Wembury: its bay, church, and parish (1909)

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Author(s): Evans. H. Montagu; Year published: 1909; Origin: DA Transactions; Pages: 263-289
Topic(s): churches; Location(s): Plympton and Wembury

By H. Montagu Evans. (Read at Launceston, 28th July, 1909.)

Part 1.

THE wild, romantic, but dangerous Wembury Bay, to which so much attention has during the past few months been directed, occupies what is practically a rectangular area of water just to the eastward of Plymouth Sound. It is bounded at its eastern end by the high, rocky promontory known as Yealm Head, terminated by Gara Point; on the west by the Mewstone, a rock nearly two hundred feet high, and occupying several acres; on the south by the open sea; and on the north by the inner coastline, which takes a hollowed-out curve trending nearly due east and west, but having a triangular opening in its centre, into the apex of which flows a small stream. The estuary of the Yealm river lies at the north-east corner of the bay. The estuary extends eastwards for two-thirds of a mile, when it divides, one part running north and again dividing into the Coffleet and Yealmpton arms, the other continuing in an easterly direction and known as the Newton Ferrers arm, passing between Newton Ferrers and Noss villages (the latter on a small inlet), and terminating at Bridge-End, where commences the ancient estate known in Domesday as Mimidland, now Membland, until recently the seat of Lord Revelstoke.

With the exception of this break, the whole circumference of the bay is deeply fringed by dangerous horizontal ridges of what is locally termed shillat, a soft fissile slate, but with occasional bands of grit, and here and there permeated and indurated more or less with iron, and intersected by quartz veins. This characterizes also the Mewstone and the cliffs, where in these last it is not replaced, as it largely is, by reddish earth and gravel.

The ridges are extended at six different parts by what are known and shown on the charts as “ledges” and isolated rocks, the largest and most serious of which—for they are all submerged at high water—is that extending from the west corner of the bay, known as Wembury Point, to the Mewstone, and practically closing the channel to navigation, while it admits the full force of the wildest seas driven by westerly and south-westerly gales. This is known and marked as “Wembury Ledge” and, with the northern fringe of the Mewstone coming to meet it, forms, with the exception of a narrow channel, six to nine feet deep, a disastrous but useless bridge 800 yards long, and from 250 to 400 yards wide.

The next in point of extent is the “Church Ledge”, or “Blackstone Rocks”, shooting out from the eastern side of the triangle referred to above a distance of over 500 yards, and, aided by several isolated rocks and shoals, rendering navigation unsafe for more than 400 yards beyond that.

From the Mewstone eastwards and from Gara Point westwards there are also extensive reefs, narrowing the navigable entrance of the bay to less than half its apparent width; while everywhere, excepting a comparatively insignificant area, isolated but submerged rocks and shoals interrupt and obstruct the general level of the bed. In short, at no point of its borders could a ship drawing thirty feet of water approach the shore within a quarter-mile, or even at high water within 300 yards; even then not without serious risk.

From Wembury Point to the triangle the shore is very low, and subject to constant erosion by the sea, which has there filched much rich agricultural land, and continues to do so now. But in the triangle, occupied by sand and small stones, and with one exception the only landing-place for a boat, the beach has clearly encroached landward. An ancient mill, known as Langdon Mill, nestling against the cliff which there begins, and up to a few years ago driven by a conduit from the small stream I have spoken of, is no longer available, as the wheel pit is choked with two or three feet of sand, etc., in it, rendering the wheel immovable; and the raised level outside would effectually stop any outflow and escape of water were it set going again.

Behind the mill the top of the low cliff recedes in a level grassy terrace, forming a delightful and sunny resting-place, sheltered from north and east; but behind that, and rearing itself steeply upwards, it forms a high bluff, into the end of which has been originally cut a horizontal recess, into which the east end of the church just fits, allowing about a foot round it clear to keep off damp. The west end rests on a platform made by the earth excavated, allowing also for the western part of the churchyard; the whole mass of ground so made being enclosed, supported, and strongly buttressed on south and west by a wall ten to twelve feet high. The eastern part of the churchyard has been slightly lowered, but so far follows the steep slope of the hill that, standing at its upper end, though only about twenty feet from the church, one is nearly on a level with the top of the east window.

Behind, the hill still rises for a distance of three or four hundred yards to the top of the downs overlooking the bay, and then continues on about the same level for the mile and a quarter or more between the church and the estuary, fringed all the way by precipitous cliffs. Viewed from the east end the river lies far below, and presents in every direction as charming a prospect as can be seen in the whole of this beautiful neighbourhood; for while the foreground is rough, variegated, and wild, though covered with verdure, the rocky, furrowed, and cavernous opposite shore is fringed with ferns, flowers, grassy slopes, and rich woods to the top, contrasting with the deep grey-blue of the water below, and the glittering sea outside; while, turning northwards, the Yealm river lies embosomed in woods, those on the left hand of exceptional beauty and of great historic interest.* I think it should be a source of relief, indeed, that the recent decision on the well-known Wembury scheme has saved from disfigurement and destruction natural beauties which in England are growing daily rarer, more and more closed to our view.

* This will be described in Part II of this paper.

Wembury Church, the site of which I have described, not only occupies a very unusual, but a remote, out-of-the-way, and secluded place; for with the exception of one house, generally unoccupied, it stands over a mile from any dwelling, excepting the mill just under it. Inquiry increases our surprise and interest, and seems naturally to claim an explanation. There is no village of Wembury. A farm and four cottages a mile away are, though marked West Wembury, considered a part of Knighton, a hamlet of many houses some distance further on. The vicarage is as far away in another direction, and though near a good house, named Wembury House, the owner there has no control. South Wembury House, nearly another mile away, has nothing to do with the church. There is a Wembury Wood a mile further off than any I have named, but it belongs to three or four different people, one of whom, however, is the lord of Langdon Manor, on which the church stands.

