Bideford Catholic Churches

Catholic churches of Bideford and Torrington

An Outline of the History of Christianity in North West Devon

by John Bradbeer

The aim of this piece is to outline some of what is known of the history of the Christian church in the modern Roman Catholic parish of Bideford. The Roman Catholic parish covers most of what might be regarded as North West Devon but the history of Christianity in this area cannot be neatly separated from other parts of Devon and so while the focus will remain on the area south and west of Bideford, other parts of northern Devon will also be mentioned frequently and comparisons made with other parts of Devon and the wider South West. The post-Reformation history of Devon is a complex matter and is only dealt with here in fairly superficial terms, compared with the history up to the mid sixteenth century.

The Roman Empire officially became Christian in the fourth century AD with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine the Great. Whether Roman Devon became Christian in the period c 330-420 AD is highly speculative. Indeed, even the notion of Roman Devon is at best enigmatic. There is very little archaeological evidence of Roman occupation in Devon, and most of that lies around Exeter. While this evidence is clear in itself, quite what it all means in a wider context is very uncertain. It is known that as part of the conquest the Roman VI legion moved westwards from central southern England and stormed several hillforts, most notably Maiden Castle, just outside Dorchester. However, the impressive hillforts of East Devon, such as Hembury, near Honiton, were not scenes of battles and it is generally assumed that the British Dumnonii of Devon and Cornwall, actively, or passively, collaborated with the Romans. As scholars have pointed out, this might imply that some at least of the local elite would have become Romanised and built themselves villas, particularly around the cantonal capital Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter). When the A30 was widened in the 1970s, many archaeologists expected to find evidence of villas along its route, itself largely that of the Roman Fosse Way and the Roman road from Exeter to Dorchester. However, no new villas came to light and quite what the status of Roman Dumnonia was remains enigmatic. The relevance of Roman villas to the history of Christianity is that at several such sites elsewhere in England, evidence of Christianity has been found.

In the north of the county, metal detectorists have found scatters of Roman coins in recent years but more extensive archaeology is very rare. There are Roman fortlets that acted as signal stations at Martinhoe and Old Burrow, Countisbury (and possibly within the Iron Age site at Hillsborough, Ilfracombe), all of which functioned only for a few decades in the immediate aftermath of the Claudian invasion of Britain in the first century AD. There is a Roman marching camp near Alverdiscott, a temporary structure occupied by a legion or detachment overnight, again probably from the first century AD, although no dating evidence has been found. The principal non-military archaeology of the Roman period is found in the Bray valley, around Brayford, where iron mining and processing took place. On the basis of the slag left behind, it is thought that several thousand tons of iron was produced, with perhaps annual production of a hundred or two hundred tons. The iron must have been taken out by horse train and then shipped to centres supplying the Roman army with iron for weaponry, armour, and nails, not just for construction but also for the hob-nailed sandals, the standard foot-wear for the Roman soldier. Whether local Britons or people from outside Devon were the principal actors is not known, but trade like this with the rest of Roman England could have offered a way for Christianity to spread to northern Devon.

Image of Old Burrow Roman fortlet as it may have looked around 60 AD (Reconstruction by Bill Bennett)

A suggested reconstruction of the Roman fortlet at Old Burrow, Countisbury
(Reconstruction by Bill Bennett - Source Exmoor National Park Authority)

The Roman army was formally withdrawn from Britain in 410 AD and in much of England Roman life seems to have continued broadly as before for a generation or two. Whatever the nominal status of Christianity was in post-Roman Dumnonia, northern Devon and Cornwall became the focus of missionary activity, predominantly from south Wales in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is difficult to talk about this missionary effort without mentioning "The children of Brychan". Brychan was a fifth(?) century Welsh king of probable Irish descent who had a remarkable family of children, anywhere from eight to forty in number according to different legends. He is probably not to be associated with St Brannock of Braunton, who may or may not be one of Brychan's children. Morwenna (of Morwenstow, just across the Cornish border), Nectan (of Hartland and Welcombe) and John (of Instow) are generally regarded as three of Brychan's children. Many legends attach to these saints, with that of St Nectan having echoes in other hagiographies. He was beheaded by heathens and then, picking up his head, he walked home to his hermitage by his holy well. St Nectan's wells exist at both Hartland and Welcombe and the legend goes on to claim that where the blood from his severed head fell, then foxgloves sprang up. St Nectan's feast-day was celebrated on June 17, at about the time that foxgloves usually come into flower.

