Our Church during the Middle Ages


No 19: 14th century changes to the fabric.

After our diverting digression to look at the early chaplains and priests of Penn, we come back again to review all the many changes to the fabric of the church which took place during the 14th century.

We started the century with our present nave, a smaller chancel, and perhaps no tower; not the present one, anyway, which was added early in that century. The chancel seems to have been extended at about the same time, floored with Penn tiles of the period (which stayed until 1918). The south aisle was added in mid-century, probably to cater for an increasing population and the more elaborate ritual which was developing. The Lady Chapel belongs to roughly the same period, but is not on the same alignment as the south aisle and so was not built at the same time.

These expensive undertakings are likely to have been completed in the heyday of Penn tiling, before 1348, when the first wave of the Black Death killed off a third of the population. The parishioners themselves, less than 200 souls even before the Black Death, are likely to have contributed a large part of both the money and labour, spurred on by both local pride and by the belief that their chance of personal salvation would be correspondingly improved.

The Synod of Exeter, in 1287 , had formalised an already established convention that the parishioners were responsible for the upkeep of the nave whilst the rector had the duty of maintaining the chancel. This is still the position today. Our recently completed terrier and inventory recorded Earl Howe as the lay rector and so responsible, in theory at least, for the chancel, although it is many years since he received any rectoral tithes with which to meet the cost of upkeep.

Dr Clive Rouse observed to me that, ‘that, of course, there was no antiquarian prejudice about preserving old buildings in those days’.  The consequence has been that each successive generation has been able to adapt the church to its needs, and the architecture and decoration the church is in itself a history of the parish, marking the passing fortunes and fashions of each generation. There is a danger that recently developed concern for the past, though laudable in intent. will obstruct this vital evolution of the fabric.

© Miles Green, April 1999. 

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