Church History

Hawkchurch Church History


St John the Baptist Hawkchurch


Although Hawkchurch parish church is one of the most rewarding churches of East Devon, it is not well known. In fact it displays important work of Norman (12th century) and Early English (end of the 12th and early 13th century) date, with a fine tower of the early Tudor period. Its Early English sculpture is surely the finest to be seen in any of Devon's churches, and its well-preserved series of Norman corbels includes some of the most delightful and interesting Romanesque carvings in the county.


The Historian w. G. Hoskins said the original name of the village was "Hafoc'schurch", indicating the presence of a church here in pre Norman times. An alternative suggested spelling is "Avekchurche". The first recorded date of a Rector is 1295 and by that time most of the village had, as part of the hundred of Whitchurch, become the property of the Abbey of Cerne.

The church displays the following series of phases of development:
1. The Norman chancel arch is the earliest visible component of the church, datable to the early 12h century. This must have formed part of a two-cell (nave and chancel) plan, probably without aisles.
(Although it has been suggested that there may be traces of the putative Anglo-Saxon church after which Hawkchurch is named, there are no surviving traces of it).
2. The addition of a north aisle and arcade, probably in the mid 12th century.
3. The rebuilding of the south side with an aisle and arcade in the Early English style, about 1200.
4. The rebuilding of the tower in the early 16th century.
5. The major reconstruction of the church of 1859-61 entailed the rebuilding of the choir and the external walls of the aisles, with the insertion of a taller clerestory into the nave, allowing more light into the body of the church.


Most of the walls of the church are built of local Greensand chert rubble.
The faces of the tower display good examples of this knapped chert.

The Victorian church dressings are entirely of the characteristic ginger-coloured shelly limestone with dark brown streaks, quarried at Ham Hill in Somerset. Ham Hill was evidently used in small quantities in the 12th century (there are a few examples at the west end of the north arcade) but other more local sources were more popular. It became increasingly popular in the later Middle Ages, and was commonly used in this area of Devon and Dorset in the 15th and 16th centuries. Most of the freestone used in the early 16th century tower, including the archway into the nave, are of Ham Hill stone.


The bulk of the fine freestone used in the 12th and 13th century fabric consists of fine yellow limestone whose precise source (or sources) is (or are ) uncertain. In the north chancel respond the round forms of Belemnites can be seen, showing that the stone is of the Jurassic date. It is probably from a fairly local quarry.

A sandy yellow limestone with a scatter of broken shell was quarried in the manor of the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral at Salcombe Regis. Visual inspection of the 12th century corbel table on each side of the nave strongly suggests that much of this is in Salcombe stone. It is possible that
some of the interior is also from Salcombe.


The chancel is of Victorian date, except the west wall, which survives from the Norman church. It incorporated the responds (half -piers at the sides of the opening) of the Norman chancel arch; the pointed arch above them is of later medieval date. The central capital on the north side has a group of intertwined biting dragons which look early 12th century in style. Below them, at the foot of the shaft, is a pair of fierce dragon like creatures. The south respond has plain scalloped capitals.

The north arcade is in Norman style; its elaborate form suggests a date in the mid or late 12th century. It consists of three broadly spreading arches. The proportions of the arcade, with surprisingly low piers and broad spreading arches, conform to a distinctive local style, seen also at Farway, Membury (largely rebuilt) and a little further away at Colaton Raleigh.

The two piers differ from one another, that to the east being flat whilst that to the west is a drum. The same contrast is visible in the corresponding Early English piers of the south arcade; the pair of piers to the east may be rectangular because they were designed to accommodate a wooden screen. A medieval screen of timber is known to have stood in the church in the 19th century, and it is probable that this abutted the eastern piers; however the screen which survived in the 19th century is unlikely to have been as early in date as the 12th or early 13th century. The eastern pier has pelleted ribbed leaves below fluting; the base has a plain chamfer. The western pier has a scalloped capital, the abacus (the projecting stone above the capital) being enriched with boldly-projecting plain ,balls, balls with spiral ornament (sometimes called 'jelly-moulds') and floral motifs.

