Church History

The history of St Peter and St Mary Magdalene likely extends back to Saxon times, though little evidence survives of wood-build churches of the period. A church on the site would likely have been a long, low, and narrow building that, on falling into ruin either due to fire or warfare, would have been rebuilt using sturdier materials. 

The earliest written evidence of a church on the site is related in Dugdale's 'Monasticon', which notes: 'The tithes of Barnstaple were appointed to Malmsbury Abbey, to which Abbey, the Church had been given by King Athelstan'. If so, then this served to made Barnstaple a vicarage (later to be called a parish) in the early-tenth century, which it has been ever since.

The first Charter, which allowed any settlement to have a church, names it as "Eccesia Sancti Petre de Barnstapola", "The Church of St Peter of Barnstaple". The dedication to St Peter thus dates at least from the eleventh century.

In 1107, the Bishop of Exeter, William Warlewast, granted a Confirmatory Charter. In 1233, Bishop Briwere described it as 'the Mother Church of the Blessed Peter at Barnstaple'. He also allowed for a Chaplain to be at the church, with the provision of a house and financial support, a horse and servant being at his disposal.

The first recorded Vicar of St Peter's was called Walter, a Treasurer of Exeter, who occupied the post in 1257. By this time, the church was well established in Barnstaple, and there has been an uninterrupted line of priests serving it until the present day.

This present building was built and consecrated by Bishop Stapleton on 9 September 1318. Since that time the church has undergone many alterations and enlargements, leaving few traces of the original building.

 The late 18th and 19th centuries saw many changes in the structure and character of the Parish Church. In 1793, the spire was badly damaged by fire. Then there was a freak thunderstorm in 1810, when lightening struck the spire and completely melted the weathercock. This storm also caused severe damage to the roof and many of the windows were shattered. 

Restoration began in 1823, and was finally completed in 1825. Galleries were installed, raising seating capacity to 1800. The opportunity was also taken to undertake a major reordering of the church.

Disaster struck again in 1860, when Sir Gilbert Scott made a survey of the church and found that the earlier restorations had rendered the building structurally unsound. Walls were bulging, the roof was sagging, and the spire was near collapse. It was initially thought that the whole building should be pulled down, but Sir Gilbert Scott produced a plan to save the church using original 13th and 14th century designs. Work to remove the galleries, strengthen the structure, and save the spire was carried out between 1866-1882. The church was restored to some degree to its former glory.

 The Victorian work on the church ended in 1875 with further work on the Chancel and the re-location of the organ also to the chancel area. All monuments thought worthy of note were located in the south aisle and the Lady Chapel, including the Blake, Peards and Raleigh Clapham memorials.

The changes made in more recent times have not been so radical or so controversial. In the 1960's, a nave altar was introduced into parish worship. In 1980, the bells were recast and rehung. In the early 1990s, the organ was refurbished and relocated, albeit roughly in the same position. 

To mark the second millennium of Christ's birth, the church decided to add to the living history of this ancient Parish Church. In 1999, the High Altar from the redundant church of St. Mary Magdalene was refurbished and located in the south aisle near the bell tower. An altar frontal and linen were made, and a a carpet was donated. A solid oak altar rail designed and hand crafted by Patrick Tighe was also put in place.

A church millennium wall hanging was made which is now located in a wooden case by the bell tower.  The central picture was worked by Carol Elder, and each member of the church family embroidered their initials on a square of fabric. All pieced together, it measured 4 by 3 feet, and represented the church community at the time of the millennium. Below the wall hanging is a book containing a profile of everyone who took part in the project. 

In conjunction with this, a time capsule was created. A chest was filled to capacity with artefacts that depicted the life and times of the late 20th century. It contains all kinds of memorabilia - from potato peelers to war time photographs; clothes pegs to videos; childrens toys to prayer books. This chest is entombed somewhere in the church to be found at a later date! It shows that life goes on in this wonderful ancient parish Church.

The first reference to an organ in the Parish Church was in 1537. Records show payments to Thomas, an organ player, and Robert, an organ builder; there are also references to wages for an organ blower. During the same period there were also payments made for minstrels playing in church. This was not uncommon, and would have been for secular amusement and not for divine service. 

The next reference is for a new or restored organ in 1756. Then in 1764, a fine and powerful instrument was presented to the Church by Sir George Amyand, who was the Member of Parliament for Barnstaple. It was made by Thomas Crang, a local organ builder.  

 Sir John Amyand was a personal friend of the composer Handel. It is assumed that Amyand was aware of the work of John Crang, as he was responsible for the maintenance of the organ at the Foundling Hospital for which Handel's music was composed. The organ has a highly decorated case made of mahogany, with gilded pipes decorated with emblems. It was topped by full sized statues of seraphs with trumpets. At this time it was located at the west end of the nave on a low gallery. It must have been an imposing sight, entirely blocking the west window.



 In 1872, during one of the Victorian make-overs, the organ builders, Vowles of Bristol, moved it to the North Transept and Chancel. This tucked the organ behind arches and pillars, and much of the organ was encased in a space specially designed for it. During the move, much of the case was discarded and the musical quality of the organ was seriously impaired. As soon as the move was completed, it was deemed a complete disaster. 

In 1938 considerable maintenance work including electric blower was installed by Osmonds of Taunton. Between 1938 and 1991, it was noted on several occasions that the organ needed extensive and expensive work to be carried out. In 1969 estimates of £8000 were given for essential work, but nothing was carried out. By the 1970's, £4000 of emergency repairs were carried out to 'keep it in working order'. In 1991, the decision was made that, if the organ were to survive, it needed a complete and total refurbishment. As such a radical re-build was required, the decision was taken not only to rebuild, but to relocate. It was intended to bring the organ out of the cupboard! The work was undertaken jointly, by Lance Foy of Truro and Michael Farley of Budleigh Salterton, at a cost of £100,000.

The Appeal Committee, with the guidance and skill of Mrs Lilian Prowse MBE, launched the Appeal in September 1991. Within 14 months the total amount of £100,000 was raised, and work began after Easter 1992. Besides relocation, a new console was made by Classical Keyboard Designs of Bideford. As much of the original casing had been removed, Pilton Cabinet Works of Barnstaple reconstructed a 'wing' to give the casing a symmetry. The Victorian case was also fully restored and regilded. The organ was dedicated by the Bishop of Crediton on 18 November 1992. It has a fully electronic action, and many highly respected organists delight in giving recitals in Barnstaple.