Situated in North Devon between Barnstaple and South Molton, Chittlehampton was first
settled by the Saxons during their 8th century invasion of Devon. At its heart is The
Square, a wide open space sloping upwards towards the church on its northern boundary.
The outline of the square has changed little since that time. Up until the late 19th century
the village was noted for the large number of hostelries serving a community of this size, a
reminder of the days when these inns were needed to accommodate the many pilgrims visiting
the shrine of St Urith in the church.
The church was completely rebuilt between 1470 and 1520 on the site of the earlier
cruciform structure. It is dedicated to a revered Celtic saint from the dawn of Christianity
in Devon, St Hieritha or more correctly, St Urith. It contained a shrine in her honour that
was visited by pilgrims on the 8th of July each year until 1540 by which time pilgrimages and
the veneration of saints and relics were drawing the ire of the Protestant Reformation. The
generous offerings of the many visitors to the shrine made it possible to rebuild the church
on such a grand scale.
The magnificent western tower in the Somerset style now dominates the northern edge of the
wide village square, once known as Town Place. In former times the church was partly hidden
behind a row of houses as can be seen in the engraving from 1845. These dwellings were
demolished between 1876 and 1879 not long after the most recent major refurbishment of the
church in 1872.
The cottages bordering the church belonged to the Feoffees, a board of trustees
administering the church and its property estate for the benefit of the community, and were
sold by auction to the Trustees of the Rolle Estate who permitted the site to be enclosed
within the churchyard following the demolition worknote1.
Inside the church, facing towards the chancel one can make out the rectangular reredos in
the distance. Added in the 1872 refurbishments, it is a colourful mosaic depicting the Last
Supper. Prior to that it was an exhibit at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Crystal Palace.
The font dating from ca. 1500 was placed under the tower in 1872, then moved to its present
position near the main door in 1954.
There is a local tradition for comparing the attributes of North Devon churches using
sayings that go like this:
Bishop's Nympton for length, South Molton for strength, Chittlehampton for beauty.
Chittlehampton is usually given the beauty accolade, but the churches selected for their
length and strength vary parochiallynote4
What do we know of St Urith? Very little it would seem, other than that she was born in
nearby Stowford possibly in the 7th century AD or even earlier and was a pious Christian who
suffered a violent death at a tender age. One suggestion is that she may have been converted
to Christianity by one or more of St Kea, St Fili, and St Rumon, missionaries from
Glastonbury who passed through this area on route to Cornwall in the early 6th
The fullest account of her brief life is given in Chanter's 1914 essay. Chanter argues convincingly that her
rightful name is Urith, and that Hieritha is a later corruption; he quotes these passages
from the renowned 17th century North Devon topographers Risdon and Westcote which demonstrate
that Hieritha was the accepted written form of the name by this period.
This parish [of Chittlehampton] is graced with a fair church and stately tower, and in
times past hath been notable for that Hieritha (born at Hoforde, Com. Devonnote3
), canonized a saint, was here interred,
unto whose memory the church was dedicated, and she esteemed to be of such sanctity that
you may read of many miracles ascribed to her holiness in his book that penned her life.
It [Chittlehampton] is no great town, but rather to be termed a village; famous only for
that good St. Hieritha, whose miracles are able to fill a whole legend, who lived there and
was there buried. And I observed the tower of the Church to be a work more curious and fair
than any in that County. [Westcote3
Risdon refers to a book of her life, but there is no trace of this work today; reputedly it was exhibited in her
shrine, and it may be that the book was lost or destroyed when this was dismantled in
Chanter turns to the hymn to St Uritha (the Latinate form of Urith) discovered in a
manuscript in Trinity College Cambridge in 1901 as the prime source for the account of
Urith's martyrdom. This was part of a 15th century notebook belonging to a monk from
Glastonbury. Here are the three most relevant verses with translations of the original
- Gaudet quia falcatorum
- Falce prato iniquorum
- Martirium sustinuit
- Virgo martyr nunc sanctorum
- Consorcia angelorum
- In premium promeruit
- Hostium minas non expauit
- Hostes morte superauit
- Hostes quos absorbuit
- Ubi virgo expirauit
- >Fons habunde emanauit
- Sicca terra floruit
- Nunc gaudet tota patria
- Quod sue nouerce odia
- Innocens virgo vicerit
- villa Chitelhamptonia
- Letare cum Deuonia
- Quod taliter se gesserit.
