The stones have somewhat of the appearance of funeral monuments, but are entirely lacking in Christian emblems.
Such as they are, they point to some kind of Roman cultural influence in the district of Tavistock.
The abbey was founded in 961 by Ordgar, an English noble who was probably Ealdorman of Devon and Cornwall under King Eadgar the Peaceful.
He is best known as the father of Eadgar's second wife, /Elfthryth—“Elfrida” of evil memory, mother of the "redeless ” king /Ethelred II. and the murderess of her step-son, Edward II., the Martyr. The monastery was not dedicated until 981, by Ordgar’s son Ordwulf, and only sixteen years later it was sacked by the Danes. It was, however, reestablished, quite possibly by the Danish King Cnut, who is known to have taken pleasure in restoring foundations ruined by his piratical father and his associates. The abbot in Cnut’s reign was Lyfing, a notable figure in the history of the times. He accompanied Cnut on his famous “pilgrimage” to Rome in 1026, and six years later was appointed Bishop of Crediton.
Shortly afterwards the Cornish see of St. Germans was united to Crediton, so that Lyfing exercised ecclesiastical authority over the whole of die two western counties. He took a foremost share in the elevation to the throne of Edward the Confessor.
Another notable abbot was Ealdred, who afterwards became Archbishop of York and crowned William the Norman in Westminster Abbey. No special ill-fortune seems to have befallen Tavistock Abbey for five hundred years after its restoration.
ST. GERMANS .Augustinian
was the seat of a bishop in early times. The bishops of the Celtic churches were not like those of the English; their sphere influence was not defined in the same way. In Ireland a bishop often lived in a monastic settlement and was inferior in
in rank to the Abbot. In Cornwall the Bishop of St. Germans was probably the head of a monastery. Whether his jurisdiction extended over the whole of modern Cornwall, or whether there were not other bishops—at Bodmin, for instance—in the quite early days, is not clear. The first bishop who is named is one Conan, in AthelStan’s time (in 936), but he will not have been actually the first. The laSt was Burhwold.
In 1050 the old See of St. Germans was united with Exeter by Edward the Confessor, and Bishop Leofric, who had formerly had Crediton for his See, moved thither. He is said to have placed canons in St. Germans. But it was Bartholomew, Bishop of Exeter in Henry II’s time, who made it a Priory of AuguStinian Canons. So it continued till the Suppression, when its annual value was somewhat under £250.
The church has a certain cathedral flavour about it, in that it has two western towers; one is Norman, with an oCtagonal top of the thirteenth century. The other, the southern, has Norman base and Perpendicular upper Storey. Between them is a fine late Norman door. The nave has two Norman piers on the south side, and a Norman font is in the south tower.
The original north aisle was pulled down in 1803 and replaced by the pew of the Eliots—the house of Port Eliot is immediately beside the church.
The description in the Beauties of "England and Wales (Britton and Bray-ley; this volume was issued in 1801) is rather unwontedly minute and careful. I will quote a good part of it, and the visitor may be interested in comparing it with what he sees now.
After describing the western arch it says : “ Over the arch is a pediment with a cross at the top resembling an heraldic cross patee within a circle; on each side is a small pointed window, and above these are three small narrow round-headed windows. [Above these is the main western gable.]
“ The north aisle is divided from the nave by five short thick round columns, each connected with a half-pillar opposite to it in the north wall, by a low surbased arch. All the capitals of the columns are square, and curiously ornamented with Saxon (i.e. Norman) sculpture. The third from the weSt end is embellished with grotesque figures having bodies resembling dogs, opposed to each other, with their fore parts meeting at the angle of the capital in one head ; the upper part human, but the lower like a scollop-shell. Above these range six plain arches, some of them apparently of the same age and Style with those in the nave of St. Alban’s Abbey Church, Hertfordshire.
“ In several windows of the aisle are a few coats of arms on painted glass
The south aisle is, in fact, of two periods : the eastern part, of the fourteenth century, was built first as a separate chapel. The western is of the Perpendicular period.]
Here we discover the ornamented niches and the pointed arch windows. The six arches which divide it from the nave are pointed; the two western arches are quite plain and very sharp; the pillars that support them are round, massive and clumsy (Norman). The four eastern are higher and less pointed, having round capitals ornamented with mouldings ; the pillars sustaining them are more slender (Perpendicular). The windows in this aisle are large and handsome ; they are divided into compartments by stone mullions, but all are dissimilar in their tracery.
“ In the south wall near the middle of the aisle is a niche ornamented with sculpture, supposed to have belonged to some ancient monument of an abbot, but no particulars relative to it are now extant. [It is apparently for an image of a saint, and has been called the * Bishop’s Throne.’ The present carving is largely of 1850.] The table of the recess in the wall is covered with a Stone 7 feet 6 inches long which appears to have had some figure let into it, but the form of the outline cannot be distinguished. The length of the church within the walls is 104 feet 6 inches ; its breadth 67 feet 6 inches.”
The chancel fell in 1592.
“In that part now employed as the chancel is a rude ancient seat generally called the ‘ Bishop’s Chair ’ [probably this is correct, and the Statement above about the niche, from a more modern source, is a mistake]. Its height is about three feet. Beneath the seat is carved the figure of a hunter with game on his shoulder and accompanied by dogs. [This is probably of the fourteenth century, and may represent St. Hubert.] The chair is now placed on part of a tesselated (tile) pavement found about 50 yards [read feet] from the present east window. . . . Nearly ten feet eaSt of it was the foundation of a wall which from its thickness and materials seems to have been the original extent of the building.” The present eaSt window is a very fine Perpendicular one, moSt likely transferred from the original eaSt end.
The laSt restoration of the church was carried out in 1888-94.
The following note of Leland muSt refer to the destroyed choir : “ Besyde the hie altare on the ryght hand ys a tumbe with the image of a bishop, and over the tumbe a XI bishops painted with their names, and verses, as token of so many bishops buried ther, or that ther had bene so many bishops of Cornwall that had theyr seete ther.”
The priory buildings were on the north side, and what remains of them is incorporated in the house of Port Eliot, of which the dining-room is said to occupy the site of the frater. The frater seems to have been Standing in Browne Willis’s days, early in the eighteenth century, and also another hall with an oriel and dais was remembered and described to him, perhaps the Prior’s hall; it seems to have had the arms of the laSt Prior in the window. Some ancient paintings on panel (fir. 1500) are or were in the house “ known to have belonged to the Priory.” They represented the Life of Christ.