Grotesque figures abound in early ecclesiastical fixtures and fittings but sometimes something pops up that seems totally out of the ordinary and somewhat incongruous. This is certainly the case at the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Cheriton Bishop where the 16th-century pulpit has not one but two mythological carvings – a Greek Sphinx and also a Mermaid, despite being miles from any sea.
What’s in a name?
Cheriton Bishop is a village that’s located in Mid Devon just under ten miles west of Exeter and six miles south-west of Crediton. The Old English word Cheriton (also written as Ciretone, Cerintone and Cherintone) literally means an enclosed village or manor with a church.
According to William White in his ‘History, Gazetteer and Directory of Devonshire (1850): ‘The Bishops of Exeter were formerly lords of Cheriton, but the manor was alienated in the reign of Henry VIII.’ At what point in history the name Bishop was given to the village remains unclear.
The Village Church of Cheriton Bishop
Perched upon a hill above the rest of the village the Medieval Church of St Mary is located up a narrow cobbled path wending past the attractive late 15th/early 16th-century church cottage. This unassuming type of approach is similar to many other churches in Devon, including that of St Michael’s at Ashton in the Teign valley.
A late 11th-century tub font is the only visible legacy from an earlier Norman structure. It’s highly ornate and carved in a somewhat crude fashion out of limestone quarried from Beer Quarry Caves.
The oldest part of the existing building is the chancel which dates back to the 13th century, with additions carried out in the 15th century including the nave, north aisle and tower. Wagon roofs (which are also known as barrel vaulted) are evident throughout the building with attractive carved oak bosses.
The 16th Century Pulpit of Cheriton Bishop Church
Despite being fairly small, the grade I listed building is a treasure trove of interesting and unusual objects. At the top of this list has to be the octagonal 16th-century oak pulpit with numerous carvings.
The most unusual of these are on the side closest to the window and are completely different to the apparent symmetry of the other carvings.
The mermaid is pictured at the top of the page and is maybe just a representation of evil, a seducer luring sailors to their deaths. It is, however, rather curious as to why such a symbol would appear in a church that is nowhere near the sea.
Above is the other bizarre mythical creature on the pulpit which appears to be a Greek Sphinx with the upper torso and head of a woman, legs, paws and lower body of a lion and wings of an eagle. In Greek mythology, the Sphinx was a monstrous creature who terrorised the residents of Thebes.
Who knows why these creatures were carved onto the pulpit? Were they just symbolic of evil in the world or was there some other deeper meaning? And why is it always the woman that’s portrayed as bad or sinful?!
One thing is certain, when they were initially carved all eyes would have been glued to the pulpit, even if the sermon was boring and lengthy!
Medieval Rood Screen
There is only one section of the rood screen that remains standing today and this is in front of the north chancel chapel. However, it’s very beautiful and intricately carved with bunches of grapes along the cornice.
There are a number of painted saints, with original colour, in the wainscoting and, according to Pevsner, are by the same artist that painted the north aisle figures at St Winifred’s in Manaton and both the north and south aisle screens at St Michael’s Church in Alphington. He writes that ‘Many of the figures are from the same cartoons’ and dates the work to c. 1520.
A Fragment of 15th Century Nottingham Alabaster
During renovation works, that involved rebuilding the south wall in 1884, a fragment of 15th century Nottingham Alabaster was found. This was presumably from an early reredos or retable most probably destroyed during The Reformation; and is similar to the discovery of alabaster at South Huish Church in 1867, which is now housed at the Holy Trinity Church in Galmpton.
The small piece of alabaster can be seen in a glazed frame on the south wall and is said to depict the Carrying of the Cross.
… and Finally
There are a number of other features worth mentioning that you should look out for if you ever find yourself in the proximity of Cheriton Bishop. Over the south door is a very rare Royal Coat of Arms dating back to Elizabeth I and in the north aisle windows, there are fragments of 15th Century stained glass.
Talking about stained glass, there are a number of delightful late 19th/early 20th century windows that are charming, including that of the Virgin Mary and Child above.
Above is just one of a number of 15th-century fragments of murals that remain. Just imagine what this church would have looked like in all its glory with all the walls painted and the rood screen and loft in situ. It must have been quite an awesome sight!
Finch Foundry – The attractive village of Sticklepath on Dartmoor is home to Finch Foundry, a feat of Victorian ingenuity and engineering that produced industrial tools right through to 1960, and is now part of our rich and varied industrial heritage.
Crediton Parish Church – There is only one word to describe this magnificent church and that is – enormous! This former collegiate church has a history that is documented back to at least the early 10th century and is crammed full of interesting artefacts. It even has its own museum!
Exeter – The vibrant city has a wealth of historical interest from Roman through to Modern Day and is also a pedestrian-friendly shopping centre with a great blend of independent shops and high street chains.