The Church of St. Michael de Rupe (St. Michael of the Rock), Brentor, is perhaps the most striking English example of a church on a height. Today, the church receives several thousand visitors each year. There is a magnificent view from the churchyard in clear weather, with bleak Dartmoor to the east, Plymouth Sound and Whitsand Bay to the south, the Tamar Valley and Bodmin Moor to the west, and the heights of Exmoor just visible in clear weather to the north. Even when the thick moorland fogs descend, this is an eerily beautiful place, as the wind whips shreds of cloud past the hill. The church stands 1,110 feet above sea level on an ancient, extinct, volcanic cone. It is an ancient site – the current church is surrounded by an Iron Age earth-walled hill-fort (150BC – 50AD). The dedication to St. Michael is common for churches in high places – there are nearly 800 in England alone, perhaps the most famous being the abbey fortress of Saint Michael’s Mount on the Cornish coast, and St. Michael’s on the Mount at Glastonbury, Somerset.
Christianity came to West Devon in the 6th century, shortly after the Roman departure. However, the first church on Brentor was built by Robert Giffard in about the year 1130. The Giffards were an important aristocratic family in the area – Robert’s father had come over to England with William the Conqueror, and been granted estates in West Devon. There is also a tradition that the church was erected by a wealthy merchant who vowed, in the midst of a tremendous storm at sea, that if he escaped in safety he would build a church on the first – or in some versions, the highest – land he could see. This “merchant” has been named by other sources as Robert Giffard, and it is possible that the Tor might be the first land seen from Plymouth Sound, if the lower lands were cloaked in fog. It is also probable that when visible, it is the highest land visible from the Sound!
The next reference to the church comes in a Papal Bull issued by Pope Celestine III in 1193, as Sancti Michaelis de Rupe, at which time he exempted the Abbot of Tavistock from interference by the Bishop of Exeter – or any other person. At the time, Brentor had two priests and a clerk, and this original church, much smaller than the current one, was designed as a chantry chapel, a place from which priests would pray for the souls of the dead. This original chapel was rebuilt and enlarged in the early 14th Century. At some point, forty people were buried beneath the granite floor of the church. The great Abbey of Tavistock continued to serve the church until the reign of Henry VIII. In 1539, he dissolved the monasteries, including Tavistock. The patronage of Brentor then passed to John, Lord Russell, who was made Earl of Bedford in 1550. The Fifth Earl, William, was raised to a Dukedom in 1694, and the Dukes of Bedford remained patrons of the church until it passed to the Bishops of Exeter in 1912. The church underwent a major restoration in 1890, with even the roof being replaced.
Reports and Visitations
“Brent Tarr is a church on a very High hill I believe nearest heaven of any church in England; the people are very rude and brutish”. [This is a reference to the Gubbins, an extensive intermarried family who seem to have lived in caves in Lydford Gorge, nearby, and had a most barbarous reputation! See ‘About Brentor’.
(Dr James Younge, Devon diarist, c. 1680)
“Ye churchyard is so full of springs yet whenever they dig a grave it almost fills with water”
(Jeremiah Milles, Precentor (and later Dean) of Exeter Cathedral, c.1750)
“I catechise ye youth of my parish in ye summer season two or three times, which is as often as they are sent for that purpose.”
(John Tyndall, curate of Brent Tor 1736-64, c.1750).
“It has been shrewdly said of the inhabitants of this parish, that they make weekly atonement for their sins: For they can never go to church without the previous penance of climbing up this steep, which they are so often obliged to attempt with the weariest industry, and in the lowliest attitude. In windy or rainy weather, the worthy pastor himself is frequently obliged to humble himself upon all fours, preparatory to his being exalted in the pulpit.”
(Richard Polwhele, History of Devonshire, 1806)
The Church and Furnishings
The church is thirty-seven feet (11.3m) long, and fourteen feet six inches (4.4m) wide; it is the fourth smallest complete parish church in England. It consists of a nave, chancel (not developed), north porch, and a low, unbuttressed tower thirty two feet (9.8m) high, probably built in the fourteenth century and raised to its present height and embattled a century later.
There are doorways in both north and south walls, which is unusual in so small a building, although the porch is slightly more recent. They are similar in design and are probably fourteenth century.
The stained glass window in the east wall depicts St. Michael holding the sword of and the scales of justice. This window was damaged in 2002, but has since been restored. In 1995 the church was struck by lightning, and significant damage was done to the Tower. This was repaired, and four new lightning conductors installed to prevent future recurrence.
The font is an octagonal granite basin standing on a pedestal of the same shape. The remains of the iron fastening for securing the cover may be seen in the rim of the bowl. In the Middle Ages fonts were ordered to be kept locked in case the hallowed water was stolen and used for black magic! The font is the only furnishing of the church that dates from before the restoration of 1890.
There are five bells in the tower, two from the fourteenth or fifteenth century, one seventeenth and two from the early twentieth century; although all were re-cast in 1909. Two bear the medieval inscription Gallus vocor ego, solus per omne sono (I am called the cock, and I alone sound above all); and two “TPI Colling W Nichol H Davis Wardens 1668”. The heaviest of them only weighs six hundredweight (305kg).
There is a stone sundial on the south side of the tower, one of the oldest in south Devon. At the top of the dial is a strange figure, half imp, half angel, wearing a flat cap and with outstretched wings. The name Walter Batten is at the foot of the dial, which is dated 1694.The churchyard has never been closed for burials, but owing to a lack of earth and the presence of rabbits it is considered by modern standards unsuitable as a burial ground. A granite path was made around the church in 1980 with the assistance of the Dartmoor National Park Authority.
Brentor was first a chaplaincy, and then a perpetual curacy, so there is no record of clerical institutions. The parish registers only go back to 1720, but some earlier names can be gleaned from the Diocesan Archives. In addition, the recent innovation of the combined benefice means that the parish has been frequently without a resident curate, clergy being shared with the neighbouring parishes of Lydford, Mary Tavy and Sourton.The first Chaplain of Brentor mentioned by name is Geoffrey Aleyn, who was involved in a scandal recorded by Bishop Stafford in the early fifteenth century. Aleyn had celebrated in the church of Milton Abbot the secret marriage of Robert Martyn and Englesia, the daughter of John Toker. He was absolved of his part on submission, in January 1412, but his colleague Roger Damarl, rector of Mary Tavy, was excommunicated for his part in the marriage. From 2009, Brentor will share clergy with Tavistock, following another shake up of the combined benefice.
Evensong is held at 6.00pm at St Michael’s every Sunday from Easter to Michaelmas.
Up to date service times and info are at:
On Christmas Day, there is a very special carol service at St Michael’s at 3pm (weather permitting).
St Michael’s is approximately 10 minutes walk from the dedicated car park; however it is a relatively steep climb, and young children and the elderly should allow a little longer. Access for the disabled is somewhat limited due to the steepness of the footpath; if in doubt, please feel free to contact the Churchwardens.
Churchwardens – Kate Kelly (01822) 810287 and David Harris (01822) 810846, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.