HISTORY OF ST PETER’S CHURCH

St Peter’s significance to Tiverton

St. Peter’s has been the centre of civic life in Tiverton for centuries and still serves as the site for the town-wide celebrations of Remembrance Day and Mayor’s Sunday. In times of celebration or sadness, Tiverton turns to St. Peter’s. The Church’s Grade 1 listing derives primarily from the beauty and historic significance of the Greenway Chapel built in 1517 (see separate item). John Greenway is buried in the Church, along with several other 16th century cloth merchants, men who were vital to the growth and commercial success of the town. Their great wealth is reflected in the rebuilding of the Church and the establishment of schools and almshouses on a very generous scale. The Parish Registers date from1560 and contain an unusual wealth of information, including in some cases the occupations and cause of death of those listed; they are available for viewing at the Museum of Mid Devon Life and the Devon Archives and Local Studies Centre (see under Useful Links on this site).

Early history

A Saxon village, Twyfiride (two fords), existed on the site of Tiverton’s town centre from the ninth century, shaping the layout of the oldest part of the town. Early in the tenth century, a wooden church, which may have been dedicated to a Celtic saint, was sited within the area of the present churchyard.

St Peter’s Church was rebuilt in stone on the site of the present chancel and was consecrated in 1073 by Leofric, first Bishop of Exeter.

Only one doorway remains from this period, now in the north wall of the church. This was the entrance used by the Earls of Devon, the de Redvers family, who were given the lordship and manor of Tiverton by Henry I. Their Castle on the north side of the Church was completed in the first half of the 12th century.

At the end of the thirteenth century, the Manor and Castle of Tiverton passed to Hugh de Courtenay, who was created Earl of Devon in 1335 by Edward III.

Royal connections

In 1495 William Courtney married Princess Katharine, seventh daughter of Edward IV and sister to the Princes in the Tower. When widowed aged 32, her nephew Henry VIII granted her lands including Tiverton and she decided to live in the Castle, making it a royal seat. The Norman door became a royal entrance into the Church. Katharine died on 15th November 1527. After lying in state in the Castle chapel, she was buried in the Courtenay Chapel at St Peter’s; (this was on the north side of the Church, probably near the site of the present vestry and may have been levelled during Civil War skirmishes). The coffin was carried with great pomp to St Peter’s in a large formal procession. Three masses were sung at the funeral the following morning and the sermon was delivered by one of Henry VIII’s chaplains; 500 people attended the banquet held afterwards at the Castle.

The Tower and Bells

The ninety-nine foot high tower was probably built between 1412 and 1429 in local stone. Its construction was part of a major rebuilding of the Church, prompted by a command from Bishop Stafford of Exeter deploring its dilapidated condition.

Bells are first mentioned in the Inventory of Church Goods in 1553, but none of the original bells remain. The present eight bells date from between 1737 and 1868.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century restorations

A number of improvements were carried out inside the Church in the early part of the 18th century, but

by the beginning of the 19th century the Church was in a very poor state. Much of the interior of the Church which can be seen today results from several phases of restoration during that Century, particularly the 1853-6 restoration and rebuilding by Edward Ashworth, then the diocesan architect. The principle original features remaining are the Tower, the Greenway Chapel, parts of the south aisle and the chancel arches and piers.

There are booklets available in the Church about the history, stained glass windows and organ, as well as information boards which can be carried when exploring the Church.  One of them can be downloaded here.

St Peter’s Tri-fold Leaflet