St Mary the Virgin, Bratton Clovelly

Church History



THE DEDICATION of the church is ascribed to St. Mary the Virgin, however, a church with such an old foundation as this one may well have been dedicated to a Saint of the British Church, especially as Brattonne or Bracton was in the region of the British Church. For example the church in nearby Bridestowe is dedicated to St Bridget.

Thesaurus Ecclesiaticus’ of 1782 records that during the reign of Edward III (1327 - 1377), Thomas de Somerton held Brattonne, Combe, Gonaescott and Bratton St. Mary, the latter may have been where the church stands, hence the name of St Mary the Virgin without an actual dedication.

THE DOORSTEP is probably the oldest part of the church, it is an old menhim or memorial stone. Originally the menhim would have stood erect; it has Roman characters at one end. Normally these stones are much longer; this one has been broken and may have been associated with the ancient British Church.
If an OLD CHURCH existed it was probably sited some 25 feet to the south of the porch where there is a mound in the churchyard. Graves have prevented further investigation.

- The history of the church can be seen in the architecture. The bases of the columns are believed to be the remains of a Norman Church, cut away and squared to support the clustered columns. The unfinished levelling of the base at the north west end of the arcade supports this view. It may have been the intention to make the top of the square bases the floor level. Note the difference in height between the north door (now blocked) and the south door serving the present lower floor level of the original chancel floor. The new floor level idea was probably dropped when the plans to build a cruciform church were abandoned.

THE FONT AND THE TOWER both belong to a Norman church, authorities vary in the dating of the tower, one says it is Early English, another that it is wholly Norman. The latter is more likely as there is a very strong Saxon influence in the tower finish and the unique bases.

The font is Norman, made of Tintagel stone, square with masks at the corners ornamented at each side with a sun enclosed in a circle around which two dragons are clasped, their heads meeting at the top. (A replica of the font may be seen at Jacobstowe in Cornwall). There is one suggestion that the stone to make the font came from Normandy - France. Further evidence of the Norman church may be seen in the masks at the apexes of the windows on the north side both inside and outside. The question has been posed: “were these saved from the Norman church or are they 15th Century folk art?

CHANCEL & VESTRY note the lancet windows. The chancel, vestry and possibly the north aisle are Early English (1189 – 1272), these may have been added while the Norman building was intact, and the vestry used as a chapel.

In the 14th Century the patronage of the church was in the hands of Plympton Priory and probably in a state of poor repair. In 1335 the patronage passed to the great builder of churches, Bishop Grandisson of Exeter. It is probable that a large cruciform church was planned, the present nave, with one more bay to form a choir and a corresponding nave to the west of the tower. On the north side of the tower it is possible to see an arch now built in.

The existence of these three arches has led historians to believe that a fourth arch with the appropriate wing was in the design, also note the make shift buttresses at the face of the tower and the absence of a west door. The Newel Turret at the southwest corner is also thought to have been a part of that same plan, necessary for access to reach the upper part of the tower. (Stairways like these give great strength to large structures.)

The great plan was never carried out and we are left with the beautiful church of today with its original chancel. It may seem strange to have planned such a large church in such a remote area of Devon; Bratton Clovelly was on the main pack horse routes west to east and south to north, a crossroads village of great importance. The number of chapels in the parish also points to the importance of the community, in 1411 Stephen Anteswell, rector received a licence to celebrate in the four chapels of St James at Bonsleghe (Boasley?), St Margaret at Godescote,St Katherine and the chapel of St Anne & St Stephen at Domons, the old rectory in the parish.

The nave is unusual for a Devonshire church, the clustered columns of olyphant stone are similar in design to those of Exeter Cathedral suggesting the influence of the same builders, 1375. All but two of the bosses in the nave were replaced in 1897.
Most of the screen was removed in 1820, the only part remaining is to the right of the entrance to the chancel. The rood loft stairs are still in place and a squint allows the congregation to see the altar from the nave. A gallery was erected in 1820 and removed in 1874.

THE GLASS - The oldest glass is in the church in the vestry. It was removed from the southeast window by Rector Birdwood 1816 – 1846 and placed in the east window, moved again in 1886 to the vestry. The glass bears the arms of Burnby, the original position of the glass in the south east corner of the nave, where there was a chapel (note the overhead canopy and piscina) suggests that the Burnby’s had some share in the building. The historian Risdon wrote, ‘Burnby hath been the dwelling place of the Burnbey’s many generations a name extracted even from the line of the English Saxon Nation and who are allied to the worshipful families’. The choir Stalls hide a memorial slab to Thomas Buneby and the lectern a stone to Richard Burnby 1603. The smaller window in the vestry depicts the arms of Kelly. The modern glass in the church is by Lavers and Westlake and was given by Mrs Elizabeth Manning between 1883 – 1892.

MRS ELIZABETH MANNING was very generous in her giving to the church. She gave, the glass in the chancel and the nave, the alabaster Reredos, the Connemara marble paving, the carved oak pews crafted by John Northcott of Ashwater, the font cover 1875, the pulpit 1885, the church clock 1895 and paid for the rehanging of the bells in 1900.

THE SOUTH PORCH dates from 1375, the same date as the cluster columns and is Late Decorated or Early Perpendicular in style. The roof, original, is open timbered with carved beams and bosses. The porch was rebuilt in 1870 after falling down. The old oak door and ancient lock are of unknown date.
THE NORTH DOOR was blocked in 1880. A list of clergy who have served in the parish now hangs there. The Revd R S Hawkins of Morwenstowe said that the north doors were opened at baptisms so that the Evil One might depart, the door was then closed until the next baptism.

THE FLOOR OF THE CHURCH slopes downwards from west to east and when the church history was originally written older residents could remember the slope ending in steps down to the altar. Sampford Courtney church had a similar arrangement. The church slopes to the south when looked at from the west, this may be interpreted as symbolic of the inclination of our Lord’s head as he hung on the cross, or did the builders follow the natural levels of the ground?

THE PARISH STOCKS are kept in the church porch and are inscribed ‘Fear God, Honour the King’.

THE ALTAR PLATE which includes a very fine flagon inscribed ‘Ex dono Dominae. Honoris Calmady Aclesiae de Bratton Clovelly 1639’ is now kept in a local bank. There is a silver chalice 1552 and paten 1704.

THE PARISH REGISTERS date from 1555 when it was made compulsory to keep them, the registers that are not in use are kept in the Devon Records Office.

THE BELLS were cast in 1767 by Penningtons, the peal of six are still on brass bearings in an oak frame and were rehung in 1900, a chime was installed at the same time.


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