The Parish of Holy Trinity and St Peter’s, Ilfracombe


The oldest building in Ilfracombe – Grade 1 Listed

There has been a stone-built Christian place of worship on the site of Holy Trinity for more than 1,000 years. While most of the present church was built in the 14th and 15th centuries, parts of it date back to Norman and Saxon times making it the oldest building in Ilfracombe. With its beautifully kept churchyard, Holy Trinity is a focal point of the town and is open everyday for people to visit, explore, sit quietly in, or attend any of the regular services.

The Tower

The tower is the oldest part of Holy Trinity. Originally a separate building that was not part of the church, studies suggest that the tower may date back to 900-1000 AD, the lower portion being the remains of an earlier Saxon building. The tower contains a clock and eight bells, the oldest of which date from 1743 (George II).

The font is a relic of the old Norman building, dating from about 1160 during the reign of Henry II. More than 850 years later it is still regularly used for Christenings.

The Oak Entrance Door

To enter the church you pass through a fine old oak Perpendicular door, complete with all its original fittings. Perpendicular was the prevailing style of Late Gothic architecture in England from the 14th to the 17th century.

The lock is very long, measuring two feet three inches, and the ‘sanctuary ring’ and plate are unusually large. A very curious privilege prevailed in old times – any person who might have broken the law could, by running to the nearest church and touching the sanctuary ring, escape punishment. In 1624, in the reign of James I, this privilege was done away with.

The Corbels

When visitors look up they  see the unique stone corbels in the nave – these are very fine in both design and workmanship and should make this church famous! The 28 corbels are grotesquely carved animals – 14 on each side of the nave – dating from the 14th Century. Their original purpose was to support the roof trusses on a decorated roof that preceded the present one. For more information see Mediaeval Corbels of Holy Trinity.

The Roof

The church has three oak ‘wagon’ roofs built in the 15th century. The roof above the nave and chancel has plastered panels that are divided by moulded ribs with bosses at the intersections. Alongside conventional floral and leaf designs are grotesque faces and double-headed eagles. The carvings were restored in 1899, by two local women, and north and south dormer windows with carved linings were installed to light the roof in this area.

When the 15th century roof was built, 28 carved wood angels were placed on the corbels, 14 on each side of the nave. These wingless figures with crowns, shields and scrolls, are carved from black oak and each is unique. Their symbolism remains something of a mystery, but it is thought that two of the angels represent St Michael – one on the north side carrying a shield to quench the fiery darts of the enemy, and one on the south side with a cross rising from his circlet and carrying a scroll (which would once have declared, ‘Now is come salvation and strength’).

Other notable features in the church include:

The Piscina. The chancel retains an elegant piscina, a stone basin into which water used during Mass would have been drained. It dates from the Perpendicular period (Late Gothic architecture), about 1450 (Henry VI).

The Organ. The earliest mention of any organ is in 1580. The current, three-manual instrument was erected in 1828 and has been much added to over the years.

The Pulpit. The pulpit is Elizabethan (16th Century), with two tiers of characteristic arched panels on short columns. It has flowers with stalks and leaves as the motif in each panel.

The Choir Stalls. The wooden choir stalls were installed in 1900 and have ornate carvings on the endpieces. Choral music remains an integral part of worship at Holy Trinity, with the choir singing at Sunday services and on other feast days and festivals throughout the year.

The Altar. The altar has been formed from a Jacobean (1603-1625) chest made during the reign of James l.

Stained Glass Windows. Beautiful stained-glass windows are evident throughout the church and date from 1860 onwards. When the sun shines through these glorious panes, the building is filled with colour.

Monuments. Many fine monuments in the church each tell the story of long-dead worshippers who wished to be remembered in this place. For example:

Captain Richard Bowen – a white marble inscription slab and splendidly carved guns and other weapons, with a mast and sail, commemorates the life of Captain Bowen who fell at Tenerife in 1797 when spiking the guns to make them useless to the enemy.

Marie Selwood – to the right-hand side of the entrance door hangs a carved stone tomb slab in the medieval style, dated 1634, in memory of Marie Selwood. Visitors must look closely to decipher the text which begins top left and works around in a clockwise direction.

The Lychgate

The 1894 lychgate has a delightfully inventive Arts and Crafts design. The roof has small graduated slates and a pierced lead parapet. There are frond-like iron bars set in a wooden frame.

The Churchyard

The churchyard contains 2,500 graves (including Commonwealth War Graves) and 5,000 people are remembered there. Since 2014 it has been kept in beautiful condition by a team of local volunteers.



Ilfracombe Parish Church by F. Nesbitt

North Devon Churches by Allen T Hussell

The Buildings of England – Devon by Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner

The Very Ancient Church of Ilfracombe – A Curious Mosaic by Z E A Wade