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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

River Avon Moor to Sea 3

St. Petroc's Church South Brent

Detail of the east window in the chancel.

So who was St Petroc?

Saint Petroc (Welsh: Pedrog; ) was a British prince and Christian saint.

Probably born in South Wales, he primarily ministered to the Britons of Devon and Cornwall then forming the kingdom of Dumnonia where he is associated with a monastery at Padstow, which is named after him (Pedroc-stowe). Padstow appears to have been his earliest major cult centre, but Bodmin became the major centre for his veneration when his relics were moved to the monastery there in the later ninth century. Bodmin monastery became one of the wealthiest Cornish foundations by the eleventh century.

In Devon ancient dedications total a probable seventeen, mostly coastal and including one within the old Roman walls of Exeter.

St Petroc came to Devon in the 6th century and it is likely that the first Christian building on this site was constructed at that time. The oldest remaining parts of the church today are Saxon, dating from before the Norman conquest in 1066. This Saxon church had a tower and four wings forming the shape of a cross. The remains of that church are visible as the foundations in the area nearest to the present tower.

The present tower is Norman and the only remaining part of that later church. Sometime before the 12th century the west and north transepts were demolished. By 1247 the whole village consisted of the church and just seven houses.

Stocks were used to punish people for crimes such as swearing or drunkenness. Criminals would sit or stand at a wooden frame and the local people would throw rotten food or even stones at them.

The stocks and pillory were used as a punishment throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Their use declined in the 18th century. It is thought that the last time the stocks were used in the UK was in 1872 in Newcastle Emlyn.

In looking up this description I was highly amused to find that it was in Newcastle Emlyn that stocks were last used in Britain, especially given the punishment was for drunkenness. Even when I was growing up I remember that there were at that time about thirteen pubs in Newcastle Emlyn High Street which was the length of about a quarter of a mile. Every market day my Uncle Dai and my Grandfather would disappear all day and come home very late, having driven the three miles back of course. One of those pubs also reminds me of the time my Dad had lunch there and had apple pie for afters, afters was what we called dessert. He had specified no cream on top, and of course when it arrived, there was cream on top. He pointed out that he had asked for pie without cream, whereupon they took it away and brought the same pie back with the cream scraped off. Those were the days. No Tripadvisor then.

This is the original medieval front door, now left open as the porch has newer, outer doors that are kept closed. The Porch itself was not added until around the 15th Century. This ancient Church Door is made of overlapping planks with iron strap-work. Its exact age is unknown, but we can see how the upper hinge has been re-positioned a few inches higher than its earlier setting. The ring that will not turn is the old ‘Sanctuary Ring’; in olden times a fugitive holding it could claim right of sanctuary, and stay in the church free from prosecution for usually 40 days until the case was properly heard. The right of sanctuary was abolished in the early 17th century, so this ring is old and the door probably older.

If a felon held on to the Sanctuary Ring he could be given sanctuary but had to hand over all his weapons and be confined to either the church or the parish. If subsequently he moved out he would become an "outlaw".

He had 28 days to prepare his defence or abjure the realm (voluntary exile) when he had to proceed barefoot and bareheaded and carrying a cross to the nearest port. If he stepped off the King's Highway he could legally be attacked or even killed. He had to take the first available ship out or walk some distance into the sea if none were immediately available. The King’s express permission was needed before returning to the country on pain of beheading. (Exeter local history society)

This Font is made of red sandstone and dates from Norman times. The decorations on the bowl are rope, honeysuckle, and sawtooth – designs seen in Buckfastleigh and other churches in the area. As the font is the most venerated part of the church, as it holds the Holy Water, it is also quite often the oldest part of the church and often older than the church itself as fonts were usually transferred from an older building to its replacement.

The font is usually the first thing you see on entering the church as it is symbolic of Baptism and therefore entry into the church. Fonts always had lockable lids to prevent theft of the Holy Water. Some water was placed in a Holy Water Stoop just inside the main door carved into the wall where visitors could wet their finger and make a cross on their forehead.

The main body of the church, the nave, and the two side aisles were built by 1247. The north and south transepts, the wings that run north and south of the aisles to form a cross had been added by the 15th century. All of this was before 1436.

