Crediton Church has a history which is as long as that of any church in Devon, including Exeter Cathedral. It can be traced continuously in written records back to the early tenth century, and if an eleventh century copy of a charter of 739AD is accepted as authentic, to almost two centuries earlier.
Before the Conquest
The Bodleian Library holds a copy (from just after the Conquest) of a charter of 739AD by which Aethelheard, king of the West Saxons, granted land to Forthere, Bishop of Sherborne for the foundation of a monastery at Crediton. The Diocese of Sherborne was split into three smaller dioceses in the early 900’s: a reduced Sherborne, Wells and a separate see for Devon and Cornwall. Crediton was chosen as the site for the cathedral for the latter – probably in part because St Boniface had been born there in around 680, and in part because of the presence of the monastery.
Like many Saxon cathedrals it was almost certainly of wooden construction, but no evidence of it remains.
From 926 Cornwall had its own bishop, who at first acted as a suffragan of the bishop of Crediton, a full diocese of Cornwall only being formed in 994. The see only survived until the 1020’s, when it was again absorbed by Crediton.
In 1046 Leofric was appointed to the sees of both Devon and Cornwall. He quickly decided that the cathedral should be moved to the larger, more lively and culturally active community of Exeter. The reason he gave in a letter to Edward the Confessor for suggesting the move and one repeated in the foundation charter of Exeter Cathedral, was that Exeter was more easily defended from marauding Danes than Crediton, which was certainly true, but Leofric confided to the pope that his main motive for the shift was that he didn’t want to be stuck in a “mere village”, as he described eleventh century Crediton. He didn’t think it a fit place for the cathedral he planned!
The cathedral, the bishop’s throne, was moved to Exeter in 1050, where it was placed in a Saxon minster until a purpose-built cathedral could be constructed.
In 2007, with the help of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund a search was carried out using ground penetrating radar of the church site, the church-yard and an area around them to try to find the site of the Saxon cathedral. Some evidence of foundations was found in the present nave and south transept, but this was not firm enough to justify excavation, so it can be said that it is likely that Holy Cross is built on the site of Crediton Cathedral.
Between the Conquest and the Reformation
Crediton had lost the see, but the Bishop of Exeter retained his palace there (a little to the north-east of Holy Cross) and his lands around the town. The church survived, though not in its original building. The construction of a Norman church on the present site was started – building work was in progress in the 1130’s – and a collegiate church which was initially staffed by 18 canons with 18 vicars, was established, although lack of funds meant that this number of canons was soon reduced to 12.
The collegiate church was always completely secular – none of the canons or vicars lived the communal life of monks; their work being funded by income from tithes on the extensive lands of the parish (which were shared with the bishop).
An important duty of the vicars was the provision of services to the laity of the parish, to the churches of surrounding parishes and to the nine chapels of ease of the area. St Swithun, Sandford and St John the Baptist, Kennerleigh, both upgraded to parish churches after the Reformation, are the only survivors of these.
St Lawrence Chapel, situated about a mile from the church on the west side of the town, was built in Early English style in around 1200AD. It was used as a hospital – to provide hospitality to travellers and a refuge for the sick and incapacitated – from the late C13th to the early C16th.
As with so many other “livings” – called prebends in medieval times – before the Reformation and after, holders were allowed to be absent from the church, so that only a few of the canons ever actually lived in Crediton, although all the vicars did so. Their dwellings were sited to the north of the church; they were only demolished in the mid nineteenth century. The college had its own officers, its own church court, and eventually, closer to the Reformation, its own rural dean.
Evidence that there was once a Dean of Crediton! There is an old house called “The Chantry” a few yards from this thatched cottage.
The early dedication of the church was to St Mary, the present dedication – the Church of the Holy Cross and the Mother of Him Who Hung Thereon – came into use only after the 1230’s.
The church was extended in the late C13th by the addition of the Lady Chapel and the Chapter House. Around this time, Bishop Bronescombe (1258-1280) had added to the income of the college by making grants of land and houses. This permitted the restoration of the number of canons to 18.
The church became an important regional centre for prayer and for the making of offerings (which bought indulgences). It was also visited by the sick in search of cures.
In 1315 Thomas Grey, a fuller from Keynsham near Bristol, who had lost his sight, came to Crediton after being moved to do so in a dream. He miraculously regained his vision whilst in prayer in the chapel of St Nicholas (which we now know as the Friend’s Chapel), just as Bishop Walter de Stapeldon was saying mass at the high altar. After giving Grey various tests, Stapeldon was eventually satisfied that a miracle had, in fact, occurred. This was declared to the world, bells were rung and a mass said!
Sight restored! Monument to a miracle in 1315.
A later bishop, John de Grandisson (1327-1369) attempted to ensure that at least the chief officers of the college, the precentor and the treasurer, were resident in the immediate area of the church. He also tried (in 1334) to improve the quality of worship in the church by introducing four secondary clerks (with adult voices) and four choristers who between them were able to provide polyphonic music both for the college and the congregation. Grandisson then improved the status of the parochial vicar, effectively the administrator of the parish of Crediton, by taking his appointment into diocesan hands and greatly increasing his income. By the end of the C14th the occupant of the post had become “Dean” of Crediton and by 1409, was himself retaining a parish chaplain.
