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St Mary's Church - High Bickington

Saxons of the 7th century were mostly Christian and it may be reasonable to assume the church was founded around this time, however there is no firm evidence of this. The first historical evidence is reference to a grant made by King Athelstan (925-940). While living at Umberleigh in about 930, Athelstan gave land to support a priest and build a church for High Bickington and Atherington. This original church was probably made of cob and stone and long since disappeared without trace beneath the present building. Atherington aquired its own parish church in due course.

At around 1100, the Normans having conquered the Saxon lands, erected a stone building on the present site. Parts of this can still be recognised, for example the font and some of the stonework on the South side of the Chancel. This church was also thatched and had chancel, nave and a tower.

The church was substantially altered and enlarged during the 15th century with the addition of the north aisle and the present South tower. The old Norman tower was truncated to eaves height and now forms the vestry. Remains of the old tower steps can be seen in the vestry wall. The rector of the time, Sir John Comptone is buried in the chancel, lying virtually in the centre of the building at that time.

The slated roof is first mentioned in an 18th century churchwarden's account.

The church has many old finely carved oak pew ends that are mentioned in the 'Domeday' book (1086) entry for the village which reads:

High Bickington Bichentone/tona: kings land. 12 cattle.
Church with fine old bench ends; Norman arch and font. This last sentence was a later addition, it is as yet unclear when the pews were first installed.

The pew ends were resited early in the 19th century and many sets were mixed up.

Also in the early 19th century the minstrels' gallery was removed and some of the carved parts were re-used elsewhere such as in the reredos and some of the repaired pew ends. The north door was blocked off, its Norman arch is still visible from outside.
The interior walls and ceilings were plastered which appears to have covered an earlier wall painting on the south wall of the chancel. The late Miss Timms of the village, born in the late 19th century told of a religious painting on the wall that she remembered as a small choirgirl. The Victorians also built the high glass screen in front of the ringing chamber and moved the organ from the vestry to its present position.

A pulpit, set up in 1839 where the priest's stall now stands, was removed in 1942 and a workmans letter was found beneath which is now displayed at the back of the church.

By 1700 the parson received income from 126 acres of glebe land including arable, orchard, rough-grazing and coppice land. He also had half the tithe of One-Hills at Atherington and all of Barton Langley. The old rectory, now a mere heap of rubble, had two parlours with wood floors and wainscotting, ten other ground rooms and twelve chambers. It was built of cob with part thatch and part stone roof. Its farmyard had three courts, a shippon (sheep-fold), four linneys (lean to sheds) and a stable. The parson was evidently a considerable farmer.

At that time everyone over 16 was expected to give two pence to the church regularly. The church clerk was paid two pounds annually and the sexton four shillings. Fees for marriage, post-natal churching and burial were according to means and inclination. Records show that the burial of a person worth firty pounds cost ten shillings, roughly equivelent to 1,250 per 10,000 today.

As late as 1714, the village retained customs that may seem bizarre to us today. For example, when a tennant cottager died, the lord of the manor claimed the tenant's best beast for 'herriot'. Any widow who held tenancy had to remain chaste and 'sole' for life, or forfeit her tenancy. She could regain it by attending the Court Baron; bestriding a ram, back to front, and holding its tail while reciting her offence and praying to be readmitted to her land.