Home Archive Index   Part:   1   2   3   4   Previous Next

History File

Notes on Denbury

Part 2

The Manor of Denbury belonged to the Abbey of Tavistock at the time of the Domesday Survey, 1086, Denbury having undoubtedly been granted thereto by Aldred out of affection for the monastery, of which he was sometime the head. At the dissolution of the religious houses of England by the sacrilegious hands of Henry VIII., and through the voracious greed of both King and his new aristocracy, this manor, among numerous other possessions of the premier Devonshire Abbey, fell to one of the King's chief favourites, John Russell, created first Earl of Bedford, on forfeitures by Henry Courtenay, Marquis of Exeter and Earl of Devon. From Francis Russell, second Earl of Bedford, it passed by sale, in 1577, to the Reynells of East Ogwell, one of whose co-heiresses brought it by marriage to Captain Joseph Taylor, of Queen Anne's Navy.

In Lyson's "Devonshire"- (1822) it is stated that a descendant of Captain Taylor was then the proprietor of the manor, but this is an error. Denbury Manor became, in 1807, the property of Mrs. Robert Froude, mother of Archdeacon Froude, Rector at that time, since 1799, of both Dartington and Denbury, by sale from Squire Taylor, of Ogwell. In the book on "Hurrell Froude" (Guiney) in a footnote, the Archdeacon is confused with his mother in the possession of the estate. It was assigned by her to her two daughters for life. For these specific facts this writer has been courteously accommodated by a great-grandson of Mrs. Froude (nee Phyllis Hurrell), who purchased the Manor of Denbury from the Squire of Ogwell.


Denbury, though now only a small village, is described as a borough in ancient records. It was a market town under Tavistock Abbey, which owned both the Manor and the borough (Oliver's "Monasticon," 109). We are told in Lyson's "Devonshire" that a market at this place, on Wednesdays, and a yearly fair for three days, on the festival of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Patron Saint of Denbury Church, 8th September, were granted by King Edward I, in 1285, to the Abbot and Convent of Tavistock. In his contribution to a report of the Devonshire Association Committee on "Devonshire Folk-Lore" (Transactions, Vol. VIII), Mr Paul O. Karkeek makes mention of old Denbury Fair. It was fully attended, he says, by all classes among the inhabitants of a wide district, being looked forward to as an outing and pleasure-making occasion. This Fair is also referred to in "The Western Antiquary" (October, 1881), where it is said that of all the old pleasure fairs of South Devon, that held at Denbury "seems to have exercised the most influence in the neighbourhood." The contributor (from Ashburton) says everyone attended Denbury Fair; "people now living can remember seeing the carriages of our county families there."

In "The Western Antiquary" (April 1885) we are told that there was a procession and "chairing" of "Old Father and Mother Denbury." But the Fair was not entirely confined to festivity; a good deal of business was done, cheese, in particular, was being sold in large quantities. What Mr. Karkeek also relates concerning "Denbury Fair" across the Atlantic may be worth being repeated here. He was informed by Mr. Crockwell, of Torquay, that many years before he was in the habit of trading on the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland, in dry fish: "He found there the custom of Denbury Fair kept on September 19th (according to old style), and, from his inquiries ascertained that such had been the case for many years. The inhabitants there were descendants of settlers who originally came from South Devon, and brought the custom with them. Strange to say, however, the origin of the fair was unknown. No one knew if Denbury was the name of man, woman, place, or thing. They did as their forefathers had done, and seemed quite content with the merry-making which took place on the occasion."

In a contribution to a later report of the Committee on the same subject (Trans., Vol. XI), Mr Karkeek relates the amusing legend of "Saint Denbury" out in Labrador and Newfoundland. He was talking with a Torquay gentleman about the origin of "Denbury Fair" having been forgotten there: "He replied, 'I can tell you what is even more strange; there are as many Irish as any race there now,' and I have heard more than one say the day after the fair, 'What a grand old man Saint Denbury must have been.'"

This famous old Devonshire fair came abruptly to an end by the prevalence of rinderpest in 1866, after continuing 600 years short of 19 years. There is still a reminder of it at Denbury in the name of the field where it was held, eastward of the village seen on the road to Newton Abbot. In "Bygone Devonshire," the author, the Rev. H. Friend, says that when he resided in Newton Abbot the following distich was applied by the people to Denbury Down, supposed to be the burial place of a Danish bury containing riches:-

"If Denbury Down a level were,
All England might plough with golden share."


There is an early mention of the church of the Blessed Mary at Denbury, namely May 29, 1193, as stated in Miss Beatrix Cresswell's MS. "Notes on Devon Churches in the Rural Deanery of Moreton" (Exeter City Library). In the Hundred Rolls of the 3rd year of King Edward I, it is recorded that Denbury rectory was then in the patronage of the Abbot and Convent of Tavistock, who owned, as we have seen, both the manor and the borough. It is an interesting and remarkable fact, however, that the benefice was never "appropriated" by them, but remained entirely with the rector in respect of tithes, and they even paid one shilling a year to the incumbent as chief rent, "accustomed to be paid from ancient times." It is not unlikely that this very unusual thing was expressly provided for in the arrangement made by Aldred when transferring his manor of Denbury to the Abbey. And, if this be a right construction, it shows how kindly considerate he was as to the material well-being of the future incumbents of the parish.