- Mown by scythe of pagan scornful,
- Gladly in the valley mournful
- Crown of martyrdom she gain'd.
- Now, 'mid Angels high and holy,
- See, enthroned, this maiden lowly
- Hath the victor's prize obtained.
- Trembled she at threat of no man,
- But did triumph o'er the foeman -
- Foeman whom she overthrows.
- There, where fell this godly maiden,
- Sprang a well with virtue laden,
- Bloom'd the desert as the rose.
- By stepmother once ill-treated,
- Now on every side is greeted,
- Urith as the lily, white.
- Chittlehampton voice to heaven,
- Raise thou with the rest of Devon,
- For this martyr, ruby-bright.
Chanter summarizes the legend in these words:
From this hymn ... we can reconstruct the main parts of the legend of St. Urith. She was a
beautiful maiden who from a tender age had dedicated herself to the service of God and a
religious life. At the instigation of a jealous and probably a heathen stepmother, she is
martyred, when on her way to prayer, by the haymakers of the village, who cut her in pieces
with their scythes. At the spot where her head falls to the ground a copious spring bursts
forth, and flowers [scarlet pimpernels] bloom wherever a drop of her blood is sprinkled.
St Urith's martyrdom is said to have occurred at St Urith's Well marked on the map to the
east of the village. It is also known as St Teara's Well, or Taddy Well. In the 1950s it was
capped for safety reasonsnote6
Whether or not there is any truth to this story we may never know, but what is certain is
that this legend bears an uncanny similarity to that of two other Devonshire saints of the
Saxon period, St Sidwell and her sister St Juthwara, leading Chanter to speculate on the
apocryphal nature of these legends, and to suggest that "the story as we have it may only be
that of a professional saint life-writer of a later date".
Today Chittlehampton has but one Inn, The Bell, a very fine one too. In former times it
had a surprising number for its size. Historically this was not because the inhabitants had
an unquenchable thirst or were particularly debauched; rather they provided a place of
refreshment and rest for the many pilgrims who came to the village to pay homage to St
What is surprising is that so many licensed premises survived to the middle of the 19th
century, more than 300 years after the end of the annual pilgrimages to Chittlehampton
following the dismantling of St Urith's shrine. White's Directory of 1850 lists six inns and taverns:
- the Barnstaple Inn
- the Bell Inn
- the Exeter Inn
- the Golden Lion
- the New Inn
- the Rolle's Arms
White also mentions the existence of two unnamed beer houses one of which was evidently
the Green Dragon. The Barley Mow, possibly the other beer house, can be added to this list,
and there was also a Kings Arms which had closed by this date.
This piece entitled The Inns of Chittlehampton by The Rev. J H B Andrews, vicar
of Chittlehampton at the time, was written for the Parish Magazine in 1954. I have edited it
lightly in the interests of clarity:
....The number of former inns or public houses in the village has often been the subject of
remark. The rate books of the last century name seven and gave their annual values: Bell
Inn, £11; New Inn, £6/10/-; Golden Lion, £18/15/-; Barnstaple Inn,
£12/5/-; Rolle Arms, £5/5/-; Green Dragon, £11/10/-. The Barley Mow, the
name of which still persists, is not mentioned. The Green Dragon - a beer house and not an
inn - was vicarage property; being for some years the residence of assistant curates, it
came to be called The Curatage. The King's Arms appears in earlier lists, but had
disappeared by 1850. It seems to have been on or near the site of the present Methodist
Church. It was used for sales, or 'surveys' as they were called, and must presumably have
had a large public room. The Barnstaple Inn, The Rolle Arms, and the old Bell Inn all had
large rooms which were used in 1872 to help provide 650 people with tea at the reopening of
the church after its restoration. The Rolle Arms is still in use by the Women's Institute.
The accommodation available suggests that most of these houses were real inns "where a
traveller is furnished with everything he has occasion for while on his stay". Just as
Glastonbury had its hostelry for pilgrims, now the famous George Inn, so must
Chittlehampton have had its more modest hostelries for the pilgrims, most of whom came on
foot. The Golden Lion may have had reference to the arms of the Lovering family,
predecessors of the Rolles at Hudscott, but the name is not uncommon. There seems to be no
particular reason for the name Green Dragon.
