History: Parkham Church – a brief history


Early Christians

Christianity was introduced into this country by Roman soldiers and merchants. In 209, St Alban became the first British martyr. Some hundred years later in 306, Constantine was proclaimed emperor in Britain and became the first Christian emperor. But, the barbarians, pushing in from the northern steppes, were sapping the strength of the Roman Empire and so in 410, the Emperor Honorius told the Britons “that they must henceforth defend themselves against the Picts, Scots and Saxons”. Briton then ceased to be a Roman province. The invading Saxons drove the Britons into the west and all but wiped out Christianity in what had been Roman Briton. The Romans had never established effective control over the south-west and hence Christianity was not widespread here. As the Britons moved westwards to escape the Saxons, Christianity began to percolate into the region. 

The conversion of the south-west therefore started long before the mission of St Augustine in 597. Evangelists like St Petroc, perhaps the most important of the British Celtic saints, had been active in the south-west, in the old kingdom of Dumnonia since the fifth century. In fact, having established episcopal sees at Cantebury, London and Rochester, Augustine failed to assert his authority over the established Christians of Dumnonia. The Greek monk Theodore of Tarsus, who was to organise and unify the English church in the early part of the eighth century, did not extend his influence into the south-west. It was not until the establishment of the bishopric of Exeter under Leofric at the turn of the millennium that the Celtic Church was replaced by the Roman canon. King Egbert, who may be considered the first King of all the English, annexed this area into the kingdom of Wessex in 836 and helped to pave the way for the unity of the church under the see of Rome. Then, some two hundred years later, came the Normans!

Over a thousand years of human endeavor condensed into a single paragraph is likely to skimp on a few details but our purpose is only to set the scene for the emergence of Parkham into recorded history.

Sir Baldwin Belston, sheriff of Devon, acquired the Manor of Percheham in the eleventh century, during the Conquest. The Courtenays acted as over-lords of the manor on his behalf. The manor was later divided, a third part being acquired by the Beaumonts. With their share went the advowson, that is the right of presentation to a benefice.

The church

The present church is of Norman origin but it is likely that an Anglo-Saxon church previously occupied the same site. Unfortunately we have no direct record of its existence only the circumstantial evidence from the Domesday Book that the value of the Manor of Parkham was rapidly increasing at that time. Such prosperity would suggest that a church may have been in existence to serve the community.

The Norman church was constructed by Sir Baldwin Belston, Lord of Parkham and Okehampton.

The church consists of a nave, chancel, north and south aisles, and an embattled western tower. The church is large, measuring 94 feet in length and presents from the outside a rather imposing spectacle with its fine Devonshire tower, 22 feet square, the pinnacles of which rise to 84 feet. The principal doorway, on the south side, like so many in this part of England, has survived not only the attacks of time but even more amazingly, the restorations to which the building has been at intervals subjected. The arch which is of the horse-shoe rather than the perpendicular style is enriched by three bands of molding. The architraves are ornamented  by small intersecting circles in slight relief. A single plain round shaft is used on each side, the bases and capitals being of ordinary style.

Beyond the entrance door little remains of the Norman church. However, during the restoration work that was commissioned by the Rev E Hensley in 1869, a few stones cut in Norman patterns, possibly fragments of a former window head or a larger arch, were discovered embedded in the walls while re-building the east end of the church. Also, the Norman font remains. Rev. Hensley comments in his notes that “its historical interest is somewhat marred by the excessive zeal of the workman who cleaned off the paint and white-wash, deposited by centuries of church wardens. He has allowed his chisel to penetrate rather too deeply for a perfect restoration of the rough cut original”.

It is worthy note that in Morwenstow’s Church, some 20 miles south of Parkham, in addition to a beautiful Norman doorway and porch, three Norman arches in the nave of the church have been preserved. On one of the architraves of one of the arches can be seen some small details corresponding very closely with similarly placed details in the Parkham doorway. Further, at the spring of the arch in the Parkham doorway there is the head of a knight on one side, probably Sir Baldwin Belston’s, and a ram on the other. The same detail is also to be found on the centre arch in the nave of St Morwenna’s church in Morewenstow’s. It is possible therefore that the work may have been executed by the same master craftsman. (It is difficult to refer to Morewenstow without mentioning the Rev. Robert Stephen Hawker who is credited with the introduction of the Harvest Festival in 1842 in celebration of the good harvest of that year which came  as a welcome relief during the period now referred to as the ‘Hungry Forties’. He is also reputed to have enjoyed sitting in his hut overlooking the sea, smoking opium and writing poetry!)

