- Lovely exterior with old windows
- Good Medieval benchends
- Massive granite Norman font
- Charming 20th century roofbosses
- Fine Medieval rood screen
- Lovely tiles in the chancel
- Striking pulpit
A bit of Broadwoodwidger history
A large, fertile parish in West Devon, well watered and goodly earthed, the wealthiest in the Deanery of Tavistock in 1290-1, Broadwoodwidger, along with the local manor, was willed to Frithelstock Priory by Bishop of Exeter, Walter de Stapeldon, in 1332.
Why? Well, this action gives a little insight into Medieval religion and life. For one thing, to cut a long story short, Walter, along with his brother Richard, was murdered by a mob in London in 1326
“His head was chopped off and his body was thrown onto a dunghill ‘to be torn and devoured by dogs’”
Apparently because Londoners were not impressed with Walter’s boss, Edward II, and truth be told not many other folk were either, though why they took it out on poor old Walter…?
The gift of Broadwoodwidger church, the advowson as it is called, meant that the priors had the right to the tithes (a 10% tax on all production) of the parish and to choose the priest; unsurprisingly, the priest would usually come from the priory and near most of the tithes ended up back there.
In return the Priory had to say a mass every day for the souls of Walter and Richard, and feed 100 poor folk every year on their anniversary.
Walter’s donation allowed the Priory to triple in size, and as priories helped the sick and destitute, offered shelter to travellers, and cared for souls, this was a win win in many eyes.
Broadwoodwidger church and parish
The church has been around for a bit, dating from the twelfth century (the bottom part of the tower and font), through the thirteenth (nave and chancel), fourteenth (north transept and south chapel) and late fifteenth or early sixteenth (south aisle and chancel). The nineteenth century saw a careful renovation and the twentieth a new roof.
More importantly folk carried on caring for each other from this church, the centre of the community. Long before national education, in 1821 when children of all ages were working long hours in factories and mills, often with no pay, suffering horrific dangers, abuse and constant injuries, Broadwoodwidger had a free school set up by the priest and public subscription.
That surely is a fine thing.
The church building
On the north side are these stunning windows, beauties through and through. The left hand one is thirteenth century Early English, a triple lancet as they say, and the right hand one is late fourteenth century, Perpendicular style.
Just think of all they have seen in their lives, the joys and sorrows, the secrets and gossip…
The porch has a fine south face, well-laid large granite blocks, with a clean-lined doorway, really very good, almost starkly modern in its design. This is the work of a master.
Sweetly enough, the sides of the porch are rubble stone, much cheaper and of no great style, so this face was the one that folk were meant to see as they climbed the path from the South. It was an entrance fit for a wealthy man’s new country house and this was likely the sensibility it was aiming for. Ten to one it was organised and paid for by a local big boy too.
Medieval benchends in Broadwoodwidger
… these medieval benchends bring their game face to the party. The centuries haven’t been kind to them, damp rotting their bottoms and stealthing upwards; floors were beaten clay covered in rushes or straw until the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, and these babies have been strutting their stuff since at least 1529. We can be so exact because one of the benchends has that date on it.
They are a fine collection, showing an interesting mix of traditional North-West Devon style and slightly more modern Renaissance carvings.
Here we can compare the two, the left hand is the more traditional, showing the Eucharist, the Host on a platter and a jug of holy wine, and the right hand is later sixteenth century.
But both have the gothic backgrounds and surrounding edges, a connection to the deep past.
Here some of the more traditional decorations pleasure our senses; those hands, and especially the sleeves are delicious, they bring a touch of real life into the scene.
On the left are two of the nails used to crucify Jesus, and on the right the three nails and the cross, both signs of a deep and lasting commitment to the faith.
These were to meditate on, to travel on an imagined journey with Christ as he treads the path to Crucifixion and suffers the abuse and pain that folk identified with, that they understood his humanity through.
The Renaissance style here is quite a change, one question being if they were made at the same time as the Instruments of the Passion that we have just seen.
Take a look at the right hand one, the punch marks (called ‘stippling’) on the shields. They are the same punch marks as on the previous set, so either they were made simultaneously or come from the same workshop separated by few years.
The one on the left seems to come from a different hand altogether.
Best guess is that these were made after the previous benches, when the Reformation was in full flow and religious images were deeply frowned upon. Benches were often made over a period of years; seating out the whole church in one go could be mighty expensive.
The Norman font is a massive piece, hollowed out from one block of granite; moving it alone must have taken a few strong lads, and as for the carving…in granite, one of the hardest stones to carve.
A powerful statement of power and wealth by the Norman overlord, in a kind of ‘all your babies belong to me’ way.
