St Michael’s: a short history
It is possible there was an earlier church building of this site. In 500-700 AD, Celtic missionaries arrived in this area. A 12th century Norman font 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 1251 church. Sadly it was broken and the pieces were preserved in Chagford House (formerly the rectory) gardens, but it is notknown where.
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 the “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 the 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, 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. 0rmerod, in his Historical Sketch of the Parish of Chagford, concludes that, probably up to 1482, the original church did not extend eastwards beyond the screen. An inspection of the capitals of the pillars near the screen seems to support this theory for they are different from all the others. The construction of the church suggests that the aisles are essential to the structural stability of the whole building and thus could not have been added later. Also inspection of the external stonework over the Nave windows, on both the north and south elevations, shows stone relieving arches over the head drip mouldings whereas the windows of the chancel do not have such arches. Another clue may be by close examination of the stone coursing and bonding externally. Where the stone work of the chancel meets the Nave it does not course correctly. Could it be that the headless figure of the lamb on the ridge of the roof signalled the extension of the church to include a Chancel and Sanctuary?
0rmerod also said that, judging from the style of the architecture and whirlpools, or gurges, in the bosses of the roof, it is probable that the great family of Gorges were the promoters of the present building. This family had a great influence in the Patish between 1439 and 1461 being descended, in the female line, from the Wibberi family.
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 Stapiulhgill for the head of a 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 as the church was used for many community activities – plays, pageants, dancing and feasts, and perhaps a market – to separate the chancel from the body of the church. At the same time an alter 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 wefe145 brothers and 129 sisters but then it declined rapidly. During its existence it tented 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 far 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 Towel”. New pinnacles were designed costing about £50 – £100 each. The Rectorl and churchwardens strenuously opposed such expense and the pinnacles were never replaced. It is recorded that a new set of bells was hung when foul old bells were sold, in 1537.
The medieval church was full of paintings, but in 1551, in the reign of Edwald VI, they were defaced and in 1857 the arches and pillars were scraped.
There is a 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 organized 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 1565 there was a restoration of the interior of the church. The old high pews were removed and pitch pine ones were installed (which are now the “old” pews at the back of the church.) 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 in 1870 a gallery at the back of the church was removed, an arch into the tower was opened and the organ was resited in the north-east corner (where St. Katherine’s chapel once stood), the organ chamber and vestry having been added.
In 1876, when the rood loft stairs were cleared out, the heads of four granite crosses were discovered. Could these have been those removed from the pinnacles of the tower as mentioned in A History of Chagford by Jane Hayter-Hames?
On Rembrance 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 £2,000.
All the ceiling had to be removed, the roof stripped and reslated, 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 £2,584.99. However the ceiling panelling was only replaced in the chancel and sanctuary. The roof was again treated against death-watch beetle in the early 1960’s and it is recorded that “we cannot complete the restoration by replacing the plaster until we are satisfied that the beetle is no longer active”.
As a Septcentenary thanksgiving in 1961, Mr. Dykes Bower, at one time surveyor of the fabric of Westminster Abbey, was engaged to direct work on a n1umber of alterations. The whole church was refloored in granite, the traditional material of Dartmoor, a Ringer’s gallery was constructed in the tower with a choir vestry at ground level, and the Reredos and parclose screens and organ front were re-guilded restoring a great deal of colour. 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.
Most recently, the ancient North West door which had been blocked up in the mid 20m century was reopened in late 2006-2007 during reordering of the west end of the church with a new glass-panelled oak door.
A combined meeting room and choir Vestry – the Gabriel room – with a servery and cloakroom was installed in 2006-2007. The extended gallery has a glass balustrade giving a fine view of the ancient west window. The tower screen doors, part of the Septcentenary thanksgiving offering dated 1261-1961, were retained.