Trusham Church of St Michael

Trusham Church of St Michael

Generations mist around the little church crowning this hill-folded, combe-steeped parish of Trusham. Centuries upon centuries of ancestors have climbed the steep lanes to wed, to bury and to celebrate the divine.

Small as it is, the church is the oldest attested in the Teign Valley, held by the Abbey of Buckfast in the Domesday Book but not officially dedicated until 1259. Twenty-two years before that a decree went out from London saying churches ‘not having been consecrated with holy oil, though built of old, should be solemnly dedicated within two years’.

That is a very Devon two years.

Trusham church exterior 

The graveyard is atmosphere defined. Vistas and silences enveloped by weather and colour, we are living with the dead who outnumber the gravestones many times. Before the seventeenth century folk were buried in a woollen shroud with no grave marking. Over time folk were buried above their forebears over and over again. They whisper around the church.

The church itself is a stumpy little thing, thick-browed and beetly, keeping low to the ground offering its carapace to the weather that hits it before anything else in the parish. The rendering is likely twentieth century, inappropriately cement based but it still probably resembles the medieval church closer than a bare stone one would.

Medieval churches were often rendered with a breathable lime plaster (cement does not breathe) and whitened with a coat of lime wash. And in keeping with aged tradition the granite surrounds have been carefully left clear, here on the west door and window, and they project such stolidity. Those huge blocks of the relieving arches and the doorway composed of four granite blocks rustically shaped just shout ‘immoveable’. Devon granite cannot be a subtle stone, it is impossible to cut precisely with medieval hand tools, and here its quality of ‘massiveness’ is used at its best.

And the window! Some windows are intricate jigsaws of traceries carefully cut and pieced together. Not this one. It is the tough little street fighter of windows, beetle browed no less, ready to fight the storms and blizzards that roar down on this church. Protect the parish, protect the folk, protect the Word of God. Its self-chosen task fulfilled forever. Expect a high five or two from the Good Lord, dude. 

The church interior

The graves extend into the church. In the reordering of 2013 there was an archaeological survey done of the floor and the outlines of 15 more were found under the Victorian rubble, along with various vaults and indications that a large number of burials had already been removed in the nineteenth century restoration. We look at present day churches and see a distinction between the graveyard and the interior but this is a modern fantasy.

Mind you, in small churches before the 16th or 17th centuries, or even later, the church floor would have been a mixture of clay, water and lime probably mixed with small animal bones to make it harder wearing (kind of hoping here that ‘animal bones’ did not include human ones). Beaten flat and dried and then covered with rushes or mats that were regularly renewed, it made a hard wearing surface that could have easily been dug up for a burial.

And the good folk of Trusham fancied a church burial even if it cost, and it surely did cost; 6s 8d (33p) in the later Middle Ages, potentially equivalent to around £6,226 today.

Of course, death was just part of the journey to resurrection and the Kingdom of God. The soul lived, the body would rise again and really, where you were buried…not the most pressing matter for God to attend to I would venture.

At the end of the nave there is a good looking screen (below) that gives a sketch of what once would have stood there. Most of it is a nineteenth century restoration by Herbert Read, who also carved the rood, the crucifix above it, and the fine pulpit, and there are some original carvings with traces of paint left from the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, mainly the uprights. It is a masterful creation and shows the beautiful Devon tradition of wood carving floating down through the ages.

We go through the screen and find a marvellous chancel (top left of first page) all decked out in frills and flowers by the Victorian restorers, ceilings and walls floriating away. It takes the breath away after the simplicity of the nave and as it is hidden behind the screen the shock of its abundance is a delight; a bewitching little gem carefully preserved.

On the south wall is this beautiful blue angel, big feathered and red haired. (See featured image above.)

It’s the memory of your warmth

That keeps me alive

When I’m burning

And my world’s closing in

Blue Angel – Anthony and the Johnsons

What bliss when a popular love song becomes a hymn to the Divine, but then again, are not all love songs coded messages to God?

Turning around we come back to human glory with this sober suited family painted on board up on the north wall of the chancel; Hugh and Sabina Staplehill (died 1583 – see bottom last page) and their children at prayer. Their faces are very individual, their clothes not so much. Hugh does have a very impressive hat next to him, and the coats of arms refer to the union of his and his wife’s families. The bible is open on the prayer stand with the words:

Blessed are all they that fear the Lord and walk in his ways: For thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands. Oh well is thee and happy shalt thou be: Thy wife shall be as the fruitful vine upon the walls of thine house

Psalm 128

One of the ‘Songs of Ascent’, possibly sung by pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem or the priestly singers as they ascended the fifteen steps to the temple. A good choice for those who were going to meet their God as well as for those who lived their life in the world of God, as this family seems to have done. 

On the east wall of the aisle there is this beauty, a memorial to John and Mary Stooke looking a fine devout couple and possibly painted from life. John made his fortune as a clothier – someone who worked in the making and marketing of cloth – and left a pretty penny to a number of charities in the local parishes as well as building two almshouses in Trusham.

It is a remarkable piece of work. The memorial is wood painted to resemble marble (a man frugal with his money indeed, no surprise he made his fortune) and the portraits…well the portraits bring the age to life. 1697 is the date of the memorial, and John and Elizabeth had lived through turbulent times, from the Civil War through the Great Plague of 1665 to William of Orange’s 1688 successful invasion of England that started in South Devon with 463 ships and 15,000 men.

They do look a very careful and modest couple and it would be fascinating to listen to their thoughts on these events, but they look as if they guarded their tongues as wisely as they guarded their money. 

We meet some good stained glass in this church too, though the expression on this lamb’s face seems to be one of slight befuddlement rather than holiness. Jesus’ face is interesting too; not a traditionally handsome face, but the face of any man as well as one who has seen far too much suffering and pain in the world yet is still full of compassion.

On the other hand the faces on this Virgin and Child seem to be ultra determined and heaven help anyone who gets in their way (though heaven probably will not, to be realistic). We know one is going to save the world and the other will stick with him to the end and out the other side. These are two folk who will fulfil their mission. 

Nineteenth century as all the glass is here.

Meanwhile the Norman font sits calmly watching the generations come and go. Is that a cross scratched on it on the upper left? That stout top cinched in by the belt of roll moulding like the stomach of a hefty Devon farmer, the scars and erosions of age and use…when the visitors leave and dusk creeps in it discusses the lives of the parishioners baptised here and the love that it has seen with the church.

Another declaration of age, this time more specific, is the pillar piscina in the chancel from the previous Norman church. Whether the head is a repurposed Norman capital – the top of a pillar – or the whole is original is a debate that will last and last. It is a form of piscina that all churches had to have. 

The Norman church (and a Saxon place of worship too?) would have been humble here, most likely a simple chancel and nave with decoration inside. This present Trusham church carries on that tradition, with its beautifully decorated chancel, stained glass and carvings and paintings from the centuries.

But what really stands out is the simplicity and strength of the structure, how it hunkers down against the weather in its exposed position. The modesty and the power to minister to the surrounding souls through the centuries in this little parish and to be a place of spirit for the marvels and vicissitudes of this life.

A church for all ages.

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Editorial contribution from one of Devonshire magazine's guest writers. There are currently over 40 writers we are in contact with. If you have an interesting story/subject relating to anything Devon that you think our readers would be interested in, please contact Nigel Jones on 01395 513383