special Duty Branch, Churchill’s Secret Army as it became known, who were trained to ferret out intelligence… troop movements, unit identifications, high-ranking officers… in the event of a Nazi invasion. They were to radio back this information from their ‘Out Station’ to a central point.
And an invasion was well expected, and as news filtered out of occupied Europe, they knew the savagery that would have come with that. In truth, the members of this Secret Army were not expected to last very long, there was another organisation for longer term resistance.
A simple thing, a minor thing even in the grand history of war and peace, but these folk and many another knew they were risking their lives and their families for the greater good.
Death was not the worst that could happen.
Widworthy Church of St Cuthbert
And death is what this church is about, which sounds awful gloomy, but it is also about death not being the worse thing that can happen.
‘But is not every church about that to some extent, DevonChurchLand?’ I hear folk ask. Ah, yes, fair point, salvation and the everlasting love of the Divine, all that booty bag of goodies I agree. But there are some extra strong goodies inside. Bear with me, please.
The church itself is a sweetie too. Built mainly from local stone and flint rubble, it is a delight to see the flint, a stone we only find in East Devon.
It is also pretty much unaltered fourteenth century, apart from new windows and a few, very few, bits and bobs; The porch is sixteenth century, that little lean to shed thing in the photo above is the nineteenth century vestry, but the rest fourteenth… so very rare in Devon, which rebuilt nearly all its churches in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries.
Great stone, great structure, great position… things are really looking up.
The west door
This version of Widworthy church was built by the three daughters of Sir William Prouz, who died in 1329 and left them all his wealth. The least they could do was to build him a nice church; all that lovely stonework around the west door is fine stuff, and the three shields of the daughters are placed above it.
The church is very much an estate church, built by local landowner and cared for by them even when the families changed.
Here on the south door is the old main entrance, now covered by the sixteenth century porch. That hood mould, the curved stone above the door, is similar to the one on the west door in the previous photo; their point was to keep the water that ran down the walls off the door (or window).
The door looks ageless. Impossible to say its age under the thick layers of paint. It would be wonderful if it was original, but…
But why add a porch in the sixteenth century? It so was not for shaking the water of the umbrellas. To cut a long story short, porches became important as folks found their freedom, and the parishioners took over more control of the care of the nave.
They used the porch to make contracts, for discussions and business, for the first part of the funeral service and to get married, with maybe the priest giving a blessing but not necessarily.
There was a marriage mass inside the church for afterwards, but not everybody arranged that. It was really for the wealthier families.
Plus it was accepted that porches were for the use of the poor and destitute; the church was likely kept locked but the porch always open.
A long story cut short, mind you.
Inside Widworthy church
Inside the church is neat as a pin, cleanly painted and goodly ordered. A white, calming space, more common in East Devon than the granite churches of the rest of the county.
The plastered roof, another rarity…
“The old roof being decayed, a new roof, covered with slate, was erected in 1785 and neatly plastered within, with a handsome cornice…
On removing the plaster then the church was lately new-roofed, the walls appeared to have been painted throughout.”
John Tucker, Gentleman’s Magazine, 1791
Likely enough this church had a thatched roof, or even oak shingles, up until 1785, and as for the painted walls… what wonders there must have been!
The neatness carries on into the chancel and a beguilingly simple sanctuary, a place really to be at peace in. Those splashes of colour just enhance the clarity of the structure.
A very fine effigy of a knight
And so to death, as promised, though it surely is not me to make the Grim Reaper inevitable.
It is a fine effigy, possibly of Sir William Prouz, who came from Gidleigh deep in Dartmoor, or his son Sir Hugh. This kind of effigy was the main man in the fourteenth century, and would have been painted with various coats of arms showing just how well connected the weaponed up lad was… not that any of his mates could help now, of course.
Supported by angels, with a lion at his feet, Sir Somebody Somebody really makes a mighty big noise here.
It is a fine piece of carving, and likely enough there was a dedicated altar in the church where a priest would say a daily mass for his soul; there would have been money involved, for sure.
But whilst the church would accept donations to say masses, it was not stupid; it knew the kinds of shenanigans that the powerful could get up to. Why, back in 1240 Bishop Quinel of Exeter wrote of the sins waiting to pounce, talking about Pride in particular:
‘Nobility is also a source, if one is born of a great family… Pride also finds a source in temporal possessions, often a man takes pride in having great wealth or rich clothes, house, lands, a large income, or many vassals or servants, or fine horses, or when he outranks others in his temporal possessions”
Summula confessionis of Bishop Quinel, 1287
And that was just the Bish on the first deadly sin; the big folk didn’t get off lightly on the others either.
A golden seventeenth century memorial
Jumping forward to 1685, this is a very different memorial. It is to a non-noble for one thing, somebody Sir Somebody Somebody would have barely acknowledged, and it is somewhat sentimental in a good way.
