St John the Baptist, Bishopsteignton, Devon

Bishopsteignton, St John the Baptist: just a suggestion of past glory. 


Contrary to what you might expect, sometimes the worst thing that can happen to an historic building is to have too much money spent on it. Too little money and it might just dissolve back into the parent soil; the right amount and it survives from century to century, gently accumulating patina, repairs and sympathetic alterations, but an excess, or an uneven distribution of largesse, and there is a danger that the entire historic fabric will disappear under the latest idea of what is right and appropriate.

Bishopsteignton church is a case in point. The original church on the site may well have been Saxon, subsequently replaced by a more significant Saxo-Norman building, remnants of which then survived into the early nineteenth century. Nothing recognisable now remains of this structure, and recent archaeological watching briefs seem to confirm that all the archaeology below the current church has been destroyed by subsequent rebuilds.

The manor of Bishopsteignton was in the possession of Leofric, former chaplain to Edward the Confessor, and afterwards first Bishop of Exeter, at Domesday. No records survive to confirm the original grant of the manor, which may, in any case, have been made to the church at Crediton, which was the seat of the Bishop prior to 1050. The church stands in a sheltered position, tucked behind the flank of a hill, not far from a landing point on the River Teign. Subsequent Bishops of Exeter had their summer residence in a secluded spot above the current village, a handy place, as some found, to hang out when the plague was in town.

The church was extended considerably in the 15th century by a 5-bay north aisle, but other details of its pre-19th century structural changes are not known. Illustrations of 1810 – 1812 show the church as a low, slightly shambling building with a heavy, squat, central tower flanked on the south east corner by a tall slender turret. Indications of a change in roofline to the chancel can be seen in one of them, as can some apparent damage to the north east corner of the tower. Views from the opposite end show that most of the north aisle roof is missing. The building itself is a fascinatingly jumbled mix, and looks, potentially, to have a very old core. Cresswell (1912) suggests that the central tower, demolished by 1815, was of Saxon or early Norman origin and possibly flanked by transepts. This type of cruciform plan is quite typical of important Saxon and early Norman churches. The original dedication is uncertain. It was referred to as “All Saints” in 1667 (Orme, 1996). Unfortunately it was clearly partly ruinous by 1810.

By the early 19th century Bishopsteignton had become a popular place with the rising merchant class, and large villas with wealthy occupants were beginning to appear in and around the village. Clearly a ruinous medieval wreck was going to be unsuitable as a church and vigorous remodelling ensued. By 1815 the tower had changed ends and gained a small spire, the south doorway was blocked, and the old south porch demolished. The chancel was enlarged in 1825; north chancel aisle and the organ chamber were constructed and general refurbishment undertaken in 1854; spire removed and upper parts of tower rebuilt with crenellations in 1863 ; chancel restored and chancel arch and vestry (at east end of aisle) added in 1912.

The result of this is that while the church has some astounding pieces of early medieval stonework on the exterior, the interior, from the historic graffiti hunter’s point of view, is sadly unproductive.

Almost all the pillars of the handsome arcade still show faint traces of former graffiti. A ladder symbol is detectable on one, and a Lombardic A on another further to the east. Several have gouge marks, though these do not appear to be deliberately enlarged. All the visible medieval architectural stonework inside the church has been scoured, and the majority of the capitals on the arcade have been re-cut to some extent – a result of the 19th century desire to improve them.

The font, now standing adjacent to the currently used north door, rather than the south door as in the early 19th century, is covered with heavy palmette carving, almost certainly reworked and ‘tidied’ in the nineteenth century. Surviving graffiti on the font edge is faint, but more extensive than that surviving in the body of the church, and include a lightly incised Marian mark, several saltire crosses and a group of six deliberate round gouge marks. The remainder of the markings are light criss-crossings, extending over much of the surface of the rim, though not apparently down into the lead-lined basin. It seems probable that the leading would have been renewed in the nineteenth century restorations.

