St Mary the Virgin, Week St Mary

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Week St Mary parish

The word Week, Wyke or Wick which comes into so many English place names is an Anglo-Saxon form of the Latin "vicus" - "dairy farm" or "village",  so that Week St. Mary was in old days known as St. Mary Week to distinguish it from other villages, such as St. Pancras Week only a few miles away.

Week St. Mary is thus recorded in the Domesday Book as the small settlement of 'Wich' and this manor was granted to Richard Fitz Turold, steward of the Earl of Cornwall, Robert of Mortain, a half brother of William I. The settlement had a recorded occupancy of about six villagers and ten smallholders.

It seems probable that for centuries it was a place of some importance in the surrounding countryside.

Week St. Mary was allegedly a small, typical medieval market town which served the surrounding countryside; generally of up to half a day's walk away.  This ancient borough is noted for the arrangement of 'strip fields' (burgage stitches) radiating outwards from the church and castle. Whilst other examples of strip fields can be found nearby at Forrabury they do not follow the same layout.

A few fields westward of the present village and church is a flat-topped circular hill known as Ashbury; it is now a field but all round it can be seen the earthworks which surrounded a prehistoric fortified "bury" ("burgh" or "borough").

Later came the Normans to settle in a hostile country. Anyone travelling from the coast who has seen the tower of Week St. Mary persistently pushing itself into view can imagine a Norman baron finding hereabouts a good place on which to build his castle.

This is what certainly happened. The field adjoining the churchyard on the west is still known as Castle Ditch; in it is a large mound which marks the site of an old building and from its shape tells us that it was a Norman fortress.

Under the shelter of this castle we may suppose was built the church of Our Lady of Week on the same site as the present church.

 

THE PARISH CHURCH

There are no remains of the Norman church but a fair proportion of unworked stone from the Ventergan quarry (a favourite stone with the Norman builders) has been incorporated in the later walls.

The fragments of moulded stone around the exterior of the east window indicate thirteenth century workmanship, the window itself being Victorian. The piscina in the chancel is also of thirteenth century origin.

We may assume, therefore, that on the present site there stood first a Norman church and afterwards one built in the thirteenth century.

The outstanding features of the existing church suggest that it was enlarged as follows. The first addition, late in the fourteenth century, was the south aisle with its three arches of Polyphant stone starting from the west end of the chancel.

Fifty years later, about 1450, the north aisle was constructed with granite pillars and arches and to match this the south aisle was extended two bays eastward. This accounts for the fact that the two chancel arches on the south side are of granite whereas the westerly one rises from a Polyphant pillar.

Probably, too, it is due to these alterations that the east window of the nave is not in the centre of the gable. The last additions were the south

porch, with a priest's chamber or school-room above it, and the fine granite tower rising nearly one hundred feet from which a superb view can be obtained.

The three double bands of carving on the tower are exceptionally good; and high up on the west side may be seen an unusual subject, two hounds in full cry after a hare.

This makes one wonder whether even in those days Week St. Mary Revel or Parish Festival began with a hunt as it does now.

From time immemorial the annual Revel has followed the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8th September).

 

VICTORIAN ALTERATIONS

By Victorian times the church had fallen into a serious state of disrepair after generations of neglect. Unhappily, a "restoration" was carried out between 1876 and 1881 with insensitivity and excessive thoroughness.

Major repairs of the fabric were certainly essential but the church was swept bare of most of its surviving picturesque features. Fortunately the superb medieval roofs of both aisles were conserved, together with the Tudor linenfold panels of the pulpit (from which John Wesley preached on several occasions).

The octagonal granite font dates from the fifteenth century and bears the Tudor rose and a fleur-de-lis.

In the north aisle the stairs to the vanished rood-loft remain. Nearby, in the chapel of St. John the Baptist, notice the beautiful Victorian stained glass window by Kempe showing three virgin martyrs — Saints Catherine, Cecilia and Agnes; and the well preserved slate monument to Margery Gayer (1679).

Fragments of medieval woodwork and carved stone survive by the south door and in the porch, where the village stocks may be seen. Over the entrance to the church there is an ancient sundial which was found in use as a step in the former rectory.

The elaborately carved choir-stalls were put in place in 1891 and the fine oak bench-ends were presented to the church in 1930.

 

STRUCK BY LIGHTNING

According to the most recent Miscellaneous Register, pertaining to St. Mary's church, there were several recorded instances of the tower being struck by lightning.

On 8th November 1878 the southwest pinnacle of the tower was struck by lightning, at 6.45 am, but with no record of any damage.

Other occasions on which the tower was struck are recorded as follows: about 1688 the north-east pinnacle was struck and during the winter months of 1812, 1843 and 1865 the north-east, south-east and south-west pinnacles were also struck.

After a violent hailstorm on Thursday 21st February 1935 the south-east pinnacle of the tower was struck by lightning at twenty-five minutes past one in the afternoon. Masonry crashed down, smashing through the roof and causing such devastation that the church had to be closed. An appeal for funds was immediately launched and repairs were begun without delay.

The opportunity was taken to replace the variegated floor tiles favoured by the Victorians with stone slabs and the church was reopened for worship on 16th January 1936.

Because of its dominant position in the landscape the tower has always been vulnerable to lightning. Previous strikes were recorded in 1688, 1812, 1843, 1865 and 1875. Lightning conductors are now affixed to each pinnacle.

