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Church’s hidden rood loft revealed under damaged plaster

14 January 2022

APEX

AN EXAMINATION of cracked plaster high on a church wall led to the discovery of a spiral staircase that once led to a medieval rood loft.

The investigation at the 15th-century St Peter’s, Knowstone, in Devon, also revealed painted decorations and biblical inscriptions from the 17th and 18th centuries.

In many churches, the rood loft — the gallery above the rood screen, where the rood (crucifix) and figures of St Mary and St John stood, and which was often used by musicians as well as for ceremonial purposes — was removed at the Reformation.

The churchwarden, Reg Howe, called in a builder after spotting the cracks in the Grade II* building. “I was worried about plaster falling on the congregation,” he explained on Tuesday. “When he removed the plaster, he found wooden panels. Then he found more cracks at the bottom of the wall, and more panels. Behind them, he found openings to a flight of steps.

“In the end, he exposed an area about ten foot to 12 foot wide, and the full height of the wall, which revealed the texts and decorations. The entrance is tiny, but I suppose in the 1400s people were very much smaller than today. It was quite a surprise to find it. We think there might be more decorations elsewhere, but it would be too expensive to uncover it.”

He made his discovery in 2017, but it took until last October for the restoration to be completed, partly because of Covid, but also because the stonework needed stabilising. It cost about £15,000, much of which was raised by donations from parishioners and also with grants from Devon Historic Churches and Church Care.

The work won the church’s architect, Alison Bunning, the 2021 National Churches Trust King of Prussia Gold Medal for conservation and repair. She said: “This is very unusual. Devon has more rood screens than most other counties, and wall paintings are always an exciting find; but the importance was really in the relationship between the remains of the rood screen and the series of overlapping wall paintings, and how this sets in context the development of rood screens and lofts and their subsequent removal due to Elizabeth I’s edict about the removal of rood lofts.”

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Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
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