Fact and fiction become almost inseparable the further you delve into the distant past and this is particularly true in the case of the Parish Church in Bovey Tracey. According to local folklore, the parish church was built as a penance by the descendant of one of the perpetrators of Thomas Becket’s murder, that most well recognised Archbishop of Canterbury.
A few centuries later the church was to come into the ownership of Lady Margaret Beaufort. She was none other than the mother of King Henry VII, who was victorious at the Battle of Bosworth (1485) and founder of the Tudor Dynasty.
Bovey Tracey Parish Church
St. Peter, St. Paul and St Thomas of Canterbury is the official, and it must be said rather long winded, title and dedication of the Bovey Tracey Parish Church. The attractive 15th century church is built on the highest point and is quite a walk from the centre of the present day small town.
It’s believed that an Anglo-Saxon church originally stood on the site and at the time of the Domesday Book (1086) the settlement was simply known as Bovi or Boui, named after the river running through the town. This earlier structure was superseded by a 13th century one that fell into a ruinous state during the 14th century.
Thomas Becket, William de Tracy and the Parish Church of Bovey Tracey
Local tradition holds that William de Tracey held the manor of Bovey Tracey in 1170 and was one of the four Knights implicated in the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Rebuilding of the parish church was then commissioned by his descendants, in the 13th century, to atone for the heinous crime that William had committed.
However, contrary to popular belief, although the de Tracy family were Lords of the manor at Bovey Tracey it was in fact a different branch of the family and not the infamous William. He was, in fact, Lord of the Manors of Bradninch and nearby Moretonhampstead amongst others. It appears that an Oliver de Tracy was Lord of the Manor at the time of Becket’s murder in 1170, his principal holding being Barnstaple.
What is not clear is why the church is dedicated to Thomas Becket and has been so since at least 1742. Prior to the reformation the Parish Church was listed as being dedicated to just St Peter and St Paul, with no mention of St Thomas.
Lady Margaret Beaufort and Bovey Tracy
The Bovey Tracey Manor certainly belonged to Lady Margaret and was mentioned in a list drawn up by the Royal Auditor, George Quarles, in 1520. However, since her holdings were so extensive it’s doubtful whether she ever spent any time or even visited the place. She was Lady of the Manor from 1487 until her death in 1509
The 15th century Rood/Chancel Screen at Bovey Church is said to have been a gift by the Lady Margaret but this seems improbable, especially as the date is said to be c. 1450 when she would only have been seven or eight years old at the time (and only became Lady of the Manor in 1487).
It becomes irrelevant as to who the original benefactor was when you see the beautiful early screen that is richly carved with leaf scrolls and pomegranates. The fan coving has been replaced and much of the paintwork is Victorian, but, the paintings of the Apostles and Prophets date from the early 16th century and were restored in the 1970s.
The highly ornate pulpit was created at the same time as the Rood Screen and again was allegedly a gift from Lady Margaret Beaufort.
Bovey Tracey Church, the Rev. Charles Courtney and the Oxford Movement
The extensive restoration of the screen and other areas of the church furnishings and fittings were carried out during the lengthy incumbency of the Hon. Charles Leslie Courtney, son of the Earl of Devon who was a staunch Tractarian. This recreation of high church and sumptuous embellishment, typical of the Oxford Movement can be seen over and over again in the small South-West village churches – Blisland, Kenn and Little Petherick to name but a few.
Courtney also built a new church to the south of the town with a new Vicarage close by. He chose the ecclesiastical tractarian architect Richard Cromwell Carpenter to carry out the work. This gothic creation, constructed between 1851-53, became the Chapel of Ease and was dedicated to St. John the Evangelist.
The Chancel at Bovey Tracey Church
The chancel has a couple of interesting monuments either side of the altar and is enclosed by the Rood screen to the front and later 16th century parclose screens to the north and south, which separates the Chancel from the Lady Chapel
The monument to the north of the altar is the Tomb of Nicholas Eveleigh (1562-1618) who was Steward of the Stannary Court of Ashburton. He died when the roof of the Chagford Stannary Courthouse collapsed killing him along with nine other people and injuring a further seventeen.
The white stone standing wall monument may have been carved by John Deymond of Exeter and as Pevsner writes is ‘quite a sumptuous affair’. It was commissioned by his wife Alice Bray
Alice was to commemorate her second husband with a memorial on the south side of the Chancel less than twenty years later, in 1636 and this time carved in alabaster. It shows the recumbent figure of Elizaeus Hele and the kneeling effigies are of Alice and his first wife with her son. He is buried in the Canon’s vestry at Exeter Cathedral.
The South Porch
On leaving the Church through the south porch take a minute to glance at the ceiling and note the ribbed ceiling with a central boss dating from the 15th century and restored by the Rev. James Forbes in 1660.
The Tomb of Maria Forbes in Bovey Tracey Churchyard
Outside in the tranquil well kept churchyard, close to the south wall of the Chancel is a most bizarre shaped tomb of Maria Forbes, late wife to the aforementioned Reverend James Forbes, and dated 1655.
James Forbes was an ex-army chaplain who was appointed by Charles I, in 1628, as vicar of the Parish Church at Bovey. He was ousted by the Parliamentarians but reinstated at the time of the Restoration in 1660, five years prior to his wife’s death.
Below is a description of the tomb written by Rev. Walter Benjamin Vere-Stead in his Devon Notes and Queries, Vol. 4, Part 2, page 49 (1906):
‘It is ark shaped, with three pinnacles, on one a rose with “Surgam”, the next a mermaid with “Vivam”, the third with a thistle “Canem”.’*
It’s surprising how mermaids keep turning up in Churches – see Cheriton Bishop!
* ( Surgam= I shall rise, Vivam= I shall live, Canem= I shall sing/speak from Latin.)
Bovey Tracey is known locally as the Gateway to the Moor and so below are just a few interesting places well worth visiting in the nearby national park – Dartmoor.
Hound Tor – An attractive rocky outcrop with an amazing view from the top and the remains of an abandoned medieval village.
Bowerman’s Nose and Hayne Down – A bizarre stack of weathered granite that is said to be the figure of Bowerman, a hunter, who was turned to stone by a coven of witches.
Haytor Quarry and Tramway – Next to perhaps the most iconic Tor on Dartmoor, Haytor, are a number of disused quarries and a tram network that was created to move the stone. A fascinating glimpse into our industrial heritage.