CASE STUDIES: WIDECOMBE 1638

 
 



 

Widecombe-in-the-Moor c1889, by Alfred Dawson

(Page, Exploration of Dartmoor)


 

Photograph of a ‘Tor’, from Dartmoor, Sabine Baring Gould, 1900


CS1W/E001-015: Devonshire, West of England, 21.10.1638 (JC)


A STRANGE & TERRIBLE VISITATION


The parish of Widecombe-in-the–Moor, Devon, is divided into manors, and these consist of scattered groups of cottages forming hamlets (including Poundsgate), and a number of hill farms. The parish is very large, being between ten and eleven thousand acres in extent, but despite this its population a hundred years ago was only around 900, and since then has declined by about a third. At its centre, isolated from the outside world by the great ridges of the valley in which it lies, is the small and exceptionally beautiful village of Widecombe, or ‘Widecombe Church Town.’


Though the valley may be from time to time submerged in fog, drowned in rain, blanketed by snowstorms, or assailed by tempests, the last time I visited the area, at the end of July, 2001, was on a day of withering heat, the sun blazed down mercilessly like a great hammer on the surrounding moorland and the bare granite anvils that form the peaks of the eroded mountains, known as ‘tors.’ The atmosphere shimmered with radiation and everything around appeared slightly vague in a fog of dust and vapour. Driving down through the choking air of the valley road Widecombe truly appeared as a lush green oasis in a West of England desert.


Unfortunately the magnificent tower of the 15th century church of St Pancras, long known as the “Cathedral of the Moor,” was in the process of being restored. Caged in scaffolding and shrouded in sheets of plastic, the great structure was of course not visible on that occasion, but I clearly remembered the impression it made upon me when I first viewed it back in July 1967. The whole building is rather wonderful, but the tower, a distinct and rather separate entity of later construction (c1500) than the body of the church, is truly exceptional. Constructed of granite and built in the imposing late Perpendicular style, the structure stands over 41 metres in height and is so prominent that it is hardly surprising that on a certain date in 1638, when the elements along with, as some believed, His Satanic Majesty, conspired in a fury and rushed into this pleasant valley, that their energetic claws clamped down upon its summit.



AN EXAMINATION OF THE EVIDENCE


A considerable part of the story of what happened on that dark and terrible day was written down as a narrative poem by one who was almost certainly present yet survived to tell the tale. “The Storm Poem” is attributed to Richard Hill, the schoolmaster of Widecombe-in-the-Moor at the time of the event described. Ref. CS1W/E001


It is reasonable to assume that he wrote it in gratitude for his deliverance, however it may also have been a memorial to another who perished, for in the floor of the nave is set a gravestone with an inscription in Latin, and this in part translates: “Here lies the body of Roger Hill, Gentleman, died 21 October, 1638,” the bones lying beneath being the earthly remains of a notable victim of the ‘storm’ and probably one of Richard’s closest relatives. Ref. CS1W/E002


Composed shortly after the catastrophe, the narrative poem was painted on a wooden tablet which was then erected in the church. This no longer exists apart from a small fragment. However a slightly different version of “The Storm Poem,” painted on 4 wooden boards, is preserved in the church tower. These were made and set up (originally in the chancel) in 1786, by the then churchwardens, Peter and Silvester Mann.


The poem is a fairly accurate record of much that transpired and the following is an almost complete version of the 1638 original: 





7. Some stones were taken out complete, other pulverised to dust as if crushed in a giant mortar.


8. Fragments of stonework and timber were hurled around the nave poltergeist fashion (Klonos Effect).



The most commonly quoted account of what occurred inside the church is that written by the Rev. John Prince, vicar of Berry Pomeroy, Devon. It was written ostensibly as a dramatic episode in the life of George Lyde, vicar of Widecombe, but it is quite obvious from the dearth of information on the man himself, that Prince included Lyde as one of his Worthies of Devon (1701) as an excuse to describe the horrific effects of a preternatural “Ball of Fire”:





Mr Lyde, who had been the vicar of Widecombe since 1736, escaped physically unscathed from the preternatural horror that assailed his church, went on to survive the upheavals of the Civil War, and continued to serve his parish until his death, at an advanced age, in 1673.


According to Prince’s version of events (which I have abridged) there were four fatalities: a woman who succumbed to severe burns; a man who probably suffered a fractured skull; another man, whose head was literally torn to pieces, and a woman crushed by falling stone-work.





The Chidley Tract is Nexus Ref. CS1W/E004


The original document is held by the British Library and is referenced in their Catalogue of the pamphlets, books, newspapers, and manuscripts relating to the civil war, the commonwealth, and restoration, collected by George Thomason, 1640-1661, volume 2 (1908), as E. 896. (9.)




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