Saints Fili, Kai and Rumon are thought to have passed through northern Devon on their way from Glastonbury to Cornwall, although whether they travelled overland entirely or made some of the journey by sea is not known. St Kai, (Key or Quay) is commemorated in Landkey or lan kai, the church enclosure of Kai; Fili may or may not be the origin of Filleigh and Rumon is commemorated in Romanleigh, SE of South Molton, although here it is almost certain that the church bears his name because it was a possession of Tavistock Abbey, which obtained relics of St Rumon from Cornwall. St Petrock is commemorated in both Petrockstow (the church place of St Petrock) and Newton St Petrock, but here, as at Romansleigh it is probable that the dedication comes about as result of ownership in this case by Bodmin Abbey, where relics of St Petrock were held. The other Celtic saint with possible associations to North Devon is St Brendan, to whom the church at Brendon is dedicated. Place-name scholars are content that Brendon comes from Anglo-Saxon breme dun, hill where broom grows, but with known Celtic dedications at Culbone and Watchet in Somerset, it would not be impossible that the cult of St Brendan reached here in the sixth to eighth centuries.

Scholars have observed that Celtic saints' cells in Wales, Devon and Cornwall and Brittany are often to be found on small tributary valleys of estuaries but almost always just out of sight of the open sea. The site of St Brannock's church in Braunton fits this description perfectly as does Landcross (or lan carse ? the church enclosure in the marsh). It is tempting to suggest that Bishops Tawton and Tawstock have similar sites and at Fremington, there is a clear church enclosure, even though there is nothing else to suggest Celtic connections. Another possible church enclosure, although not occupying a valley site, is at West Down, which will be mentioned again later. Braunton is an interesting and intriguing site. The church lies some distance from Cross Tree, the principal cross-roads at the heart of the medieval village. Scholars now agree that the probable origin of Braunton Great Field (the last survivor of three large open fields at Braunton) lies in the ownership of the village by Glastonbury Abbey in the ninth century. Glastonbury Abbey systematically reorganised its estates with open fields and the late Mick Aston (of Time Team fame) has shown at Shapwick in Somerset, Glastonbury Abbey completed reshaped both the agrarian and settlement structure creating open fields, removing scattered farmsteads and even moving the church to the newly created nucleated village. At Braunton, it is tempting to think that the prestige attached to St Brannock's cell meant that when the village was reshaped and the open fields laid out around it, the church could not be relocated and so it occupies a rather peripheral position.

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Lundy Island seems to play an important part in Celtic Christianity in North Devon. A probable church enclosure exists by the Old Light and excavation work there has identified the foundations of what might be a round tower, of the type familiar in Ireland (at Glendalough in Co Wicklow, for instance). Charles Thomas, the Celtic scholar, also speculates on the dedications of churches to St Helen. She is celebrated as the mother of Constantine the Great and the finder of the True Cross, but Thomas wonders whether the original dedications were not to St Ilen, an Irish saint. He notes that the known dedications to Saint Helen, of the island church, that at Abbotsham and the chapel at Croyde, would be visible each from the other. He also speculates that St Brychan himself retreated from Breconshire to the monastic settlement on Lundy and that the Welsh name for Lundy was Ynys Brychan. Lundy is also the location of several inscribed stones.

Inscribed stones are a characteristic feature of Celtic Christianity and most are memorials usually with the inscription in Latin ?X son of Y? Examples from the North Devon mainland were found around Exmoor, at Caffyns Down outside Lynton and one now lost which stood in Parracombe parish before being incorporated into a bridge subsequently destroyed in the floods of 1952. In 2013 another stone was located in a garden at West Down and it is just possible that it once stood in the church enclosure at the heart of the village.

Celtic Christianity was not organised around parishes or dioceses as we would know them, but rather around monasteries or monastic cells and operated through kinship connections rather than territorial divisions. The cult of the founder (and indeed also of his or her spiritual patron) was strong, which perhaps accounts for the survival of some of the church sites and holy places from the shadowy period from c 500 to 750 AD.

