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History of East Portlemouth

The first known reference to East Portlemouth church was in July 1181 in a Bull of Pope Alexander III listing the churches owned by Missenden Abbey. It is not known when the Abbey acquired St Winwaloe's but Lady Alice de Dodbrooke successfully claimed it back in 1219.

The original church (marked blue on the plan) had the form of a cross (cruciform) with a nave, chancel and transepts but no tower. The accepted period in which churches were built with this plan is 1150-1220 so St Winwaloe's would have been built between 1150 and 1181. If it took around 10 years to build, it would have been started between 1150 and 1170, say c1160. It seems probable therefore that Hamo Fitz Ruald (born c1116), the father of Lady Alice, was patron before the church was acquired by Missenden Abbey and was presumably also its founder.

The tower was built between 1400 and 1450 and the two side aisles were added shortly after, followed by the porch. Other changes were made to bring the church into the perpendicular Gothic style. The church contains a beautiful late 15th century rood screen with 26 paintings of saints.

It seems likely that there would have been an earlier wooden church on this site. This may have been built in the early 10th century, perhaps during the reign of King Athelstan, King Alfred's grandson. Athelstan had close contacts with Brittany, the birth-place of St. Winwaloe (462-532) who was a Celt whose parent had fled to Brittany from Wales to escape the Anglo-Saxons. After St. Winwaloe's death, monks came to Devon and Cornwall and founded monasteries and churches although it seems unlikely that these included East Portlemouth's.

The Village

East Portlemouth used to be a much larger and more flourishing place than it is today; it was a port and ship-building was an important industry. It provided four ships and ninety men for the Crecy and Calais campaigns of 1346 and contributed at least one ship to chase the Spanish Armada in 1588. In 1879 the Duke and Duchess of Cleveland reorganised the whole village. Many fishermen's cottages were destroyed and their tenants dispossessed, while several farms and smallholdings were amalgamated into three 200 acre farms at East Portlemouth Village, Rickham and Holset. At its peak, the village had a population approaching 500 but this was drastically reduced by the reorganisation.

More information on the history of St Winwaloe's and the village is given in a printed leaflet which is available in the church and also reproduced below. Further information is displayed in the parvis or priest's room which is the room above the porch.

Leaflet

Welcome to the Parish Church of St. Winwaloe

Parts of the church date from the 12th century probably around 1160-1180. The first known reference to it, in 1181, is in a Bull of Pope Alexander III when the church was owned for a period by Missenden Abbey. Its founder is thought to be Hamo fitz Ruald, born around 1116.
The church is approached through a churchyard whose graves include those of ship-wrecked sailors and smugglers. One 18th century tombstone describes the murder of Richard Jarvis of Rickham by his apprentice girl who was burnt as a witch. Near the lych-gate, is a 15th century preaching cross, since converted to a sun-dial. The cross used to stand by the Rectory but was moved here in the 1980s.

The Porch

The steps left of the porch lead to the parvis or priest’s room. As Portlemouth did not always have a resident priest, this room above the porch was used by visiting priests who came on horse-back to lead worship (the mounting block is in the bank opposite the lych gate). The parvis now contains a display describing the history of the church and village. It is likely that the empty niches over the porch held statues presumably removed in the Reformation in the 1530s-1540s; one statue may have been of St. Winwaloe. In the Middle Ages, the betrothal part of a marriage took place in the porch and the stone seats would have been provided for the comfort of the guests. After the betrothal, the bridal party entered the church for the Nuptial Mass.

The Church

The 12th century church (shown blue in the plan) had the form of a cross (cruciform), with a nave, chancel and transepts. The tower was built between 1400 and 1450 and the two side aisles were added shortly after, followed by the porch. Other changes were made to bring the church into the perpendicular Gothic style. Like most Devon churches it has no clerestory (upper row of windows). The rough-cast on the external walls, protecting the rather porous local stone from the effects of the weather, would originally have been a lime render, rather than the present hard grey Portland cement.

