St Michael the Archangel – a brief history

It is possible that there was an earlier church building on this site. In 500 – 700 AD Celtic missionaries arrived in this area. A 12th century Norman font top was found buried in the church when alterations were carried out in 1865. It was thought to date from AD 1160 and, if this is accurate, confirms the existence of an earlier place of worship than the 1261 church.

Crediton, only twelve miles away, was the centre of Christianity from the eighth century, so there have undoubtedly been Christians here for a very long time. Until 1975 an old oak tree stood just outside the south wall of the churchyard, and was always known as “Cross Tree”. Perhaps the first meeting place of Christians was on this spot; could there have been a wooden chapel?

In 1196 the Norman, Henri de Chageford (or Kajefort) became Lord of the Manor and the church was built at the edge of the manor lands. The Bishop of Exeter, Bishop Branscombe, who dedicated many churches in Devon and Cornwall, dedicated the church to St. Michael the Archangel on July 30th 1261.

In 1306, in the reign of Edward I (1239 – 1307), Chagford, already an important local town, became by Charter one of the four Stannary towns of Devon, for the weighing, assaying and stamping of locally mined tin. The church then would probably have had a single central aisle with a chancel extending at the east end.

One of the windows of an earlier building is probably thirteenth century. The stonework is believed to be original, although the glass is definitely much later, and is now the west window (in the tower) having been moved when the tower was built. The present building was mainly built in the early part of the fifteenth century.

In the returns of St. Mary of the Chapel for 1482 (Churchwarden’s accounts for St Michael 1480 – 1600) there are entries showing the charges for building a Mary Chapel (Lady Chapel). One entry in particular is “3s 4d paid to Richard Stapulhgill for the head of the gabell windowe”. This must have been an important window; presumably the East window.

Over more than 700 years much work has been done on the church fabric. The early church was plastered, as can still be seen in many local churches. A medieval rood screen and loft were put up in 1524, to separate the chancel from the body of the church, as the church was used for many community activities – plays, pageants, dancing and feasts, and perhaps a market. At the same time an altar was installed in St. Katherine’s Chapel where the organ now stands. The guild of St. Katherine (regarded by some as the patron saint of Tinners) was considerable in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In 1530 there were 145 brothers and 129 sisters but then it declined rapidly. During its existence it rented the Church House and had a field called Katherine Hay.

The first mention of a clock was in 1488 when in the old Churchwarden’s accounts there is an entry for a “charge of two pence for a nut for the clock”. The present clock, made by Benison, was obtained by subscription in 1867. An electric mechanism was installed in 1962 and this was replaced in 2001.

The tower was completed in 1513. It used to have pinnacles to the four angle castellations. These were removed in 1914 as (in the words of Revd. Herbert Studdy, Rector) “the old ones were poor and dangerous and could not be repaired, nor were they worthy of the Tower”. New pinnacles were designed costing about £50 – 100 each. The Rector and Churchwardens strenuously opposed such expense and the pinnacles were never replaced. It is recorded that a new set of bells was hung when four old bells were sold, in 1537. The medieval church was full of paintings, but in 1551, in the reign of Edward VI, they were defaced and in 1857 the arches and pillars were scraped.

There is reference to an organ, which needed attention, in 1527, possibly sited in a gallery at the back of the church. It is recorded that in 1574 there was an organ with eighty-two pipes. However, in 1812 the singing was organised by the leader of the Parish Choir who was paid five pounds for instructing the singers. A sum of about two pounds was paid for bass viol and other string instruments. In 1853 the string band ceased to play and a new organ was presented by Mrs. Hayter-Hames.

In the granite floor of the sanctuary are several memorials of Hayters who succeeded each other as Rectors of Chagford and on the south side, an appealing verse commemorating Mary Whiddon. It is said that she was shot by a jealous former suitor as she left the church after her wedding in 1641.

This reads:

“Reader wouldst know who here is laid,
Behold a matron yet maid,
A modest look, a pious heart,
A Mary for the better part,
But dry thine eyes, why wilt thou weep –
Such damsels do not die but sleep.”

It is believed that this inspired R.D. Blackmore to write the story of Lorna Doone. A recent tradition has been established where every bride married in the church leaves a flower from her bouquet on Mary’s tomb as a simple gesture of love, luck and solidarity.

In 1865 there was a restoration of the interior of the church. The old high pews were removed and pitch pine ones were installed. The plaster, and remains of the paintings, were removed from the walls (traces of the plaster can still be seen) and the north and south Chancel screens were removed as they were found to be rotten. The centre aisle screen had been removed previously.

Five years later a gallery at the back of the church was removed, an arch into the tower was opened up and the organ was re-sited in the north-east corner (where St. Katherine’s Chapel once stood), the organ chamber and vestry having been added.

In the roof are several fine bosses; a whirlpool, a pelican, the instruments of the Crucifixion and, most famous of all, the ‘Tinners Rabbits’. In this image, each rabbit (or hare to be precise) has two ears, yet only three ears between them. Although this has traditionally been associated with tinners it has been found across the world and on the Silk Route as far as China.

In 1876, when the rood loft stairs were cleared out, the heads of four granite crosses were discovered. Could these have been those removed form the pinnacles of the tower as mentioned in “A History of Chagford” by Jane Hayter-Hames?

On Remembrance Sunday 1931, as the Reverend Cecil Holmes and the visiting preacher were leaving the Church, part of the ceiling collapsed. It was discovered that death-watch beetle had damaged the ceiling laths and supporting beams, and that the likely cost of repair would be over £2000. All the ceiling had to be removed, the roof stripped and re-slated, defective timbers replaced, damaged moulded bosses renewed and the whole treated with infestation liquid. The work was completed in 1933 at a final cost of £2,584-19-8 (£2,584.99). However the ceiling panelling was only replaced in the chancel and sanctuary.

As a Septcentenary thanksgiving in 1961, the whole church was re-floored in granite, the traditional material of Dartmoor A Ringers’ gallery was constructed in the tower with a choir vestry at ground level, and the Reredos and par close screens and organ front were re-gilded restoring a great deal of colour. More recently, in 2000, an appeal raised over £50,000 required to restore rotten beams in the tower, and replace and renew timbers and lead-work of the South porch roof.

In 2007 further re-ordering work was completed. This reinstated a balcony – with a glass balustrade giving a fine view of the ancient west window. Beneath this a combined meeting room and choir vestry (the Gabriel Room), servery, cloakroom and fitted storage were installed.

The ancient northwest doorway, which had been blocked up in the mid-20th century was re-opened, which gives flat access into the church, and a new glass and oak door installed. The old pitch-pine pews were removed from the back of the church and the font re-sited on the north side establishing a large narthex which creates a gracious space for baptisms, meetings and fellowship after church services.

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