Wembury does not appear in Domesday at all, nor in its antitheses, the modern map, or the present Post Office Directory; and one is forced to the conclusion that the name was originally bestowed on a given district or locality, much as the name Belgravia denotes a certain portion of London, and that the bay has been named after the locality. It has been indeed suggested in our Transactions – first, I believe, by the late Mr. Davidson, then by our equally valued and lamented member Mr. R. N. Worth – that the name is a variant of “Wickanbeorge”, the site of a battle with the Danes in A.D. 851; and entirely in consequence Wembury beach has been hypothetically assigned as the scene of the struggle. It has, however, been well pointed out by Mr. Reichel that by no conceivable alteration could one name have supplied the other; and it has occurred to me that no such theory is necessary, the name of the patron saint, St. Werburgh, originally St. Wereburge, offering not only a natural origin, readily admissible from analogous alteration of Saxon words – Werebury, Wenbury, an actual and historic spelling of the word – but supported as regards its source, viz. the saint honoured in the dedication of a church, by numerous instances. It seems, moreover, unlikely that the Danes would have selected such a storm-driven and rock-infested spot for attack when the Yealm river offered such an easy channel for exploring the sheltered interior.

I may here mention that there is another church dedicated to St. Wereburge, in which the name has gone through greater changes and become less easily recognizable. I refer to Warbstow, in Cornwall, mentioned by Mr. Kerslake as one of fourteen parishes all named after the patron saint of the church, remarking that if they were all founded about the same time, they were all probably subsequent to A.D. 700, when St. Werburg died.

This conclusion, if accepted, proves indisputably what has hitherto baffled every attempt by historical record to find out, viz. that on the site of the present Wembury Church there stood, previous to the reign of Edgar, 959–975, a Christian Saxon oratory; for in that period, and narrowed down to within sixteen years, it is clearly recorded, and confirmed by subsequent charter of Henry II, that Edgar gave land “in Wenbiria“, the Latinized form of Wembury, to Plympton Priory (Reichel, Vol. XXX, p. 291, D.A. Trans), and this land was so given on condition that the religious needs of the inhabitants of Wembury should be ministered to by the religious men then residing in Plympton Priory, which was at the time a collegiate establishment of what were termed “secular clergy”.

The architecture of the present Wembury Church indicates the period of Edward III or IV, i.e. between 1327 and 1483, but about sixty years ago a description of it (Exeter Diocesan Arch. Soc. Trans., 1853, Vol. IV, old series) mentioned several remains which indicate a previous Norman church. Just within the entrance door of the north aisle is a granite stoup, about three feet high, on an octagonal shaft, the base of which is under the present floor. The ornaments at the foot are, however, visible, and fall on the corners of the plinth. It appears of Norman date. The wall of the church, just beyond this, also was much thicker at the base, and the north aisle generally more massively and rudely constructed than other parts of the building. The thicker base was then being utilized, by aid of a board, as a seat. Three-eighths of the stoup, which is still in situ, are built into the wall; its basin, of one block, is twelve inches in diameter, and its thickness three inches. It has no hole for a drain. In the south porch is a recess containing part of a similar basin, but much smaller, and a rudely carved granite pedestal, with octagonal angles, built into the wall over the arch in the church doorway there. There were remaining also a vestige of a screen, which had been destroyed, as so many others have been, without any apparent reason, and in this case in opposition to the wishes of the incumbent. The granite columns all across the church show clearly where and how it was erected and fixed.

There were also several portions of ancient oaken seats, a few carved gables, the ribs and part of a carved oaken cornice in the south aisle (still there), and on it a crowned figure, with a cross on front of the crown, and holding a shield, extending from breast to knees. In the south porch the very old oaken ribs of the roof are all carved with wheat-ears in wavy lines. In 1886, by the munificence of Mr. Cory, the lord of the present Langdon Manor, the church received a much-needed and extensive restoration, and was handsomely furnished with a beautifully carved oak pulpit and pews of modern form.(1) The remains of the Norman wall base referred to have, however, been removed to make room for more seats; and, with the exception of two pairs of roof beams in the transept, and what I have detailed on the south side, there is very little old work remaining in the interior. The monumental slabs and tablets are comparatively modern. In the chancel, and occupying all of its north side, is a highly interesting and costly tomb of Corinthian design in memory of Sir John Hele, who was Serjeant-at-law in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. An early representative of the beneficent Elizaeus or Elize Heale or Hele, known from his far-reaching charities as “pious purposes Hele”. The tomb is a complicated structure, coloured artificially in subdued tones, but as far as can be seen, under this, mainly of grit or sandstone of a pale pink colour, very similar to the Corsehill stone near Bath, and which constitutes the bowl of the modern font now in the church. A dark grey-blue stone is also used with striking effect. Under a semi-circular arch are the recumbent figures, life size, of Sir John and his wife, the latter having at her feet a very young child seated in a chair. On the front below kneel eight of their children, three of them in armour, and on the end facing west are two kneeling female figures. A brass plate in a central panel over the recumbent knight is inscribed: “Hic jacet Johes Hele, miles, serviens ad legem, Ser:(2) Dnae. Eliz. Regae., et Jacobi Regs. Mag. Brit., obiit 4to. die Junii, An. Dni. 1608. Ætatis suae 66″.

1 By Hems, of Exeter. 2 Serenissimae.

A very large tomb, enclosed by ornamental iron railing, which stood in the chancel, in the space now occupied by the harmonium and choir, has since been moved to the west end of the south aisle, and was erected to the memory of Lady Narborough, wife of Sir John Narborough, Knight, one of His Majesty’s flag officers, and daughter of Josias Calmady, Esq., obiit 1 Jan., A.D. 1677–8. The Calmadys occupied Langdon Manor for four hundred years. Armorial shields are introduced in these large monuments, the latter of which is of great solidity and weight, and is mainly of dark Italian marble, but with the corner lions and crowning bust of alabaster.

The ancient font was said to have been removed to Langdon, but this suggestion is now refuted, and the font cannot be traced.

There are also two pavement tablets, locally very interesting, as will appear later; one to the memory of “Thos. Lockyer, of Wembury House, d. 9 August, 1806, aged 49; also his wife Ann, and Thos., his eldest son, d. 1 March, 1854. The other to Elizabeth, daughter of Francis Ryder, d. 26 November, 1710. Æt 34”.

