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Thorncombe’s Thorn

The Cornish writer, poet and historian Richard Polwhele, in his History of Devon, says with reference to Thorncombe which, until 1843, was a part of Devon: “Some attribute its name to one remarkable thorn near the combe, at a place in the parish known as Thorncombe’s Thorn.” Here, some 600 feet above sea level and a few hundred yards from the village is a cross roads with a house which to this day is known as Turnpike Cottage, although it is now greatly extended.

This was an ideal spot to have a Toll Gate and we found a reference to it in the surviving parish records: “March 1785. Paid Mr Phelps cart to carry the people to Exon – 4s.0d., Paid Turnpike forwards and backward at Thorncombe’s Thorn 8d.”

As the government struggles to find innovative ways to raise money for new roads and for the maintenance of the existing ones, high on their agenda is charging for road use, i.e. Toll roads. There is nothing new about this – it was first tried in the 17th century.

In 1663 the government of the day passed the Turnpike Act. The act allowed magistrates to charge for using the roads and the money raised was spent on the upkeep of the roads, an idea initially trialled in three counties. It proved to be so successful that the scheme was soon adopted all over the country. In 1706 the first of many private company schemes was set up. These businesses, known as Turnpike Trusts, allowed the public the opportunity to invest. The income from charging people to use the roads, the toll, was divided between the costs of maintaining the road and profits for the investors.

Toll gates were set up and pedestrians, carts and carriages would have to stop and pay the toll before being allowed to proceed. But not everyone liked the idea and people would leap over the gates to avoid paying; it was not long before spikes were put on top of the gates to dissuade people from trying to avoid the toll. It is from this that the term turnpike comes and anyone accused of damaging a turnpike would have faced execution.

Thorncombe derives its name from the Saxon words Torn and Cumb, meaning a bottom or low ground subject to thorns. We have placed a photograph of Turnpike Cottage in the gallery; it was taken in the mid 20th century.

Thorncombe – Turnpike Cottage

Turnpike Cottage is located at a crossroads a few hundred yards from the village. We believe this photo was taken around 1950.

Turnpike Cottage is located at a crossroads a few hundred yards from the village. We believe this photo was taken around 1950.


This photograph of St. Mary's Church at Thorncombe we believe dates from the mid 1950's

This photograph of St. Mary's Church at Thorncombe we believe dates from the mid 1950's

Thorncombe: The Consecration of St. Mary’s Church in 1867

Tuesday, October 15th 1867 was to be an important day for the parishioners of Thorncombe. Walter Hamilton, The Bishop of Salisbury, was coming to consecrate their new church but the day also brought torrential rain, which was to hinder proceedings. The weather being so bad the attendance of clergy and gentry was far less than would otherwise have been the case; though, that said, there was a sizeable gathering to greet The Bishop, who had to wait in his carriage for half-an-hour because the Chancellor never arrived. It was decided that Archdeacon Sanctuary should deputise.

Eventually, proceedings got underway and Psalm 24 was sung in procession and the Consecration service began. Then it was the turn of the churchyard to be consecrated and this required the Bishop and clergy to perambulate the ground; in the circumstances not a very pleasant undertaking.

Ankle deep in mud, the planks provided, having sunk into the mire, the party set off managing to keep themselves upright despite the muddy clay and slush. The laity was not quite so adept and one lady fell, face down into the muddy ground, while another left her galoshes in the mud and those who had been able to keep their balance emerged will full boots. Their reward for their perseverance was a fine lunch laid out in a tent that had been erected in the churchyard.

The new church was built at a cost of £4,000 using much of the rubble from the former church, which had been demolished eighteen months earlier. The foundation stone for the new church had been laid on April 26th 1866 by Margaret Bragge, the widow of Colonel Bragge of Sadborow House.

 (For more about the old church and the parish see our article ‘Thorncombe’ in that category.)

Prideaux Family at Forde Abbey

Saviour of Forde Abbey

In the century following the dissolution of the monasteries Forde Abbey was the property of distant owners. For decades the building was neglected and allowed to deteriorate; the Abbey Church was lost and four centuries of improvements by the monks disappeared along with much of the stone and fabric, which was looted.

In 1649 Sir Henry Rosewell sold the Abbey and estate to Edmund Prideaux, Member of Parliament for Lyme Regis, a seat he held until his death. Prideaux took his degree as Master of Arts at Cambridge University. His chief field of study was the law, something he was later to become very eminent in. He was a member of the Long Parliament and was Solicitor-General in 1648. A member of the prevailing party of the day, he did not join his colleagues in attacking the life of the Sovereign and he avoided taking any part in the King’s trial.

In 1649 he was appointed Attorney-General to the Lord Protector and remained in that office until his death. He was a commissioner of the Great Seal and practised within the Bar as King’s Counsel. Prideaux was a very wealthy individual, as besides his lucrative legal practice from 1644 to 1653 he gained great profit from his involvement with the postal service. Oliver Cromwell made Prideaux a Baronet on the 13th of August 1658; the Lord Protector died three weeks later, on the 3rd of September 1658.