In the late seventh and eighth centuries AD Devon was gradually incorporated into the kingdom of Wessex. Fifty or a hundred years ago, one would have talked about the Saxon Conquest of Devon. Scholars now think that the Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia slowly crumbled and people from Wessex moved gradually into the spaces left behind and that there were relatively few battles. We certainly know that people from Devon and Cornwall left for what is now Brittany and that they gave their names to parts of the north coast (Domnon'e) and the south west coast (Cornouaille). Whether this was a mass movement or just an exodus of local elites and some key retainers will never been resolved. Equally, we should be cautious in describing the people arriving from Wessex as Saxons. They certainly spoke Saxon but modern thinking is that these were as likely to be the descendants of Romanised Britons and nominally Christian as to be people of recent German origin. Both in Wessex and in Devon there remains the enigma as to why we speak English and not a Celtic language akin to modern Welsh. If the truly Saxon settlers were numbered in hundreds rather than thousands and the surviving British population certainly numbered a few tens of thousands, quite how the minority imposed its language on the clear majority is a mystery. That there were British people in Wessex is attested by their being mentioned specifically in the laws of King Ine, but to add further to the paradox, place-names of obvious Celtic origin are far commoner in Dorset than they are in Devon, even in west Devon adjacent to the Cornish border. In fact a common misconception is that the Tamar formed an ancient boundary between Anglo-Saxon Devon and Celtic Cornwall. In practice, the linguistic boundary is far more complex, with a cluster of Anglo-Saxon place names around Callington in SE Cornwall and then the boundary leaves the Tamar, just north of Launceston and follows the river Ottery and reaches the north coast around Widemouth Bay, south of Bude. Until local government reorganisation in 1973, the parishes of North Petherwin and Werrington on the west bank of the Tamar were in Devon. Historians feel sure that the Ottery line represents a treaty boundary and so settlement by newcomers from Wessex was sufficiently dense to effasce the original Cornish place names.

As the kingdom of Wessex expanded westwards, a new diocese was created at Sherborne in 705 and this acted as the mother church of Somerset, Dorset and Devon as they came under Saxon control. By 909, Wessex had firm control over its western lands and new bishoprics were established at Wells (for Somerset) and Crediton (for Devon). King Athelstan is generally regarded as the ruler who finally extinguished Cornish independence and in 931 he established a bishopric at St Germans for Cornwall. From 1046, Leofric had been bishop of both Devon and Cornwall and in 1050, the dioceses were formally merged and a new see established at Exeter.

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The Saxon church was, however quite different in many respects from the late medieval church. In particular, there was no formally recognised parish structure and whilst many communities had their own local churches and some great land-owners had churches attached to their manorial headquarters, there were no clergy residing in their own parishes. Instead, the Saxon church was organised around minsters, large churches with many clergy based in them. At this time too, it must be remembered that many priests were married, with only monks taking the vow of celibacy. The word minster means great church in Anglo-Saxon and is itself a Latin derived word. Priests from the minsters travelled around their extensive territories to say Sunday mass and to baptise children. Weddings and funerals were supposed to be celebrated at the minster church, although it seems that funerals increasingly came to be held more locally. It is known that Braunton, Hartland and South Molton all had minster churches and it is most likely that there were others in northern Devon, although there is now no physical or documentary record. The earliest churches were almost certainly wooden structures and of quite modest proportions. No trace of any has been found and it is most likely that they lie somewhere under the stone built churches that replaced them in the period from c 1000 to c 1200.

This period also saw the emergence of the parish structure and one of the effects of the Norman Conquest was to regularise diocesan organisation, with resident and celibate priests residing in their parishes and overseen by rural deans and archdeacons. Incidentally, the emergence of diocesan organisation was responsible for a partial renaming of settlements. The archdeacon and the bishop's curia needed to know which, for instance, of the several Torringtons was being referred to and so the prefixes of Black (after the alleged colour of the Torridge), Great and Little were used. Bideford itself is probably a late intrusion into the Saxon settlement structure, which originally included what are now Abbotsham, Littleham and Northam (and until the late nineteenth century there was a detached portion of Northam parish lying to the south of Bideford). So this original "Ham" was divided and distinguished by Abbots (after the ownership of the manor by the Abbot of Tavistock), North (the part lying in the north of the territory) and Little, being the smaller settlement. Elsewhere in northern Devon the dedication of the church was used to distinguish parishes, so we find Georgeham, George Nympton, and Mariansleigh (this deriving from St Marina) for instance. Other parishes become doubled-barrelled compounds like Buckland Brewer and Milton Damerel where the second element is the family name of the original lords of the manor.

Another longer-term impact of the Norman Conquest was the spread of abbeys and priories with their regular clergy. At Hartland, the minster church was replaced with an abbey of Augustinian canons about 1160, which in many respects was a like for like change and in turn, a few canons from Hartland went to establish a new house at Frithelstock c 1230. Northern Devon has relatively few medieval monastic houses, and the Benedictines at Pilton and Cluniacs at Barnstaple (on a site near the now demolished St Mary Magdalene church off Bear Street) are the other sites.

