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St John & the Seven Maccabees, Cookbury


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The church was built in the Norman style, but as far as can be ascertained the present building mostly dates from the late 13th century (Early English Gothic). The small tower with its slated pyramidal roof has had additions on both south and north sides. The upper part of the tower was boarded in the 19th century, and was stone faced in 1939.


The east window in the chancel is thought to be c.1300, and this would accord with the fact that the church was rebuilt, restored or enlarged about that time, and was re-dedicated by Bishop Walter de Stapledon in August 1315. The dedication to John the Baptist and the seven Maccabees is rare, and unique in this country. There are a few churches dedicated to old Testament saints. The seven Maccabees were Jewish martyrs during the Syrian oppression in the 2nd century B.C. They were seven brothers who were tortured and put to death with their mother by King Antichus. (See 2nd Book of Maccabees chapter 7, in the Apocrypha).

Nikolaus Pevsner believed that masonry in the south transept is Norman, but Professor Hoskins puts it as late Perpendicular, c.1500. Both agree that the arcade in the middle of the church is Perpendicular, c.1500, or a little earlier. The north aisle was probably rebuilt at the same time, though there are traces of 14th century work. The floor of the chancel is laid with mediaeval Barnstaple tiles, and there are remains of some ancient benches in the nave, one or two with carved ends.

Parts of an early screen have been used as panelling in the alter, and other parts have been used as the base of the lectern. The eagle itself is Victorian. The oak screen is also Victorian, part of a considerable restoration undertaken about 1870, of which few facts are available. From 1807 - 1852 there are continual comments in the Rural Dean's book about the dilapidated state of the church. In 1852 John Yule, Rector of Bradford, writes that "the Dunsland aisle needs reroofmg... the wooden windows should be replaced with stone... all the floors need relaying... the Halsdon pew is a disgrace to any church... the chancel needs extensive repair to roof, floor and seats". It seems that this was written in vain, for the book was never returned until it was found among the Bradford parish registers in 1908.

The Jacobean pulpit was brought into the church in the 19th century. It is reported to have come from a Launceston church which was restored in 1852 (St Thomas?). The silver plate consists of an Elizabethan chalice by Ions of Exeter with a cover dated 1577, and a large paten made in London by G.S. in 1770, inscribed 'Cookbury Chapel, the gift of Walter Elford, Rector'. There is a large flagon of 1777 also given by Mr Elford. The registers date back only to 1746. The stained glass in the windows is Victorian: the East window was made by Beer of Exeter, presumably about 1870.

The treble bell has long been cracked, and was for twenty years on loan to Holsworthy museum. It now stands on the floor of the church: it was cast in Exeter about 1570. The second bell is hanging in the tower and inscribed 'Soli Deo Gloria', and dates from the 17th century. The tenor bell, dated 1668, was cast by Pennington of Exeter and is inscribed 'W. Sincock: I.E. James: Wardens'. It is being exhibited this summer at the Royal Albert Museum, Exeter. The granite font is thought to be 13th century and is now somewhat mutilated, and stands on four colonettes of different coloured stone.

The parish was never a Rectory or Vicarage but a chapel annexed to the Rectory of Milton Damerel for many centuries, until 1952. There was however a small parsonage built at the north west corner of the churchyard. It is uncertain when this was last inhabited by a priest. In the 19th century it was continually referred to as "Being in disrepair... utterly unfit for the residence of a clergyman (1840)... a mere labourer's cottage (1852)". In 1929 the remaining walls were used in the building of a parish room which flourished for 45 years, but was allowed to fall into disrepair and was sold with a portion of glebe land for conversion to a house and garden in 1982.

The parish is historically famous for the family of Stapledon. The original manor of the Stapledons lay between Stapledon Farm and Upcott. Walter de Stapledon was born in 1261, but there is some uncertainty whether he was born at Cookbury or at the other family home, Annery, near Bideford. He became professor of Canon Law at Oxford, and chaplain to Pope Clement V. In 1307 he was made Bishop of Exeter and did much for the rebuilding of the cathedral. He founded Stapledon Hall, Oxford (now Exeter College). He became Lord High Treasurer to Edward II and was murdered by the mob in London in October 1326. He stayed at Stapledon, the home of his brother Sir Richard de Stapledon judge of the king's Bench, in August 1315 when he came to dedicate Cookbury church. He also granted his brother a licence for a private chapel at Stapledon. The manor of Stapledon descended through the St Leger, Speccott, Hele, Trelawney, May and Harvey families, but is now extinct.

In 1850 Cookbury had a population of 300, but it soon decreased with the removal of many young persons to large towns in search of employment. In the mid 19th century it had its own blacksmith, shoemaker, wheelright and carpenter and beerseller. Upcott was the home of John and Richard Penhale, farmers and veterinary surgeons. The beer house, then called New Inn, is now Oaklands just north of the church on the Thornbury road.

In 1956, after the parish had been united with Holsworthy, the Rev. Arthur Warne began extensive restoration of the church. Many of the roof timbers in the north aisle were renewed, with new lead in the roof valley, and new guttering all round the church. A drainage channel was dug round the church and lined with brick; and both the south and north corners of the east chancel wall were rebuilt. Much work was done on the tower, replacing stonework and timber, and all the walls were re-pointed. The interior plaster was removed from the south transept, new carpet and communion rails were provided, and in 1959, at the completion of the restoration, new alter riddle posts and curtains were given in thanksgiving.

The south transept is known as the Dunsland aisle. A meadow was given at some period on condition that the owner of Dunsland should have the use of two pews. This may have been in the 17th century when the Bishop of Exeter twice granted licences (1638 and 1663) for the occupants of Dunsland House, which burnt down in 1967, to attend Cookbury church, only one half of a mile distant, rather than their parish church of Bradford which was a two mile journey along muddy lanes.

The Church was made redundant in 1982 when the Parish of Bradford with Cookbury was formed. It was re-opened as a Chapel of Ease in 1987 and with the help of a 60% grant from English Heritage and generous donations from other charities including the Devon Historic churches Trust, and many local people the Church has been re-roofed and other structural work completed. It is now in a sound state to enter the 3rd millenium.