St Mary Church in Mortehoe is very much the village focal point being a much photographed and loved part of the village. The original Norman Church was a very simple rectangle shape and over the years has undergone numerous additions, now having the status of a listed building.
The church itself was built in the 13th Century, and is considered to be a good example of a Norman Church with a barrel roof and Norman architecture. The pew ends in St Mary’s are quite stunning, as they are all carved depicting different symbols or scenes.
Some of them show traditional religious symbols of the Crucifixion, whilst others have initials and more simple carvings. An interesting article in the North Devon Journal in 1902 examines the use of animal carvings in churches, in particular those in St Mary’s, Mortehoe: “Then let us mention the carving of an animal, which has given rise to more contention, most probably than that of any other such subject in any church. We refer to the sculpture known as the ‘kangaroo in the church at Morte-Hoe. This country church has become noted for this quaint carving. It adorns the end of one of a series of pews. Fishes abound on some of those pew end carvings, but there is only one ‘kangaroo’. To us today the strange animal appears much more like and old drawing of the “leviathan” of Job or like a sea serpent than a kangaroo! But local tradition will persist in the belief that the sculptor, whoever he was, in his own time meant this for a picture of what animal; therefore it is always called ‘kangaroo’
De Tracy Tomb
The De Tracy tomb, which has caused many conversations and speculations as to who is buried there is located in St Mary’s Church. The legend is that it contains the body of William De Tracy, infamous with the murder of Thomas Becket. It is believed that despite the stories, that the tomb is in fact that of one of the former church rectors who died in 1320 and had the same name. The mystery continues, some believe that on returning to the area De Tracy did become a priest and is buried in the church with his wife and daughter, others report his restless soul haunting the beaches of Woolacombe.
The tomb has a thick slab on the top of the vault, surrounded by Saxon letters, and a full length body of ‘De Tracy’ engraved on the top showing the figure in robes and holding a chalice in his hands. Around the vault are sculptures, showing nuns, the crucification and a coat of arms.
Chancel Art and Stained Glass Windows
Selwyn Image was an important British artist, producing stained glass windows, furniture and illustrations amongst other things. He was responsible for one of the stained glass windows in the church as well as the stunning chancel arch, both giving a good example of the breadth of his design and use of colour. The Chancel arch was added in 1905 with the mosaic being unveiled on Easter day. Given by Dr. Longstaff of Twitchen, in memory of his wife, the striking mosaic shows ascending angels flanking representations of Lamb and Cross in the centre. The North Devon Journal, in April 1905: “A very beautiful addition to the objects of interest in the Church was dedicated on Easter Day.
A splendid mosaic has been erected over the chancel arch as a memorial to the late Mrs Longstaff who was such a good patroness of the Church and did much for its adornment. The mosaic which is much admired for its simplicity and dignified beauty, was designed by Mr. Selwyn Image and carried out by Messers. Powell of London. It represents the Lamb of God, with figures of angels offering crown and orb, and holding emblems of blessing and peace. The artwork showing Images plans for the arch can be seen at the William Morris Gallery, who he had a long connection with the arts and crafts movement and a particular friendship to the well known William Morris. Selwyn’s connection to Mortehoe was bought about by his friendship to the Longstaff family who lived at Twitchen House, where another of Selwyns stained glass windows can be seen.