The present church consists of a chancel, nave, north and south aisles, small north transept or chapel, and tower. Within, the roof is ceiled throughout, but the porch is open to the slating. Four piers and five bays divide the nave and north aisle, three piers and four bays the nave and south aisle. The piers and arches are all of granite, the former in clusters of four columns, with fillet and hollow between. The windows differ in style. I quote the following description: “Three in north aisle with two lights, five foiled, with ogee arch under a square head with foliated spandrels, and dripstone on the exterior; in the south aisle the windows are of three lights, with plain arch, and a plain eye in the spandrels. The eastern window in the north aisle is set in square, but has three lights, with plain pointed arches in the head of platework cut out of the solid stone. The larger windows are ‘Perpendicular.’ The east window, unusually broad, is of stained glass, and is rather dark – not in tints, but from the surface being so fully occupied by colour in small designs of circular character. Its lower edging exhibits the words: ‘To the glory of God, and in memory of Elizabeth Horton, this window is erected by her daughter, Mary Trobridge Davis, 1902.’ The west window is in the tower, and shows the words: ‘This window is given by parishioners and others, 1886.’ It is in three panels of stained glass, in rich mellow tone, and contains three large female figures, the centre one in black, holding a crozier and embracing a model of a Saxon church, while a crown is on the ground near her: beneath is her name, ‘St. Werburg'”.

This patron saint was daughter of Wulfhere, King of Mercia, 659–675. She refused marriage, and her father, who was at first a pagan, and opposed her desire to enter a convent, became a convert to Christianity, and then consented, conducted her to Ely, and placed her under her aunt Etheldreda. When her uncle Ethelred became King of Mercia, St. Werburg undertook the government of several monasteries which he desired to establish in his own territory. One founded at Weedon, Northamptonshire, then a royal residence, and others at Trentham and Hanbury in Staffordshire. She was at Trentham when she died, but was buried at Hanbury. To use the language of her chronicler, “she breathed forth her pure soul on the third day of February at Trentham, about the end of the seventh century”.

Many years afterwards a great dread arose among the religieuses of that part of England on account of apprehended attacks by the Danes; and in order to save their relics from possible profanation they removed the remains of St. Werburg from their resting-place. They then discovered, to their amazement, that the body had undergone no change from corruption, and they carried it with great veneration to Chester, and erected an abbey over and in honour of it. This became the cathedral, and the magnificent shrine enclosing the saint’s remains was converted in the reign of Henry VIII into the bishop’s throne there. This monument of stone, ten feet high, is embellished with thirty curious antique images of kings of Mercia and other princes, ancestors and relations of this saint.

It should be here remarked that among northern nations females were venerated and believed to be receptacles of Divine inspiration. Daughters of princes acted as priestesses of the national faith; and the religious practices of the Saxons were less revolting than those of the Danes.

I am not aware of any incident in St. Werburg’s life connecting her with Devonshire.

The Communion plate consists of a flagon weighing two and a half pounds, and inscribed “ex dono dominae Honoris Calmady, Ecclesiae de Wemburge”;* a small chalice with cover, on the top of which are the letters “W. B.”; a large paten with Calmady arms, and inscribed “ex dono Josia Calmady de Langdon, armig, in usum hujus ecclesiae Wemburg Anno Domini 1705”; an almsdish, inscribed “ex dono W. C. 1748 CW.”

* Here the spelling of the first syllable of the saint’s name is that now used in the name of the parish.

The parish registers commence baptisms, 2 April, 1611; marriages, 21 May, 1612; burials, 10 April, 1611. Before the Reformation there was no regular system of recording births, marriages, and burials; due notice was taken of the supreme events in the lives of people, more or less illustrious, in the volumes kept in monasteries and other ecclesiastical foundations, but until Cromwell’s injunction of 1558 there was no means of preserving such valuable statistics. Thomas Cromwell’s was a good expedient. He had, while in the Low Countries, seen the baptismal registers kept by the Spanish clergy, and had appreciated their value. It was through the Church only that the sacraments of baptism and marriage could be obtained, and Christian burial given, and the records which the King’s vicegerent rightly thought so important were made an integral part of the sacred duties of the Church. It was ordered that “the curate of every parish shall keep one book or register, which book he shall every few days take forth, and in the presence of the churchwardens write and record in the same all the weddings, christenings, and burials made the whole week before; and for every time that the same shall be omitted, shall forfeit to the said church 3s. 4d”. In 1597 Convocation promulgated an ordinance which was afterwards embodied in the seventieth of the Canons of 1603. Parchment books were provided to take the place of books of paper till then in use, and these were to have copied into them the entries of the old books, and to be “kept in a sure coffer under the charge of the parish priest and churchwardens”.

The first entry of a contract of marriage at Plympton was that of Christopher Martin, gent., and Mrs. Jane Snelling, published 16, 23, and 30 Oct., 1654. A previous Christopher Martin* was the donor of the first Wembury charity, 1573. This, with the other Wembury Charities, are given in abstract, Appendix IX. “Sir Warwick Hele of Wembury gave the earliest parochial charity to Plympton St. Maurice, £20, to be employed to the use of the poor of the parish yearly for ever”. I need hardly say that such amounts in money in those days represent what to-day would be regarded as considerable sums.

* Probably an ancestor, though then spelt Martyn.

I have so far only been able to make a superficial examination of the other records, but have noticed “A rejoicing day for the victory, 1707 “; “Almshouses, 1682, by Sir Warwick Hele “; “Indentures of apprentices “; “Permissions or otherwise for inhabitants to remove to other parishes “; “The Poore’s book of accompts 1657 “; “Book of Homilies, 1676 “; “Book of Common Prayer, 1660 “; Sternhold and Hopkins’ “Psalter with music, 1660”; “Overseers’ Ratebook Wembury, Down Thomas, and Langdon, beginning 1670”.

On the exterior of the church there are no buttresses. The north aisle is very narrow, as will be seen in the dimensions given below. It is formed by continuing down to seven and a half feet above the ground the roof of the nave; but the south aisle has the usual independent roof. Thus, viewed from the east end, outside, the church appears to consist of nave and one aisle only, as shown in illustration D. The west doorway (“Perpendicular”) is wholly of granite, with almost semicircular arch, with rude carving under the corners of the square head.

Length from east end of chancel to tower622
Whole length822
Whole width401


South aisle, including chancel of aisle590138
North aisle52898
North transept98132
South porch9090

The tower is of two stages, about fifty-six feet high, low and substantial, with diagonal buttresses of three stages, embattled parapet, and half-square stair turret in its north-east corner. There is a very old sundial over the south porch.

