Medieval Bridge over Exe
Medieval Bridge over Exe

A Miscellany of Little Known Facts About Churches


On Thursday, 13 February 2020, Martin Horrell shared with us his extensive collection of photographs of strange and unusual things he had come across in local churches. He started by explaining that, after the Romans had gone, a mini invasion of Celtic monks brought their own form of writing – Ogham scriptDevon has four examples, three in Tavistock Rectory and one in the British Museum.  There are seven in Cornwall and 35 in Wales.


After the Synod of Whitby, 664, this country became Roman Catholic but still retained the Celtic design of churches, namely 2 rectangular blocks (chancel and nave) instead of the Roman Catholic form with a rounded apse.


Saxon churches can be identified by their quoins (large rectangular blocks of masonry or brick  built into the corners of a wall) made with characteristic long and short stones, as can be seen in St Olave’s church here in Exeter.  Herringbone is another example of Saxon stonework as are the pointed windows, such as in the Rougemont Castle which was of course constructed by the Saxon craftsmen in Norman times!


A Saxon cross was discovered after a fire in a church in Colyton and there is another Saxon cross at Copplestone near Crediton.


It is rare to depict likenesses of God, He is normally identified by a right hand, manus dei, reaching out from a cloud.


In a classic Norman Church, such as Iffley, Oxford, the windows and doorways have a highly decorated semi-circular top.  In that church there are seven courses of classic Norman chevron design along with mythical animals and beakheads (heads with beaks). There are six examples in the Morwenstow area.


Mythical beasts were popular, particularly the centaur who is half man and half horse. We were told they were all over Cyprus – sired by Zeus!


The rose is a symbol of the Virgin Mary (Henry VIII called his ship the Mary Rose i.e. the Virgin Mary) and carvings of roses can be frequently seen in churches. Daisies (marguerites) and marigolds also represent the Virgin Mary.


People in those days were terrified of witches, demons and malevolent spirits who were believed to be responsible for everything that went wrong. So they implored the Virgin Mary to stop them coming in by scratching patterns (called apotropaic symbols) onto windows and doors. These were considered to be magic which would turn away demons and witches. The letter V (for the Virgin Mary) and M (for Mary) are often found. These were considered so powerful that people would bore tiny holes in the letters and take the grit to feed to the sick. It was believed that if the devil landed on a line he would follow it to the end. If, however,he  landed on the circumference of a circle he would go round and round for ever and be trapped.


On many churches there are marks which have no religious history, being the result of people sharpening their arrows and spears against the stone.  Stonemasons left their individual marks, however, to ensure they got paid for their work. Similarly carpenters would leave a mark to tell joiners how to assemble the work.


In this country there are 45 examples (one on Exeter Cathedral) of Sheila Na Gigs – grotesque crouching naked women, legs apart and displaying everything. They were considered a protection against evil spirits and possibly occurred on every church and castle before the Puritans removed most of them. Ireland still has 121, some kept in a locked room in Dublin Castle.


When a church was consecrated the bishop sprinkled holy water in twelve places on the inside and outside walls.  A cross (known as a consecration cross) would then be carved to mark where the holy water had landed.


There are only two monuments still containing saints' bones left in this country. Crawl holes would be cut into the stone so that supplicants could get their heads through the hole and pray closer to the bones. It was also a practice to put an injured or broken limb through the hole to get it closer to the bones in the hope of improved healing.


Monuments to mark the passing of a rich man were often paid for by the individual before they died for fear their offspring might misuse the money left for the purpose. These monuments sometimes display a Funerary Helm/Helmet to show the status of the deceased but they were not of combat quality.


Swastikas (Sanscrit symbol for good luck) can be seen on churches as can Fish (a very early Christian symbol) but mermaids were always depicted with a comb and mirror – they represented vanity.


In 1939 Lady Raglan wrote an article in The Folklore Journal in which she coined the phrase “Green Man”  to describe Foliate Heads. She stated they were a Pagan fertility deity. The next edition said it was a classic example of 'a myth in the making'. But the name stuck.  There are over 60 in Exeter Cathedral and also in many churches.


Sundials can frequently be seen carved into the stonework of churches as are Scratch Dials where numbers were carved on the outside of buildings and positioned so that when shadows moved over the building, sunlit numbers would tell the time.

At the top of many church towers there are splendid carvings  called grotesques, known in the West Country as “hunky punks”. These are purely decorative and serve no useful purpose. Gargoyles are similar but are useful for they drain the rainwater clear of the walls.

Talaton church has butterflies on one of its windows representing the resurrection.


Pre-Christian carvings of a pelican and chicks can be seen in many churches, including Whimple. The mother is pecking her breast to provide blood as food for her starving offspring resulting in her death. It is known as the "Pelican in her Piety" and represents  Christ shedding his blood.


Church houses were originally a sort of village hall with a brewhouse on the ground floor while the upper floor was used for celebrations (an ale) to benefit the church or for a charitable event or for brides. These latter celebrations were called a “bride ale” which was in due course shortened to “bridal”. These only occurred in the south of England and they fell into disuse when the Puritans banned those celebrations.


Churches, as at Powderham, often had two door handles, one of which was a Sanctuary Ring. If a felon held on to the Sanctuary Ring he could be given sanctuary but had to hand over all his weapons and be confined to either the church or the parish.  If subsequently he moved out he would become an outlaw.


He had 28 days to prepare his defence or abjure the realm (voluntary exile) when he had to proceed barefoot and bareheaded and carrying a cross to the nearest port. If he stepped off the King's Highway he could legally be attacked or even killed. He had to take the first available ship out and walk some distance into the sea if none were immediately available. The King’s express permission was needed before returning on pain of beheading.


In Cullompton there is a Wool Church. These churches date from the days when wool was the driving economic force and merchants became very rich. But from around 1500 the wool economy was declining and, to help the trade, a law was introduced making it mandatory for corpses to be buried in a wool shroud with a signed affidavit to certify this. This law was only rescinded in 1840.


In Talaton are two examples of square plaques, called hatchments. These usually show the husband’s coat of arms on the left with the wife’s on the right. A black background indicates that the person has died while cream denotes that the person is still living. When the background is all black both have died.



Sincere thanks to Sue Jackson for her terrific help with this article.

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