Churchyard and wayside crosses in the neighbourhood of Exeter (1915)


Author(s): Cresswell. Miss B. F. Origin: DA Transactions
Topic(s): crosses Year published: 1915
Location(s): Exeter Pages: 188-193
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By Miss Beatrix F. Cresswell.

(Read at Exeter, 21st July, 1915.)

The crosses of Dartmoor and its borderland have been carefully recorded by Mr. William Crossing, but no attempt has been made to collect information respecting the churchyard and wayside crosses throughout the rest of the county, which are more numerous than most people are aware of.

One reason for this may be the fragmentary condition of these relics, many of which are now but broken shafts, imperfect heads, or bases from which the cross is missing.

Another cause can be found in the fact that, with a few exceptions, they are all exactly alike. Plain Latin crosses with octagonal limbs, chamfered at the edges, spurred at the bottom, and standing upon octagonal bases with boldly spurred corners, they present none of the variety of form and ornament which has drawn so much attention to the crosses of Cornwall.


Alphington Cross, familiar to many from its conspicuous position at the roadside between St. Thomas, Ide and Alphington, is one of the finest and best preserved of our wayside crosses, and a good example of the above-mentioned characteristics. It is of granite, as are most of the others, the shaft and limbs octagonal, and at the top a small cross is incised in the centre between the head and arms.

It is sunk into its original base, which is placed upon granite steps. Closer inspection reveals that the top has been broken off and replaced. The breakage was the effect of a cart being driven against it in 1830, at which date the cross stood out on the road. The Rev. Richard Ellicombe, rector of Alphington, had it repaired, and put further back towards the hedge. The steps on which it is now elevated were a later addition.

Height, 6 ft. 6 in. Across arms, 2 ft. 2 in.


In the parish of St. Thomas, built against a house near Cowick Street Post Office, is a most curious cross. It is but a stumpy fragment, which must have been higher. The remarkable feature of this cross is that the top forms a double Tau Cross, or cross potent. Looking at it sideways it will be perceived that these double arms are cut in a single stone, one rather shorter than the other.

Total height, 3 ft. 8 in. Shaft to arms, 2 ft. 2 in.
Arms, 6 in. deep. Width of lower cross-bar, 16 in.
Width across the top, 15 in.


Little John’s Cross stands in St. Thomas parish at the top of the hill where the roads fork for Ide and Longdown. Originally it was against the hedge by the roadside, but has been placed inside a garden wall for safety. The situation is not a very happy one; the head of the cross peers over the wall, which is so close to it that it is impossible to get either a good drawing or photograph.

Some preservation was however necessary, for the cross has been broken in three pieces and repaired. It stands on the old base, three feet above which the shaft has been broken off, and the top is entirely new. In the “good old times” before railways or motor-cars were invented, the Judges on quitting Exeter for the Cornish Assizes were escorted in their coach by the Sheriff’s Javelin men as far as Little John’s Cross, where they turned off for the Okehampton Road on their way to Bodmin.

Height, 6 ft. 2 in. Across arms, 2 ft. 2 in.


At Holcombe Burnel, three miles farther on, the shaft of the churchyard cross remains built against a ledge bordering the south wall of the graveyard, just as Dr. Oliver described it about 1840. No base remains.

Length of shaft, 5 ft.


St. Eloyes’ Cross at Wonford, Heavitree, formerly stood at the east end of the ruined chapel of St. Eloyes, as is shown by the illustration in Oliver’s Ecclesiastical Antiquities. It is now in the garden of St. Loyes house, where, by the kind permission of Mrs. Donald, I examined and measured it. Its appearance leads one to suspect that it was originally higher, unless indeed the shaft and head do not belong to one another. The head is disproportionately large for the height of the shaft, upon which it is awkwardly balanced, with bits of slate to keep it steady. On each side of the centre of the head a niche is cut 9 × 4 inches, large enough to hold a small wooden image. The cross is deeply sunk into the base, so that the spurred corners of the shaft are nearly hidden.

Height, 6 ft. 3 in. Across arms, 2 ft. 2 in.
Height of top, 2 ft. 7 in. Length of shaft, 3 ft. 6 in.
Depth of top to arms, 1 ft.


Pinhoe Cross is not only one of the finest near Exeter, but has the rare merit of being unbroken. It is said to have been buried during the Parliamentary wars and thus preserved from mutilation. It stands in situ, in the correct place for a churchyard cross, in front of the south porch, its base resting on the grassy soil without the additional steps so often added to elevate a cross at modern restorations.

Height, 7 ft. 5 in. Arms, 2 ft. across.
Length of shaft, 6 ft. 3 in.


Poltimore. A cross at the east end of the churchyard is an old shaft with a new top standing on the remains of a base. The new head and arms have been clumsily set upon this old shaft, the straight line below the arms having a particularly ungraceful appearance. A small Latin cross has been cut on both sides at the top of this head piece, not centrally as in the case of the old crosses. These clumsy reparations lead one to ask why those who undertake such repairs never go and look at some existing example of original work to see how they ought to be done.

Total height, 5 ft. 8 in.
Length of old shaft, 4 ft.


Rewe affords an interesting group of crosses. On the south side of the churchyard is a very fine cross, the ancient tall shaft having had a new head placed upon it some thirty years ago. The lofty steps upon which the base is elevated are regarded as dating from the fifteenth century, and the new work has been carried out with great care and consideration of original proportions, rendering this cross extremely dignified and imposing.

