Humphrey, a priest, was instituted as Vicar here on 22 February 1259. So there has been a parish church here for 700 years, and probably much longer than that. The oldest parts of this building are 14th century. Leyland’s Itinerary of about 1538 says, “Torington is a great large toune and stondith on the brow of an hille and hath 3 fair streates yn it and a good market everywke, and ons a yere apon St Michal’s day the best fayr in al those quarters. In the toune is but one paroch chirch. Dr Chaumbre is personne thereof.”
Outside, to the right of the MAIN ENTRANCE, there is a stone inscribed:
“This Church was blowen up with powder Febr ye 16th Anno 1645 and rebuilt Ao 1651”.
This happened during the Battle of Torrington, which was the biggest battle ever fought in Devon, when Fairfax and Cromwell defeated the Royalist army under Lord Hopton, thereby ultimately gaining command of the South West. The Royalists who held the town had stored 80 barrels of gunpowder in the church. The Roundheads as they captured new ground looked for a suitable place for their prisoners and shut them up in the church. Somehow the explosion resulted, with great loss of life. In the churchyard a cobbled mound covers a mass grave.
Experts differ over how much of the church was destroyed in 1645. Experience of blitzed churches inclines one to think that reports of the damage were exaggerated. The PILLARS at the east end of the nave must be the work of the 14th century, while the solid square pillars farther west are presumably the work of 1651. The blast came from the south transept (the old tower) in a north-westerly direction.
The small Tudor room at the east end of the south aisle, now used as a VESTRY survived entirely. It is possibly the Tudor library mentioned in the records, the books from which have disappeared.
The fine church ROOF is of the “waggon-shaped” pattern typical of this part of England.
The TOWER AND SPIRE date from 1813, about which time the old tower was taken down. The tower is the work of W. B. Cock, a local builder, who also designed the Pannier Market building. His initials are worked into the stones of the path outside the SW door.
The fire which must have followed the explosion destroyed the old furnishings and monuments, including, (to the joy of the Puritans) the Prayer Books, but the Bible survived.
The PULPIT with its carved cherubs, wreaths and gilding is typical 17th century work. During the restoration of 1860-1864 (when the old galleries and box pews were removed) the pulpit was moved and the sounding-board discarded. Someone later rescued the sounding-board from a builder’s yard and gave it to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. There it remained until 1960, when the Mayor of Torrington, Colonel J. E. Palmer arranged for its return to the church. So, while the pulpit belongs to us, the sounding-board is technically the property of the Museum, and is here on loan.
The WILLIS ORGAN, one of the finest organs in the west country, is fully described on a separate page.
The six silver altar CANDLESTICKS are the gift of the late Fr Malcolm Pearce. They had been intended for a church dedicated to King Charles the Martyr which was never built, but have found a fitting home in a parish which suffered so much at the hands of the regicides.
Under the chancel arch hangs the magnificent ROOD installed in 2002 and formerly in St Oswald's, Small Heath, Birmingham. It was given to St Oswald's in 1920 as a war memorial, and more recently coloured and gilded. Although the rood was designed to stand on a beam, this proved impracticable in St Michael's, so a specialist engineer was employed to hang it from the roof. Before reinstallation the figures were restored by Philip Dixon of Torrington.
The bronze figure of ST MICHAEL at the entrance to the chancel is by Mother Concordia of St Mildred’s Abbey, Thanet, and given in memory of James Bastin, Churchwarden.
The wooden figure of OUR LADY facing the main door was carved by French nuns, and was given in memory of Phyllis Hearn.