The main body of the church dates from about 1450. The tower was probably added about a century later. In 1563 the church was fitted with oak benches having handsome carved ends, some of which are still preserved in the east-end of Alwington Church, having been ejected by a former generation of restorers to make way for cubicles. Of the cubicles Rev Hensley comments, “ they in their turn are now, and it is hoped permanently, dismissed”.

The North Aisle of the church was built by Giles Risdon of Bableigh c1530. In the floor of the aisle is a stone slab inscribed with his name on one face of the slab and his wife’s name, Katherine, on the other. It was probably about the this time that the four perpendicular windows on the south side of the South Aisle were inserted. These would have replaced granite headed windows like those on the north side of the nave. In The South Aisle is a stone slab inscribed, with old English lettering, to Richard.

There are various inscriptions to members of the Giffard family of Halsbury. Halsbury was already an ancient possession of Walter de Halsbury in the twelfth century. Through the marriage of Peter de Halsbury’s daughter to Sir Bartholomew Giffard in the thirteenth century these families merged. In 1885 the then Lord Halsbury became Lord Chancellor. This family has had a long association with St James’ Church, many of whose ancestors are buried here.

There were four bells in the tower in 1778. In that year the Rev. T Swindale gave his consent to the bells being re-cast. This is note-worthy as his predecessor Rev. H Bawden had refused such permission. Why is not clear. The new bells were cast in the north-west part of the church yard by the brothers John, Christopher and William Pennington of Buckland Brewer. The tenor bell weighs about 9cwt and in total the six bells weigh nearly 30cwt. The bells were hung using wood provided by the Rector from the Parsonage wood. The resulting peel has been described as the “choicest peel in the County of Devon”. The old clappers were formed into a candlestick for the belfry. Total cost, £65.

The face of the South wall was rebuilt in 1790. By 1869 the church was in a very dilapidated condition and the Rev. Edward Hensley undertook a complete restoration of the church that was to take six years. The work was undertaken by the builder, Mr H Jewell of Parkham, and the stonemason, Mr F Squire of Bideford, under the direction of the architect Mr R W Drew of London.

The roofs were entirely renewed, the walls being first raised. These are very massive, the roof of the choir and chancel are of oak, and are good examples of the Devonshire barrel roof.

The tower was re-pointed and restored. The parapets are built in squares and are in partly coloured stone work, Bath stone and local stone, which is rather unusual.

Another unusual aspect of the restoration work is the seating. The old high pews were removed but instead of the low modern seats we are accustomed to see in restored churches, low pitch-pine moveable benches with open backs, after the model of Chester Cathedral were installed. The Chancel was supplied with oak Glastonbury chairs and the choir fitted with oak seats with open carved tracery in walnut.

As Rev Hensley observes “On the whole the church has been restored in such a manner as to make it make it rank amongst the finest churches in the Diocese”. The restoration was completed in 1875 and the church re-open by Dr Temple, Bishop of Exeter on Monday 4th October, on the 300th anniversary of the publication of the English Bible by Miles Coverdale, Bishop of Exeter. A number of specimens of the earliest printed English Bibles were exhibited by the rector at the opening. The cost of the restoration was about £2000 and was largely borne by the Rev Hensley himself, with help from Hon. Mark Rolle, J. R Pine-Coffin  Esq. and Mrs Graves (Foxdown).

In 1887 the six bells were re-hung by Taylor, of Loughborough.

In more recent times an organ, built in 1934 by George Osmond & Co of Taunton has been installed.

The School

The Saxon churches were used as schools for the people and this function continued for some generations after the conquest. In the thirteenth century, Father Richard and Father Peter, earliest of Parkham’s rectors of which we know anything, were probably scholars who were resident in the parish and taught in their church.

According to a statement in Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary, schools existed in the parish of Parkham “supported by the united bequests of John Lovering 1671 and Wear Giffard”. However, no trace of such a bequest has been discovered.