At the west end of the arcade is a moulded impost of plain Norman sort. This can only have been intended for an arch spanning the west end of the church. There is no sign of a corresponding support on the opposing south side of the church, whose fabric is of early 13th century date. This former archway is extremely interesting: it indicates that there was once a large opening into the space now occupied by the tower. The probable explanation is that there must have been a tower here in the 12th century. (Other 12th century towers in Devon evidently had low openings of this sort: South Brent and Hemyock are examples.) The absence of any sign of the corresponding respond on the south side appears to indicate that the arch was dismantled before the south arcade was built in the early 13th century. This may have a bearing upon an otherwise unexplained feature of the west wall. The present tall early 16th century archway sits at the centre of the west nave wall. Above it can be seen the line of the medieval roof, whose ridge, puzzlingly, does not line up with the centre of the arch. It seems at least possible that the roof ridge was centred on the Norman tower arch below. If so, the masonry supporting the roofline is likely to be of Norman date.

The south aisle is particularly accomplished work with excellent carvings. It consists of three bays, each with a semi-circular arch. Its high quality sets it apart from the normal run of parish building work in Devon, and it seems likely that it reflects the employment of a carver connected with a major workshop. The centre famous for work of this date and style is Wells Cathedral; the similarity to work in the transepts and nave there seems to be sufficiently close to suggesting that the Hawkchurch carver may have come from the Wells workshop. The arcade is formed of three semi-circular arches in the Norman style but the form of the mouldings and the character of the sculpture are of the succeeding period. This mix of styles is not uncommon in the generation in which Gothic forms became established; other examples in the county include Farway church and the chapter house of Torre Abbey, Torquay. The work at Hawkchurch appears to be later in date than the accomplished late 12th century work at nearby Whitchurch Canonicorum, which also shows transitional mix of late Norman and Early English features.

The capital of the respond at the east end with a tonsured cleric with a book (probably a monk -perhaps an allusion to the monks of Cerne, the patrons of the church) and a figure with a scroll (someone with a message – often indicating an Old Testament Prophet), and the adjacent projecting label stop in the form of a male bust, are works of a high order.

Like its pier on the north side, the eastern pier is rectangular; as suggested above, this is likely to reflect provision for a rood screen abutting its sides. Its most remarkable sculpture is a creature from the bestiaries, with a human (?monkey-like face), the body and feet of a bird and sprouting foliage.

The pier to the west is a drum, with the refinement of a raised keel moulding to north and south, creating a more varied range of light and shade, the base with a deeply cut 'water-holding' moulding and trefoiled lobed leaf ornament. The capital has another outstanding group of sculptures.

To the south is a ram playing a viol, the medieval predecessor of the violin, paired with a goat playing ? pan pipes. Goats and rams were associated in medieval iconography with lust, and these maybe allusions (especially with the association with music) to the dangers of the flesh. This type of scene is known elsewhere - most famously on one of the early 12th century capitals in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.

To the east is a man with a peaked cap (? a predecessor to the liripipe) sitting cross-legged in a chair, facing (? feeding) a squirrel, flanked by foliage ornament.

To the north side of the capital shows a man sitting on a leaf scroll extending his hand to a quadruped (? A dog).

To the west, a man seated in a chair feeds a large bird (? a goose). At the four corners are hooded faces.


The major reconstruction of the church was carried out by John Hicks of Dorchester in the years 1859-61, financed by the Rev. E Cay Adams. The novelist Thomas Hardy was apprenticed to this firm and visited the church. The work was of good quality and the style was largely that most admired in the mid Victorian period.

The east window of the chancel was made by the important and prolific studio of Ward & Hughes of Frith Street, London in 1862. Other examples of their work are to be seen at Beer, Kilmington, High Bickington, Okehampton and seven other Devon churches; further examples of their work include windows in the cathedrals of Gloucester, Lincoln and Lichfield.