Outside the building appears to have no surviving graffiti – the stone doorway to the north is too new, and the red sandstone rubble of the walls provides no scope for the maker of apotropaic symbols. All the wooden doors are relatively new – no ancient timber here to harbour a graffito. The Victorian Norman-style doorway at the base of the tower similarly has attracted no obvious symbols, while the almost original (Victorian improved) Romanesque west doorway is constructed of too friable a fabric to provide any useful surface for inscribing (though it is joyously filled with beakheads, grotesques and small weird creatures). Pevsner has described the doorway as one of the best in Devon and it is an extraordinary thing to discover in what is now a quiet village with a tiny congregation, and serves to indicate the importance of this building when the Bishop of Exeter was a power in the land. Perhaps even more remarkable, however, is the tympanum that survives around the corner from it, in the south wall.

The south and west doorways of the church can both be seen in illustrations from the beginning of the 19th century, and their relative positions appear unchanged, the only obvious difference being the loss of the porch once sheltering the south door.

Pevsner did not like the tympanum much, calling it ‘strange’ and ‘tribal art’ – an insult more than a compliment in his time. Cresswell was much more impressed, and believed it to be the finest in the county. It appears stylistically to be earlier than the neat orders of the western arch and looks almost Byzantine. The whole thing has a crisp stone frame around it, which clips some of the detail at the edges, including what may well be images of the guiding star. An illustration by Samuel Prout indicates that this was in place by 1812. The surviving sculpture shows three figures with outsize heads, in profile, apparently in motion towards a third seated figure who looks out full face to the observer. It has been interpreted as the three Magi and the Virgin Mary (or, for Pevsner, the warning angel). The wise men have lost their hands and gifts, and Mary has lost the infant Christ and stares blankly out, chunky arms akimbo.

Presumably the interpretation of angel came from the lack of a baby, however, examination of a photograph held by the Bishopsteignton Heritage Hub shows that in the late 1980s, although the baby was missing, Mary had an area of damage to her arms and chest in an area that suggests the infant had either broken or been chipped off at some point in the past. The damage has since been badly restored and Mary’s arms and parts of her chair, along with a series of columns in the arcade framing the scene, have been reinstated with thick yellowish mortar.

The Adoration of the Magi, in which the three, typically portrayed as an old man with a long beard, a middle aged man with a shorter beard and a beardless youth pay homage to the Christ child, is a typical medieval theme for an area on or near a font. Mary, in the classic image, serves mainly as a throne for the infant and is frequently little more than a veiled cipher in the background. In the Bishopsteignton tympanum she is a large figure, firmly coifed, with a square jaw and bulbous eyes – not the delicate maiden of later sculpture.

The liturgical significance of all this is that all Christians at all times, regardless of rank or status, should adore Christ. It was once an image associated, perhaps not surprisingly, with young children and the sacrament of baptism, and also, for obvious reasons, the protection of travellers. Pleasingly, the Prout drawing of the south doorway of Bishopsteignton, prior to its 19th century closure, shows both the tympanum and a glimpse of the font immediately inside the door.

While Bishopsteignton might have provided little amusement in the form of graffiti, the survival of the tympanum is remarkable, given the remorseless nineteenth century improvements, and gives a glimpse into a world once filled formally, as well as informally, with apotropaic emblems.

Report by Rebecca Ireland.

St John the Baptist
Church Road
TQ14 9QH

Open daily, parking an issue throughout the village, but may be available outside the church.

Search terms: Graffiti, letter H, ladder mark, font, Marian mark, criss-cross, dot pattern, Lombardic A, Romanesque, beakhead, grotesque, animals, tympanum, Magi, Virgin

Cresswell, Beatrix. Notes on the Churches of the Deanery of Kenn, Devon. James G. Commin, 1912

Orme, Nicholas.  English Church Dedications University of Exeter Press, 1996

Report by Rebecca Ireland.


With thanks to Imogen Smith, Archivist at Bishopsteignton Heritage.