St Brannock’s Church in Devon
This week we have a invited guest blogger Douglas, founder of ‘Devon Church Land’ website and Instagram, to tell us about his favourite maritime churches in Devon. This is what Douglas said…
Being invited to write about some of my favourite Devon Maritime Churches is a bit like being expected to have a favourite child. Although I cannot do that, I can write about this beauty, a real humdinger: Braunton Church of St Brannock, up in north Devon.
The church and the community are never separate, and to understand the church we need to look way back in time.
Back to the sixth century when Brannock (not yet a saint) boated over from Wales and set to preaching. Some say he converted the pagans, though this is immensely arguable. There is some mighty interesting evidence of Post-Roman survival of Christianity in the South West, ranging from an early-to-mid fifth century carved Chi-Rho symbol down in Phillack in Cornwall to the survival of many early Christian memorial stones in Devon and Cornwall of later dates.
There is also ample evidence of some form of trade with the Eastern Mediterranean and the South West in the early Dark Ages, famously so for Tintagel but also in other places. More speculatively, according to Dr Caitlin Green’s marvellous blog, writing in 886 AD the Syrian Harun ibn Yahya seems to indicate that Britain was still considered the land of the Greeks, meaning the Byzantines still considered that it came under their influence… very speculative I know but nicely so.
That would mean Christian influence as well. Whether trade, gift giving, or tributes the differences can be very fuzzy), comes religion.
From Brannock to Saxon culture
So, anyway, Brannock builds a chapel, and when he dies he is buried under the high altar where during WWII, an ancient stone coffin full of bones was discovered and rapidly reburied. Hhhhm… ?
Then Saxon culture rolls over the area, and Glastonbury Abbey takes ownership around 839 AD. According to John Bradbeer, a local historian
“It’s highly likely that Braunton’s three open fields (of which the Great Field is the sole survivor) were established at this time and the village probably re-organised but the prestige according to St Brannock meant that the church was not relocated and so now is quite peripheral to the heart of the village at Cross Tree.”
Marvellously, an Open Field still survives, one of only two in England.
Along with this, Braunton seems to have become a Minster, Brannocminster to be exact, and there was a likely enough a Saxon church built. One of the two slit windows at the base of the Norman tower features a Saxon stone lintel, possibly a repurposed high class grave slab, dated from about the early tenth century.
Norman days and onwards
Which bring us to the church, a very magnificent church with its Norman tower and spire as mentioned (the spire timbers come from trees planted before 1066) and various survivals from later centuries incorporated into the fifteenth century rebuild, including a lovely Norman font.
By this time it was likely a place of pilgrimage too, possibly from soon after the death of Brannock. The pilgrims would generally have come from the local area, within thirty miles or so, and this is something that is not always recognised.
We hear about long treks to Jerusalem, to Santiago de Compostela, to Walsingham, but most pilgrimages were much shorter. A three day jolly with a spiritual deliberation in the middle was a mighty attractive break back in the day, and that spiritual centre was not an excuse, it was the most important bit. Would not stop the jolliness though.
But also, being a seaside village with its own quay there would have been nothing to stop the south Welsh popping over to pray at Brannock’s shrine, and combining that with trade would have been a bit of no brainer.
So with pilgrims’ donations the church got richer and the parish got richer too off sea trade with Wales, Ireland, the Mediterranean and along the English coasts. And a lot of this money went into the rebuilding of the church and furnishing it.
The church’s crowning glory is surely late fifteenth/early sixteenth furnishings, the stunning roofbosses and the brilliant benchends, as well as the huge aisle-less barn of a nave.
The fifteenth-century church
According to Sue Andrews, the roof-bosses are laid out in a clear progression from West to East in a clear three-stage progression: the entry of sin, the consequences of sin and salvation from sin; not just to teach but for a meditative journey of self examination and an understanding of what the observer needs to do to avoid sin and thereby become closer to the Divine.
Here on the left are is an ‘entry of sin’, specifically through the tongue, gossiping (or ‘jangling’ as it was called), back biting, lying, general dishonesty… potentially a very long list.
On the right is a ‘consequence of sin’, here being self-banishment from God. In a medieval story there was a man who collected brushwood on a Sunday, and ended up doing it on the moon forever. This was at one level a warning against working on a Sunday, but on another level it is an explanation of what happens when we ignore the Divine; we no longer have any connection to God. For medieval folk with their strong faith, and a society woven together by that faith, losing God was very bad news indeed.
Though to be fair the lad on the boss seems not to have let this little hiccup get in the way of a fine grin.
Benchends and prayers
The religious imagery on the benchends would have been used for meditation, for discussion and for prayer, both individual and group, and more, just as the Stations of the Cross are used nowadays in some areas in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church.
Here are the Wounds of Christ, from which flow all the Sacraments of the church, and which were a sign of the strong and deep faith in Devon in those days. This symbol was carried by the brave folk of the Prayerbook Rebellion in 1549, when Devon and Cornwall rose up against the new English prayer book and the grey faced Protestants destroying their Christianity.
But here in the church the Old Faith stayed on bit longer. There are reports of incense and processions still being carried on in Elizabeth’s reign. The isolation, the importance of Brannock, old habits, and the reluctance of the authorities to poke a folk that had already bit back hard probably all contributed.
Nowadays it is a beautifully peaceful church to visit, and for the historian a fascinatingly layered puzzle that has not really been put on paper; the landscape changes; the Open Fields; the quay and the shipping; the sheep raising and fishing…
Find out more about Braunton church here with an image gallery as well and follow @devonchurchland on Instagram here >