Church of St Paul de Leon

Staverton Church

History of the Church

Both fact and legend surround the history of Staverton Church. The legend is that in Saxon times, after St Paul de Leon landed at Penzance and built his church at St Pol, he sailed along the coast of Devon and Cornwall and then up the River Dart, until he reached the ford at Staverton. He felt that God had guided him to this place, and desired him to build a church. The site he chose was possibly near Wolston Green, and he gathered all the materials together ready to begin building. However, when he awoke the next morning the materials had disappeared. Patiently, he repeated his preparations but by the next morning the materials had again disappeared. When this happened for the third time, St Paul concluded that God was displeased with the site. He therefore chose the present location, which appears to have met with Divine approval, for a place of worship has remained there throughout the intervening ten centuries.

There are a number of other records of St Paul. Born Paul Aurelian (His Latin name at the end of the fifth century), his life was recorded in two identical accounts, one in France and the other in Germany. Most records of the lives of the Celtic saints were burnt by the Normans but these survived by being in European libraries. Paul was of noble birth and his family is recorded in South Wales. He studied under ILTIT the welsh teacher saint (Llantit Major was named after him, and was where he taught.) His fellow students were Dewi (St David), Gildas who went to Cornwall, Samson, who went to the Island named after him, and Petroc who was invited with St Paul de Leon to Devon and Cornwall (as they later became known) by King Mark. Paul de Leon had already founded a monastery and several churches from the Gower to Pembroke and seemed to have equalled Petroc in starting churches in Devon and Cornwall. Broadhempston the next village, had a St Petroc Church till the Normans removed the Celtic saint’s name, changing it to St Peter. Incidentally Paul’s sister was Sitfolla, who founded a nunnery at Tintagel and later went to Exeter where she was martyred. The name, like Paul Aurelian’s, became distorted over the years and of course, as in so many stories, where she died a spring and well were found. She became known as St Sidwell. Sidwell Street in Exeter and St Sidwell’s Church remain as her memorial.

The probable dating of the founding of Staverton Church is between 522-530AD. We have dating of Paul in Wales and later on arrival in France on the Isle de Bas, and then on to the town where he ministered and was later buried, known as “Pol de Leon” just inland from Roscoff. There are relics of his bones and the pilgrim bells he used as he travelled in Devon and later France. A replica of the bell was given to the Bishop of Exeter to mark this on a visit to this church and it travelled with him to schools as he went around to mark the founding of the Diocese of Exeter.

The church built by St Paul was the first of three churches on the site, and would have been a wattle, clay and wooden structure with a thatched roof. The second building was of stone, built in Norman style, and it was much smaller than the present one, the knave being only 16ft by 12ft.

A fascinating anecdote is that the timbers from the roof of this Norman church have since been discovered as supporting timbers in the roof of a local farmhouse. It appears that the benefits of recycling are not after all, a discovery of the 20th Century!

It would seem however, that the parishioners did not look after their Norman church too well, as in 1314 Bishop Stapeldon, on a visit to the parish, noted several defects and ordered a new church to be built by the people of Staverton. The present building dates from that time, and tradition has it that the villagers built such a large church to spite the censorious Bishop. The yew tree survived the rebuilding and is now over a thousand years old.

A report dated around 1750 quotes the story that a family vault belonging to the Worths was opened in the order to drain it. An oak coffin was found, which must have been that of Simon Worth who died in 1669. When the workmen opened the coffin they found the body not only intact, but quite supple, as if buried only the day before. The body had not been embalmed and although the coffin was left open for several weeks the body did not decay. A surgeon opened the body and found all the organs intact. The vault used to fill with water in the winter, but dried out in the summer, and this coffin was held down with a stone., which may account for the preservation of the body.

In 1877, Staverton Church was “restored in true Victorian style”. The Reverend Sabine Barring Gould, who had a living near London at the time, was contacted, as his ancestors were about to be entombed in concrete . He rushed down and removed their memorials to Lewtrenchard Church near Okehampton, Devon, before they were lost for ever. The Gould family had lived at Pridhamsleigh (presumably until they lost it in the gambling debt), and Coombe, and were the founders of several Parish Charities. Their name survives today in Goulds, a house near Staverton station.

A visit to the church reveals a lovely interior with a quite magnificent wooden Rood Screen and one of the eight Rood Lofts left in the county. The church is open 8am to 5pm. A good push on the door moves the counterweight and opens it if you are the first to come in on the day.

All of the old registers are housed at the Devon Records office to help those who want to find family details.

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