The ecclesiastical patronage of Denbury remained, after the dissolution of Tavistock Abbey, in the Russell family until so late as 1836. The advowson was then purchased by the Rev. John Richard Bogue, son-in-law of Archdeacon Froude by his first wife, Mary Isabella, the Archdeacon's youngest daughter, and his curate for 18 years at Denbury, deceased 1857. It then passed into the possession of the Rev.J. H. Reibey, Rector of Denbury (after the separation from Dartington), 1857 or '58-1897, and now belongs to the excellent (Catholic) Society for the Maintenance of the Faith.


The first priest of Denbury whom we actually know about was William de Hococ, who, when deacon, was instituted on Sept 4th, 1278, on the presentation of the Abbot and Convent of Tavistock (Bishop Bronescombe's Register, edited by Hingston-Randolph). After two rectors, the incumbency came to Michael Bennet in Walter Stapledon's episcopate, whose career as rector was a singular one. When instituted he was only an acolyte, and he seems to have distinguished himself solely for the periods of non-residence for the completion of his divinity education. On March 17th, 1314-15, he had license of non-residence for a year of study, which was renewed for four years. In 1317 he was ordained sub-deacon, and license of non-residence was granted for a further four years (in all). I return for such privileges he gave money to the fabric fund of Exeter Cathedral, then in course of transformation from a Norman church to a church in the Decorated Gothic style, as we see it today, excepting the Norman transeptal towers. On October 4th, 1321, the absentee rector had permission to farm out his benefice to Robert Champeaux, Abbot of Tavistock for three years ("John" a supposed error for "Robert" in the Stapeldon register).

Denbury church is, for the most part, a building of the second decade of the 14th century, reign of Edward II., and most probably the work of the then Abbot of Tavistock during Bennet's four years of non-residence, and while he was practically only the nominal rector. St Mary the Virgin Abbot Champeaux was, says Miss Cresswell (supra) "one of the building ecclesiastics of his age, and probably through his influence Denbury church assumed its present form." In Bishop Stapledon's register it is recorded that on August 27th, 1318, his lordship "dedicavit ecclesiam de Devenebiri et majus altare episdem ecclesie." In Worthy's "Notes on Denbury" ("Devon Scrap Book," No. XI.) the theory is advanced that at this date the church consisted of the chancel only, the other portions being added during the episcopate of Edmund Lacey (1420-58). But this would seem to involve a strangely mistaken view of the architectural history of the church. The distinctive Decorated character of the transept arches and of the porch and tower, let alone the nave, somewhat altered in detail, contravenes such a supposition.


Denbury church stands in the very midst of the inhabitants of the village, the entrance to the churchyard being through a narrow roofed gateway. Just inside is to be seen the huge, rough-hewn socket stone of the mediaeval market cross, the site of which was originally where now stands the conduit at the village cross-roads; on the east side of the stone lies a fragment of the shaft of the cross. Another small portion of this sacred symbol of our Catholic religion has been degraded to form a sort of finial to the conduit, erected in 1771, accurately described by Mr. Worthy as "a cumbrous mass of masonry." The present cross on the old socket stone was set up by the parishioners of Denbury in the lifetime of their rector, the Rev. J. H. Reibey, in token of their esteem for him, and also bears an inscription in his memory. The church is a cruciform, aisleless edifice, roughcast, in form long and narrow rather than of opposite dimensions, and is almost entirely in the Decorated style of the first quarter of the 14th century, but without ornamentation. It consists of a chancel, nave, south porch, and west tower.

The tower is of two stages, solidly built, but without either buttresses or staircase turret, and of sufficient height to over-top the village, being of 62 feet. It is severely plain in style and yet venerable in appearance, and standing, as it were, fortress-like for the villagers against piratical attacks. The west doorway is arched semi-circularly, or rather, perhaps, with an equilateral arch, and over it a plain but good three-light pointed Decorated window with lozenge shaped lights in the head. On the north face of the tower are three square-headed slits, one above another, to light the inner belfry spiral stone staircase of 34 steps; in the north-west corner of the tower, only one slit on the south and west sides. The north, south, and west belfry windows are of two lights with semicircular arches, and thus resemble double Norman windows. The east window is also of two lights, but under a pointed arch, and also like the three-light west window of the tower in having no tracery. Here is an embattlement, but there are no pinnacles; the low "pack-saddle" roof is topped with a weather vane.

End of Part 2   (More about the Church in Part 3 & 4)

Home Archive Index   Part:   1   2   3   4   Previous Next