The name Withiel has links with a fourth-century Irish saint, St Uvel, and is derived from a word meaning “a place of trees”. At the time of the Domesday Book, and probably long before that, the church and manor of Withiel belonged to the monastery of Bodmin, from which they were alienated in 1538.
Withiel church wasn’t on its present site at the time of the Domesday Book, but was probably built there soon after. At first, it seems to have been just a nave and chancel, and in the 15th and 16th centuries was rebuilt in granite. A fine south aisle and tower were added, then a curious little north aisle chapel.
The dedication to St Clement, third Pope of Rome, was perhaps introduced by vicar Thomas Welwyn, who came from the living of St Clement Danes (now the RAF church on the Strand, London) in 1392.
To the right of the door as you enter the church is a list of rectors dating from 1297. The most notable of these is prior Thomas Vyvyan, who became rector of the then-derelict church in 1523 and began to rebuild it. The main building remains much as he left it. The octagonal font of quartz-porphyry is circa 1520. On its pillar are carvings of an anchor that depicts St Clement, martyred on an anchor in the Black Sea. The base has four holes which, it has been suggested, may have taken supporting posts for a larger, probably Norman font. The panelling in the baptistery has texts painted on it that refer to baptism, dating from about 1660.
At the back of the church there is an arch above the glass door that stands on fine 11th-century capitals. Inside, on the right, a small door leads to the staircase and tower roof. While climbing the tower staircase it is possible to see the six bells that hang there. The earliest record is of five bells hung on a wood frame in 1741, but at some stage two fell and were broken. There is an unverified story that one of these fell as it was being tolled by the rector’s wife, thereby killing her.
The broken bells were recast in 1924 and re-hung with the other three, plus one additional bell, costing a total of £400. The bells rang out until 1976, when £6,000 was raised to re-hang them. They were dedicated by the Bishop of Truro in 1979. Made of tin and copper, the founders of the treble, 2nd, 3rd and 5th are Mears & Stainbank of London (1923-26), and the 4th and tenor, William Pennington of Stoke Climsland (1741-46).
Walking down the aisle, the North door appears unfinished. It is possible that this has not been used since the dedication when, as part of the ceremony, the sacred site was set apart and sanctified by evil being driven out of the North side by tile prayers of the Bishop and the faithful. This may be the situation here. An outside arch dates it at about 1350. The wall is of the same period and was not destroyed by Prior Vyvyan, but raised slightly.
The windows here are of the “Keystone style” circa 1660. The plaster has been removed from this wall and it is alleged that money ran out before completion of the church. Through the glass doors near the pulpit the North Aisle is now our vestry but its original use is obscure. At the Eastern end is another tiny room, which may have once been a vestry. Both rooms have fireplaces, which indicate that they may have been schoolrooms.
Another idea is that it was the Chapel of the Brevills of Bryn Barton, ancestors of the famous Royalist Sir Bevill Grenvill, who was killed in battle at Lansdown, Somerset with a letter from King Charles I in his pocket on 5th July 1643. This seems probable because as late as 1551 the Reformer Bishop Coverdale gave licence to the Lady of Bryn to have Mass said in her chapel.
This aisle now has Tudor Windows and a slate floor. The stones were probably brought in from the churchyard and date within 20 years of each other. There seems to be no special reason why these particular slates are here.
Note the plastered-up entrance to the pulpit. This was carried out in the 1970’s and a new entrance made from the Chancel This would have been an entrance to the rood screen that has long since disappeared, tile only remaining evidence of its existence being a hole above a pillar on the other side of the Chancel
Throughout the ages the descendants of Thomas Vyvyan played an important part in the Withiel Community. There have been many rectors from the family, especially since the early 19th century. Near the Altar are three plaques in remembrance of Vyvyans who were Rectors. One Rector Vyvyan was responsible for closing the village pub, “The Old Pig and Whistle” The last Rector connected with the family (by marriage) was the Reverend F W. Fuller, who died in 1953. We are told that he is buried in the opposite direction to everyone else, so that on the day of Resurrection he will rise to face his congregation. The death of his daughter in June 1981 severed the last remaining connection with the Vyvyans of Trelowarren, which is where the family originated.
The Altar reredos is from 1820 and consists of gold painted wood and marble with four beautiful statues of Saints. This is below a mullion window of 1525, which has been crammed into a Norman arch. The church silver is not on display, but kept in a local bank and consists of a plate, paten, chalice and flagon by B Stephens l835-6.
As you leave the Chancel note the ornately carved lectern. Going behind the organ it is possible to see the only stained glass in the Church. This shows the coat of arms of Prior Vyvyan. On each side of tile window are two slate stones with the Ten Commandments inscribed on them. These, at one time, were an altar reredos dated 1660.
The organ also once had another position. A member of the Church has a photograph of the pipes coming from the vestry into the Chancel. This south Aisle was probably in good condition at the time of Prior Vyvyan as it was built circa 1450. The present wooden pews were installed in 1820. From the centre arches it is possible to see hooks that once held oil lamps, and are now used to hold candles at Christmas.
On leaving the church look above the inner doorway to the leaf ornamented tympanum, which, along with the Holy Water stoop on the left, came from an older church. Outside above the porch is a sundial
Re-pointing work has been carried out in the eighties and the windows have all been renovated. The glazing is remarkable because of the almost complete survival throughout of the early 18th century glass in rectangular panes. The exception being the large east window that is a late Victorian or Edwardian replacement.
The restoration of period crown glass involves saving the fragments of broken panes and setting these together with fine leads. Thus the glazing at Withiel is a remarkable and beautiful survival and rare, indeed, having escaped all the ravages of storm and changes of architectural fashion. Either side of the path conifers commemorate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. From outside it is possible to admire the tower that soars above. The pinnacles have rows of crenellations, unusual for this area, but probably credited to the travelling of Prior Vyvyan.
Walking around the Churchyard, the earliest dated stone is 1750.
Behind the tower a memorial cross records the tragic Ruthern Sunday School outing when three young men drowned on 21st July 1887 at Watergate Bay, Newquay
Going on behind the church, on the left of the path is a vault of the Vyvyan family. Between the wars, the wall on the roadside fell out revealing the end of a coffin. This was quickly replaced. By the gate are two graves facing south. These are of a father and daughter about whom there was some scandal and they were apparently buried thus as a punishment.
Across the road is the present Churchyard, in use since 1900 and from where a glorious view can be seen across the country to Rough Tor and Brown Willy on Bodmin Moor. At the end of the Churchyard the War Memorial faces towards the village. It was dedicated on 29th September 1920 at 3.00 p.m.