The Interior

Entering the church, the baptismal font is on the right; mid-late 15th century, not Saxon as sometimes suggested. A board at the back of the church shows a list of Rectors and Patrons from its foundation and to its left is the belfry door. Five bells were recast in 1912 by Taylor’s of Loughborough but the heaviest has hung in the tower since that was built. It bears the Latin inscription, in 15th century script, Me melior vere non est campana sub ere   (There is no better bell than me under the heavens).
Further up the nave is a beautiful late 15th century screen, the top of its arches are decorated by Tudor roses. On the right is the organ donated in 1903.  The height of the exposed base to the granite columns increases as one moves up the nave indicating that the original floor sloped upwards perhaps with the intention of making you feel you were “walking up to God”. The roof of the church is barrel-vaulted; the ornamental timbers of the vaulting were replaced by creosoted plaster of Paris in 1953.

The Screen

The screen was restored in 1934 under the direction of Sir Charles Nicholson (his drawings are hanging on the south wall) and further work was carried out in 1962. 26 portraits of saints are painted onto the lower panelling; a common feature of rood screens in Devon, but rare elsewhere in England.  The intact panels, from the left, are (1) St. Andrew, (2) St. Hubert, (3) St. Quirinus, (4) St. George and (5) St.Cornelius. (6) St Winwaloe is immediately to the right of the pulpit. He is holding what may be a representation of an earlier East Portlemouth Church; we cannot be sure since paintings often show saints holding model churches. The reredos (painted screen) above the altar shows a 20th century portrait of St. Winwaloe holding a model of the present church.
Next to St. Winwaloe is (7) St. Dominic (half figure), (8) Pope Gregory, (9) a scholar, perhaps St. Augustine, (10) St. Mark, (11) St. John, (12) a choir of angels, (13) the Virgin Mary, (14) a female martyr, (15) St. Peter, (16) St. Catherine of Siena, (17) King Edward the Confessor or Roger Champernoun, the donor; (18) St. Francis, (19) St. Lawrence, (20) St. Bavon of Ghent, (21) St. Sebastian. (22) & (23) are two unidentifiable women, (24) God the Son, (25) part of the coronation of the Virgin Mary and (26) St. Jerome with his lion.
The new oak used in the restoration can be seen in several areas of the screen. This is most apparent on the chancel side as are burn marks on the wood near the top of the screen; these may indicate an attempt to destroy the screen by the Cromwellian forces encamped on Rickham Common in 1643-44. In its original form, vaulting would have projected forwards and possibly backwards to support a deck strong enough to carry choir boys for some services. Fragments of this decorative vaulting survive, nailed to the front of the screen arches.  Intact examples can be seen elsewhere in Devon, such as Coldridge and Plymtree in East Devon, or restored, as at Ipplepen in South Devon.

The Chancel

Moving through the screen into the chancel we see it after its restoration by Nicholson. The new altar, priest's stalls and reredos (painted by Gerald Smith) were all designed by Nicholson. The altar is of oak and walnut, bearing a carved and gilded design of wheat and wine, emblems of the Blessed Sacrament. The paintings in the reredos represent St. Nicholas, St. Hubert, St. Winwaloe, the Virgin Mary, St. Martha and St. Cecilia.

The Rectory

The Rectory would originally have been close to the church but was moved, probably around the 15th century, to a fine site at Horse Pool Cove on the banks of the estuary. The 1840 Tithe map shows that a chapel had been built next to it. This would have been a private chapel for the rector, a not uncommon feature for Rectories some distance from the church. The Rectory was rebuilt in the 19th century and sold to a private owner in the 1980s. The existence of the chapel led earlier authors to suggest that this was the site of the first church in East Portlemouth.

St Winwaloe

Our knowledge of St. Winwaloe comes from a manuscript, Vita, by Wurdistan, Abbot of Landévennec, in the middle of the 9th century. Winwaloe was born in Brittany in about AD 462. His father, Fracan, was a Celtic chieftain who fled there from Wales around AD 460 when the Saxons arrived.  Winwaloe became a disciple of St Budoc on the Island of Lavret, a small island close to the Island of  Bréhat,  just off the North Brittany coast.