 

THOMASINE BONAVENTURE

About that remarkable woman Thomasine Bonaventure a great deal has been written which is either fanciful or false. However, the bare facts are themselves sufficiently romantic.

She was born at Week St. Mary in 1440 or thereabouts. According to tradition she was tending a flock of sheep on some moorland when she was noticed by a London merchant, Thomas Burnsby, as he passed by. He took her to his home as a maidservant and, after his wife died, he married her.

On his death she was left a wealthy young widow. She then married Henry Gall, another rich trader. When he died she became the wife of John Percival, a merchant tailor who was made Lord Mayor of London and later received a knighthood. Upon his death in 1503 she came into a massive fortune.

Dame Thomasine took the opportunity to bequeath valuable gifts to a number of churches and monasteries around her birthplace. In particular, she purchased lands to endow a free grammar school and chantry at Week St. Mary in 1508.

This foundation was placed under the charge of a priest-schoolmaster. It proved an enormous asset to the village for the trade which it engendered and to the whole countryside for the quality of the education offered there, as boys came to board from miles around. The picturesque building, known as the College, still stands.

Following the Reformation the chantry was suppressed in 1548 and the school removed to Launceston on the pretext that Week St. Mary was out of the way. This struck a sad blow to the welfare of the village.

Dame Thomasine Percival died in 1512. Apart from generous bequests to St. Mary Woolnoth Church in the City of London, where Sir John Percival and Dame Thomasine are buried, her will provides for many charitable donations.

She deserves to be remembered as a kind-hearted benefactress who, although she spent most of her life in a distant sphere of wealth and eminence, in her prosperity retained a fond regard for the village of her childhood.

 

THE CIVIL WAR

During the Civil War Cornwall was staunchly Royalist. However, in 1643 the Parliamentarian army advanced across the Tamar and set up their headquarters at Stratton. The Royalist commander, Sir Ralph Hopton, gathered his forces together to attack them.

On Saturday 13th May his army quartered at North Petherwin, in good spirits despite a lack of provisions. Because of a skirmish with a troop of enemy cavalry the Royalists got no further on May 14th than Week St. Mary, where they decided to camp for the night.

In Hopton's own words: "Noe sooner were they come into Mary-Weeke but were presently entertained with a fresh allarum from the Enemy, who found them in so good a posture that they dar'd not make any further attempt upon them there.

The Cornish army stoode upon their guard all that night likewise, still in very great want of provisions, their owne stores onely affording a bisquett to a man, and the place so poore, that it was not able to supply them in any considerable proporcion".

Next day they advanced to Stratton, where on Tuesday 16th May they defeated the Roundheads at Stamford Hill, the first major battle of the war.

 

JOHN WESLEY

On several of his earlier missionary expeditions to Cornwall John Wesley visited Week St. Mary, one of the very few parishes where he was welcomed by the incumbent (John Turner, rector 1716-1772). Other hospitable local parishes were North Tamerton and St. Gennys.

His Journal recounts some of his experiences: Tuesday 18th June 1745: Being invited by the Rector of St. Mary Week, (about seven miles from St. Ginny's,) to preach in his church, we went thither in the afternoon.

I had not seen in these parts of Cornwall, either so large a church or so large a congregation.

Tuesday 16th July 1745: About three I preached in St. Mary Week church, on "Repent ye, and believe the Gospel" (Mark 1.15).

Monday 15th September 1746: A guide, meeting us at Camelford, conducted us to St. Mary Week. It was the time of the yearly revel, which obliged me to speak very plain.

Sunday 26th July 1747: I preached at Tamerton church, in the morning; Mary Week, in the afternoon, and St. Ginny's in the evening.

Sunday 1st September 1751: We were well buffeted both with wind and rain, in riding from

thence (Tresmere) to John Turner's, where the congregation was waiting for me; and we had another season of solemn joy in the Lord.

Sunday 2nd October 1757: I rode to Mary-week. A large congregation was gathered there, many of whom came seven or eight miles.

The house stands in the midst of orchards and meadows, surrounded by gentle rising hills. I preached on the side of a meadow newly mown, to a deeply attentive people.

Monday 29th September 1760: Being invited, by the Minister of Mary Week, to preach in his church, I crossed over the country, and came thither about four in the afternoon.

The congregation was large, considering the weather, and quite attentive and unconcerned.

Monday 27th September 1762: I rode to Mary Week. It was a kind of fair-day; and the people were come far and near for wrestling and other diversions; but they found a better way of employing their time, for young and old flocked to church from all quarters.

 

CHURCHWARDENS

The position of Churchwarden is a very ancient office, with specific tasks and responsibilities, although many of these have disappeared over the years, namely:

'They are not to permit any to stand idle, walk or talk in the church or church-yard; to take care that no persons sit in the church with their hats on, or in any other indecent manner, but that they behave themselves orderly, soberly and reverently, kneeling at the prayers, and standing at the beliefs, etc., that none contend about places and they may chastise disorderly boys, etc.'

'All quarrelling is prohibited either in the church or churchyard; and if any offend in such case the ordinary man may suspend him from entering the church, etc. Where one is assaulted and beaten in the church, it is not lawful to return blows in his own defence; for striking or laying hands on another there, the offender shall be excommunicated.'