The whole church, including the tower, is built of the best of the stone in the immediate locality – a ferruginous brown foliated rock, and is overlaid with cement dashed on. From the condition of this and another old church near Plymouth (at Rame), this covering appears practically imperishable. The window, etc., dressings are of granite, some of which, however, is of a whitish colour, indicating too much felspar for durability; and in the south porch, in a small window on the sheltered side, the carved ornament is almost eaten away by dissolution. Very pale grey granite is generally to be avoided, as it often approaches what is known locally as china-stone, which is peculiarly subject to decomposition. The bluish granites are the hardest and best, and are quarried at the greater depths.

Up to the spring of this year there were three rather heavy bells, the smallest inscribed, “When I do call, then follow me all, 1675”. No inscription on the second. The third, or tenor, dated “1631, Josias”, probably the gift of Josias Calmady, Esq. These bells, one of which had developed a serious crack, have just been recast, and by a material addition of fresh bell-metal converted into a peal of five. The inscriptions described have been reproduced on the corresponding new bells, and the whole admirably hung with modern fittings by the well-known firm at Chagford.

I have already referred to the fact that religious ministration to the parishioners of the dependent outlying chapelries was undertaken by Plympton Priory from a very early date. This appears to have been a very general system in England, owing to the dearth of clergy as well as churches, from the very first introduction of Christianity into England.

We are accustomed to consider that there are now very few traces of British Christianity, or even of Saxon churches, but it should be remembered that mention of a church does not necessarily imply the existence of a building; and the earliest churches were the wayside crosses so familiar to us on the confines of the moor, as it was the custom of the Saxons to have “not a church, but the standard of the cross lifted upon high”,(1) so as to be convenient for prayer. The clergy used to attend at the crosses, and the people flocked to meet them there from all quarters, and it is recorded that solemn enfranchisements of serfs took place, “not in a church, but at the four ways, because there stood the cross where the people were in the habit of assembling for worship”.(2)

1 Walpurga, abbess of Hildesheim and niece of St. Boniface. 2 Leofric’s Missal, p. 6, D.A.T., VIII, p. 417.

In King Edgar’s ecclesiastical laws, A.D. 958, ancient minsters were entitled to tithes, private oratories were not. An oratory on a private estate, if it had a burying-place, was allowed one-third of the tithes; if it had not, the founder or patron had to maintain the priest without trenching on the tithes. What were then mother churches and oratories have now become independent parochial churches and chapels. The building of country churches often began by cross houses or shelters, reproduced, as has been suggested in the few remaining market crosses; but we see around us many instances in which the ancient Saxon cross stands on a village green, as at Sampford Spiney, and the subsequent church erected close by. And it seems a sad pity that the present churches were not built round and over these grand memorials of the past, which could have stood before us in our village chancels.

So long as churches were few and far between, little difficulty presented itself, but as population increased, the oratory had to become the basis or nucleus (generally the chancel) of the parish church, naves and aisles being added. Thus, Plympton St. Maurice, long previously dedicated to St. Thomas the Martyr, but, as in many similar cases, renamed later, was originally the private oratory to Plympton Castle; but before A.D. 1300 became a chapelry dependent on the Priory; and when that was dissolved, 1539, became an independent parish church; for as population increased it was enlarged, and its tower built by subscription, indulgence being granted 10 March, 1446, to the subscribers termed by the bishop “true penitents”, first as a healthy stimulus, but also as a reward for their meritorious self-sacrifice.

Previous to this enlargement, however, came the necessity for a larger church at Plympton, half a mile to the west of St. Maurice, and this – now known to us as Plympton St. Mary, was built within the cemetery of the Priory; and having been consecrated, and the cemetery reconsecrated, 1311, this new church became also a chapelry dependent on the Priory, which was mother church with what was then as extensive a jurisdiction as the present deanery.

At what date Plympton Priory was built is not apparently traceable, but it was certainly founded by one of the Saxon kings, possibly Ethelwulf, 839–858, as he had, it is rumoured, a palace at Yealmpton; but by Leland* ascribed to Edgar, 959–975, whose interest in the Priory is undoubted, inasmuch as he gave to it two hides of land in Wembury and Boringdon, estimated as equivalent to six hundred acres. This was confirmed by charter of King Henry II thus: “To the Church and Canons regular of Plimtona two hides of land in Colebroc and Wenbiria”, free from all burdens of tithe, etc.

* Oliver, Monasticon, p. 129.

Thus, besides a good deal of land previously belonging to Plympton Priory, two chapelries with their tithes, and these two outlying estates, swollen by many private benefactions, expiatory or from spontaneous goodwill, were added, and it developed a career of affluence and magnificence almost equal to that of the great abbey at Tavistock.

It seems to emphasize the already great age of the Priory buildings, that Martin, the fourth prior, who succeeded in 1176, found it necessary to rebuild the priory church.

In 1334 Bishop Grandisson promulgated a very important decision, declaring at an official visitation the relative positions of the Priory of Plympton with the chapels dependent on it; and this seems the first notice available of the addition to the priory of no less than five chapelries, besides the two at Plympton already referred to; besides, also, a long list of other chapels of various degrees of importance, the whole impressing one with the well-nigh incredible extent of this mother church’s sphere of influence and material power and riches. From it we learn that it was aimed at confirming and placing on an incontrovertible basis a state of things which, to use the bishop’s own words, had existed and continued from “beyond the memory of man”. And it is important to observe to what these dependencies and their tithes were thus committed. See translation at end, Appendix I.

How and when the additional chapels had been founded must receive further consideration in the second part of this paper, but we may feel sure, first, that the tithes, etc., were the main object of the old Priory; second, that however much had been contributed to the chapel buildings out of her wealth by the omnivorous mother, the amount was probably trivial compared with what had been provided by private sources under, as I implied before, very varied impulses and motives – such as thanksgiving, conscience money, remorse for the past, quid pro quo for impunity from just deserts, hopes of heaven, the craze of the times, and what not.

