St Mary’s Church History

Atherington Church stands high above the River Taw, its recently repaired 80 foot tower a landmark above the surrounding countryside. Tradition has it that when the West Saxon King Athelstan occupied Devonshire in 936 AD, he built a palace at Umberleigh, established a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Trinity, and formed the two parishes of Atherington and High Bickington. from the manor lands, Atherington village being only three-quarters of a mile from the palace.

By the time of the Domesday Book, the manor was held by the nuns of Caen, a gift to them from William the Conqueror; but less than eighty years later the manor was in the possession of the de Soleignys, from whom it descended in the female line to the Champernownes. The Lady Joan Champernowne, (during the reign of Henry III, 1216-1272) rebuilt Athelstan’s Chapel at Umberleigh manor. She married a Gloucestershire knight, Sir Ralph Willington, and built the parish church at Atherington at the instigation of the monks of Tewkesbury Abbey, who had been presented with the Umberleigh Chapel by Henry I in 1107. A record shows that the Willington family presented V. Capellanus as incumbent of “Hadrintone” in 1272, and it is also mentioned in a Tax Roll 1288-91.

Umberleigh descended eventually to the Bassett family, and they were the patrons of the church when it was extended by the construction of the north aisle, believed to be in 1579. The Bassett family were descendants of Edward IV, through his son Arthur Plantagenet, who married Honora Basset.

In 1800 the chapel at Umberleigh manor was dismantled and various items including some monuments, were moved to the parish church over the next few years. Speculation exists over the origin of the magnificent north aisle screen supporting the only complete rood loft now left in Devon. With the Basset family becoming established at Watermouth Castle near Ilfracombe, the church at Atherington fell into a sorry state; the Ashworth manuscript speaks of the dreariness and neglect that pervaded the interior. In 1883 a major restoration took place, paid for by Mrs Bassett of Watermouth, the guiding principle of which was that everything old which could be saved should be saved. Plans for the restoration were by J.L. Pearson, the architect of Truro Cathedral, the contractor being William Dart of Crediton, and the Clerk of Works C. Otway of Barnstaple.

The patronage of the Church had been bought in 1800 by the Arthur family which provided the vicars of Atherington for many years, and various alterations were carried out to the chancel in memory of a Mrs Arthur as late as 1953. The heiress of the Bassets of Watermouth remained the Lady of the Manor until 1914, when the estate was broken up. Since 1957 Atherington has shared its priest with its neighbour, High Bickington. In 1965, the church was included in a list of buildings of special architectural or historic interest.

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