The stone pulpit of 1861, ornamented with an enriched trefoil-headed arcade, was carved by Henry Burge; it is his only attributed work in the county. Ceramic tiles and steps were also added to the chancel, contrasting with the old stone slabs retained on the church floor, emphasising the liturgical distinction between the two. A set of pews completes the Victorian ensemble; the arcaded choir stalls in a scholarly early l3th century style matching their setting are an especially attractive feature. Thanks to the Rev Cay Adams nearly all of the Norman work was saved!

In 1963 the east end of the south aisle was furnished and equipped "as a Lady Chapel in memory of the Briscoe family, descendents of the Revs E & W Cay Adams.

Although the south porch was rebuilt in the restoration of 1859-61., it clearly incorporates reused ashlar of medieval date (note the changes of stone type in the window reveals). The doorway into the south aisle is in the same early 13th century date as the aisle itself, with fine and surprisingly large Early English capitals above moulded jams with keeled shafts, rising to a segmental moulded door head. One of the pretty details of the capitals is the use of upward-pointing petals on the shaft ring at the bottom; such rings are normally plain. The capitals seem too big for the shafts below.

High on the external faces of both north and south sides of the nave there survive most of the components of a 12th century corbel table, now reset at the top of the Victorian clerestorey. All but one or two of the sculptures are in remarkably good condition. The sculptures are in a mix of different building stones: Salcombe stone is commonly visible on the south side, but some at least on the north side are in yellow lias. The subjects are principally heads of men and beasts but there are some delightful individual compositions: man and woman, a cleric? Etc on the south side, and ? dog and hare on the north side.

The fact that the reset stones of the Norman corbel table extend down both sides of the nave makes it fairly clear that both the north and south nave walls must have been of Norman date. This is unsurprising on the north side of the church, where the arcade below is also of 12th century date. On the south side of the nave, however, the arcade is later in date. The former presence of Norman fabric at the top of the wall, with the 13th century work beneath it, shows that the south all must have stood to a considerable height, but was subsequently underpinned when the south aisle was inserted.


It is built in the Perpendicular style of the later Middle Ages and Tudor period. The band of quatrefoil panels in Ham Hill stone above the external face of the west doorway incorporates a series of motifs which establish the date. The central one shows the arms of Cerne Abbey, the patron.

To the left is a knot, recognisable as the Stafford knot. This alludes to Cecily Bonville, Marchioness of Dorset, whose second marriage in 1503 was to Henry Lord Stafford. She died in 1530, so the building of the tower should fall between these two dates or a little later. Lady Cecily was a major local patron; one of her principal houses was Shute in East Devon. Other local building projects which bear her arms include the famous fan-vaulted Dorset aisle (named in her honour) at Ottery St Mary church; the north aisle at Axminster church (a work which has close artistic links to the Hawkchurch tower) and work formerly to be seen at Seaton church.

That to the right shows four lozenges and can be identified as the arms of Montacute, although there should only be three (argent [silver] three lozenges gules [red]. The lozenges represented three peaks or mantes aigues of Montacute ). The Montacute coat of arms, has been noted in other buildings - for example on decorated floor-tiles at Cleeve Abbey, Somerset and Newenham Abbey, Axminster, and on a boss at Exeter Cathedral.

The tower represents the fashionable new style of Somerset, whose most characteristic feature was their large windows and pierced panels at belfry level. Hawkchurch lies to the south-eastern fringe of the main distribution of such towers, but they were on occasion commissioned far from Somerset, as for example at Chittlehampton in North Devon, Broad Clyst in the Exe Valley, and even at Probus in western Cornwall.

The fine window at the west end was reputably put in by Abbott Helyer.

Most of the description of the church was written by John Allan of Exeter Archaeology and former curator of antiquities Exeter Museum. Some other information taken from "Where Dorset meets
Devon, Hawkchurch" by Jack Banfield and Harry Austin.

Richard Thwaites, 2006