The History of St Nicholas’ Church

The church is very much the centrepiece of the parish and in olden times would have been the focal point of the community, with most village affairs and activities being governed by the Vestry Committee.  The list of Rectors dates from 1260 prior to the founding of the present church building, indicating a previous place of worship.  The oldest part of the present building is the C14th tower, the nave and north aisle being added some hundred years later.

During a storm in 2009 a carved stone head was revealed inside the C15th wall, which it is believed could be either late Saxon or early Norman in origin.  If indeed true this could also indicate a much earlier building having been constructed on the site.

The current church comprises a bell tower, chancel, nave and wide north aisle. It is built from a mixture of local materials, with the nave piers and arcade being of white Beer stone and the walls of ‘dressed chert’, a compact flinty type of stone. The nave and aisle have typical Devon wagon roofs.

The church is one of four hundred in England named after St. Nicholas of Bari, Bishop of Myra in 300AD, but some ancient records suggest that the patron saint of the church may originally have been St. Erasmus.  A chapel dedicated to St. Mary and St. Erasmus was consecrated in the new north aisle c1498.

Old records suggest that ‘there is nothing deserving particular notice in this building; it seems, indeed, rather too large for the extent of the parish’ but visitors should note that it has a number of interesting and unusual features. These include the tower turret which is attached in what is described as a ‘bold’ manner and the C14th oak door at the foot of the tower stairs which still has the original lock and key. The south door, also of oak, is extremely old and unique in design, being formed of two leaves that are hinged in the middle. The font and piscina (a basin for washing sacred vessels) are both C15th.

It is probable that the church had a thatched roof until the 1780s when records show that ‘14,700 slates were bought and a great deal of work was done to the roof’. The vestry, added in 1827, necessitated the blocking up of a window in the south wall of the sanctuary and it is now concealed in the rafters of the vestry roof. Some old features, such as a musicians gallery in the tower, were removed during a period of major restoration in the mid-1800s. In 1934 the early C15th rood loft doorway and staircase were uncovered.

Displayed over the south porch door is the coat of arms of Charles II.  The practice of displaying the royal coat of arms in churches dates back to the Reformation, when England broke away from the Catholic Church.  However, during Cromwell’s reign they were removed and remained in storage until Charles II was returned to the throne and reinstated the practice.  Our own coat of arms can be dated to 1661 and is a good example of the elaborate work of the period. It was taken down for cleaning and repair in 1963 and found to be in exceptional condition, although there was evidence of previous repair or repainting, one of the six boards on which the arms is painted having been replaced.

In the church is a very old chest, typical of those made in the C12th. This could be an example of a ‘parish chest’ which became the means by which the Parish / Church Registers could be kept secure. Parish Registers were ordered to be initiated in 1538 to record all weddings, christenings and burials, and those for Combe Raleigh are now kept at the Devon Records Office.

The current organ was installed in 1886, completing a major restoration begun in 1859, and was itself restored in 1961, with an electric blower being added in 1973. The stained glass windows date mainly from the mid-C19th. The beautiful stained glass window by the font is C21st and was commissioned by the village to mark the millennium.

There are a number of memorials in the church, including several to members of families who were Lords of the Manor: the Bonville and Denys families who founded the Chantry, and the Bernard family who bought the Manor in 1792.

Members of the Graves family are commemorated on a number of wall tablets. Admiral Thomas Graves was Nelson’s second in command at the Battle of Copenhagan. He built Woodbine Hill (now Combe Hill) on land overlooking the village and died there in 1814.

One of the strangest memorials is that to John Sheldon.  Born in 1752, John Sheldon married Rebecca Palmer, the daughter of William Palmer, who was the Rector of this parish from 1726.  He was a remarkable character, who lectured in anatomy and in 1782 became Professor of Anatomy to the Royal Academy. In 1784 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. One of the areas in which he had a particular interest was embalming and it is reported in an academic paper that, ‘when his mistress, whom he had picked up in Oxford Street, died of phthisis, he embalmed her and kept her in his bedroom until the lady he afterwards married turned her out.’  But that was not the end of the story. The embalmed mistress was stowed away in a back room of the Royal College of Surgeons until 1941 when the college received a direct hit during the Blitz. It is thought that Sheldon was also the first Englishman ever to make an ascent in a hot-air balloon.

Until 2018 the tower housed three bells. The oldest dates back to c1430 and was cast by Robert Norton of Exeter, the second was hung in 1758 and a third was added in 1868. In 2011 an ambitious project was proposed to restore the bells, augment them to a peal of six and construct a mezzanine ringing chamber in the tower. The bells and new ringing chamber were dedicated by the Bishop of Exeter in October 2017.

The clock on the tower appears to date from around 1870, although church records show it has been wound since at least 1837, so it could be earlier in origin.

At the entrance to the churchyard is a lych gate built in 1909 by James Arberry, who lived in the village at Newtons.

Glebe Cottage and Fiddlers, which date back to at least 1596, comprise the original Church house.   This building has a ‘stack with brick shaft’, which was almost certainly used for brewing the church ale and baking the church bread.  Fiddlers is believed to have been so named as it housed the musicians for the church.  Early C19th church accounts provide an interesting insight into how music was provided; they show entries for items such as base viol, strings and reeds, repairs to a flute and funding for a new clarionete. Visions of a small church orchestra are conjured up.  The accounts suggest that a church organ was installed around 1850, possibly some form of portable instrument, and this would have been the death knell of the band of musicians, in a similar fashion to the account in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’.

The old Rectory is the present Worfield House. In 1784 it was recorded as being built of stone with a thatched roof. There were three rooms and a pantry on the ground floor with three rooms above. Subsequent additions and modernisations over the years turned it into a sizeable property. It was eventually sold after the parish was united with Honiton   Other houses formerly related to the church were the Chantry, Glebe Cottage, Fiddlers, and Sextons where the keeper of the church silver/gravedigger/bell ringer would have lived.

This description merely touches on St Nicholas’ 750 year history. In 1974 Barbara Doidge, a village resident, compiled a history of the Church and Parish which makes fascinating reading. It is available if you are able to visit and adds detail to the brief description above.