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Church History


A brief history and points of interest

          “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people” Isaiah 56; 7
“We will not neglect the house of our God”  Nehemiah 10:39

Prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066, the manor of Feniton (Finatona) belonged to a Saxon named Etmar or Eadmaer. William the Conqueror took away the ownership from Etmar and gave Feniton to his half-brother, Robert, the Count of Mortain who then put Feniton into the care of another Saxon, Drogo of Montacute.

Although Feniton (Finetone) is mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1086. there is no evidence of a Saxon church. It is possible there could have been an earlier church on the knoll at the west end of the present building and outside the present churchyard wall as early churches were often built on a hill or mound.

Around the time of Henry II (1154-89) a Norman family with the name of Malherbe came to the village. This family allegedly brought the surname to England through Raoul Malherbe at the time of the Norman Conquest. Twelve generations of the family succeeded one another as lords of the manor of Feniton. Such was their impact on the area that the parish was known as “ffenyton Malherbe.”

Being lords of the manor, a stone church would have been built and there is evidence that a small part of the north wall is dated as 13th century. There is also definite evidence of a Norman church from the list of rectors with Norman names. At an unknown date, but pre-1263, the name of Robert Giffard de Baketon, or Buketone appears on a document stitched into Bishop Branscombe’s Register.

The Building
The church itself dates back to the 13th century and the first rector’s name is recorded but not the dates, however the second recorded rector, Robert de Polammesforde, is dated from 1263 – 64.
Built of a variety of at least six types of stone the church was probably plastered and lime washed.
Very little of the 13th century church remains; nearly all that can now be seen is 15th century. As in the case of most small Norman churches the original building was without an aisle.
In the recent past, there have been three interior restorations, one in 1836 and a major one in 1877. The latest interior work was in 2010 following a flood in 2008.

On the right as you enter from the west door and in the south aisle is a Holy Water stoup, a relic of pre-Reformation days, only found in the 1960s. Unfortunately, the front of the stoop had been removed, but it still indicates its original use.
The roof of the nave and north transept follow a conventional type known as a wagon roof. The south aisle ceiling was timber, but later lath and plastered by the Victorians.

Devon is famous for its beautiful timber rood screens. Here we have an impressive example. There is a suggestion that it came from Dunkeswell Abbey, a few miles away, when the abbey was dissolved in 1538. It is particularly notable for its tracery and fan-vaulted canopy. The portion separating the chancel from the nave has lost its back groining, probably due to being moved to other locations within the church, serving as a reredos or the ground floor section of a gallery.
As well as separating the nave from the chancel, the screen extends to the south wall, it is here that the back groining can be appreciated.
A small parclose screen separates the south aisle from the chancel, its design and tracery are different. Evidence of earlier painting can be seen.

There are a number of 16th century square headed bench ends, with elaborate carvings in two-tier tracery, often with raised heraldic detail. Several bench ends have drilled holes which were to provide an extra seat. Seats were plugged into the holes and thus increased seating numbers and/or the rental income. The presence of four holes on some bench ends could be due to the rotting at the base of the pew; this resulted in two additional holes having to be drilled. Also on the bench ends can be seen carved Bouche shields, used almost exclusively for jousting. There is a ridge in the middle to deflect weapons and a notch as a lance rest.  These medieval benches were restored following the 2008 flood. There are a number of more recent bench ends, also with heraldic devices which were introduced into the church at the time of the 1877 restoration.  Bench ends not incorporated into seats are on display in the north west corner of the nave. New oak benches were purchased in 2010 to replace the plain Victorian benches that were too costly to restore. The new benches are portable, allowing the church to be used in differing formats or to allow the nave to become an open space.

The broken stone on the floor of the nave near the screen and lectern  bore the inscription “Here lyeth John Skynner, yoman, father of George Skynner pastor of the Church who died 9 Jan 1582.”
The memorial to Margaret Dennys Kirkham is on the floor near the pulpit. She died on May 16th 1572 and was buried in the chancel. Her stone was moved from the chancel to the nave in 1877. She was  the wife of George Kirkham,

At the west end of the nave is an oak church wardens’ chest with three locks which once contained parish records and valuables. The initials LP (Laurence Palmer) and JD (John Dawe) are those of the churchwardens in 1681.

In 1707, a gallery was built the full width of the west end by John Palmer, the local carpenter, for the sum of £6, plus £3-10-0d for 40 boards that came from Topsham. This gallery was removed in 1877. There is still evidence of a door in the west wall of the south aisle. A window in the roof of the nave giving light to the gallery was removed when the church was re-roofed in three phases, started in 2003 and completed in 2008.

On the left hand side of the north wall is a stained glass window dedicated to the men killed during World War II. In this window is St. Michael on the left and St. George on the right. Alongside the window is the commissioning pennant of HMS Exeter, given to Miss Katherine Acland by Captain Bell, who commanded the Exeter at the Battle of the River Plate. Nearby is a memorial carved by a village wood carver, Bill Knollman from an unused bench end. This gives the names of those killed in WW1.On the wall nearest the pulpit is the stained glass window in memory of Alfred Dyke Acland and his wife Beatrice Danvers. This depicts the Virgin Mary and St. John. Both windows were designed by John Ninian Comper and dedicated in 1947. If you stand on tiptoes, Comper's unique signature mark (rebus) can be seen in the windows. It is in its customary place, at the bottom right of the window. His rather unusual signature is depicted by strawberries and is linked to his father, who died suddenly in Aberdeen, while giving strawberries to poor children. The strawberry rebus can be seen in churches throughout the world.

The porch on the south west corner was an early addition, certainly before the south aisle. It was at one time used as a vestry. Now it provides a toilet and storage area.

The North Transept:
The north transept was built during the 18th century. Recent investigations can find no evidence of a south transept, so it is most likely that there was not an earlier corresponding north transept.
Originally it was a parlour pew, complete with a private side door and fireplace. Later it housed the pipe organ which was severely damaged in the 2008 flood. The cost of restoration was prohibitive so an electronic church organ was purchased and the space thus created became a servery and a small stage area when the front choir rail and portable screens are removed.  

South Aisle

The familiar pattern of church and manor is present in our church. About 1500 the church was enlarged by the addition of the south aisle which carried through to the east end of the chancel. It is likely that it was built to commemorate the wedding of Joan, the last of the Malherbe family, to her first husband, Richard Ferrers. On some of the capitals of the piers can be seen the nettle leaves of the Malherbes and the horseshoes of the Ferrers.

The chapel at the east end of the south aisle was once a private pew for the owners of Feniton Court. There is a priest’s door with a small Tudor arch, this also served as the door for the owners of Feniton Court. In 1967 the benches were removed and an altar front was constructed from the carved bench ends. These can be seen on the front of the main altar. Replacement seating was put in place and in 1966 the area became the Melanesian Chapel. Seats were again removed in 2008 and the area opened up to allow for small intimate services, a quiet area and a place for young children.

Behind the altar, forming a reredos, is a brass memorial and a stained glass window to Sir John Patterson, an eminent High Court judge, who lived at Feniton Court in the 19th century. It was suggested by Martin Harrison in his book “Victorian Stained Glass” that it was by the firm of O’Conner and supervised by William Butterfield who was an architect and a designer. Butterfield was working on Ottery church during 1850 so that may form the link as to commissioning of the window.

There is a slab on the floor in memory of the family, including that of his son, John Coleridge Patteson who was consecrated as the first Bishop of Melanesia in 1861 aged 33. He visited many of the islands which was not without its danger. Increasingly young men were being seized from the islands to become slaves in Fiji or Australia. In 1871 at the age of 44, in revenge for the loss of men taken as slaves, Bishop Patteson was clubbed to death on 20th September 1871 at Nukapu in the Santa Cruz group of islands. His body was placed in a canoe and returned to his ship, the Southern Cross, wrapped in a mat. Later he was buried at sea.
The mat was given to Bishop George Augustus Selwyn, Bishop of New Zealand, who was a close friend and mentor of Bishop Patteson as well as a family friend. In turn, he returned the mat to Bishop Patteson’s brother James, Bishop Patteson’s father having died 10 years earlier.
The family interred the mat in the family vault, which is at the east end of the churchyard. In 1905 a faculty was granted to remove the mat and it was returned to St Barnabas Cathedral in Honiara, Norfolk Island, in the Solomon Islands, where it can be seen and revered.
The illegal kidnapping of the young men from the Solomon Islands which brought about the murder of Bishop Patteson was largely ignored by the British government. It was not until his death that legislation was hurried through parliament in June 1872 to give protection to the Pacific islanders.
The six large Perpendicular windows in the south aisle together with an arcade between the nave and the aisle of five piers with standard capitals greatly enhance the appearance of the church.

Like other parts of the church the chancel has undergone many changes.
In 1904 a zinc reredos was removed and replaced with the present oak reredos, and in 1925 the oak panelling replaced curtains that were each side of the reredos.

An interesting feature in the chancel is the transi tomb. There are only 37 known in the UK, of which this is one of the finest. Transi tombs were used as a shock tactic to petition prayers for the dead to lessen their time in purgatory, others suggest that the memorials were erected by the individual during his life as an act of humiliation and to remind him and others of mortality and of the instability of human grandeur. Originally it was probably in the middle of the nave, then moved into the south side of the chancel, before finishing up in its present position. The fashion for this type of memorial came from France and was popular from the middle of the 14th century and into the 15th century,, but mainly 1420 to 1480.

There are various opinions as to whom the figure represents but the current thought is that it is William Malherbe, especially as his armorial can be seen above the north window. Whoever it was would have been a person of high position, firstly to be able to afford the memorial, which may have cost in those days, £500, secondly to be influential enough to warrant an allotted place within the church. Similar tombs, believed to be by the same sculptor, are in Lincoln and Southwark Cathedrals where they are memorials to early bishops.

The stained glass window above the altar was designed by Henry Holiday of Whitefriars and depicts St. Andrew, Christ, as the Bread of Life, and St. John. It was made by Powell and Sons of Whitefriars and recorded in their cashbook of 1878.

Tower and Bells:

The tower is believed to have been built circa 1550, low, square, and unbuttressed, the parapet is castellated. A winding stone staircase leads to the roof where the gargoyles can be seen in the corners of the tower. In 1553 there were three heavy bells, these were re-cast into five in 1707 at a cost of £32-10-0d, and a further 24lbs. of metal was needed, costing £1-6-6d. The treble was added in 1886. In 1656, there is a record that there was a church clock on the west front of the tower. In 1685 the sexton, a John Ashforde, was paid £1-0-0d a year for winding the clock. He was also paid 6s 8d as he was expected to “cleanse the Churche” and the churchyard as well as “do the dogwhippers offis.”
The fine window over the west door is early Perpendicular, considerably later than the tower. An open wooden staircase on the inner north wall leads to the ringing chamber, which was built in 1935.

Between 2003 and 2008 the church was re-roofed, all the old slates being removed and replaced with Delabole slates. Whilst this was being done we found that the dished shape of the trusses combined with the large number of nail holes indicated that frequent battens were used, suggesting that the roof was once thatched.
The south aisle roof contained timber felled in AD 1489-1514, supporting the late fifteenth/early sixteenth date assigned to it on stylistic grounds.

By the south door is a tomb of John Pring of Curscombe who died in 1620. It bears the warning “Prepare for Death”. Close by on a buttress on the southwest corner are the marks of a Mass or Scratch dial. On the wall of the tower is a memorial to Elizabeth and John Moore and their family, dated 1747-66. The oldest head stone can be found at the west end to Peter Brannscombe who died November 1600.
The lych gate, made by Hems of Exeter, was donated by the villagers to commemorate men of the village who died in World War I. The total cost was £267-0-0d of which £130-0-0d was paid on account, and £65-0-0d for local labour.

In 1914, the road around the churchyard was moved and the churchyard was enlarged by ¾ acre; a stone wall costing £140 enclosed it. Mr Rashleigh of Feniton Court gave the land, the church paid the legal costs of £180. The work was put out to tender and was completed in 1916.
On the north wall is a brick buttress which supports the oldest part of the building. It was built in 1719 and contains 2150 bricks, which cost at that time £2-13-9d. As mortar was expensive, note the thin layers holding the bricks together.

2008 Flood and Restoration

The flood was the result of a very heavy hailstorm which blocked the drains, this was followed by a cloudburst. The church was flooded to a depth of 21” causing considerable damage to the fabric and structure.
For three years the church could not be used, services took place in the school and/or the parishioners attended either Escot or Payhembury churches. Dealing with bureaucracy took two and  a half years, whilst the actual restoration took six months.
In 2010 the restoration was complete. New benches allowed the church to become an adaptable parish building complete with a toilet, a servery, new heating and lighting. The main entrance returned to the West end door thus giving direct access to the nave. The chancel and sanctuary were restored but unchanged from the 1877 restoration.

Old parish records are housed at the Devon Records office in Exeter. One Parish Register dates from 1549, another from 1653. There are also churchwarden’s and overseer’s accounts and Tithe Barn books, one dated 1588.
There is a chalice by J. Jons, of Exeter (1576) and an early 18th century alms dish.

Prayer Book Rebellion:
A meadow on the north side of the railway at Fenny Bridges, (Bloody Meadow) was the site of a battle in 1549 between the Government forces under Lord Russell who was advancing from Honiton to relieve the siege of Exeter and some Cornish villagers in open rebellion against the many changes ordered in the New Prayer Book of Edward VI. Though stubborn in their resistance, the rebels were defeated, yet Russell retreated to Honiton because he feared that the sounds of local church bells indicated a call to Cornish supporters. Could this have been the bells of St Andrew’s? On the following day Russell advanced to Clyst St. Mary and, brushing aside further opposition, relieved Exeter.

You have been standing in a church where Christians worship has been conducted for at least 800 years. The atmosphere of centuries of worship is here for visitors to experience quiet contemplation.

Our building reveals how in years gone by a church and manor worked together and village life centred round the church. The activities of priests, churchwardens, carpenters, masons, and other craftsmen are visible in wood and stone. Our aim is once again to make the church a hub in our community where all feel welcome.

Thank you for visiting our lovely church, we hope you have enjoyed its atmosphere of peace and rest. Above all, pray for us, that we remain faithful to our worship, our inheritance and that we preserve the spirit of God in our community and we will pray for you..