The two chapelries at Plympton had become seven by adding Shaugh, Sampford Spiney, Brixton, Wembury, and Plymstock, this last being claimed by both Tavistock and Plympton; the latter, however, gaining the day in December, 1429, when Tavistock by convention agreed that Plymstock belonged to Plympton.

In 1352 the Archdeacon of Totnes, after long contention, was allowed to make official visitations to the Priory and the Chapel of St. Mary, here again described as “within the cemetery of the Priory”, and the other six chapels just named.

Nominally, tithes were charged with the repair of the churches, including that of the mother church, the expenses of worship, and the relief of the poor, as well as with the maintenance of the clergy, but, when absorbed by a mother church, were really only charged with the salary of a minister, where one was hired; and in practice a priest was sent on Sundays from the Priory or other mother church to celebrate Divina, i.e. Mass, say Matins and Evensong, and to baptize, but nothing else. And he was probably not paid at all, the inmates of the Priory taking this as routine duty, either in turn, or sometimes as a punishment, and in expiation. For all other offices of the church the parishioners had to repair to the mother church, and where, as in numerous cases, this necessitated travelling four or five miles over bad and at times dangerous roads, and at all seasons, it proved, particularly for purposes of sepulture, a highly onerous and almost prohibitive arrangement. In cases where the owners of a chapel or oratory provided their own minister, the claim of the mother church allowed, by special licence in each case, the celebration of the Mass (Licentia faciendi celebrari Divina) on ferial, i.e. holidays and ordinary days, and on the festival of the patron saint, but not on any other occasions. How this worked in practice is clearly shown by the appeals for relief made by the different chapelries one after another, and their gradual emancipation by solemn conventions, which stipulated, nevertheless, that the fees claimed by the Priory under the system I have detailed should continue unabated. One of these serious documents, granted by Bishop Lacy between 1420 and 1455, in response to a piteous appeal for a burial-ground at the old chapel on the cliffs at Revelstoke, now a ruin, may be found printed at length in English at p. 28 of the History of Yealmpton, written by Rev. H. J. Warner, the vicar there. An abstract is given: vide Appendix II.

An abstract of another convention, between Robert Denbawde, Prior of Plympton, and the inhabitants of Brixton dependent chapel, undertaking to perform services there, and granting rights of sepulture, was dated 17 April, 1478, and is appended to this paper, Appendix III.

An extraordinary document, emanating from the parishioners of Wembury, and found among Letters Foreign and Domestic, Hen. VIII, A.D. 1535, is appended in full, Appendix IV. I have not seen the reply, but it is no doubt among the MS. Episcopal Registers at Exeter. It conceded the petition, as is shown by the addition of a churchyard, and the interment at Wembury of a body in 1570, the date on the grave. It will be observed from the transcript that the date 1535 closely followed the resignation of John Howe, the last Prior, in 1534, when he surrendered the Priory of Plympton to the King. It appears that the Prior anticipated this great change, and adequately provided for it. He granted leases on advantageous terms of much of the valuable Church property held by him, and among them appear the following:—

The tithes of Brixton for twenty-one years to Richard Chalons and Walter Shere at a rental of £30, deducting £6 13s. 4d. for the incumbent’s salary. Also tithes and oblations of St. Thomas of Plympton East to the same pair for thirty-five years, rent £11, deducting £6 13s. 4d. as a salary for the curate. Also tithes and oblations of “All Saints ” at Plymstock to Walter Shere and Christopher Hornbrook, for twenty-five years, rent £62, £8 of which to be deducted for the curate’s stipend. Also the tithes of Wembury for twenty-one years to John Ryder, of Wembury, for £40 13s. 4d., deducting £6 13s. 4d. towards salary of incumbent (Oliver, Monast., p. 133).

Adding all this* to the pension of £120 a year provided as a retiring allowance, made, as it was, more liberal in consideration of the readiness he exhibited when giving up his post to meet the King’s wishes, the Prior no doubt did very well on transferring his residence to Oxford and relinquishing active work.

* For the leases lasted his life.

As soon as the King died, 1547, the Protector Somerset took possession of what was left, but very shortly had to give it up again, as the provisions of Henry VIII’s will made over to the dean and canons of Windsor the seven chapelries which had been dependent on the Priory, to make good to them the loss he had occasioned them by taking some of their most valuable property from them in his lifetime. However, better Church spoils were given to the Protector to soothe him; so the only wrong done finally was to these chapelries, by the alienation of their tithes and advowsons to a distant possessor.

By Order in Council, promulgated 28 June, 1867, the estates of the dean and canons of Windsor were transferred to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, the patronage remaining undisturbed.

In the case of Wembury there was then a lease subsisting of “All that chapel of Wembury with all glebe lands to the same belonging”, in the hands of the lord of Langdon Manor. This, however, expired at Lady Day, 1883, and the whole of the tithes are now paid to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners as part of their Common Fund, out of which they provide the income of the living, first, by augmentation grants; secondly, by a charge on the tithe which had up to 1883 been paid by the lessee; thirdly, by the interest on a capital sum invested to provide a residence; and they undertook the repair of the chancel.

In the case of Wembury, at least, this settlement, having regard to the reduced value of the tithes generally, seems fair and reasonable; but I fear this is not the case with all the chapelries I have described. No doubt the difficulties are great, but I venture to hope that by a general application of the same system to all Church funds and endowments, the existing anomalies in remuneration of the clergy may yet be swept away.

The highly interesting description of the parish of Wembury, and details of some of the oratories, must be deferred to a second part of this paper. In addition, however, to the various documents to which I have referred, I have appended such extracts from the Valor Ecclesiasticus, Hen. VIII, as apply to Wembury;* also the salary and pension to its then curate; also the rents, etc., arising from its various tenants; also an abstract of its charities; and finally a pugnacious and amusing letter from Bishop Brantyngham in defence of the poor old mother’s prestige and dignity.

* Vide Appendices V to IX.

I desire to express sincere thanks and appreciation of valued assistance kindly rendered me by the clergy of the various churches referred to in my paper, including Yealmpton, Revelstoke, and St. Breage, and especially to the Vicar of Wembury, Mr. R. Hansford Worth, Canon Dalton, of Windsor, Rev. Dr. Burns, Rev. O. J. Reichel, and R. C. Selfe, Esq., Asst. Sec. to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners.