Alice Isack sadly died after three of her children, and this was now important. Even more noticeable, this is to a woman, a wife, and the husband’s death is not mentioned.
Somehow I can hear a whole series of harrumphs coming from the 1300s.
Sweet too, with these delicious angels playing at the top of the memorial, hopefully throwing shade at that harrumphing effigy.
And whilst there is a coat of arms on this structure, the inscription takes pride of place. This is about the individual first, social connections second.
A theatrical eighteenth century beauty
Jumping ahead once again to around 1748 the style has changed again, and there is a very theatrical presentation of the now faded inscription, with drawn-back curtains and a couple of angels up the top as Masters of Ceremonies.
It is a memorial to three brothers from the local estate, James, Benedictus and Thomas Marwood, ‘Eminent for honesty, piety and good economy’ apparently. So whilst the Isack memorial was about the individual, this one takes things a step further by bigging up the individuals as well, praising their virtues.
Indeed one of the brothers gave a hundred pounds to support a parish schoolmaster, which was big money back then.
A stupendous memorial by John Bacon the Elder
In the north transept is this stupendous Baroque awesomeness. It is work of the finest quality, from around 1767, and shows a massive jump in style between this and the previous memorial of only about twenty years earlier.
That is because the sculptor was John Bacon the Elder from London, reckoned the founder of the British School of sculpture, with work in Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral for a start.
Oh, and Widworthy Parish Church. A wonder indeed.
On the left is Justice, on the right is Benevolence, both nearly life size…
It is executed by that celebrated statuary Bacon, and in is in his happiest style.
The delicacy and expression of their countenances, attitude and drapery, and the harmony and just proportion of the whole, rank it with the first performance of its artist…
Rev John Tucker, 1791, Gentleman’s Magazine
‘In his happiest style’, I can go with that
A Pelican in her Piety
And in the basket of Benevolence is a Pelican in her Piety. Oh, I do so love this one.
Far be it from me to get into a Bacon face-off with Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s, but really there is nothing to compete over. This is better. Promise.
Also here we can see the start of the deep sentimentality, which when done well is heaven.
Let us see how well done it can be.
A charm of a memorial
This one to Sarah Marwood who died in 1797 is another delight. The sculptor is mighty talented, though sadly I do not know the name.
Curvaceous seems the name of the game here, both with the lady and the accompanying figures seemingly comforting her. The bodies are goodly dynamic here, along with the flowing material, the lady’s face does not quite cut the mustard for me, but what do I know?
That grey background brings out the white marble details most excellently though. A sculptor would have to be at the tippety top of their game to get away with white marble on a white background.
Beautiful sculpture by Peter Rouw the Younger
And here Peter Rouw the Younger does exactly that in spades.
He was, and is, a deeply famous sculptor who did a lot of medallion portraits as well as large church monuments, and is known for ‘capturing the essence of a person without sacrificing accuracy’.
A medallion portrait by Peter Rouw the Younger
As here, with James Thomas Benedictus Marwood, who died aged 65 in 1811, who…
He matriculated at Queen’s College, Oxford in 1764, went on the grand tour, came down with a terrible fever, and lapsed into insanity. For more than half of his life he was formally classified as a lunatic. When he died, his staggering wealth passed to the sisters we see in the monument.
John Marwood, descendant, via email
It is a very fine portrait, very fine indeed, showing a very gentle man, and the three sisters grieving are more sentimental than the previous marble monument.
After all, we are about to enter full deep Victorian sentimentality in a few years.
Tenderness in stone
But just look at the position of those arms, tenderly holding the weeping lady, and that face, and the drape of the cloth. There is an impression of reserved tenderness here, brought out by the masterful hair styles; no wild passion, but deep rumbles of pity and grief.
And all through this church, with its monuments to the dead, runs grief and mourning, but there is far more too. Far, far more.
If these were in a museum, their art would be well appreciated but their meaning forgotten.
Because they are in a church, they belong to all; their meaning is for all who have lost and who mourn. Their presence says that others are here, grieving, we are in this together, we are not alone.
And here they are for everybody, Christians and others, a source of comfort. A place to sit and discover ease and understandings.
That is one context, but it is also a place of faith, so these memorials arguably need to be seen in a deeper context as well.
The clue to this is here…
And death is not the end
The little East Window, showing that God also experienced the pain and suffering of human life, probably the only religion that makes that claim.
Basically the window, along with the church, says that Christ has our back and we too can be resurrected, can rise from the tomb of our despair through the man himself.
When I go from this life, let me go in peace
I don’t want your marble at my head and feet
Don’t gather around me oh just to weep and moan
Where that I’m going I won’t be alone
My Epitaph, Traditional, Ola Belle Reed
This is context; the meaning of the memorials here are entwined with the religion of the church.
And the religion of the church, Christianity, offers a path through grief, starting from these monuments.
It might work for folk or it might not, but I venture the framing of meaning within meaning can deepen our love and understanding for these wonderful memorials in this tiny old church deep in country Devon.