Height, 9 ft. 9 in. Across arms, 3 ft.
Depth of new head, 3 ft. 3 in.
Length of old shaft, 6 ft. 6 in.
Base, 18 in. deep.

At the crossway near the schools the stumpy fragment of a cross remains under a tree. These crosses at Rewe have particularly massive bases, deeper and with spurs more boldly cut than those in other parishes.

Height of shaft, 15 in.
Base, 3 ft. square. 1 ft. deep.


Burrow Cross, not far off, is actually in Stoke Canon parish, forming the boundary on the old Tiverton road between Rewe, Stoke Canon, and Nether Exe. A piece of shaft on a mound, leaning far out of the perpendicular, is all that remains. The base, roughly broken away, seems never to have been cut with the usual spurs at the corners. The head of this cross was found near it in the hedge by the Rev. F. Robson, vicar of Stoke Canon, and is preserved in the tower of the church there. It is a very battered fragment, scarcely recognizable as the head of a cross, but interesting because the form of the top and arms seems rounded, as if Burrow Cross had differed from the prevailing style of local crosses.

Length of shaft, 3 ft. 10 in.


Upton Pyne possesses a fine shaft in the churchyard, standing on its base in situ by the south porch. A shaft that seems to cry out for careful restoration to make it a feature worthy of the beautiful church tower above it.

Length of shaft, 8 ft. 8 in.

In the Park at Pynes is another cross little known, though marked on the ordnance maps. It is particularly interesting because it stands on the old church path between Cowley and Brampford Speke. In 1269 Bishop Bronescombe appropriated a tithe sheaf of Cowley to Brampford Speke, ever since which date Cowley has been attached to that parish, though separated from it by Upton Pyne. A right of footpath between the two places passes under Pynes, its boundary marked by this cross; now almost hidden in the thickness of a copse. It is a shaft from which the arms are missing, the stone so much smoothed by weathering that only the octagonal form denotes their previous existence. The base, nearly buried in leaves, seem to be quatrefoil in shape.

Height, 5 ft. 6 in.


Shillingford St George has two crosses in the churchyard. On the east side a lofty new granite cross set upon an old base of the usual form.

Height, 7 ft. Across arms, 3 ft. 2 in.

On the south side of the churchyard is a curious cross of local red stone. On one side a circle is raised between the arms, which appears to have four small holes in it as if something had been fastened there. This cross was brought from a garden in the lower part of the parish, known as Shillingford Abbots from its connection with Torre Abbey. Where it originally stood is not known.

Height, 4 ft. Across arms, 2 ft. 2 in.


Whitstone. The shaft of a cross remains here on the north side of the churchyard. The position is so unusual that it appears to have been moved out of the way. It stands on the original base, and has been broken across and repaired.

Length, 4 ft. 8 in.


Windy Cross can scarcely be described as in the neighbourhood of Exeter, neither is it in the neighbourhood of anywhere else. It stands solitary on a hill-top about two miles from Ide, where the roads divide for Longdown, Dunsford, Shillingford, and Exeter. No doubt originally it was placed prominently at the cross way; what remains of it has now been set back in a copse that borders the road. It is only the top of a cross, and even this has been broken off about 10 in. from the ground and repaired.

Height, 4 ft. 7 in. Across arms, 2 ft. 5 in.


That these crosses date from the fifteenth century, the style of their moulding indicates; and so similar are they in appearance that it must be concluded they all were erected much about the same period. It does not seem unreasonable to enquire why a zeal for putting up granite Latin crosses prevailed all over the county at one particular time.

Mr. Reichel has told us that Saint Walpurga said : —

“It is the custom of the Saxon race that on many of the estates of nobles and of good men they are wont to have not a church but the standard of the holy cross dedicated to our Lord and reverenced with great honour lifted up on high so as to be convenient for the frequency of daily prayer.” ¹

(¹) “Domesday Churches of Devon,” Devon. Assoc. Trans., Vol. XXX, 1898.

It is well known that the sites of our churches are far older than the fifteenth-century buildings standing upon them, which are renovations of earlier work; so also the new churchyard cross may have replaced the ruins of a cross that had existed from time immemorial.

The wayside crosses are nearly (if not quite) all boundary crosses. By the fifteenth century the ravages of the Black Death and the constant wars had led to many changes in the ownership of land; and it is probable that new crosses were erected at boundaries by men anxious to be quite certain of the limits of properties. A cross was the simplest symbol for illiterate people to understand, and the holy sign may not have been without deeper significance to those inclined to dispute parish bounds and the rights of way.

The value of the crosses as boundary marks has prevailed for their preservation. In 1541 a statute was passed forbidding the destruction of crosses, enacted, it may be supposed, not so much from a religious as from a legal point of view. Even the Puritan who smashed the cross preserved the broken stone; and these fragments yet serve as landmarks, and are such valuable indications of ancient boundaries that the relics are preserved and their sites marked on maps to the present day.

A complete and careful survey of the churchyard and wayside crosses of Devon would be of great value and interest to the county, and I should like to ask the Devonshire Association to undertake it.

In conclusion I will venture upon another suggestion: that these broken crosses should be restored by the parishes in which they stand when Peace on Earth, which we so ardently hope for, is consummated; as a fitting commemoration of the Peace, and a memorial to those who will have given their lives to secure the tranquillity and liberty of this country.

(I have to express my thanks to Miss K. M. Clarke for kindly photographing the Pinhoe Cross and the cross at St. Thomas for my illustrations.)