The History of our Parish Church

Our parish church in North Petherwin has been a site of Christian worship for a very long time. The churchyard is still visibly circular when seen from the air – this is typical of Celtic churches. It is a very large church for a parish which is large in terms of area, but which has always had a small population. It was originally the ecclesiastic centre for a much larger area than just North Petherwin. The church served the Saxon estate of Werrington which included Boyton, St Giles and Werrington. At the time of the Norman invasion the Werrington estate belonged to Countess Gytha, the mother of King Harold, when she fled to the Continent after the fall of Exeter in 1067, she gave the Estate to Tavistock Abbey. This left the parish on the west side of the Tamar river but part of Devon for the next 900 years.

The church in Norman times must have been substantial. The only portion still visible are the huge Norman pillars in the North aisle (please refer to the downloadable image). The Reformation put an end to the reconstruction of the church thankfully leaving us this evidence of the past. North Petherwin is one of the best documented churches in the South-West with not only building accounts surviving for the period of 1505-07 covering the construction of the South Aisle, and 1518-24 covering the construction of the North Chapel and start of the North Aisle, but also Churchwardens’ Accounts dating from 1493.

As part of Henry VIII’s move to dissolve the monasteries Tavistock Abbey and its land was given to the Russell family in 1539. The Russells became the Dukes of Bedford and continued to own huge tracts of land in the area and held the living of North Petherwin in their gift until 1911. The living was given in 1911 to the Diocese of Truro (itself a new construct having been separated from the Diocese of Exeter in 1876).

The Dedication.

The dedication of the church is to St Paternus—thought by the Victorians to have been the Bishop of Avranches in France who died in 575. There is also a Welsh St Padern who some have suggested. However, it seems more likely to have been a more relevant and local Paternus. St Constantine, who converted to Christianity around 587, was said to have been the son of Paternus, King of Cornwall. The church at Milton Abbot is dedicated to St Constantine, and the dedication at South Petherwin like North Petherwin is also to St Paternus, so it seems likely that they were local figures of authority who were early converts to Christianity. Their area of authority probably stretched across the area including the two Petherwins.

The Interior.

It is well worth taking a look inside the church. There are elements reflecting its long history from the Norman pillars on the north of the main aisle and the Norman base to the font, through fascinating Medieval wood carvings to its Victorian restoration. Much of it reflects the church’s close links over the centuries to local families. The Hawke family have farmed at Bodgate in the parish for four hundred years and many members of the family have been churchwardens. Across the base of the tower you can see the communion rails from 1685 which have been moved here from their place in front of the altar (please refer to the downloadable image). The carving shows the names of two churchwardens of the time: Josias Hawke and John Bate. If you enter the Church through the South Door look up at the slate sundial engraved with the names of the Churchwardens Dennis Kingdon and Richard Hawke and the date 1821. A number of Kingdons served as curate or vicar in North Petherwin. They were a notable clerical family in North Devon and North Cornwall through several generations, and there are other memorials to members of the family around the church. In the south aisle is a striking bronze memorial to Dennis Kingdon who was a Major in the 80th Foot Regiment; the monument depicts a martial death although he died in old age in North Petherwin. He married Mary Ann Herring, grand-daughter of Rev. Edmund Herring thus acquiring the Barton next to the church which had been part of the dowry of her Grandmother, Mary Yeo. Rev. Edmund Herring was vicar of the parish for 57 years from 1728 to 1785. Behind the organ is a fine marble memorial to Rev. Edmond Herring, with relief profiles of both him and his wife, Mary Yeo, and the coat of arms of the Herring family, quartered with the ducks of the Yeo family. In the Lady Chapel there is a memorial to three sisters of the Yeo family who all died young. It carries carvings of three girls piously kneeling and the coat of arms of their parents Edmund Yeo and Elizabeth Killigrew. The Yeo family was extremely wealthy and dominated the local area for several hundred years.

The North Chapel was built in 1518-24 by a mason called John Tuell. Look up at the carved base plates in the barrel ceiling. At first glance it appears to be a pattern of vine leaves and grapes; look closely and you can see dragons’ heads with flames coming from their mouths, and cheeky gargoyle-like faces peering from amongst the leaves—almost but not quite green men. These were carved by a Robert Longe.

The Holy Well.

The Holy Well in the fields below the church belonging to Glebe Farm is a well first mentioned in the accounts of 1496-7 when the Churchwardens paid for iron bars to be made for it. In 1517-18 three shillings and four pence were paid to Thomas Coffyn for “making the well”; that equates to about a week to ten days of work. This was perhaps for a structure to go over the well and keep the water clean. The well was extensively restored in 1849, and that date is carved on the back. It was again dug out and restored in 1999 as a Millennium project. Children from the local primary school attend a Patronal Festival in the Church every year and process afterwards to the Holy Well with banners made by pupils as a Millennium Project. The well is not very deep, but the water remains even in a drought. Water from the well is used for baptisms not in the Church.

The photograph of the well was taken after it`s reconstruction in 1998.

Researched and written by Caroline Stone

A booklet containing more detail is available for purchase in the church or by contacting the churchwarden.

Norman_Pillars_2, JPG