Northlew Church of St Thomas of Canterbury Description | DevonChurchLand (2023)




  • A pretty village church in a pretty Devon village
  • ‘A more than usually complete medieval church’
  • Norman tower and west door
  • Good granite porch
  • Magnificent interior
  • An inundation of Medieval bench ends
  • Fine bits of stained glass
  • Norman font
  • Early 16th century rood screen, skilfully restored
  • Stunning roof bosses
  • Some very well carved slate 18th century gravestones outside

Click on an image to enlarge

Instruments of the Passion on a medieval bench end in Northlew Church

Listed building grade 1

Regularly open

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North and South aisles and chapels

South porch

West tower

Norman tower

Main fabric of Church from C15 to early C16

Restored in 1885 by Fulford of Exeter

Northlew church sitting so very prettily in a so very pretty deep Devon Village

A little lane, a pink-washed thatched cottage, a country-quiet churchyard, an anciently timbered church… another Devon enchantment, another Devon glory, another whispering delight, another breathtaking beauty…

Come and see, because Northlew Church of St Thomas of Canterbury is worth far more than many a treasure that money can buy, and it is free…

Is not that a wonder in itself, all this beauty and history and wonder and spirituality and architecture and… well, and everything; scattered across the countryside free to explore and love, not monetised, no admission fee, no gift shop, just here for all of us.

Set in a lush, green landscape dotted with pretty villages and hamlets.

Gets my vote every time.

Northlew Church of St Thomas of Canterbury

A Norman tower and a 15th century body, oh my, oh my, oh my

It is a grand little church on the outside, is Northlew. A Norman tower too, at least the bottom portion, a real rarity in these parts. The upper part is more modern, especially with those battlements and pinnacles.

By modern I mean fifteenth or sixteenth century of course (what other meaning could there be?), when the rest of the church was rebuilt and the north aisle added then or a tad later. The arms of the Kelly family are there so they probably paid for most of of the aisle.

The Norman West door

The Norman West Door, delightfully so

The tower doorway is itself twelfth century, and quite a little charmer with its ‘one order of colonettes and pointed arch with double head’.

As an aside, it used to be assumed that Norman stonework never used the pointed arch, but here (and other Devon arches) there is no evidence at all that this is later work; it is a strong pointer that it was used at times.

Seemingly quite posh too for such a rural place, but so little Norman work survives in Devon that we do not have enough to compare with. Nearly every church was rebuilt or deeply renovated in the Great Rebuilding of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The porch doorway

The 15th century granite porch doorway,

Now jumping to the sixteenth century this is indeed a very nice porch doorway with a younger gate delightful weathering into its role.

It is not just the texturing of the gate either, it is an impressive little design with those charming iron hinges, well worth a good look.

A beautiful combination of practical sturdiness and delicate design

As one Insta commenter put it.

The golden interior of Northlew Church

Medieval woodwork softly glowing in Northlew Church

Such a delish interior too, a hoard of golden brown woodwork set against the softly coloured granite pillars and the faded white plaster, all blossoming from the ruddy-red floor that rhymes so well with the red Devon soil.

This is the landscape that we worship in, all these different dimensions and spaces created outside, brought inside.

And it is stunningly magical.

The magnificent medieval bench ends of Northlew Church

Early 16th century bench ends down the central aisle

Just as these medieval bench ends are, sweeping down the aisle and swaggering up to that scrumptious rood screen, as if daring it do any better than they themselves.

To be fair they set an extremely high bar, especially as they were so expertly and carefully restored by Harry Hems of Exeter in 1885.

Restored into precisely so good a condition as they were the first day they left the makers’ hands

According to one journalist. A tad hyperbolic but certainly a close banana.

There is also one with a date, 1537, which is right at the start of Henry VIII’s break with Rome, though how much this was affecting life down her in Northlew is an open question. Near diddly squat would be my answer, though there might be other perceptions.

That does not mean that all the benches were made for that date, just that some were.

And talking about making, there is something very interesting going on with their design.