Perhaps because it was the property of Mr Attorney-General Prideaux, Forde Abbey was saved from the vandalism suffered by many country mansions during the Civil Wars. Having bought Forde Abbey he spent enormous sums of money improving it. He employed the services of Inigo Jones, who was at that time attempting to introduce the Grecian style of architecture into this country. He did not live to see his designs for Forde Abbey completed, for he died in 1654, whilst work on the house was not finished until 1658.
Edmund Prideaux was born in September 1601 at Netherton, Devon. He was the second surviving son of Sir Edmund Prideaux (1555-1629), being descended from an old family originally from Prideaux Castle in Cornwall. Edmund Prideaux’s first wife was Jane Collins and shortly after her death in 1629 he married Margaret Ivery of Cothay in Somerset. He died on the 8th of August 1659 and was succeeded by his only son, also Edmund, who had married Amy Fraunceis of Combe Florey in Somerset in 1655 (Cromwell’s titles were not accepted after the restoration.)
                                           The Price of a Life: Innocent or Guilty

Edmund Prideaux was a well-educated man; for some time his teacher was Bishop Tillotson, later Archbishop of Canterbury. Edmund’s contemporaries referred to him as “the walking encyclopaedia.”

In view of the high profile his father had during Cromwell’s rule, we should not be surprised there was no place for him in government after the restoration. He appears to have lived quietly at Ford Abbey.
Towards the end of 1680 the Duke of Monmouth visited Forde Abbey during a tour of the West Country, where he was treated by Edmund Prideaux to a very splendid supper and given a bed for the night. This hospitality was to return to haunt Edmund, cost him great expense and nearly his life.

In 1681 Edmund Prideaux was elected one of the Members of Parliament for Taunton. We learn from a note in his own handwriting that on the 16th of July 1683 his home was searched for arms. Two muskets, one brass blunderbuss and four cases of pistols were removed.
The year of 1685 was memorable, particularly in the West Country after Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis. Edmund Prideaux, it is said, remained at Forde Abbey. News reached London that during this time Prideaux received a visit at night from a group of eight men led by Thomas Dare of Taunton; they were given horses and arms. Furthermore it was reported that one of the party, Malachi Mallock, drank the health of Monmouth.

Mallock was later arrested and appeared before Judge Jeffreys at Dorchester on September 10th and was condemned to death and should have been hanged at Bridport on September 12th. Mallock bargained for his life by offering to give evidence that would implicate Edmund Prideaux in the Rebellion.

We know from a private pocket-book kept  by Edmund Prideaux that on the 19th of June 1685 he was taken prisoner by a messenger, Mr Sayell; the entertainment of Monmouth in 1680 had caught up with him. He was released by Habeas Corpus on the 12th of July, only to be arrested again on September 14th following Mallock’s evidence against him, and transferred to the Tower.

Judge Jeffreys was of the opinion that some Royalists had been ruined by the Rebellion and should be compensated from sums raised by the sale of prisoners, something Jeffrey’s did not engage in himself, with one exception: Edmund Prideaux.

Prideaux was in custody and instead of being brought to trial he was given to Jeffreys to agree his own terms with the prisoner, who had not been charged with any offence. Jeffreys insisted on a huge bribe to obtain a pardon, which was granted on the 20th of March 1686. Jeffreys used the £15,000 he got from Prideaux as part of the price he paid for his Leicester estates.

After the accession of William III, Edmund Prideaux presented a petition to Parliament for leave to bring a Bill to charge the estates of Lord Chancellor Jefferys with the restitution of the £15,000 he paid for his pardon. Following fierce opposition from Lord Chief Justice Pollexfen, trustee for the children and creditors of Jeffreys, the Bill was not carried.

His fortune greatly diminished, Edmund Prideaux lived out his days peacefully at Forde Abbey. His only son, Fraunceis Prideaux, died at Oxford aged 19. He had three daughters: Amy, who died at a young age; Elizabeth, who was married to John Speke of Somerset, and Margaret, who was married in 1690 to her cousin, Francis Gwyn of Glamorgan in Wales.

Edmund Prideaux died intestate on October 16th 1702 and, his wife having renounced, letters of administration were granted to Margaret Gwyn, his sole surviving daughter and heiress.

Forde Abbey

Image of Forde Abbey in the parish of Thorncombe taken from a mid 19th century publication

Image of Forde Abbey in the parish of Thorncombe taken from a mid 19th century publication

Forde Abbey

Forde Abbey, photographed by Mike Searle. For further information about the photographer click on the image

Forde Abbey, photographed by Mike Searle. For further information about the photographer click on the image

Forde Abbey

Forde Abbey. Photo by Chris Downer, for more about the photographer click on the image.

Forde Abbey. Photo by Chris Downer, for more about the photographer click on the image.

Forde Abbey

One miserable morning nine centuries ago a group of despondent monks were trudging forlornly through the village of Thorncombe on their way home to Waverley Abbey in Surrey, a place they had left almost a decade earlier. They had spent the intervening years at Brightley in Devon where in 1136 they established a Cistercian Monastery.