One of the most interesting studies of very late medieval Catholicism is that by Eamon Duffy, Voices from Morebath. Morebath is the last parish in Devon on the border with Somerset, just east of Bampton. Its churchwarden's accounts for the sixteenth century have survived and are unusually detailed. Duffy has shown a thriving and devout community with its particular devotion to St Sidwell and the accounts list candles purchased to be lit in front of the shrine. The accounts also record the purchase of new vestments and then, during the reign of Edward VI when a more vigorously Protestant ecclesiastical policy was followed, the careful concealment of these. Perhaps most astonishingly, the accounts also record payments to men of the parish to join the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 against these more extreme Protestant measures. The Rebellion was put down with great violence, culminating in the Battle of Fenny Bridges, to the east of Exeter. The churchwardens made fitful attempts to conceal what they had done and not until Duffy looked in detail at the accounts did the true story re-emerge. None of the handful of churchwarden's accounts from the rest of Devon give such a vivid picture of pre-Reformation Catholicism, but it would be foolish to presume that Morebath were to be in anyway exceptional.

One of the great enigmas of Devon's history is how an area quite staunchly Catholic even as late as the 1540, could have become a hot-bed of Puritanism by about 1600. That this happened is in no doubt but quite when and how is shrouded in mystery. War with Spain, the predominant Catholic power and the equation of Catholicism with treason must have played a part but a degree of indifference to religion and religious dogma is as likely an outcome as the actual swing to forms of Protestantism that the English authorities found unsettling. Ports and manufacturing towns seem to have been more open to Calvinism and more extreme forms of Protestantism. When the English Civil War broke out in 1641, there was little doubt that the towns and much of the countryside of North Devon would declare enthusiastically for Parliament. Even Torrington, which now claims to be "The Cavalier Town" on its signboards, seems to have declared for Parliament although by no means as unanimously as did Barnstaple and Bideford.

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At the Restoration in 1660, Puritan clergy who had become established in parish churches were required to take an oath conforming to the less Calvinist Church of England or be expelled from their livings. Many clergy in North Devon were so affected and the Independent (ie Protestant dissenter) congregations date from this time when many of the people left the established church with their ministers. The now Presbyterian congregations in Barnstaple and Bideford have their origins at this time and some of the Baptist chapels in rural North Devon also were established in the century after 1660. The brothers Charles and John Wesley, with George Whitefield the founders of modern Methodism, preached throughout Devon and Cornwall in the eighteenth century, although without initially a great deal of success. The late eighteen and early nineteenth century saw their successors achieve significant gains for the various forms of Methodism. North Devon had its own Methodist denomination, the Bible Christians. In 1815, a dissident Methodist minister, William O'Bryan, preached at Shebbear and gave rise to the Bible Christian movement. O'Bryan proved to be a controversial figure and the Bible Christian movement was saved from collapse by James Thorne, of Shebbear, who is now commemorated by the James Thorne Chapel in Bear Street in Barnstaple (actually now called Christ Church following the local merger of the United Reformed Church and Methodist churches). The Bible Christians were an effective proselytising force for a couple of generations and perhaps a third or more of the non-conformist chapels in North Devon were built by them (many distinguished by foundation plaques high on the gable end of the chapel saying BC and often naming the chapel in a suitably Old Testament fashion as 'Hope' 'Reuben' 'Salem' etc). However, the later nineteenth century saw major rural depopulation in North Devon and poorer and chapel going people tended to be among the first to leave and by 1901 hardly any rural parishes had even two-thirds of their population level in 1851. The Bible Christians merged first with some other Methodist denominations in 1907 and then in 1932 with almost all the other Methodist denominations to reform the modern Methodist church. These amalgamations allowed a considerable rationalisation of chapels which has continued into the twenty-first century.

The revival of Roman Catholicism in North Devon has not been well documented, although the History of the Sacred Heart Church in Bideford written by Fr Dennis Collin, does give the outlines of the church in Bideford. Devon had a handful of recusant families, those that clung to the Catholic faith through the difficult period from 1660 until Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850. The branch of the Chichesters at Youlston near Shirwell remained loyal to Catholicism until the 1820s and then conformed to the Church of England. So Catholicism in North Devon awaited converts in the mid-nineteenth century and, unlike some other parts of England, there was no significant Irish immigration. Slow growth in the number of Catholics was a characteristic of the twentieth century partly by conversion and partly as part of a growing mobility of population, with people leaving urban centres where Catholicism was less exotic than in rural North Devon.

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