The number of inns declined as the 19th century was drawing to a close; when the license
of the New Inn came up for renewal in 1884 it was declined, leaving only two other licensed
The Bell Inn
to its present location on the south side of The Square in 1888. It has been run by the
same family for the past 30 years. On a recent visit in 2010 I noticed they offered a fine
selection of real ales from Devonshire breweries. There is a smoker-friendly terrace to the
rear leading down through a children's play area to an orchard containing a pair of alpacas
who obligingly posed for the camera on this occasion.
St Urith of Chittlehampton
by Rev. J F Chanter, Report and
Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Vol 46(1914), p290-308. J F was the son of J R
Chanter, best known as the author of works on the history and topography of Lundy. [return]
Naturally there was opposition to the demolition proposal among the tenants, despite the
alleged state of dilapidation and lack of basic facilities in these cottages.
Given that one of the Feoffees at the time was the Honourable Mark Rolle, heir to the Rolle
estate which owned much of the land in the area, one cannot but wonder if this transaction
was little more than a device to subvert a covenant of the trust which forbade the Feoffees
from demolishing these properties. A fuller account of the circumstances leading to the
demolition of these houses was given in the Chittlehampton Parish Magazine of 1956,
Mentioned in St Hieritha's Church Chittlehampton
), an anonymous
pamphlet available for a nominal consideration from the church. This is an unusually
well-researched document for its kind and is a mine of historical information. Highly
Hoforde is a misreading of Stowford in the original manuscript. Com.
abbreviation of the Latin in comitatu
, meaning 'in the county of'. [return]
The quoted version comes from the StHCh
Molton for strength, South Molton for length, Chittlehampton for beauty", while The North Devon Coast
by Charles George Harper
gives this variant:
"Hartland for length, Berrynarbor for strength, and Combemartin for beauty"
The translation given is attributed by Chanter to the Rev. George Woodward. An alternative
translation is presented in the StHCh
The workings carried out on St Teara's Well are described in this extract from an article
by the former Vicar of Chittlehampton, the Rev. J H B Andrews (the full article is here
In the 1950's North Devon Water Board destroyed the structure over the well on grounds of
safety, covered the area with concrete and built the lintel into the adjacent wall. A
manhole gave access to the well but they put in a lift pump further downstream. Several
years later workmen putting in a new water main uncovered another stone eighteen inches
under the surface which must have been the lip of the well. It has a stoup or cavity which
could be filled naturally and this too was built into the wall as though it formed a
sepulchre. Fairly recently SW Gas removed the water pump. If the manhole cover is lifted it
reveals clear slowly moving water with beautifully coloured unmortared stonework on two
sides, there is a basalt like rockface at the base with a thin covering of sand. In 1954
the bishop led a pilgrimage to Chittlehampton, the well is regularly blessed by the vicar
on the saints day and the village still holds a revel on 8 July.
The New Inn's license was revoked in 1884, as recorded in this piece from Trewman's Exeter
Flying Post of Wednesday September 10 in that year:
Chulmleigh, Brewster Sessions. The annual licensing sessions for the South Molton division,
were held at Chulmleigh on Wednesday. Superintendent Baker stated that he had given notice
to Mr William Taylor, of the New Inn, Chittlehampton, of his intention to oppose the
licence. Superintendent Baker said Mr Taylor had been twice convicted for offences against
the Licensing Acts, once on the 16th June last, and also in September 1882. Many persons
leaving the applicants house had been summoned for drunkenness and other offences against
the Licensing Acts and the house bore a bad character. Mr Seldon, appearing for William
Taylor, urged that defendant was not a strong man, and had a long family. His
father-in-law, to whom the house belonged, had laid out a considerable sum of money on it.
If the Bench did not think Taylor a proper person to hold the license he would apply on
behalf of the owner to have the licence in his name. P.C. Hockridge stated that applicant's
father now lived with him, and that there were already two licensed houses in the village.
The Bench declined to grant the renewal.
| | last modified on
16 Nov 2014