In case you had forgotten, this post relates to my series on the river Avon which runs just along the outside of the north aisle, the arcade on the left, so much so that the north transept, the chapel on that side is 11 inches smaller than the south transept, as it was thought it could otherwise have collapsed into the river. This church is, excluding some water mills, probably the closest building to the river on it's journey.

Much controversy surrounds the missing Rood Screen which was purported to be one of the finest in Devon, one thing is sure, it seems to have disappeared in the mid to late 19th century. It is variously suggested that it had become too damaged to restore, that it had been damaged by restoration or that it was taken down during renovation and left to deteriorate outside in the churchyard. In any case, this altar rail is one of the few remaining fragments. If you are not familiar with what a Rood Screen looks like, have a look at my post on South Pool church where the Rood Screen survives.

These doors displayed at the rear of the church also formed part of the Rood Screen. They are Gothic in style and date from around the 14th or 15th century. The carving is particularly fine. They are not a matching pair and it is possible they were kept as they were the only part of the screen in good enough condition. They were restored and put on display in 1990.

The present organ was installed in 1995 and came from a church in Plymouth.

In the chancel, the front of the church, where the altar stands, are these stone seats or "sedilia". These were for the celebrant, the deacon and the sub-deacon. The original church would have had no seating and the congregation would stand throughout the service. In the south aisle there are similar stone seats built into the wall for those unable to stand, such as the elderly or infirm. From this the saying "the weakest go to the wall" was born.

This strange arrangement of doors hints at changes made over the years. There used to be a Rood loft here, an upper level. When that was installed a spiral staircase was added outside in an added extension which led to the upper doorway. Losing the exterior door meant installing a new shorter door below the original window. The Rood screen and loft were later removed.

Here, on the outside it is possible to see the extension built for the spiral staircase and the later, shorter, external door.

This is a stunningly beautiful window with its detail and rich colours. The skill it has taken to to make glass and lead look like richly brocaded flowing silk garments is awe inspiring.

I have added a small detail here.

The ‘Parables Window’ at the west end of the north aisle depicts Jesus’ famous parables of the Prodigal Son, and the Good Samaritan. Dated 1856, it is the only window glass to have survived the restoration work of 1870, and is dedicated to John Elliott who bought the Lordship of the Manor from William, 11th Lord Petre in 1806.

This is Saint George, patron Saint of England and is part of the window in the memorial chapel.

The choir stalls of 1926 are richly carved and decorated, and sport four angels playing musical instruments. They were carved by Harry Hems of Exeter.

Harry Hems was an English architectural and ecclesiastical sculptor who was particularly inspired by Gothic architecture and a practitioner of Gothic Revival. He founded and ran a large workshop in Exeter, Devon, which produced woodwork and sculpture for churches all over the country and abroad.

Born in London, Harry Hems started work as a cutler before taking at age fourteen a seven-year apprenticeship as a woodcarver in Sheffield. Returning to London, he found employment in the construction of the Foreign Office building and the Langham Hotel. He then spent two years seeking inspiration in Italy, but was supposedly arrested as a spy and had to return to England penniless.

On his return, however, he soon found work on the building of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, in Exeter, Devon. When he arrived in Exeter on 4 December 1866 by train he said that he found a horseshoe on his way from the railway station, and kept it as a lucky charm. Hems was a hard worker – a report of 1879 said that "he is 'always at it' from six in the morning until nine at night, and often much later", and he expected the same level of commitment from his workforce, apparently resorting to violence against them if they would not comply. In October 1878 he was charged £1 plus costs for fighting with one of his employees, a court was told that he had said that he would "break [William Mears] in as he had several of his other apprentices".

He had at least two well-publicised disputes with the Tax Commissioners. In September 1888 an auction of his goods on account of unpaid tax took place at his workshop in which one of the lots was a life-sized statue of St Matthew the Tax gatherer.

After he again refused to pay the assessed amount of tax in 1907, another auction of his goods was arranged. It took place on 29 April that year, and he prepared the auction catalogue himself. The sale items included the crowbar that had been used by the bailiffs to gain entry to his workshop, a set of old stocks ("offering accommodation for three malefactors"), three "second-hand tombstones (slightly damaged) ... suitable for the graves of Income Tax Commissioners or other Revenue Officials"

This unique War Memorial hangs in the South Transept and shows a soldier being held and presumably taken up to heaven by an angel, based on a painting by James Clark. The painting, called The Great Reward was one of two painted by Clark that caught the imagination of the public in the midst of the horrors of war.

