Somewhere within the windswept Teign Valley, with its rolling green hills and abundance of tiny villages, you’ll find the beautiful settlement of Doddiscombsleigh. Cut off from the rest of the world (quite literally, there’s no phone signal!) aside from via several small and winding lanes, the real star of the show is Doddiscombsleigh Church…
“Doddiscomsbleigh stands on the hills bordering the valley through which the Teign flows to the sea. Its glory is its church and the glory of the church is its windows” – Arthur Mee in The King’s England, Devon (1938).
The Village of Doddiscombsleigh
This article wouldn’t be complete if the small village itself wasn’t given a brief mention as its history can be traced back to Norman times when it was known as Terra Godeboldi in the Domesday Book (1086). Godbold lived at the Manor House, which was sited where the property known as Town Barton, built in 1604 with later additions, now stands and is next to the church.
A Brief History of the Church of St. Michael, Doddiscombsleigh
The existing church was constructed in the 15th century and then heavily restored and rebuilt in the 1870s by Edward Ashworth of Exeter. It’s situated in the ancient village of Doddiscombleigh with views over Haldon Hill and the Belvedere Tower.
There are many tantalising clues to the existence of a much earlier church. In the outer north wall, there’s evidence of masonry that reveals where an Anglo-Saxon church would have stood probably even earlier than 1000AD.
The fine piscina that’s now built into the south wall is much earlier than the existing 15th-century building and the list of rectors dates right back to 1259. And of course, it’s adjacent to Town Barton, which is where the ancient Norman Manor House was sited.
The small church may appear nothing out of the ordinary both from interior and exterior, however, looks can be deceiving, and a number of the stained glass windows are the earliest to be found in situ in Devon outside of Exeter Cathedral. So much importance is placed on the glass in this unassuming property that it’s, in fact, a Grade I listed building.
Nikolaus Pevsner in his The Buildings of Devon describes St. Michael’s as
“The only place in Devon where one can get an impression of what stained glass did to a perpendicular church.”
The 15th Century Stained Glass of St. Michael’s, Doddiscombliegh
When looking at the stained glass it’s hard not to imagine the political turmoil that was raging in England around the time they were created during the War of the Roses (1455-85).
The villagers, isolated in these steep valleys, were probably totally oblivious, at least until many weeks if not months later, of the events occurring further afield such as The Battle of Bosworth (1485). The precise age of the glass is uncertain, but, is dated between 1450-1500.
The Doddiscombleigh Glaziers
The craftsmen who created the windows in the 15th century have become known, in more recent times, as the Doddiscombleigh Glaziers due to the church housing the best surviving examples of the atelier’s work and were, most probably, based in Exeter. Other remaining examples of the studio’s work can be seen at Ashton (see below), Winscombe in Somerset, Cradwell in Wiltshire and of course, Exeter Cathedral itself.
It’s nothing short of miraculous that a large proportion of this fragile glass has survived intact throughout the centuries. The damp Devonian climate aside, these windows, somehow, survived the havoc and destruction wreaked by both the Reformation and then the English Civil War. Many local churches had rood screens defaced and it can be assumed that their windows of saints were also destroyed.
The windows at Doddiscombleigh have been restored on at least two occasions, but, those listed below are the only ones actually documented.
The 1762 Restoration was carried out by Peter Coles who may have been an employee of a local Exeter-based glazing firm and evidently carried out restoration work in the surrounding area. He inscribed his name and a date on all glass he renovated. His signature is apparent on work in Bridford Church as well as five times at Exeter Cathedral. At Doddiscombleigh he scratched the following into the glass:
‘Coles glazier done this window March 1762 whom God preserve, Amen’.
Restoration of the Glass by Stained Glass Workshop Clayton and Bell in 1879
By the 19th-Century, the church was in a very poor state including the five Medieval stained glass windows. ‘In Some Od Devon Churches,’ John Stabb (1908-16) writes:-
“They were at one time in a very dilapidated condition, but through the kindness of Mr. Clayton (of Messrs. Clayton and Bell), who undertook the work at his own expense, the five windows have been completely restored. It is said that the glass in these windows is second to none in the kingdom; it dates from probably not later than the middle of the 15th century.”
Clayton and Bell was one of the most prolific workshops of English Stained Glass during the late 19th to early 20th century. Like Cole before them, they inscribed their names and dates into the newly created glass added to the restored panels.
Unlike conservation carried out today none of the restorations was documented, glass was rearranged and missing figures were recreated speculatively, the largest of these ‘recreations’ being the replacement of Christ in The Seven Sacraments window. See below:
St. Michael’s Magnificent Stained Glass of the Seven Sacraments
The Seven Sacraments at Doddiscombleigh is said to be the best surviving example of its type in situ to be found anywhere in England; quite an accolade for such a small provincial village church.
In John Murray’s ‘A Handbook for Travellers in Devonshire’ (1879) he writes about the church being in a ‘sadly neglected state’ but then goes onto describe the window thus:
“That in the East window is the best in the county (except what is in the cathedral). It displays the 7 sacraments of the Roman Church…”
He had obviously visited the church prior to the extensive restoration and rebuilding work that was carried out between 1870-79.
When Murray visited Doddiscombleigh the Seven Sacraments window was lacking the central Christ figure recreated by Clayton and Bell. Legend has it that a farmer who used to sit in one of the pews below the window complained about the lack of light and so had the central portion removed. Sounds rather a tall tale but fact can certainly be stranger than fiction!