Freedom was a long way off.
Yet another delight of this church is the light, streaming in through the south windows perched halfway up a south-facing hillside; the view over the valley is magnificent.
Sitting awhile, catch the sun beam though the windows, slowly brush across the pews, breathe illumination into your mind… now there is a pastime for peace in our lives.
The kind of peace that these charming joys bring, carved when the roof was renewed in 1966. A snapshot of life and faith in recent times, though it seems another world, with nature and technology both having the magic of the Divine.
Personally, I see it as an elegy too, not many folk nowadays have their own ecstasy on a hill in nowhere, stand in a field and cry because of the wonder, share with the wild… or bring that same awe to modern life… then again, the only constant is change.
They are heavenly though…
The beautiful rood screen
Just as the old rood screen is too. Deceptively simple, browned through age and layers of varnish brushed on for preservation, it stands beautifully, battered and bruised but filling the air with echoes of a past of deep faith and elaborate ritual.
Broadwoodwidger might not have been so lucky as to have a priest like Chaucer’s paragon of virtue…
He practiced first what later he would teach.
… To draw up folk to heaven by goodness
And good example, was his sole business.
But as Frithelstock Priory was so involved in the running of the place he would likely have been able to read and understand the Latin that he was using, all services being in that language.
He would have celebrated mass every day, or at least every other day, along with a multitude of other services throughout the day, taken confession once a year, celebrated a marriage mass for the better off, baptised, looked after the poor and sick, administered last rites, conducted funerals, along with generally looking after the parish as well as growing his own food. He was a busy man.
Hopefully he had time to ponder on these exquisite carvings, filling in the spaces on the rood screen where the original vaulting that supported the rood loft used to be.They seem to belong to the screen, but difficult to be sure.
Check, if you will, the background stippling which highlights the figures, and then the masterful patterning on the bird. These are works of craft and skill, of art, of beauty…
The south chapel
In the south chapel is this strange being, the mutilated effigy of a knight being shoved into a niche where he most certainly does not belong. Hopefully the lad was mutilated before being slid into this, and not cut to fit; poor fella probably had enough violence in his life without this final indignity.
The tomb he is resting on (probably a deal earlier than himself) is another matter entirely. Along the front, nestling under arches, is a row of folk in clerical garb, representing mourners or maybe even the twelve apostles. Their faces have been hacked off, something to do with the Reformation no doubt, but we can still get the sense of how it would have looked, and it would have been a chest tomb for quite the high flier…a Prior of Frithelstock?
If it was the tomb of local family man, we would expect some coats of arms on it, even just shields if the paint was lost. Still, this not an exact science, and traditionally the chapel has been associated with the local Upcott family.
But here is the thing, the south chapel is earlier than the south aisle, and may have been a fourteenth century chantry chapel (a chapel dedicated to prayers and masses for an individual or family, who set up a fund to pay for this forever), so is this the tomb of the original chantry inhabitant? A nice speculation.
A George IV coat of arms
Always worth looking out for these royal coats of arms too, every church tended to display one as the monarch is the head of the Church of England. This one is a good, dynamic example, for George IV, and cost 5 pounds 15 shillings in 1822.
It would originally have been placed on the chancel arch where the crucifixion scene (the rood) would have been before the Reformation.
The British monarchy taking the place of Christ, now there’s a thing… Especially as one of his courtiers said of Georgie:
“A more contemptible, cowardly, selfish, unfeeling dog does not exist … There have been good and wise kings but not many of them … and this I believe to be one of the worst.”
And whose breakfast, according to the Duke of Wellington consisted of:
“a Pidgeon and Beef Steak Pye…Three parts of a bottle of Mozelle, a Glass of Dry Champagne, two Glasses of Port [and] a Glass of Brandy, followed by a large dose of laudanum.”
With that kind of starter pack, Jesus could have fed the 20,000… and got them legless into the bargain…
The care of the parish
But “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” as the man said, and ultimately this here church is about the care of souls in the parish, and the following of the path of Christ down the generations.
And truly so, for here are some panels from the dignified pulpit, carved by John Northcott of neighbouring Ashwater in 1901. It is a beautiful piece, heritage and faith seeping from every pore, the Instruments of the Passion as on the benchends and superbly masterful gothic foliage, crisply cut by master woodcarver who knew the old ways.
The ghosts of the Norman priests, the Frithelstock priors, the Tudor masons, the old wood carvers, the eighteenth century parsons, the Victorian renovators, not forgetting the countless parishioners, all of them cluster around giving deep nods of approval and point up to the modern roofbosses with smiles of satisfaction…
For one thing they know for sure…
This church, this parish, the local folk, all still being cared for…