The special feature of the church, which renders it of particular antiquarian interest, is the inscription carved on the timbers of the chancel roof. The Gothic lettering is cut and painted, and was repainted about a century ago, so that, save for one break, which can readily be reconstructed, it is quite clear and readable, even though theLatin is contracted, and designs of foliage break the wording. The inscription records that Henry le Mayne, Priest and a native of Normandy, caused it to be built in 1451 and wrote the words with his own hand, and that Robert of Rouen, Prior of Cowick (now in west Exeter) and Richard Talbot, Lord of Spreyton, ‘gave their goods’ for the building. “Mayne” is probably a version of the French word “moine” or monk.
The inscription begins on the north side, and runs along the double edges of the beams and cross beams, up and down, backwards and forwards.
The Latin inscription on the ribs of the chancel roof
Hericus de Mayne prebytre vicarius latuis eccelsie
me fecit firir anno domini 1451
(Robertus de Rouen de becdenne prior of Cowick)*
et ricardus Talbot armicer donius de Spreyton
dedit de banis suis ad me faciendum
orate pro animabus earum
Normannia terra henricus hic natus fuit et ipse
Acripiot haec amina manu sua propria.
Dullcis amica dei vernans et stella decora
To memor esto mei martis dum venerit hara;
Jesu parens rafave gentes quo carde precantur
Dabe carens renova mentis quo sarde ligantur.
Haec domus oriantionis vacbitur, in ea omnis qui
pettt accitit, qui quarit invenit, et pulsanti aperietur.
Tesitssis christen quod non haec scriptat iste carpus ut
laudetur sed spritus ut memoretur.
Ora pro nobis sancta nicholae, sancta martyr Edwards
Intercede pro nobis.
Stubtam sit paccatum perpetus reputatem;
Pro solo pomo perditur omnis homo;
Virgo deum peperit, sed qui quie quamodo quarit,
Non este nosse meum sed scio passé deum.
*The line in brackets is illegible but was supplied by Mr Winslow Jones.
Translation of Latin inscription by the Rev. H.P. Knapman, Rector of Spreyton 1863-1885 Henry le Mayne, priest, vicar of this church, caused me to be built A.D. 1451. Robert of Rouen, of Becdenne, Prior of Cowick, and Richard Talbot Esq. Lord of Spreyton, gave of their goods to my building; pray for their souls. This Henry was a native of Normandy and wrote all this with his own hand. Then follows, in hexameter verses, these lines:-
"Sweet friend of God [viz Holy Virgin] blooming as a lovely star,
Be mindful of me when the hour of death shall come
Father Jesus, nourish the people who pray from their heart;
Thou who art spotless renew the minds bound in the filth [of sin]."
"This house shall be called a house of prayer,
in which everyone who asks receives, who seeks finds,
and to him who knocks [the door] shall be opened."
"O Christ, bear witness that he writes not these words,
that his body be praised, but that his soul be remembered."
"Pray for us St Nicholas; St Edward the Martyr intercede for us,
Let sin ever be thought folly;
For one apple all mankind is ruined;
A virgin brought forth God, if anyone asks how
It is not mine to know, but I know God is able [to cause it]"
The church replaced an earlier one, probably built in Norman times. The 15th century was a time of relative prosperity for Devon from the wool trade and many parishes built themselves new churches at that time. The Talbot family, who were by then Lords of Spreyton Manor, probably lived at Spreyton Barton and the church was probably deliberately sited to be conveniently next to their abode. In the past there was a gate from Barton into the churchyard.
Few traces of the earlier church remain. However, the two fonts, the piscina and the altar stone appear to be of earlier date and may have been part of an earlier church on the site. The piscina and the altar stone (which is considered to bear evidence of early consecration for Christian use) in fact came to light in the first half of the twentieth century when they were found embedded in the masonry when parts of the south wall and porch were rebuilt. Leaning against the north side there is what is thought to be another relic of a church prior to the present building – a circular basin of a font long discarded. It is pierced with a drain hole and shows marks where the hinge of the cover was set into the stone.
The first recorded Patrons of the Living were the Prior and Members of the Monastery of St Andrew, Cowick. According to the Domesday Book, the Manors of both Spreyton and Cowick were given by William the Conqueror to his companion Baldwin de Brionis (Brionne), whom he had appointed Sheriff of Devon. In about 1100, Baldwin’s son founded the Priory of St Andrew Cowick (now part of Exeter) as an affiliated house of the great Abbey of Le Bec near Brionne in Normandy. It may be presumed that the advowson of Spreyton (the right to nominate the parish priest) originally went with ownership of the Manor. But it seems that at some point the Baldwins granted the Manor to the Talbot family while transferring the advowson, along with the right to the rectorial tithes, to their new Priory at Cowick as an endowment for the latter (advowsons could be bought, sold or bequeathed, so were valuable assets).
