From Windsor to Cornwall

A few miles from the Tamar estuary, where Cornwall meets Devon, stands the 15th century Church of St Stephen-By-Saltash. Remarkably, this lovely church has enjoyed a direct connection with Windsor, which has now lasted for a shade over 670 years.

The present building dates largely from the mid 15th century, when the so-called Perpendicular style of church architecture was in vogue. However, we know there was a church in Saltash as early as the mid 13th century, and it occupied the same site as the present church. It was probably consecrated in 1259, and in 1288 was the most highly rated church in the deanery. The advowson (which essentially means the right to appoint a vicar or rector to a vacant benefice) originally belonged to the Earls of Cornwall, but this later lapsed to the Crown, and was then held by successive Princes of Wales.

The south face of a traditional English church built in grey stone with a bell tower and flag pole at the west end. In the foreground is green grass and in the background is blue sky with a few clouds.
St Stephen’s Church, Saltash, Cornwall. Kevin Hale / St Stephen’s Church, Saltash / CC BY-SA 2.0

So, how did the church’s connection with Windsor come about? Quite simply it arose from a deed of gift or grant dated 6 May 1351, in which Edward the Black Prince (1330-1376) granted the advowson to his father, King Edward III. The king, in turn, handed the advowson over to the Dean and Canons of Windsor for the maintenance of St George’s Chapel. All this took place just three years after the foundation of the Order of the Garter in 1348, and the Dean and Canons are still patrons of the living of St Stephen’s today. Over subsequent decades and centuries, the College of St George was to acquire numerous properties and advowsons in many English counties.

In the 1964 edition of his book Cornwall A Shell Guide, John Betjeman (who loved Cornwall as well as any English county) devotes an entry to St Stephen’s in which he refers to “a large late Georgian rectory set in windswept beech trees and a churchyard full of well-engraved slate tombstones in memory of the citizens of Saltash”. He describes the church itself as “large and towny inside with good granite fifteenth century arcades and the old roofs, but Victorian pews and floor of 1872 by Ewan Christian”.

Since 1278 when Henry du Ponte became rector, St Stephen-By-Saltash has been served by more than fifty priests, most of them vicars. Little is known about the earlier incumbents, but it seems reasonable to assume a fair number of them were West Country men. So, for instance, we have John Drake (from 1391), Robert Trethewy (from 1498), and Mathew Drake (from 1625). Also, William Pascoe (from 1554). Pascoe is a Cornish given name and surname, with the delightful meaning “Easter children”.  The first incumbent known to have had a university degree was Nicholas Lodge BA, vicar from 1588.  In recent times, St Stephen’s has been served by team vicars, including Margot Davies (the first female priest), who was followed by Josephine M Lobb and then Cathy Sigrist.

In common with other medieval churches, St Stephen’s has undergone many restorations. One of these, in the 1990s, involved the complete renewal of the timbers of the fine ‘wagon roof’. Wagon or barrel roofs are special features of many churches in the counties of the West Country.

As you would expect, references to St Stephen-by-Saltash Church occur in the archives of St George’s Chapel.  These include a manuscript volume entitled “Howell’s Transcript”, a record of lands and rights belonging to the College, originally compiled in the 17th century by Canon Thomas Howell, who later became Bishop of Bristol during the Civil War.  The entry for the “Rectory of St Stephen Next to Saltash” refers to an annual rent of £32 6s 8d payable at Lady Day (25th March) and Michaelmas (29th September) together with twenty quarters and two bushels of wheat. Payment of rent partly in money and partly in kind was quite normal at this time. The most popular payments in kind were usually wheat and capons.

Today, St Stephen-by-Saltash is part of a flourishing team ministry which includes four other churches. Following the opening of the Tamar Road Bridge in 1962, there was something of a population explosion in the area which in turn created demands for new housing. So, a parish which for centuries was entirely rural became increasingly suburban and more diverse. To quote from the church’s guidebook, St Stephen’s now “seeks to minister to an exceptionally wide range of age groups, of social backgrounds and occupations”.

Simon Harrison, Archives volunteer

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.