On Wednesday, 9 May, 35 of us congregated to visit two churches, one chapel, General Gordon's memorial and the one-time hanging grounds of Livery Dole.
We started our Heavitree tour with the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, built in 1931, which displays six green marble columns. Inside there is much marble saved from remodelling of Marley House on Woodbury Common. In the sanctuary are seven Italian Cippolino marble pillars around the green onyx altar.
The church was built in 1931/32. It had a much taller tower but sadly, during the war, a bomb fell at an angle knocking the top half of the tower sideways and flattening the vicarage. Fortunately, the vicar was in the church at the time so survived. The church bell also survived. Many beautiful stained glass windows were destroyed and some have been replaced with clear glass which cast long beams of light down through the nave towards the altar, so actually provide a better effect.
The altar is, unusually, at the west end of the building (i.e. not pointing towards Jerusalem) and outside, the altar area projects beyond the main block in a half circle, with a green leaded roof. Inside the half-circle are the green onyx altar surrounded by 7 pillars (5 are a pale grey and 2 much darker), from Manley House. These days the priest stands behind the altar facing the congregation.
Two white marble statues adorn the rear walls, one of St Peter and one of Mary & Jesus, below new stained glass windows which replace those also lost from the bombing. When the sun shines, these windows cast a carpet of light on the floor below. A martyr from Pinhoe who fell out with King Henry is also remembered and the Stations of the Cross on the walls are most attractive 3-dimensional wooden statues.
The church's bell, recently restored, rings in “A flat”, specifically to match and harmonise with the bells of St Michael's.
From there we moved to Livery Dole which was used as a place of execution for murder, witchcraft, heresy or treason. The name probably derives from the Old English Leofhere, a man who owned the land, and dole, meaning a piece of land and is first recorded in a document of 1279. Then, in 1452, there is a record that Henry VI met clergymen there to be escorted to the Cathedral.
Benet was burnt at the stake, just inside what is now the entrance to the gardens on Livery Dole. His crime was that he nailed a notice to a door of Exeter Cathedral proclaiming (1) that the pope was an Anti-Christ and (2) rejecting the pope’s supremacy in religious affairs. He refused to recant and so angered “the common people” that right here on Livery Dole and before the fire was even lit one John Barnehouse ‘took a furze-bush upon a pike, and having set it on fire, thrust it unto his face, saying, "Ah! whoreson heretic! pray or I will make thee do it".’ Then the fire was lit. That was when Henry VIII was on the throne.
Agnes Prest in 1557 was burnt at the stake in Southernhay for heresy. She rejected the church’s teachings so her Catholic husband reported her to the authorities. But she seems to have been treated not unkindly until she totally blotted her copy book by declaring to a stonemason mending statues at Exeter Cathedral "What a madman art thou, to make them new noses, which within a few days shall all lose their heads". That was during the reign of Mary, Henry's daughter.
In 1909 a monument commemorating the martyrdom of Thomas Benet and Agnes Prest was erected in nearby Denmark Road - well worth a visit but a little too far away to visit today. This monument, an obelisk of Dartmoor granite, was designed by Harry Hems and paid for by public subscription. The sides of the monument show poor old Agnes on fire and Thomas Benet nailing his document to the door (photos above).
The 'Devon witches' - four women from North Devon - were tried at the castle and hanged at Heavitree in 1682. They seem to have been accused of causing illness in other women and consorting with birds. Obviously that proved they were witches..…! Interestingly, the commemorative plaque by the castle gatehouse (left) was put up and is maintained by an American relative of Alice Molland.
From this we turned our attention to the church, first mentioned in records of 1156. The first church was wooden and replaced with a stone building in medieval times. It was then completely rebuilt and enlarged in Victorian times and the present set of eight bells was installed in 1846 to celebrate Queen Victoria's jubilee. The church could be seen from a great distance, towering above the little hamlet of Heavitree.
When Gilbert Scott was employed to update Exeter Cathedral he discarded a number of carvings and these landed up here in St Michaels, These included "Jesus with his 11 disciples at the last supper" (Judas being excluded!). Gilbert Scott also at that time produced a magnificent reredos for a chapel in the Cathedral. But in later times the Cathedral turned its back on Victoriana and wanted to rid themselves of, amongst other treasurers, Gilbert Scott's reredos. That was their loss and St Michael's gain.