The tower of the church is a prominent landmark as you approach the market town of South Molton from any direction.
The town has a long history, much of it closely connected with the churches that occupied this site.
Here you will find some of the intriguing history associated with St. Mary Magdalene Parish Church.
South Molton & the church :
South Molton has a long history, much of it closely connected with the churches that occupied this site.
The town originated around the church, and in the Middle Ages a square was laid out as a new market place. It has been a thriving town since the earliest days of recorded history.
The Doomsday Book of 1086 showed 4 priests here, indicating the importance the town held. On 18th December 1311 Bishop Walter de Stapledon is recorded as having ordained 185 priests in South Molton church. In 1534 a Suffragan Bishop of Molton was created with his see located at South Molton. The fact that this was one of the very first Suffragan, or assistant, bishops, to be created, shows the towns continued importance. Whilst new bishoprics a few years later saw an end to this status, the town continued to have important ecclesiastical standing.
The towns early wealth came about due to the wool trade, and whilst this was not so relevant by the 18th and 19th centuries, South Molton's role as a market town, serving this area of North Devon, saw businesses flourish. This resulted in the building of the Town Hall and Assembly rooms, and the opening of schools. By 1841 the census recorded a population of 4,274.
Whilst the church retains responsibility for the churchyard, today the footpaths that pass through it, which are all public rights of way, are in the charge of Devon County Council, and the remainder is maintained by South Molton Town Council as a 'green space'.
The churchyard appears to have been larger in the past, having included two chapels that were located outside the current boundaries, one dedicated to St. Anne, the other to St.John de Bridlington. These were recorded as still standing in 1449. It seems that the Corporation of South Molton were the Lessees of the Rectory for many years, but failed to prevent encroachment on the churchyard. The suggestion was that many had personal reasons for ignoring this, and indeed in 1831 the Corporation passed a resolution that effectively legalised the situation.
Following the English civil war, there was an attempted rebellion against the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Rebel leaders in the south west roamed the region recruiting supporters to their cause. Despite numbering 300-400 they found themselves cornered by a single troop of the well trained New Model Army, and were defeated after a three hour fight through the streets of South Molton on 14th March 1655. Royalist Sir Joseph Wagstaffe managed to escape by jumping his horse over the churchyard wall on the north side of the church. In 1930 a gate was added to this wall to make access easier, and to this day it is known as Wagstaffe’s Gate.
The current building is believed to be the third church on this site, but it is not known when the first was built. The Doomsday Book entry may indicate a church stood here at that time, but does not expressly refer to one.
The second is thought to have dated from between 1150 and 1270. The unusually thick walls of the chancel are thought to be 800 years old, and to be a remnant of that building.
We know a newly appointed Rector in 1410 complained to the Bishop of the grievous dilapidation of the chancel. It is likely that this was renovated, and then incorporated into the new church that was built over many years during the late 15th C.
The current building, which is built of sandstone rubble with a slate roof, is largely 15th C. This includes the tower at the west end which is built in four stages with buttresses. It has a crenelated parapet with finials, and grotesque waterspouts.
The building consists of a 5-bay nave with fine carved capitals. It was built in the shape of a Latin cross, the nave being 69' by 351/2' with aisles on either side 121/2' wide. The north and south transepts projected 101/2' and 121/2' respectively beyond the aisles. The chancel measured 22' by 23' with side aisles 14' wide. The main access is on the south side via a porch on which is fitted a sundial.
The 18th C. saw some major changes. In 1711-12 a gallery was erected at the west end of the nave to provide seating for 20 Bluecoat scholars and their masters. Originally the church had fine carved oak screens dividing the nave from the chancel, and what is now the Lady Chapel. Another screen went across the south transept, forming a chapel. It is possible the same applied to the north transept. In 1757-58 these screens were removed. Access to a loft on the rood screen was by the stone steps that can still be seen in the wall of the south transept. Some idea of what these screens may have looked like can be found by visiting St. Mary Magdalene church at Chulmleigh, some nine miles away to the south.
Further major alterations commenced in 1825, when the walls of the north and south aisles were demolished and rebuilt 71/2' further out, to allow for additional pews.
Galleries were also built along these walls, access to that on the north side being via steps built in the north west corner. The other gallery was reached by steps in the south transept, possibly those made redundant on the removal of the screens. The building of these galleries involved lengthening the windows on these walls to provide sufficient light. This work was completed in 1829.