Episcopal Registers, Exeter, Grandisson, Pt. 2, 3 March, 1334.


Concerning the dues of Plympton Priory.

To all who shall become acquainted with the present letter, John, etc. (= by the Grace of God, Bp. of Exeter), health in the sincere embrace of the Saviour. Amongst the various subjects which claim our attention with increasing importunity, this urges itself frequently upon our thoughts, that men bound by monastic rules, and subject to Us by Diocesan law, on account of their reverence for Him to Whom they have spontaneously vowed their entire life, may serve their Creator in greater peace and quiet, avoiding the harmful contentions of judicial processes, in which they often implicate themselves more than is becoming.

When, therefore, on a former occasion we made our Diocesan Visitation to Cathedral, to City [of Exeter], and throughout our whole Diocese of Exeter, we found that our beloved sons, the Prior and Community of the Monastery of Plympton, of the Order of St. Augustine, beneath our patronage, and within our Diocese, hold and receive in various places subject to our Diocesan law, Churches and Chapels, distinct parishes and parishioners, and having cure of souls; portions also of tithes, and dues stated below, said to be possessed in perpetuity for their own use, viz. :—

[The Monastery of] SS. Peter and Paul, at Plympton, where they dwell, with the Chapels of St. Mary, and St. Thomas at Plympton, The Church of Brixton, That of Wembury, That of Plymstock, And of Shaugh, And Sampford Spiney, depending on the same, The Church of St. Antony, in Roseland, with the Chapel of St. Gerende [sic] depending on the same, The Churches of Lanhow [St. Kew], of Maker, of Sutton [Plymouth],

with the Chapel of Bottockishide [St. Budeaux], depending on the same, of Egg Buckland, of Dene, and of Tamerton

with the Chapel of St. Martin of Maristow, depending on the same, of St. Mary Stowe

with the Chapel of Thrisshelstone, and St. James-in-the-Wood, depending on the same.

Also the Chapel of St.-Mary-of-the-Marshes, near Exeter, together with the tithes, rights and belongings of the aforesaid Churches. The portions, also, of the tithes, and offerings:—

viz:— Half of all those accruing to the Church of St. Gerende [sic]; our own seignorial lands therein excepted. The annual dues, also, to the extent of twelve marks sterling from the Church of Ugborough,

Five marks from the Church of Exminster,
40 solidi from Newton [St Cyres],
100 solidi from Ilstyngton,
40 solidi from Stoke in TyneSide,
10 marks from Blackadon (?),
10 marks from Bridestowe,
1 mark from Braunton,
1 mark from Meavy,
1 mark from St. Just,
2 marks from. Lanherne,
5 lbs. of wax from Peter Tavy, [all these being] Churches of our Diocese, as well as
6 marks from our own Cathedral Church of Exeter, from each prebend of our Canons of the same Church on their demise, or when, by entering a religious order, they make a complete change of life.

When, therefore, we had caused the said Prior and Community to be summoned before us, at a date and place fixed for the purpose, for the investigation of all and each of these claims; that they should place before us, and show, or otherwise in legal manner prove their claims, titles and rights, under pretext of which they maintained that they legitimately had acquired these said Churches, Chapels, portions of tithes, and dues, before mentioned, and were now able licitly to hold, receive, and have them:

Brother Robert Ford, Sub-Prior of the said monastery, Procurator of the said Prior and Community, fully appointed for the purpose, appearing before us, stated on their behalf in due legal form, that the said Prior and Community, his masters, have been and are supported by lawful rights and sufficient titles to the possession, free retention, and perception of the Churches, Chapels, portions of tithes, and dues aforesaid. The same Procurator went on to affirm on oath that the said Prior and Community of Plympton and their predecessors had peacefully held and possessed the said Churches and Chapels, with all their rights and belongings, as being canonically appropriated to, and united with themselves and their monastery of Plympton; and this with the full knowledge, forbearance, and even approbation of their venerable Fathers in God, the Bishops of Exeter, from time beyond the memory of the present and former generations; and that they have in peace and quietness received the portions of tithes, and the said dues, for so long a time before our late visitation, that the Prior and Community had prescribed the right of receiving them, in the eyes of the law:

There being produced, also, in evidence by the aforesaid Procurator acting as Procurator of the aforesaid, his masters, for the proof of the claims, various Apostolic letters, and the letters and instruments of various of Our Predecessors, the Bishops of Exeter, and of our Chapter of the Church of Exeter, and of others concerned. There were brought forward also certain sworn witnesses who were questioned, and whose evidence was given in public, and was subject to discussion, [cross-examination?]. Full and repeated debates were held between us, and certain experts heard and examined on all the evidence brought forward.

Wherefore, inasmuch as we find most manifestly that what has been stated by the said Procurator has been sufficiently and legitimately proved: we, John, etc., the Bishop aforesaid, after calling upon Our Lord in prayer, upon the advice of the learned men sitting upon this case with us,—by these letters and by means of this our definitive sentence, pronounce, decide and declare: that the said Churches and Chapels have been lawfully conceded, appropriated, and united to the said Prior and Community, and that the said concession and appropriation of the same have been and are valid: and that the exacting of the said portions and dues has been and is just: and that they have fully prescribed all and each of the claims set forth above, as these were set forth in the Summary petition by the Procurator named above, presented to Us in due legal form, the Summoning of all those whose interests were concerned having been made; and therefore we adjudge these claims to them.

In testimony of all this, we command the present letter, or present public instrument to be written and published by Robert Pike, cleric, by Apostolic Authority Public Notary named below, and to be strengthened with the fixing of our seal. Given and executed at our Manor of Clyste, on the third day of March, in the Year of Our Lord 1334.


Abstract of Composition touching Chapel of St. Peter of Revelstoke, granting a burial-ground to the latter, recorded folios 22b to 23b of Register of Institutions of Edmund Lacy, twenty-first Bishop of Exeter, 3 July, 1420, to 18 September, 1455 (Vol. X, Old Series).