Grandisson had enormous influence on the church in Crediton in another way. This was by introducing – or reviving – the cult of St Boniface (the cult of the saints was in full swing at this time) and firmly established Crediton as his birthplace.
Plaque in Tolleys, about half-a-mile from Holy Cross
There were a large number of clerical deaths in Devon during the Black Death of 1348/9, probably around half of all priests died. Records indicate that before the Plague, a full complement of canons, vicars and choir members existed in Holy Cross, but that after the mid-fourteenth century, filling any vacancies became a great deal more difficult. Through a large part of the fourteenth century bishops describe the Norman/Early English church, especially the nave, as being in a state of disrepair. Their pleas for things to be put right were ignored until the early fifteenth century when the church received a number of bequests including a large one from Canon William Langeton, a close relative of Bishop Stafford, and a Prebendary of Crediton, who died in 1413 and whose brass is next to Stafford’s tomb in Exeter Cathedral. In his will he described the Norman nave of the church as being “now nearly levelled to the ground.” His bequest, and others of around the same time, brought enough money for a complete rebuilding of the nave and Brass of William Langeton, d1413 in Exeter Cathedral – the money he left to Holy Cross helped to fund the Perpendicular Gothic rebuilding of the church chancel areas, which started in the early years of the fifteenth century. Mid-Devon was never as rich an area of England as wool producing Somerset, less than 35 miles away. It had no coastline to allow it to increase wealth by trade, and its cloth-making industry was still in its infancy. Great church building depended on generous funding being available. The Perpendicular Gothic rebuilding of Crediton Collegiate Church created a church which though impressive in scale is architecturally fairly modest.
Pictured left: Brass of William Langeton, d1413 in Exeter Cathedral. The money he left to Holy Cross helped to fund the Perpendicular Gothic rebuilding of the church.
The Reformation & After
The collegiate churches were dissolved between 1545 and 1549 and Crediton’s was “surrendered” to Henry VIII in May 1545 and in September of that year, the church and all its lands were granted to Sir Thomas Darcy, who returned them to Henry in August, 1546 in exchange for lands elsewhere.
Shortly afterwards the parishioners of Crediton entered into successful negotiations with the crown for the purchase of the collegiate church that was then threatened with demolition (like other collegiate churches, such as Great Malvern). These were completed in the spring of 1547, when the town paid the sum of £200 to the king. The clergy of the former collegiate church received very adequate pensions.
In April 1547, Edward VI, who had succeeded Henry VIII in January, signed a charter (confirmed by Elizabeth in 1559) which, in acknowledging the receipt of the money paid to his father, created a new organisation for the governance of the church. This was a corporation of 12 governors to administer the Parish Church and its endowments.
A vicar of Crediton was appointed and together with two chaplains, one of which ministered to Sandford (the adjoining parish).
A new free grammar school was established, the master of which to be appointed by the governors.
The church also acquired the patronage of the living of Exminster by the charter. The document, which is very long and complicated, transferred title to the church buildings to the governors.
The twelve governors of Crediton Parish Church still own and administer the church buildings. Only two other parish churches in England, Ottery St Mary in Devon and Wimborne in Dorset have a similar form of governance.
Although the Royal Free Grammar School was established by Edward’s charter, teaching did not start until well into Elizabeth’s reign (in 1572). The school had its first home in the Lady Chapel and remained there until 1860, when purpose-built school buildings were opened at the top of the High Street.
The blocked former entrance to Crediton Grammar Shool on the exterior of the Lady Chapel.
The Civil War & After
Crediton was under the control of both King and Parliament during the Civil War (there are some interesting relics of this time in the Governors’ Room), but the church survived intact – most of the iconoclasm it suffered was during the Reformation.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century the medieval wooden vault of the nave and choir was rotting from neglect, and in 1788 this was replaced by plastered ceilings.
Pictured left: The sedilia of Holy Cross, damaged during the Reformation.
A major restoration in Victorian times (by John Hayward) was spread over 40 years; the nave was given a completely new tie-beam roof with vertical struts, and the chancel something shallower. At the same time a great deal of the interior stonework was refurbished by stripping medieval plaster and detailed re-pointing.
Pictured left: John Hayward’s C19th restoration of the Chancel Roof
A suffragan bishop of Crediton was first appointed in 1897. The best known of these has been Bishop Wilfred Westall (Bishop 1954-74).
A land mine exploded in Newcombes Meadow during the Second World War and some church windows were blown in, but otherwise the building was undamaged.
Since the war, the structure of the church has been subject to normal wear and tear, but there is an on-going campaigns to raise funding for the complete renewal of the lighting and wiring system
A completely new building, The Boniface Centre, fifty yards east of the main church building, was opened in 1991. This very large church hall is beautifully equipped and is a major resource for the whole community. Services are also regularly held there, as are meetings of church and secular groups.
The Boniface Centre, opened in 1991.
A new sundial, dedicated by the Dean of Exeter, the Very Reverend Keith Jones, in May, 2003
In 2009, Holy Cross and the town of Crediton celebrated the 1100th anniversary of the consecration of Crediton Cathedral with a programme of church, social, musical and commemorative events.
A DVD of history of Holy Cross was produced using a grant made to the PCC from the Heritage Lottery Fund a search was made in the summer 2007 for the site of the Saxon Crediton Cathedral. More information here.