The history of Plympton probably goes back to Celtic times, and the Romans may have had a camp on the site of a British fort. However that may be, Devon was certainly occupied by the Anglo-Saxons, and Plympton is mentioned in a charter of 904 A.D. in the reign of Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great. At the Conquest, the Normans built a castle on the old earthworks; this was destroyed during the wars of the barons in the reign of Stephen. The ruins of the “keep” still remain, and the central enclosure, or Castle Green, has always been used as a place of recreation.
The village itself was originally a cluster of houses under the castle walls. In 1242, in the reign of Henry III, it received a charter, which was renewed by Queen Elizabeth I in 1602. Thenceforward Plympton had a Mayor and Senior Burgesses (later Aldermen), a Recorder and two Sergeants at Mace to conduct the affairs of the Borough. This continued till 1859, when the Borough came to an end and was succeeded by a Parish Council. In 1967 Plympton was “taken over” by Plymouth and became the Plympton Erle Ward; a sad end, many thought, for a place which had sent two members to Parliament from 1295 to 1832, among them (in 1685) Sir Christopher Wren. The Borough’s most distinguished citizen was Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792), first President of the Royal Academy, whose father, the Revd. Samuel Reynolds, was Master of the Grammar School from 1715 – 1746. He was baptised in the parish church and was Mayor of the Borough in 1773.HISTORY OF THE CHURCH
Before the year 904 there was a Saxon monastery at Plympton, a college of priests who would go into the countryside to hold services even before churches were built. This monastery gave place to an Augustinian Priory in 1121, with a Prior and eighteen monks. The Priory was completely destroyed in 1539, at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. The church of Plympton St. Maurice was apparently a chapel served by the monks of the Priory, but by 1300 it had become a parish church and had changed its dedication to St. Thomas of Canterbury (Thomas `a Becket), martyred in 1170. Its original dedication must have been to St. Maurice, commander of a Roman Legion (the Theban) who was martyred about the year 290 for refusing to sacrifice to the gods. In 1538 the dedication reverted to St. Maurice, though the church was sometimes known as St. Thomas and St. Maurice. The seven churches under the control of the Priory were in 1547 transferred to the Dean and Canons of Windsor, the present patrons.
Little remains of that Early English church. In the 14th and 15th centuries it was reconstructed in the Perpendicular style of the period; the most notable features of the new church were a tall tower on the old foundations, and the chapel of St. Maurice, the gift of John Brackley, one of the members of Parliament for the Borough in 1382. Various alterations were made over the years; the gallery was removed in 1869, and during the incumbency of the Revd. H.T. Hole, who was Rector for 44 years (1877 – 1921), a complete restoration of the Church was carried out.
THE CHURCH TODAY
Today the church has chancel, nave, north and south aisles, and a tower with a lofty interior arch and a spiral staircase leading to the ringing chamber and roof. Over the south porch is a small room called the parvis; and a niche over the north doorway holds a statue of St. Thomas of Canterbury by J.T. Trevenen of Plymouth (1895).
For a small church (it holds about 200) its chancel is spacious. The oak reredos behind the high altar has three panels, representing (from left to right) the Annunciation, Our Lord in glory surrounded by adoring angels, and the Nativity; paintings representing St. Thomas and St. Maurice are on either side of the altar on the east wall.
On the south side of the chancel is the chapel of St. Maurice with its original 14th century piscina; the high altar can be seen from the chapel through a square “squint”. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in an aumbry in the chapel.
At the east end of the north aisle is the Lady Chapel in which is a painted altar, the gift of the Sisters of Charity (see back page). The pictures represent, on the front panels, the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ, and flanked by St. Elizabeth of Hungary and St. Vincent de Paul. On the north end of the altar is a panel, not easily seen, depicting the Archangel Gabriel, and on the south end a representation of the Archangel Raphael. The picture above the altar is a copy of the Sassoferrato Madonna (see “Pictures” below).
Separating the chancel from the nave is an oak screen, now surmounted by a Rood and figures of Our Lady and St. John; this is a reproduction by Alfred Mountrie of Tavistock of the old screen, some fragments of which have been incorporated. An interesting feature of the nave is the base of an ancient stone pulpit approached by four granite steps and forming part of a pillar; the present pulpit is of oak and dates from the early 17th century.
On the north wall is an alabaster monument to the memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds, with a medallion head of the painter carved by F. Derwent Wood
the designer being James Hine of Plymouth.
A memorial to those who died in the two world wars occupies the centre of the south wall.
The windows in the church are all modern. The easternmost window in the north aisle, now masked by the organ, is an heraldic one in memory of the Trelawney family; the east window in the St. Maurice chapel illustrates some themes of the Te Deum, together with the figures of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine. As the monastery disappeared at the Reformation, so did the Church plate, which was taken care of by the Commissioners appointed by Edward VI.
The present vessels are modern; those used on Sundays were formerly the private property of the Revd. H.T. Hole.
Two pictures, copies of works in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, have recently been cleaned and reframed; one is a Madonna by Sassoferrato, and the other St. Mary Magdalene by Carlo Doci.
The organ, in the north aisle, is by Hele & Son, of Plymouth; it was installed in 1876, enlarged in 1891, and thoroughly overhauled in 1960
An octagonal font cover, probably of the 17th century, is preserved at the west end of the church. The present font was presented in 1872.
Until 1768 there were five bells, later recast into six. The treble and second were added in 1895 to make up the full peal; all the bells were recast in 1936, and rededicated. The tenor bell is inscribed, “Both day and night I measure time for all, To Mirth, to Grief, to Church I call.”
The Stations of the Cross were carved in lime wood by Susan Harris of Oreston and installed in October 1993. The cost was met from a legacy in memory of Mr. R. Mumford.
In the churchyard near the south porch is a stone cross. The shaft of this cross was found when alterations were being made to the Guildhall in 1861; its approximate date is 1380. It was restored and placed in its present position in 1900.
Meanwhile, repairs and extension of the church have continued. In 1956 a new choir vestry was completed at the south-west end. The interior of the church was cleaned in 1966, and a new church hall erected on the site of the old hall and house to the design of Mr. F.T. Crowe, A.R.I.B.A., and dedicated by the Bishop of Plymouth in April, 1967.