Wendy Bristow was asked to create the piece to go in St Petroc Church in the village. It will occupy pride of place alongside the two memorials, to the dead of the first and second world wars, that are already there. The need for a new memorial was recognised by local author Bernard Elms, who spent years researching Brent men who died during the great war of 1914-1918 for his book, The Tommies from South Brent. In his book, Bernard revealed the names of five men who were not included on the original memorial. SouthHamsToday

Looking outside at the north face of the Tower we can see the remains of the

semi-circular Norman arch that gave access from the Tower base to the

extension to the north. See how low the arch is. The stonework in-filling the arch clearly later than the old water rounded river stones of the adjacent walls. We are looking at history here.

The Normans had wanted to extend the church westwards but were restricted because the tower was so close to the river. For that reason the church grew southwards and eastwards. There is some evidence in the foundations that there was a pre-Christian Mithraic shrine on this site, which would explain it's close proximity to the river.

Mithraism was a Roman mystery religion centered on the god Mithras. Although inspired by Iranian worship of the Zoroastrian divinity (yazata) Mithra, the Roman Mithras is linked to a new and distinctive imagery, with the level of continuity between Persian and Greco-Roman practice debated. The mysteries were popular among the Imperial Roman army from about the 1st to the 4th-century CE.

Mithras is depicted as being born from a rock. Sometimes a thunderbolt is seen. One statue had its base perforated so that it could serve as a fountain, and the base of another has the mask of the water god.

In the lowest stage of the tower, on the west, a fine Early English doorway formed of four large granite stones has been added.The next level up is Norman, but the three-light window is Early English, of elegant appearance. The external Tower buttresses seem to be Early English, probably added to strengthen the base of the Tower when the Saxon-Norman extensions were pulled down and the Tower arches blocked.

In the north wall of the church was a door that has been sealed up. It is now referred to as the "murder doorway". It can be seen below now partially obscured by later memorials and a floral display. I have lightened the area to make it more clearly visible.

In Spring 1436, after the evening service of vespers on the feast of Corpus Christi,

a group of men led by one Thomas Weke a parishioner entered the church, perhaps through the north door in the sanctuary, the now blocked ‘Murder Doorway’, and seized the Vicar, Master John Hay. They murdered him either actually in the church, or dragging him out of the church through the ‘Murder Door’, they battered him to death outside. The reasons are unknown. We read that the Bishop, on September 11, 1436, visited and ‘reconciled’

the parish church of Brent and the contiguous churchyard.

The Register of Bishop Edmund Lacy (or Lacey), Bishop of Exeter from 1420-1455, tells us how on 20 June 1436 the Bishop commissioned the Archdeacon of Totnes, or his officer

John Carnell who had specific jurisdiction in Devon, to enquire into the ‘pollution’ of Brent parish church as alleged to have been committed by bloodshed.

Across the graveyard is the Manor House, Grade Two Listed by English Heritage. It is early 16th century.

Where not otherwise stated, information has been obtained from an online guidebook,and I am grateful to Peter Taylor for it's compilation. Anyone interested in reading about the history of this remarkable church can do so in it's 172 pages. It is full of interesting archaeology and stories, together with detailed plans of the church layout showing the different eras of construction.

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Chucks Digital Photography
Chucks Digital Photography
Oct 28, 2022

Love the stain glass so beautiful, yet the stocks are a reminder of the harsh treatment for punishment during those times. So much history to see and capture. Great job Gethin.

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Oct 28, 2022
Replying to

You're right but I think preferable to the ducking stool.🤣


John Durham
John Durham
Oct 28, 2022

As Camellia said, the stained glass is amazing, but so are Helm's carvings. A beautiful example of the care and craftsmanship of an earlier time.

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Oct 28, 2022
Replying to

Thanks John, it's one of those things that experts make look easy but just try carving and it shows how much skill and patience they had.


Unknown member
Oct 28, 2022

You did it again. Some excellent captures with detailed information. My favorite is and always will be, stained glass. I get where the word stained glass comes from, but it does have a bad conotation when one says 'stained'...just saying 😉

Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
Oct 28, 2022
Replying to

Thanks, I haven't made the connection with stains before but now I will.🤣

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