The marriage of Gothic and Renaissance

Three bench ends showing three different style choices

Because some show more recent Renaissance styles from abroad with the traditional Gothic of England, and some are pure Gothic.

Above are three bench ends that demonstrate this; the outer design, which is pure Gothic for all of them, and the carvings on the shields.

The left hand has traditional religious symbols, the centre one is half and half, that figure on the left and Renaissance decoration on the right, and the right hand one has pure Renaissance figures.

But it does not mean that the progression is linear in time, from Gothic to Renaissance, not at all.

With the carvings looking of a similar age, it is far more likely that the workshop was letting its creative juices flow and playing with the latest foreign styles, very foreign too for they came from Italy.

Remembering of course that the church wardens would have agreed on the approach when commissioning the work.

Let us have a closer look…

Bench end styles in Northlew Church

So the symbolism of this very Gothic carving one is a slam dunk; the cross and orb is the symbol of Jesus Saviour of the World, he is depicted in many images holding this, giving him dominion over the earth.

The R stands for Rex, latin for ‘king’, again referring back to Christ’s rulership of the Earth.

A bit of both

Less obvious symbols, two different styles

This one is more challenging; if my Mama looked at me like that I would be desperately trying to work out which of my sins she had found out, and which I could keep well hidden.

Metaphorically speaking of course…

In truth it is likely to be member of the clergy.

The right hand symbol is very Renaissance, probably a simple ’S’ but really not clear.

Renaissance through and through

Renaissance beauties here

And here we have full blown Renaissance styling, florid and flowing, luscious little pieces, quite probably showing Elemental Powers.

Those heads though, they are wondrous little works of art, and their modernity surely must have sent quite a frisson up the spines of the congregation.

A player’s mask?

Is this a mask for an actor, to be held by the rod below?

There are so many bench ends, each one with detail upon detail, like this sweetie with a gorgeous stippled background, punch marks they are called, to lift the main carving away from the surface.

It looks more like a mask than anything, similar those possibly used in Morality Plays of the era, early theatre, to be held by the rod below.

Though this being Medieval many layers of meaning would be well expected.

St Thomas of Canterbury

Probably symbols of St Thomas of Canterbury, patron saint of Northlew Church

Whilst this little collection, the bishop’s head from one bench and the cup and ’T’ from another, are thought to refer to Saint Thomas à Becket, the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury and the patron saint of this church.

The cup seems to be the Cup of Martyrdom and the T is for Thomas, whilst the head is Tommy boy in his Archbishop’s headgear.

St Thomas of Canterbury’s coat of arms

St Thomas of Canterbury’s somewhat speculative coat of arms

Jumping forward four hundred years or so, Tommy is also remembered in this piece of Victorian stained glass. The coat of arms combines that of the See of Canterbury (on the left) and one attributed to St Tommy, though in truth he never had one.

The birds are choughs, once fairly common in England, now not so much.

The sword is the sign of his martyrdom, as he was killed by four knights with the same.

An angled Norman font

A very good Norman font

Leaping back to Norman times, this twelfth century font is a powerful beaut, the right-angled (well, more or less) of the shape well set off by the less strict surface carving. A keeper for sure.

Sweet flowers

A sweet Victorian stained glass flower

And on the opposite of the blocky scale, these delicate Victorian stained flowers are a fair bonniness; a few fluid brush strokes confidently and swiftly executed, splashed with yellow, and nature blossoms in hearts and lives.

Not the only example in this church either, wonderfully so.

Northlew Church rood screen

More marvellous medieval woodwork on the Northlew Church rood screen

The rood screen is a beaut. Heavily restored between 1923 and 1929 by Herbert Read, Most of the top was missing as seen by the new vaulting, and the rood loft panels are all new. It gives a very good idea of what the original looked like, without all the paint of course.

The central portion was dedicated as a memorial to the WWI Northlew dead; tragically Northlew lost more men per head of population than any other place in Britain. A stone memorial just outside the porch door was erected in 1996, organised by the nephew of one of the casualties.

