Early history, involving the Courtenay family

On Saxton’s map of Devon, published 1575, Sticklepath’s position is marked only by four green bushes and two brown moleheaps – representing the Dartmoor hills.  Neighbouring villages are marked by name and tiny red churches.  We know a small community was certainly established well before that, so in Tudor times it seems Sticklepath was officially ‘lost’ among wooded banks of the Tau Fluvius and the edge of Dartmoor. 

According to White’s directory of 1850 Lady Joan Courtenay founded a chantry chapel here on the banks of the Taw in 1146.  

However,  the Courtenay association with the Parish and village is only documented as starting about 1242 when Sir Roger Courtenay married Hawise, heiress to the great Barony of Okehampton.  In fact the Courtenay family only came over from France with Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen to Henry II, in 1152.

Delving deeper into the story it seems Lady Jane or Joan Courtenay is said to have founded and endowed the Chantry Chapel to recognise the help given by the people of Sticklepath to her husband who was wounded upon the road in a shooting affray.  It is possible then that tradition may have confused two ladies.  In 1147 the Patent Rolls record that Robert Fitzroy, illegitimate son of Henry I and his wife Matilda d’Avranches, conveyed lands to Bricius the chaplain of my Lady the Empress for building the church of St Mary in Sticklepath in Robert’s Manor of Sampford.  ‘My Lady the Empress’ was another Matilda, known as Queen Maud who contended unsuccessfully with her cousin Stephen of Blois for the crown of England.  When Queen Maud  had to flee the country, her chaplain needed a remote safe place to lay low – certainly a change from the turbulence and intrigue of court life.  It is likely all concerned would have glossed over the details and would have been glad of a different version!

The first record  of the Courtenay patrons is in 1282 when the ‘Episcopal Records of the See of Exeter’, Sir Hugh Courtenay, presented Robert de Esse of Okehampton as priest to the “Perpetua Cantaria Beate Marie de Stikelpethe”.  The Courtenays continued to appoint chaplains to say prayers for the souls of their family for a great many years, about 20 chaplains, who would presumably have lived in Sticklepath.  

His son, another Sir Hugh provided ‘a messuage and one caracate of land’, as an endowment for two chaplains to celebrate service daily, suggesting it had become an important religious centre for the community. Though of course a chaplain was an important person in the community with influence over his flock, who supported the powerful and wealthy person who appointed him…

(Wikipedia defines a carucate as the amount of land tillable by a team of eight oxen in a ploughing season. This was equal to 8 oxgangs or 4 virgates.)

The Chantry lands have been the subject of some debate, expounded in the 1955 WI book of Sticklepath.  It may be that maps available in 2020 can assist in clarifying.  If so this could be an interesting part of the project. Information in this section has been gathered from a range of secondary sources which appear well researched but clearly viewing the original sources would be preferable.

In 1372 the Chantry was taken under the wing of Gilbert, Rector of Throwleigh, rather than having its own incumbant, for a while, but most of the Courtenay appointees are likely to have been resident.  The fortunes of the Courtenay family varied. As staunch Lancastrians during the War of the Roses, after their defeat at the battle of Towton in 1461, the Courtenay lands were forfeit.  When the cause finally triumphed again Edward Courtenay was knighted by Henry VII on Bosworth Field and his estates, including the advowson of Sticklepath and Barony of Okehampton were restored. 

In 1536 Sticklepath again lost its incumbent priest when we see that William Discourt or Dyscombe of Belstone added the £8 4s 7d for ministering to the  ‘Cantaria of Stikylpath’ to his stipend for Belstone of £9 0s 2½d.  However his tenure was stormy.  Henry, the last Courtenay patron, was executed by Henry VIII in 1539.    The monarch then granted the advowson to his new Queen Catherine Howard.  However, as we know, that fiery and fickle monarch, having executed her, passed the crown of England along with the Advowson of Sticklepath to Queen Katherine Parr.  

Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries had begun in 1536.  By 1549 the ban of the dissolution reached Sticklepath Chantry. This was only temporary however as the Chantry Rolls of Edward VI  mention finding a priest to ‘mynystre in the Chauntrye distant from ye parish church of Sampford Courtenay a mile or more” ( a considerable underestimate).The value of the Chantry’s “landes and possessions” being £11 10s 8d.

In 1620 Risdon, a historian, writes  “Sticklepath in which some time there was a Chantry”.  What had happened?  It seems likely that it had been hidden by farm buildings, perhaps fallen into disrepair. This perhaps explains Saxton’s omission from his map also if the Chantry was not visible as he rode through the village. However, services were again being held when Oliver Cromwell ordered his survey in 1649.  Under Sampford Courtenay it adds:

“It hath a Chappell called Sticklepath and those within the lymetts thereof wee conceive fitte to be united to the parish of Belstone as before.” 

The picturesque thatched chantry continued to  function.  Inside there was only a stone slab or settle that ran around the walls.  On this more sensitive persons may have placed their own cushion, as well as bringing ‘hassocks’ to kneel upon for prayer being bundles of bracken or rushes.  Sampford Courtenay Churchwardens note the expense of ‘nitches of reed’ for repairing the thatch in the mid-1800s and other repairs, despite evidence of little active worship.  Lysons writing in 1822 remarks that services were only held twice a year when the Rector of Sampford offered the Sacrament, on the Sundays after Michaelmas and Easter.  The Pearses also noted that only a single service was taking place, when the Vicar collected his tithes.  He read prayers prior to dining with the farmers at the Inn and receiving tithes.  

The exact date of the fire which destroyed the Chantry chapel is not clear, sometime in the mid-19th century.

(This all needs to be checked -Sampford Courtenay Parish records 1653 – 1910, 1004 files including registers, churchwardens and vestry, overseers surveyors and constables records, held by Devon Archives and Local Studies Service,South West Heritage Trust)

White’s Directory 1850 tells us that the early ‘Chapel of Ease’ burnt down and was rebuilt in 1875, at a cost of £700.  The Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould did not appreciate the change.  In his Book of Dartmoor he writes:

“At Sticklepath was a curious old cob thatched chapel, but this was un-necessarily destroyed, and a modern erection of no interest or beauty has takeouts place”

Elsewhere (?where) he wrote “Here was a very early and unique cob chapel, thatched, but it has been pulled down and an insipid and unattractive modern structure substituted”.

The memories of some of the oldest Sticklepath inhabitants in 1955, recalled their parents talking of the Church fire, but did not have any reason to suspect there was any malicious intent. 

The money for building the new church was raised partly by subscriptions and partly through the generosity of resident John Cook, farmer, butcher and licensee of the  Cornish Inn whose philanthropy was greater it seems than his aesthetic sense.  Though time has perhaps mellowed our criticism of its looks.  One positive was that the change included the demolition of the pig styes and ugly sheds which had hemmed in the Chantry, and a pleasant garden instituted which included at one time one of the 1953 WI Coronation trees.

Possible relics of the original church include remnant of a blue robed figure believed to be Mary which was placed in a wall recess on the left of the alter. In addition when ‘Staplers’ was renovated and the boards of a partition removed, one the back of one was a painting identified as St Jeremy, dating from the fifteenth century.  It could have been hidden at the time of the dissolution or perhaps bought from the fire remains. 

The recommendation of Oliver Cromwell almost 3 centuries earlier was finally put in place in 1929 – Belstone’s rectors once again became responsible and from 1949 two services as well as a Sunday School Class were being held.

The WI 1955 booklet “The Story of Sticklepath” wryly notes that when Sampford Courtenay was only able to provide one service on a Sunday many Sticklepath folk went to South Tawton – the only neighbouring Parish with which it had never had official ties.  That changed in 1982 when the livings of Belstone and South Tawton were merged.