The CHAPEL OF ST JAMES in the south transept is named after the demolished chapel of Torrington Castle, and was furnished as a memorial to Frank Emlyn Jones, Vicar 1894-1934 and latterly Archdeacon of Barnstaple. The altar is the 17th century Lord’s Table. In the REREDOS (from left to right) are the figures of St Michael (for Great Torrington), St Giles (for Little Torrington), St Mary the Virgin, St James, St Mary Magdalen (for Taddiport) and St Gabriel (for St Gabriel’s Mission Church in the town, “the iron church”, which was dismantled and re-erected as a teashop in Westward Ho!). The large OIL PAINTING above the altar is a copy of Caravaggio’s “Ecce Homo” made by Catharine Doe, who was born in Torrington in 1818 and studied in London. The ICON to the left of the altar is a copy of the famous byzantine icon known as Our Lady of Czestochowa, the original being in Poland. The Mother of God holds the Christ Child, whose right hand is raised in blessing, while in his left is the Gospel. The icon hangs here as a result of a court case which made legal history. The Chancellor of the Diocese, David Calcutt, had refused permission for its installation but in 1984 the parish appealed successfully to the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved, which had never sat before, and the Chancellor’s decision was reversed. The WINDOW is a memorial to Thomas Fowler the apothecary and inventor who died in 1843. The decorative border shows two of his inventions: the thermosiphon (the foundation of central heating systems) and a calculating machine which won the admiration of Charles Babbage his contemporary, and inventor of a calculator based on a different principle.
The eight BELLS in the tower, six cast by Abraham Rudhall of Gloucester in 1716, and later added to and rehung in 1884 and 1934 [Photo], are one of the best peals in Devon. Listen (YouTube). The original bell from the old tower now hangs in the spire and strikes the hours.
The 14 STATIONS OF THE CROSS originally belonged to a religious community and were an anonymous gift to the church.
The WHITE ENSIGN by the organ was used in the Normandy landings in 1944, and presented by Captain Sutcliffe R.N., whose daughter Rosemary has made Torrington famous in her novels.
The CRUCIFIX on the pillar behind the pulpit was carved at Oberammergau in 1934 by Willy Bierling who was St John the Evangelist in the Passion Play that year.
There are two MONUMENTS on the north wall, one to Mrs Penelope Johnson and another to Mrs Palmer (in a family tablet) both relations of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Sir Joshua occasionally visited them, on one occasion in company with the great Dr Johnson. Another, in the sanctuary, commemorates Sara Gooding, who was born by caesarian section in 1671 (Infans si misere discerpta e ventre parentis).
The stained glass canopy over the WAR MEMORIAL contains fragments of glass from Westminster Chapter House salvaged after bomb damage.
The glass is mostly 19th century. In WINDOWS at the west end appear the arms of the Patrons (Christ Church, Oxford) and the Borough. The fine east window shows a series of Old Testament and New Testament events in parallel.
The lists of RECTORS AND VICARS on a pillar in the nave which include the name of Master Thomas Wolsey (afterwards Cardinal). Wolsey added the rectory and advowson to the income of his new foundation at Oxford, to be known as Cardinal College. When he fell from favour his project was taken over by Henry VIII and called Christ Church.
Thereafter no more rectors came to Torrington, but instead the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church appointed “perpetual curates” (more recently styled Vicar). Except for a break during the Commonwealth, when five Presbyterian ministers were intruded (one of whom, Hugh Peters, achieved the distinction of being executed after the Restoration for his part in the trial of Charles I) this system has continued ever since. Of the 19 incumbents since 1562, 17 have been members of “The House” and seven also old boys of its near relation, Westminster School. William Keble Martin (Vicar 1934-1943) wrote and illustrated the famous CONCISE BRITISH FLORA IN COLOUR.
Outside the church you can see decorated rainwater hoppers of the 17th century. The carved stone heads by the west door are 19th century and represent Henry VIl’s mother (Lady Margaret Beaufort) and Cardinal Wolsey. Lady Margaret was a benefactor to the parish, bestowing her manor house on the parish priest. The present 18th-19th century Vicarage still occupies its site.
A stroll round the Churchyard (closed for burials since 1850) will reveal many quaint and touching epitaphs. One of the latter is to be found not far from the east window on the tomb of Charlotte Laimbeer:
But words are wanting,
To say what!
Think what a wife should be,
And she was that
Another one, reported to exist, but there is no prize for finding it:
Here lies a man who was killed by lightning;
He died when his prospects seemed to be brightening.
He might have cut a flash in this world of trouble,
But the flash cut him, and he lies in the stubble.
Perhaps it was inside the church and the restorers in 1860 removed it for excessive levity.