The north aisle section was given square headed vaulting, just seen starting on the left, because after research that was decided to be the most accurate for that portion

The rood screen cornice

Intricate carving on the cornice

Most of this bit of frieze seems to have been rescued from the Medieval, and its elaborate vines and other plants must have seemed to twist and writhe in the stained-glass-coloured, incense-hued candlelight of the old nave.

Old Devon vernacular carving eh? Unbeatable is what I say.

The central rood screen door

Old and newer woodwork around the rood screen door

If you want colour and bling, this church is so not for you. If you want virtuoso wood carving, ancient and modern, with stone accompaniment, then it is so your delight.

Just like this perfectly balanced vision, golly it is good.

The Sanctuary

Northlew sanctuary

Through the rood screen the sanctuary is a peaceful simplicity, it would be rude to be anything else with all the intricate woodwork gyrating around the church.

Astounding roof bosses

15th century roof bosses from the North Chapel

Talking about woodwork, not something avoidable in this wonder, the North Chapel ceiling has something to say in a most enormous way. It sings, it carols, it croons, and then tap-dances out a requiem mass for an encore.

Just look at those roof bosses. Flower heads surrounded by petals (some of the petals restored), and behind them each rib carved, ready to be painted and gilded and catch all the different lights.

The restoration has brought them back to their glory because look here…

A flower bedecked ceiling

Just imagine a colourful, flower-bedecked roof

These floriate bosses and chiseled ribs would have been backed by plaster or lime-washed boards, and painted in subtle shades and tones. There’s even a possibility that the background would have been painted as well, I have seen it so in some churches.

The effect though, the effect would have been standing under a flower bejewelled canopy, blossoming across the heavens, a glorious magnificence of God’s munificence.

And underneath a Mass would take place, with rich stained glass and lush wall paintings, incense soaked, a spot of heaven on earth.

What wonder it must have been, what glory it has been restored to.

Thank you Northlew parish.

Grumpy dudes and glorious plants

More 15th century bench ends

The roof bosses in the rest of the church are a different style entirely, probably earlier (the north aisle and chapel would likely have been the last of the church to be built). There is still a gorgeousness about the foliage though, even if the grim faced dudes are a bit, well, grim.

Not happy to see the twenty first century quite likely. Hey ho, grumpy is as grumpy does.

The Northlew angels

Medieval angels

Plus scattered around the wall plates, where the walls meet the roofs, are these broken down angels, wings askance, shields bare, time worn, but still the Divine’s messengers, century-laden love waiting, waiting…

… And I prayed: “Please help me, Lord.
“You know I’ve sowed my wild oats,
“And now the fun’s all gone.”
And then I heard these tender words,
“Infamous Angel, come on home,
“To someone who loves you,
“And knows you needed to roam.
“Grab your things, a ticket’s waiting,
“At the bus depot:
“For: ‘Infamous Angel, Destination: Home’.”
Infamous Angel, Iris De Ment

… for any soul that wants to pick up that ticket.

The church warden told me that he had seen one of Northlew’s angels for sale in one of the major London auction houses, a sadness indeed.

An angel far from home for sure.

Gravestones and angels

18th century angels on slate gravestones

Meanwhile, stepping outside, there are some well ensconced angels in the churchyard, very well in ensconced indeed, carved in slate to be more exact, wearing periwigs like the proper eighteenth century gents they are.

Even more so, just as the angels in the church are for the living, these here are for the deceased, to take their souls up to heaven.

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see,
Coming for to carry me home.
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.
Swing Low Sweet Chariot, trad, Sung by The Brothers Four

Though being proper Devon angels, tough as the granite they grew up on, just a single strongman can do the work of a band, with maybe a couple of apprentices learning the trade (that top image!).

And when the village is quiet and the churchyard quieter, how often do these come down from the grave stones and go and chat with their medieval bros inside, talking about the wonder of humans and how spellbinding us Children of God are?

Whilst in tranquil dreams parishioners welcome them and taste a wisp of heaven, the flavour of rainbows sighing across their skin.

In Northlew there is many a beguiling night, I suspect.

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