By Ellie Jones
In 1281 Richard de Brendesworth and William de Tyrtyngs carried out a visitation of 19 parishes in Devon, and nine in Cornwall, where the Dean and Chapter of Exeter were the lords of the manor. They prepared this 24 page survey which reports on rents and tithes, the condition of church buildings and their contents, whether church services were being properly carried out, and on disciplinary matters relating to the conduct and alleged immorality of certain parishioners and clergy.
For some places contained in the report the information provided is fascinating but brief, telling us little more than the values of rents and tithes in the parish. Sometimes, however, more interesting detail is recorded. Dawlish seemed to be faring quite well, and there were two mills to support two chaplains, as well as favourable reports of the bells, books and reliquaries. Elsewhere, sadly, things don’t look quite so good. At Harberton there was a lack of church plate, and the books are in poor repair. Teignmouth is marked by a comment about the general poverty of the tenants. At Ashburton the focus is on the conduct of the chaplain and deacon. Alongside a valuation of tithes, we can see that a chaplain was being accused of “keeping a woman in his house”, another a concubine, and the deacon was also keeping a woman. Likewise, at Colebrooke, there is a presentment of a woman who was not living with her husband, but was instead being supported by the vicar “who does not perform his duties”.
With information like this, it’s not hard to see why visitation returns are often considered amongst the most valuable sources for finding out about medieval churches and parishes.