In common with other parishes held by alien priories, the advowson of Spreyton was seized by the kings of England when they were at war with France, and Prior Robert of Normandy resigned the Priory to the Crown in the year that the new Spreyton Church was built. King Henry VI then assigned the advowson and tithes of Spreyton to Eton College (which he had founded 11 years earlier, so it was a way of favouring one of his pet projects). Thirteen years later, the advowson was transferred by his successor Edward IV to his favoured Abbey at Tavistock. It continued in the possession of Tavistock Abbey until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. The latter, by letter patent of 4 July 1539, then granted the advowson and tithes to Sir John Russell (who later became Baron Russell and whose descendants became the Earls and then Dukes of Bedford). The advowson and right to the Rectorial tithesremained in the ownership of the Russell family until 1801 when the then Duke of Bedford sold the right to the tithes to John Cann of Fuidge, and the advowson to Richard Holland of Half Moon Street, Westminster. From him it passed to the Rev. J. F. Doveton; then to the Rev. W. B. Doveton (Vicar 1857-1869), whose daughter transferred it in 1916 to the Bishop of Exeter.
|1316-17: Feb 24||Thomas Pruet||Prior & Convent of Cowick|
|1336: June 13||Thomas Squire||ditto|
|1367: Oct 25||William BakerPeter Dyne||Bishop pro lapse|
|1405-6: Jan 8||John Giffard||King Henry IV|
|1433: Dec 14||John LanePrigentius Lewis||King Henry IV|
|1451: Aug 23||Henry Le Mayne||Prior & Convent of Cowick|
|1458-9: Jan 23||Walter Randell||Provost of Eton|
|1469: Nov 23||John Aller||Abbot and Convent of Tavistock|
|1517-18: Jan 25||Oliver Wise||ditto|
|1527: Dec 7||Robert Wetherbroke||ditto|
|1527-8: Jan 7||Bartholomew Stephens (deprived of the benefice in 1588 for an unspecified reason)||Francis, Earl of Bedford|
|1588: June 19||Robert Clay, BA Queen’s College Cambridge 1586 (resigned 1595)||Bishop per lapse|
|1595: Dec 14||Richard Adams||Hugh Vaughan & Arnold Oldsworth by presentation of Edward Earl of Bedford|
|1601-2: March 3||William Sheres (resigned 1603)||Edward Earl of Bedford|
|1603/4: March 19||Jasper Wilson (died 1627)||ditto|
|1627: May 9||William Dicker or Dickes||Francis Earl of Bedford|
|1645||Roger Speccote, BA New Hall Oxford 1638 (The Earls of Bedford were Puritans in the Civil War, and he was probably also, as he was appointed a year after signing the 1662 “Conformity Declaration”. The initials R.S.Vi on the 1650 bell probably refer to him. Died 1693)||ditto|
|1693: April 3||William Oxenham, BA Exeter College Oxford 1688. (Son of William Oxenham of South Tawton. Died 1693)||Thomas Hore of Spreyton by grant of Francis Earl of Bedford|
|1693: Nov 13||Andrew Voysey, Exeter College Oxford, BA 1688, MA 1692. (Died 1714.)||William Earl of Bedford|
1714/15: March 14
|William Rowe, Exeter Collage Oxford, BA 1706, MA 1709. (Died 1725)|
|1725/6: 7 February||John Freke, BA 1720, Wadham College Oxford. (Died 1754)||Wriothesley, Duke of Bedford|
|1754: 1 August||William Moore, Exeter College Oxford, BA 1748, MA 1751. (There is a volume of his sermons in the Devon Heritage Centre)||John, Duke of Bedford|
|1791: 18 February||Thomas Freke||ditto|
|1799: 6 September||John Crauford of Cranford (resigned 1801)||Francis, Duke of Bedford|
|1801 or 1802: 29 October||Richard Holland (died 1857 – memorial tablet in church).||Richard Holland of Half Moon Street, London (probably his father)|
|1857: 21 January||William Blake Doveton (resigned 1862)||Rev. John Doveton of Kerslake, Clyst St George.|
|1863: 27 February||Frederick Francis Hole, Trinity College Cambs. BA 1836, MA 1851 (died 1844. Cousin of the Rev. Robert Hole, Rector of North Tawton).||Rev. W.B. Doveton|
|1885: July 31||Henry Pearce Knapman or Knapton, Queen’s College Cambridge, BA 1856, MA 1877. (Died 1912)||Revd. W.B. Doveton|
|1912||Edward Hyde Blackwell-Price, Trinity Collage Cambride, BA 1883, MA 1887. (He was also Rector of Hittisleigh 1912-1923. Resigned 1923.)||Mrs Hobkirk, daughter of W.B. Doveton|
|1923||Thomas Arthur Hancock, Keeble College Oxford, BA 1915, MA 1919. (He was also Rector of Hittisleigh 1924-29. Resigned 1929)||Bishop of Exeter|
|1930||Walter Richard Dunstan (also Rector of Hittisleigh 1930-32. Resigned 1935)||ditto|
|1935||Frank Guy Clayton (resigned 1953)||ditto|
|1953||Reginald Alfred William Ward||ditto|
In his book Some Devon Churches, John Stabb comments on the fact that the church records and accounts indicate that during the Commonwealth (1649-1659) no change apparently took place in the conduct of Divine Worship. The entries are all in the handwriting of Roger Speccot, who was probably appointed churchwarden in 1654, and lived till 1692. Spreyton was probably very good at keeping its head down in times of turmoil elsewhere.