To all and several the sons of Holy Mother Church to whom these present letters may come, Edmund, by Divine Mercy Bishop of Exeter, greeting, grace, and blessing, etc. Be the Petition of the parishioners of the Chapel of St. Peter of Revelstoke, dependent on the Parochial and Mother Church of St. Bartholomew of Yealmpton, in which is set forth: “that the said Chapel, together with a suitable, comely, and sufficient enclosure for a cemetery, for the burial of the bodies of the dead therein, when it shall have been consecrated, is situated close to the shore of the deep sea, possessing all the distinctive features of a parish, the right of burial excepted; … for which hitherto they have had recourse to the Parochial and Mother Church of Yealmpton aforesaid, and the cemetery thereof, and also at the present time”. Moreover, that all the inhabitants are distant from the said Mother Church by three English miles and more, between which places there are sundry dangerous places and two tidal arms of the sea, as well as a wide and perilous river, insomuch that sometimes in winter for days together no one can cross it except in peril of his life, it happening on such occasions that for days and weeks together the bodies of the dead remain unburied, causing great inconvenience and grievance; also because while the inhabitants are engaged in burying their dead at Yealmpton the enemies of the King and Realm might row or sail in, and burn and spoil the whole district. And because the parishioners are for the more part fishermen and labourers, and often distressed by expenses and hardships, as well as loss of work, and sometimes altogether hindered from this office of humanity, to the peril of their own souls, and cutting short the suffrages offered for all Christ’s faithful departed, have humbly besought us to deign to dedicate and consecrate the aforesaid Chapel with the cemetery duly and for ever assigned, with free right of burial by the inhabitants themselves.

We, taking into account the justice of the supplication, and that piety and necessity demand assent, and having obtained the consent of the Bishop of Salisbury (patron), and the Dean and Chapter, the Canon of Salisbury, and Prebendary of Teygntone Regis and Yealmpton, and the perpetual vicar and parishioners of Yealmpton Mother Church, and after full investigation of the allegations, and advice of the Dean and Chapter of Exeter, We “have decreed, now decree, and by these presents definitely pronounce,” “by our Pontifical Authority,” the enclosure for a cemetery conferred.

Also, we ordain that on two days every year, viz. the Feast of St. Bartholomew and the dedication day of Yealmpton Church, every parochial chaplain serving the aforesaid Chapel shall go in person to the said Mother Church and sing the Gospel there, instead of at the Chapel aforesaid, together with all the inhabitants of Revelstoke who can come, in token of their perpetual subjection, paying each year 2s. 8d. for ever; besides maintaining, repairing, and if need be rebuilding the part of the wall of Yealmpton Cemetery hitherto maintained by them, as well as all other burdens hitherto required of them; besides solemnly celebrating the dedication of the said Chapel and Cemetery (when consecrated) as a Greater Double Feast, abstaining from all labour on that day for all time to come. Any reckless violation of this order involving the suspension of all divine privileges pending competent satisfaction.


Abstract of convention between Prior Robt. Denbawde, Plympton, and the inhabitants of Brixton, 17 April, 1478.

The Prior undertakes, yearly, by one of his canons or by a secular priest, at his nomination and charge, to say in Chapel at Brixton all divine services and ministrations, all sacraments and sacramentals; and all the Sundays and festivals to say Matins, Mass, and evensong immediately after Mass. And if the wardens and inhabitants or parishioners will have the second evensong, to be said in the afternoon, they shall provide the priest convenient meat and drink, for all which they shall pay to the said Prior 13s. 4d. at the feasts of the Nativity, of St. John Baptist, Michaelmas, Christmas, and Easter, by even portions. Also, if more than two men or two men’s wives die and are brought on the same day for burial, the Prior to take 1s. 6d. And if more than three servants or children be similarly so brought, the Prior shall take 9d.


Taken from Letters Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, 1535, Vol. IX, p. 391, No. 1147.

The Prior of Plympton and his proctors make £50 a year out of the parish of Wenbury, but there is no priest nearer than Plympton, four miles off. Many people have died without shrift or housel or any other sacrament, as christening, burying, or “nayling ” (= annealing). The parish has no priest to say Mass or other service, except on Sundays, and then the priest or a canon comes from Plympton and says Mass, matins, and evensong before noon, and goes back to the prior to dinner. The priest has often been sore sick and in great jeopardy of life from travelling through the rain, hail, or snow. Three priests—Sir John Parker, Sir Ric Wellche, and Sir Thomas Molyng—have died from this cause. The prior will not send a priest to bury any one for less than 7d. He has 13s. 4d. from the parish to have the sacrament ministered unto them, which he calls his fee farm, besides other oblations, and yet he is not contented. There are 500 people, 21 score and more being houseling people (= communicants). The following people have died without shrift, housel, or any sacrament: Master Thomas Weffelle, John Weryn, John a Lowe, William Fox, John Weryn, Bocfaste, Jone Peperell, Sysle Méchell, Master Weffelly’s servant. John Weryn sent in great haste to have a child christened who was sick, and waited at the Church for the priest from 8 a.m. till 4 p.m.; but when he came the child was dead, and he buried it on St. Thomas Day. Nic Boger rode to the prior for a priest to christen his child, and the sub-prior promised that one should be sent; but none came, though the child was at the Church from soon after 7 till 11 a.m., and all the parish had come to hear Mass and matins, as the priest had promised them the Sunday before. Other similar cases of neglect are mentioned. The corpse of a child of Thos. Towars, which died on Tuesday before Christmas Day, was kept waiting at the Church Door from 8 a.m. till 6 p.m. for the priest. On Easter Monday the prior sent no priest to say Mass, matins, or evensong, and the wives of William Spiser, Robert Laye, and Robert Foterell had come to make their purification. Half the parish are the prior’s tenants. On Thursday before the Nativity of our Lady, the Steward’s Bailiff, when keeping his courts, told the people the prior heard that they went about to have the hire of his parish, or to find a priest uprising and downlying, and if they made any such labour they would forfeit their holdings. For this cause we, the other half of the parish, have made them nothing acounsel of this matter; and yet they know all this to be true, though they dare not speak. The parishioners hired a priest at their own cost, but the prior forbade his tenants to contribute. He served them for ten years, and the parish never knew any otherwise by him but good and honest, but because the prior commanded him out of service he lost much of his wages. The parishes of Plymstocke, Bryxtone, and Shaffe* are as ill served, and the least of them is worth nearly £30 to the prior. The parishioners therefore desire “you of your great goodness and for the love of God” that these things may be amended.—William Puryng, Churchwarden, Nic Rede, John Weryn, William Hogge, William Spicer, John Stephen, John Cavyll, and others can testify to the truth of the complaints.