The next major alteration was started in 1864. The arcades were out of perpendicular, and were restored. The roof of the nave was raised, and the clerestory windows added, in place of skylights that had previously been in the nave roof. All of the building was re-roofed at this time also. Galleries located at the west end were removed, and by public poll the decision was taken to remove the gallery on the south side.
The remaining gallery appears to have remained until 1900, when quite a lot of work was carried out. At this time also the current organ was installed, being the work of W.G.Vowles, a well respected firm from Bristol. This was the latest of several organs installed in the church over the years. These had been located at various points around the building. New choir stalls were fitted, and marble used to pave the chancel.
Rural Dean's Book for South Molton Parish Church 1831-1990 (now held in North Devon Record Office, Barnstaple.) Records of the Borough of South Molton by John Cock Jnr. (1893)
features worth looking out for:
the bells of st. mary Magdalene:
It is known that there were bells in the tower before 1620. However no record exists as to how many, or their weight.
It is known that five new bells were hung here in 1620. The total weight of the bells being 73 1/2 cwt. (about 3 1/2 tons.)
In 1807 eight new bells were hung, the tenor being 23cwt. 3qt. ( over a ton ) in weight. The eight bells cost £920.6s.8d, though with the added expense of ropes, clappers, headstocks, wheels, and carriages etc. the bill came to £1,021.17s.8d ( At 2012 values this is in the region of £45,000. ) The cost was partly offset by selling the original five bells for £546.8s0d
In 1935 at a cost of £700.0s0d, Taylors of Loughborough re-hung the eight bells on steel frames, and with ball bearings. (At 2012 values this is in the region of £42,000)
In 1937 the Tenor was found to be cracked, so was re-cast by Taylors with a new weight of 24cwt. 3qt. 12lb. one hundredweight heavier than originally cast in 1807.
Richard Trehern - former Tower Captain
what is that?
Standing at the back of church looking towards the altar, look up high above the chancel steps. Beneath the whitewash you can probably make out a shape of what people usually describe as a Star of David. In reality this is probably only the framework for an elaborate decoration that used to adorn this space. When exactly this was removed is unknown, but a book written by John Cock Jnr. in 1893, before this was done, gives the following description." The east end of the Nave has no 'Chancel Arch' or arch of stone separating it from the Chancel, but the space between the Chancel roof and the Nave roof is lined with wood, richly ornamented, with this inscription, 'Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts. Who was, and is, and is to come', but what authority there is for these words I do not know." This appears to be a form of the Sanctus combining Isaiah Ch.6 v.3, and Revelations Ch.4 v.8
buried A YEAR AFTER DEATH ?
There are many interesting monuments and plaques on the walls, but one that may raise an eyebrow is on the north wall, and is in memory of John Cruse, the first Master of Hugh Squier's Free School in South Molton.
Hugh Squier is known as South Molton's Great Benefactor - his bust can be seen on the front of the Town Hall. All his children had died young, and he had no heirs, so devoted himself to good causes in the town.
One of these was the founding of the school that bore his name in 1686. The original "Deed of Endowment and Appointment of Trustees" held in the North Devon Record Office states " Instructions to Trustees: 20 children of poor people of South Molton to be chosen by the trustees to be educated freely at the school in writing and arithmetic. Children of gentlemen may also attend. Latin may be included. Aim of the school 'to promote the arts of good writeing and arithmetick and for the good of the poor, more than the science of grammar or Latin for the good of the rich'. Salaries: writing schoolmaster to be paid £20 p/a plus dwelling house adjoining school; Latin schoolmaster to be paid £20 p/a."
The Latin inscription on the plaque states of Cruse "Who having been unwearied by distinguished piety and labour of a pastoral life was panting for and at last through various incurable diseases breathed-in, Eternity"
The dates on his monument would appear to suggest he was buried some 12 months after his death, however the confusion is due to the Julian calendar that was in use. In England the date of the new year altered over time, varying between 25th December, 1st January, or 25th March ( the equinox). From 1087 to 1155 the English year began on 1st January, and from 1155 to 1751 the 25th March. In 1752 it reverted to the 1st January.
In reality therefore Cruse was buried just a few days after his death.
In his will Cruse left "To the ch[urch] of South Molton £15 to be bestowed in a silver flagon for the Communion table, & as for the management & Procurement of the s[ai]d flagon, I leave it to William Arundell, Rector of Filleigh & Lewis Southcombe, Rector of Roseash." This flagon remains in the possession of the church today.