He later founded a settlement at Tibidy and then, in 485, the monastery at Landévennec, south of Brest, which still exists. After his death around 532 AD, monks founded a monastery in Cornwall. His Patronal Day is the 3rd of March.

An Earlier Church

The ovoid (egg-shaped) shape of the churchyard is characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon period. After the Norman Conquest, churchyards became rectangular or square so the ovoid shape suggested there might have been an earlier, probably wooden, church on this site. The existence of a manor house in East Portlemouth in 1086 (Domesday Book) provides support for this. Not surprisingly no trace of an earlier church remains above ground.  Anglo-Saxon churches did however sometimes have rooms under them and, in 2006, Stratascan carried out a survey under St Winwaloe’s using ground penetrating radar. This appeared to suggest there was indeed a room under the central part of the nave. However this was not supported by a series of core samples taken in 2012 nor by a second radar scan. This does not of course rule out the possibility that there was an earlier church on the site. It not thought though that that would have been built before the 10th century.

The Village

East Portlemouth used to be a much larger and more flourishing place than it is today; it was a port and ship-building was an important industry. It provided four ships and ninety men for the Crécy and Calais campaigns of 1346 and contributed at least one ship to chase the Spanish Armada in 1588. The ship-building, farming and fishing community would have provided the wealth to construct and maintain this fine church and Roger Champernoun, who became its patron in 1450, is thought to have provided the money for its rebuilding. Ship-building declined in importance from the early 18th century.  In the 19th century, the village became part of the estate of the Duke of Bolton but passed to the Duke of Cleveland around 1870.  In 1879 the Duke and Duchess reorganised the whole village. Many fishermen's cottages were destroyed and their tenants dispossessed, while several farms and smallholdings were amalgamated into three 200 acre farms at East Portlemouth Village, Rickham and Holset.  High House remained a separate entity, as did Goodshelter and West Prawle. At its peak, the village had a population approaching 500 but this was drastically reduced by the reorganisation. Local commentators were appalled at the social effects of these changes and similar changes that took place in nearby Bigbury, likening them to the Highland Clearances in Scotland.

The Dedication and Title of The Church

The dedication of the church to a Breton saint presumably reflects the fact that its founder was a descendant of a Breton noble who came to Britain with William the Conqueror’s army.  The spelling of Winwaloe has varied over the centuries and from about 1780 the Latin form, Onolaus, was used. The English form, Winwalloe, was used again from about 1930 although now with a double l, presumably to indicate it was pronounced like Winwallow. In 2006, the diocese asked the church to return to the historically correct spelling: Winwaloe.

A Holiday Prayer

Lord, you are the source of peace and hope. Be with me at this time. Help me to be aware of your presence in your church and in the beauty of nature around me and grant that when I return home I may be renewed for the duties of my daily life - Amen.

This leaflet was revised in 2007 and again in 2013. These revisions followed the publication in 2000 of East Portlemouth Heritage Appraisal, An Archaeological History of the Parish by the archaeologist, Robert Waterhouse, the 2012 archaeological investigation and further historical research. We are very grateful to Robert Waterhouse, Professors Nicholas Orme and Sarah Hamilton (Exeter University), Michael Reeve (Cambridge University), Michael Jones (Nottingham University) and Andrew Reynolds, (University College, London) and to the Revd Prebendary John Scott for all their help. We also thank the Friends of East Portlemouth Church for funding the radar survey (from an ear-marked donation) and the Heritage Lottery Fund for largely funding the 2012 archaeological investigation and the restoration of the parvis..
The original leaflet was written about 1990 by the Revd Paul Hancock, drawing on the 1960 history of the church by the Revd W.W. Price. A copy of this history is in the Local Studies section of Kingsbridge library.