* Also spelt Shagh, Scage. Shaugh now.


Valor Ecclesiasticus, Henry VIII, Vol. 2, p. 375, printed edition Manerium de Wymbury.

Redditus assisi ibidem liberorum et convencionariorum tenencium cum incrementis redditus firme terrarum dominicalium, et firme molendini, per annumliiviijviij
De finibus terre cum perquisitis curie et aliis proficuis ejusdem manerii per annum communibus annisiiijixviij
Decima garbarum cum omnibus decimis et oblacionibus predicte capelle de Wenbury, pertinentibus valet per annum sic dimissa ad firnam per indenturam Johanni Ryder pro termino annorumxliijxiijiiij

Redditus liberorum = Rents from free tenants of the Manor.
Firma manerii = Rent paid for the Manor when let to farm.
Firma capelle = Rent paid for the chapel revenues when let to farm.
Perquisita curie = ) Perquisites of court, i.e. fines for non-attendance of
Firme molendini = ) suitors or other amercements.


Extract copy from a pension book in the Augmentation Office.


Pencons appoynted by the Kinge highnes comyssions of the late pior and covent of the surrendryd howse of Plympton in the countie of Devon, the fyrste day of M’che in the xxxth yere of the reigne of our souaigne lorde King Henry the v11jth and they and euy of them to haue one quarts pencon at thanncacon of or ladie next cumyng, and at the feast of Saynt Mychell tharchungell next after that one halfe yeres pencon, and so from halfe yere to halfe yere during there lyves.

To Barnard Cole iiijli. xiijs. iiijd. and serving the cure of Wenbery to haue for his yerely wage vjli. xiijs. iiijd. accompting vt supra.

Thoms Crumwell—Jo Tregonwell—Wylliam Petre—John Smyth.


Computus ministrorum Domini Regis temp. Hen. VIII (Abstract of Roll 32 Hen. VIII).


Redditus liberorum tenencium0154
Redditus custumariorum3052
Firma manerii21100
Perquisita curie01011
Firma capelle40134

Redditus custumariorum = Rents from free tenants of the manor
Redditus liberorum, Firma manerii, Firma capelle, Perquisita curie: See Appendix V.


Episcopal Registers, Exeter, Brantyngham, Pt. 2, p. 593, 10.11.1385.

Bishop to Dean of Plympton re individual chaplains celebrating Divina in the Deanery.

Really it is not lawful to all, without the authority of the Apostolic See or Local Diocesans, and certainly not the laity, to appoint Festivals to be kept or venerated. Nevertheless certain parishioners of Plympton St. Mary’s Chapel, within the cemetery of the Mother Church (as we have heard on reliable testimony and commonreport), have rashly presumed to proclaim and appoint a dedication festival for the aforesaid chapel, in which such a festival had never been customary, excepting in the Mother Church, as well as against the wishes of the Religious Men of the Prior and council of Plympton canonically holding the same chapel, its rights and privileges; and under the pretence of a Dedication Festival of the same chapel have unjustly caused to be affixed to the bell tower of the same chapel a certain flag with a bell attached to it, bringing contempt and manifest injury to our jurisdiction and Pontifical Authority, and to the prejudice and offence of the Religious men themselves. Wishing therefore our episcopal laws and those of our subordinates whomsoever to be carefully observed, we command you, the first, second, third time, and peremptorily, the parishioners of the aforesaid chapel, all and several, that they absolutely cease and desist from the proclamation and celebration of a Dedication Festival of this kind, as well as from their other presumptions above written, rashly attempted by them; as well as totally abstain from such attempts in future, unless it has been made sufficiently plain to you that the aforesaid Feast has been and is lawfully proclaimed and canonically celebrated, under pain of the Greater Excommunication, fulminated not undeservedly against transgressors. But if they do not in effect obey your monitions, you must studiously promulgate in lawful manner sentence of the Greater Excommunication against all and several on their part contumacious and rebellious; their fault, delay, and offence being laid before them in the aforesaid Canonical Monition; for which premisses to be carried out by you in general and particular, we give our full authority and canonical powers of compulsion. And what you do in these matters you are to certify us or our official principal, Mr. Wm. Bide or Mr. Jno. Lugard, deputed to punish, etc.



There is a rent charge of twenty-four shillings yearly for ever out of a Tenement and Garden in Plympton, enjoyed by John Martyn, Gentn., and on 20 May, 1573, in the 15th year of Queen Elizabeth, Christopher Martyn, Gentn., for a consideration obliged by Deed not only the Premisses, but all his lands in Brixton, Plympton St. Mary and Plympton Morris, for the payment thereof. On 1 October, 1800, the Heirs of Martyn deposited £40 in the £3 per cent Consolidated Annuities for the payment of the above, in the names of John Harris, Esq., William Hare, Esq., and Mr. Joseph Perry.

Sir Warwick Hele, of South Wembury House, Knight, erected an Almes House in this parish, 1682, for ten poor people, and endowed it with thirty pounds yearly for ever, payable out of the Sheaf of Holberton, twenty-four pounds, fifteen shillings, and nine pence, and five pounds, four shillings, and three pence out of Masse-Marshs and Revelstock.

Sir John Hele, his nephew and Heir Male, gave twelve pence a week in bread to the poor of this parish for ever, payable out of his demeasness of Clifton, in Dorsetshire, and to be distributed every Sunday by the churchwardens. He likewise gave by will out of his said demeasness of Clifton six pounds thirteen shillings and fourpence yearly to the Minister of this Parish.

In 1722 Josias Calmady, Esq., of this parish, gave by his will twelve pence a week in Second Bread to the poor of this parish for ever, payable out of his rents in Colbrook (now Lord Boringdon’s), and to be distributed every Sunday by the churchwardens. He likewise hath given and ordered by his said will five hundred pounds to be raised out of the Sheaf of this Parish to purchase lands for the good of the said parish, and the income thereof to go according to the direction of his said will, which is laid out in the purchase of an estate called Higher Edgecomb and Rams Down in the parish of Milton Abbot, in the County of Devon.