Friends of the
Church of St Mary Magdalene Huntshaw
A hidden gem in rural North Devon
Thank you to Simon Jessop for the photograph
A Brief History of the Church
The Church of St Mary Magdalene Huntshaw is an Anglican parish church that lies in a tranquil setting, three miles north of the town of Great Torrington, around one mile to the west of the B3232. The church stands at an elevation of 400 feet above sea level.
The church is Grade II* listed which puts it in the highest 10% of valuable buildings in the country. Being listed provides legal protection from demolition or extensive modification and special permission is required from the Diocese before any work can be carried out. The church is listed because it retains original features from the 14th century including an original stain glass window.
The present church is around 700 years old, however we know that there was a church on site from 1277 when the first Rector, Thomas Cockynton was instituted. This would have been a much smaller building consisting only of the Chancel and probably a thatched roof and a bell.
In 1439 Bishop Edmund Lacy granted an indulgence (instruction) to enlarge the church to its current size to have a “Tower of 3 bells and a Nave and North Aisle”. Edmund Lacy was the Bishop of Exeter from 1420 until his death in 1455, and before that, being a Canon of St Georges Chapel in Windsor Castle was with Henry V at the battle of Agincourt in 1415. During his time as Bishop he promoted greatly the building of new churches in Devon and Cornwall, and we know from his daily register that on 7th July 1439 he instructed the enlargement of Huntshaw Church.
The tower and nave were rebuilt in 1499. In 1750 the tower was rebuilt and three bells rehung at a total cost of £41. 6s. 10d. Lime was bought in ‘bushalls’ and sand and gravel in ‘seems. The final major restoration took place in 1862 and the church has not changed much since that time.
Cuthbert Mayne Priest and Martyr 1544 - 1577 There is a small, black and white print of this famous former Rector of Huntshaw in the church beneath the Saltrens monument. He was canonised in 1970 and remains Huntshaw's only saint.
Cuthbert Mayne was born at Youlston near Barnstaple. He was of humble origins and was said to be good natured and pleasant. His uncle, was a Protestant minister who wanted Cuthbert to follow in his footsteps so he had him educated at Barnstaple Grammar School. Cuthbert was subsequently ordained as a Protestant minister at the age of 17 when he became Rector of Huntshaw. He admitted later, with great sorrow that at this time, he knew neither what Ministry nor Religion meant. It was not uncommon in those days to first be given a living and then to study the theology afterwards!
Cuthbert completed his education at Oxford where he met a group of influential Catholics and converted to Catholicism. This was the beginning of his downfall as Catholics were persecuted at this time in the belief that they plotted to bring down the Queen. (Elizabeth 1st) The Bishop of London issued a warrant for Cuthbert's arrest and he fled initially to Cornwall and then to Douai in France where he was ordained a priest in 1575. He returned to Probus in Cornwall where he was harboured by devoted Catholic, Francis Tregian. Cuthbert was arrested at Tregian’s house in 1577 and imprisoned in Launceston gaol where he was chained to his bed. During his trial he denied the spurious charges against him but the judge instructed the jury to find him guilty of high treason stating that "where plain proofs were wanting, strong presumptions ought to take place". Cuthbert was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
Attempts were made to intervene on
Cuthbert’s behalf including by the
infamous Judge Jeffries but plans for
the execution proceeded. Two days
before the execution, fellow prisoners
reported that Cuthbert’s cell was full of
a “great light”. On the eve of the
execution he was given the opportunity
to renounce his faith and recognise the
Queen as the head of the church, in
return for his life. He refused and as he
kissed a copy of the Bible he declared
that "the queen neither ever was, nor
is, nor ever shall be, the head of the Church of England".
On 29th November 1577 Cuthbert was taken to the marketplace at Launceston where a specially made high gibbet had been erected. He prayed as he was hanged. Some sources state that he was cut down alive but was rendered unconscious when he hit his head on the scaffold.
The execution of Cuthbert Mayne marked the beginning of a violent onslaught against Catholic dissent. Cuthbert was the first of a group of priests who were trained on the Continent. He was also one of the group of prominent Catholic martyrs of the persecution who became known as the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. His remains were located in a range of places and parts of his head are still preserved. In 1952 Cuthbert’s skull was received with great honour in Westminster Cathedral where thousands knelt to kiss the casket containing it. In 2001 the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate became custodians of the skull. Cuthbert was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 and was canonized by Pope Paul V1 in 1970. Cuthbert Mayne must surely be one of Huntshaw’s most famous residents.
There are three bells in the tower all of which are listed by Churchcare as being particularly worthy of preservation.
The tenor bell was installed at around 1500 (the time that the tower was rebuilt for the first time) It was made in Bristol at the Thomas Gefferies Foundry and is the biggest bell weighing around half a ton. As it was large and heavy it was possibly cast on site beneath where the tower was later to be built. The bell bears the inscription “SANCTA ANNA ORA PRO NOBIS” (St Anne, pray for us).
The present treble bell was cast in 1634 and is one of a group of eight bells in the county bearing the letters “W.K.” as the founder’s initials. It has not been possible to identify who “W.K.” was, though he may have been an apprentice to the Penningtons of Barnstaple, the inscriptions and decorations he used bearing marked similarities to those used by the Penningtons. The treble bell bears the inscription “SOLI DEO DETUR GLORIA” (Alone be Glory given to God)
The present second bell was cast by John Pennington of Exeter in 1665.
The treble bell is tonally sharp, and the second bell is tonally flat when compared to the tenor bell which has a good tone. The clappers are ancient and crudely forged.
The bell frames are made of oak and could possibly be 400 years old. Like the bells, the bell-frame is “Listed” by Churchcare as worthy of preservation. There is significant decay in parts of the bell frame warrant and various strengthening measures have been taken over the years.
The bells were last inspected on Tuesday 7th March 2017 by David Hird (Assistant to the Exeter DAC Consultant on Bells and Clocks) and Ian Campbell and Ian Smith (Bells and Belfries Advisors to the Guild of Devonshire Ringers), assisted by Robert Franklin
See the full report on our Documents page
The above has been taken from “Huntshaw Through the Ages” (2018) a new book by Richard Sears with additional information from the Huntshaw Bell inspection (2017)