Following the death of their patron Richard de Brioniis and finding the land at Brightley was too barren, the monks abandoned the project and decided to return to their home Abbey. As they passed through Thorncombe they met Adelicia de Brioniis who listened to their tale of woe and told them she was the sister of their patron. Adelicia honoured the wish of her late brother and offered the monks the use of the Manor of Thorncombe and a site by the River Axe at Harescath (Cleveland says: Heresbath), later known as Forde. In that same year the Abbey was re-founded and within seven years the Monastery of Forde Abbey was built.  Boswell says: “it is generally understood that a part of her design was, to make it a place of refuge for those whom the war between the Empress Matilda and King Stephen might have ruined.” The monastery flourished and for four centuries it was well known as a seat of learning.

Abbot Baldwin, the third abbot, had been Bishop of Worcester and from 1184 until his death on the 19th of November 1190 he was Archbishop of Canterbury; he had only been in his role as Abbot of Forde Abbey for a year before his death. King Richard the Lionheart sent Baldwin ahead to the Holy Land; he was present at the fighting with Saladin at Acre, where he fell victim to pestilence and died.

John Devonius was the fourth abbot from 1191 to 1214. He was said to be one of the most learned men of his day and he was confessor to King John. He wrote Sermons on the Final Verses of the Song of Songs a work that has been passed down through the centuries and is still in print today – even being available from Amazon!  Abbot John had previously been Prior at Forde before going to Bindon Abbey at Wool. He died on the 21st of April 1214. Forde Abbey became a wealthy foundation and by the 14th century owned some 30,000 acres of land.

The last abbot, Abbot Chard, was appointed in 1521. He set about restructuring the fabric of the building and spent all the available monastic money repairing and restoring the existing Cistercian building and completing some extensions. The dissolution of the larger monasteries came in 1539, Abbot Chard, after delaying the surrender of the monastery at the end, opted to quietly hand Forde Abbey to Henry Vlll. Chard then became vicar of Thorncombe, a position he held until his death in 1543.

The Abbey and its lands were leased by the Crown to Richard Pollard. During the next century there followed a succession of distant landlords. It was in this period that the Abbey Church, all 190 feet of it, was lost; stone was stolen and the abbey vandalised.

 Then, in 1649 salvation for Forde Abbey came when it was purchased by Edmund Prideaux, who transformed the building into a private home. Prideaux was Member of Parliament for Lyme Regis and a supporter of the parliamentary cause; he became Oliver Cromwell’s Attorney General.

In 1659 Edmund Prideaux died and was succeeded by his son, also Edmund. One night in 1680 Edmund played host to the Duke of Monmouth, an innocent entertainment that was later to cost him his freedom and nearly his life. Five years later after the Battle of Sedgemoor, when James ll defeated Monmouth’s Protestant rebels, Edmund Prideaux found himself suspected of having supported Monmouth. He was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London and the notorious Judge Jefferies demanded £15,000 to avoid an appointment with the hangman and secure his pardon. He returned to Forde Abbey where he lived quietly until his death in 1702.

At Edmund’s death the estate passed to his daughter Margaret and her husband Francis Gwyn, who was to become Secretary of War to Queen Anne. They and their descendants lived at Forde Abbey throughout the 18th century and created the gardens. John Fraunceis, the last of the Gwyns, was unable to afford the upkeep of the house and gardens and rented the Abbey to Jeremy Bentham.

Bentham was a radical philosopher and is known to have entertained some of the greatest minds of the day here including; John Stuart Mill; David Ricardo, the economist, and Sir Samuel Romilly, the legal reformer.

John Fraunceis Gwyn died in 1846. The Abbey’s contents were sold and the house and estate was purchased by a Bristol businessman, John Miles, who reportedly lived in five rooms, letting the rest of the building deteriorate.

In 1863 Forde Abbey was saved again and saw a great revival of its fortunes when it was purchased by Mrs Bertram Evans. She passed away in 1894 when Forde Abbey passed to her son William Herbert Evans and he left it to his cousin Elizabeth, who with her husband Freeman Roper moved into the Abbey in 1905.

We would not usually trespass much nearer to the here and now but mention should be made of the fact that when Elizabeth Roper died in 1943 the responsibility for caring for the house and estate passed to her second son, Geoffrey and his wife Diana. Geoffrey Roper lived at the Abbey for close on eighty years; he added the arboretum and planted many of the woods. Nowadays, Forde Abbey is clearly a treasured and well managed property. More recent developments have included the establishment of an acclaimed herd of Devon cattle.

The public can visit the estate, as architecturally there is much to see. The most interesting parts of the Abbey are Abbot Chard’s tower and the Great Hall with its original carved panelled ceiling, which was his refectory. The monks’ dormitory and the grand staircase and its ceiling are the work of Inigo Jones. The Chapel was originally the monastic Chapter House; the 16th century Perpendicular east window of Abbot Thomas Chard and the pulpit and panelling added by Inigo Jones are a delight, as is the famous Mortlake tapestries from Raphael’s original cartoons for the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Thorncombe – St. Mary’s Church

St. Mary's Church at Thorncombe

St. Mary's Church at Thorncombe. Photo by Chris Downer. Please click on the image for more about the photographer.