In about 1630, the Church House was built to the south of the west end of the church. The first recorded parish school was situated here. The Church House had formerly been the  Poorhouse but certainly by 1840, the date of the Tithe Map, it was in use by the school, who were still in occupation when the premises were formally conveyed by the Guardians of the Poor to the Minister and Churchwardens for the National School. Here the school continued until a new National School was built by the Rector, the Rev. E Hensley, in 1865 and called Parkham Rectory School. The school had 130 pupils. The Church House then became the parish rooms until 1957 when Allardice Hall was opened.

A School Board was formed in 1873 and in 1877 they purchased the National School with the teacher’s house for £550. After the 1902 Education Act, which abolished School Boards, it continued under the Local Education Authority as a Council School and became a Junior School when the seniors were moved in 1947. It is now the District Primary School.

The Rev. Edward Hensley made copious notes during his period as rector (1864-89). A lot of the foregoing history is drawn from these notes.

Rectors of Parkham

Dominus Richard de Parkham (c1236)

Master Richard although probably not the first parson of Parkham is the first of whom we now have any trace and of him we have only a glimpse. In an agreement, still extant, between the Abbot of Hartland and the Prior of Frithelstock of the time of Henry III, Master Richard de Parkham signed as a witness.

Dominus Peter de Parkham (c1272 )

Master Peter was Rector of Parkham in the time of Edward I.

Of the life or death of Master Peter there are no records at the Diocesan Registry at Exeter. The earliest entries date from 1257 so it is probable he was appointed in the time of Henry III, before 1257. We know of  Master Peter’s existence through a small parchment deed of the time of Edward I, written in Latin, that had been preserved among the papers of the Coffin family of Portledge. The document is a grant by William Coplia, Lord of Alwington to Peter, Son of Thomas de Hakaland of a tract of land, to which the name of Master Peter de Parkham is attached as the first among many witnesses.

It was very common at this time for the Parish priests to be engaged as trustees in the conveyance and settlement of estates. This appears to have been particularly true of the Portledge estates, so much so that it would probably be possible to compile a complete list of the Rectors of Alwington (in which parish Portledge is situated) from the various deeds still in the possession of the Coffin family.

Dominus Richard de Speckote (1284 – 1298)

Richard de Speckote was probably a non-resident parson. Rev Hensley comments in his notes that “He may have been  one of the foreign clergy forced upon the English Church by the Pope and so much objected to by the English for their absorption of the ecclesiastical benefices”. I’m not sure about this as there is a Speckott mentioned in several documents in the so called ‘Portledge Manuscripts’. He was murdered by Robert Giffard in 1298.

Francis Nation (1666 – 1702)

Was persecuted during the Commonwealth …

Thomas Swindale (1776 – 1781)

It was during the incumbency of  Rev. T Swindale that the re-casting of the church bells was undertaken.

Edward Hensley (1864 – 1889)

The Rev E Hensley was rector for nearly twenty-five years during which time he undertook an extensive refurbishment of the church.

List of Rectors of Parkham

Dominus Richard                                 c1236

Dominus Peter                                     c1272

Richard de Speckode                             1284    1298

John Morris                                             1309    1322

Walter de Clapton                                1322    1347

Thomas de Bourgau                             1347

William Crior                                        1351

Robert Vaggescourt                             1360

Thomas Stayndrop                               1376

John Fairford                                       1381    1398

John Radcliffe                                     1398

John Ffouks                                         1399

Richard Greynvyle                              1406    1420

Richard Waryn                                     1420    1438

John Knyghts                                       1438    1457

William Sprigge                                               1457

John Pyttys                                                      1467

John Strete                                           1467

Robert Calton                                      1467

John Bell                                                         1492

William Lovell (LLB)                          1492

Roger Prowth                                                   1514

Roger Drew (MA)                                1514    1531

John Bele                                             1531    1545

John Colynes                                       1545    1576

John Risdon                                         1576    1628

Edmund Wood                                                1628    1666

Francis Nation (MA)                            1666    1702

William Kingford (MA)                                   1703    1740

Humphrey Bawden (MA)                    1740    1776

Thomas Swindale                                1776    1781

James Baston (MA)                             1781    1794

Richard Walter (BA)                            1794    1842

William Richard Keith Walter (BA)     1842    1845

Francis Wolferston Thomas                 1846    1856

John Hughe Townsend (MA)               1856    1864

Edward Hensley (MA)                         1864    1889

Robert W. J. Smart                               1889    1904

J Barry White (BA)                              1904    1907

Stephen G Hensley                              1907

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *