Bicton, Devon

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Bicton Parish Church of St Mary, built in 1850. Viewed from south

Bicton is a civil parish and former manor in the East Devon district of Devon, England, near the town of Budleigh Salterton. According to the 2001 census it had a population of 280. The parish includes the village of Yettington.

Descent of the manor[edit]


In the Exchequer version of the Domesday Book of 1086, the manor of Bechetone was listed as the 1st of the 16 holdings unded the heading Terrae Servientium Regis ("Lands of the King's servants"). It was held in-chief from the king (by service unknown) by Wills Porto, that is "William the Porter", meaning "gatekeeper"[1] (from the Latin porta a gate[2]). In the Exon version of Domesday Book however this manor is listed with the same tenant, but under the heading Terra Nicolai Balistarii ("Land of Nicholas the Bowman"), thus William held not as a tenant-in-chief but as a mesne tenant from Nicholas. Nicholas also held the manors of Webbery, Greenslinch, Stoketeignhead, Rocombe, Ogwell, Holbeam, Bagtor, Ideford, Staplehill, Buckland-in-the-Moor, Aller and possibly Northleigh.[3] It appears that the Exchequer version of Domesday Book corrected the Exon positioning to show William the Porter as a servant and tenant-in-chief of the king.[4]


In the reign of King Henry I (1100–1135) the manor of Bicton was granted by the king to John Janitor,[5] who held the manor by the feudal tenure of grand serjeanty requiring him to provide a county jail,[6] which was an honourable position of trust. The Latin noun Janitor means "door-keeper", generally understood in the sense janitor carceris, "door-keeper of a jail".[7] Thus the tenant took his surname from his form of tenure.[8] The prison was later transferred to a building beneath[9] Exeter Castle[10] in the county capital Exeter, (see Exeter Prison), but the feudal tenant of Bicton was nevertheless for many centuries required to meet part of the repair and maintenance costs of the newly sited jail. The Devon topographer John Swete (d.1821) stated that Dennis Rolle Esq. (d.1797), the proprietor of Bicton at the time of his visit, had paid the sum of £1,000 to the Treasury to be released in perpetuity from his vestigial feudal liabilities.[11] The release was effected by an Act of Parliament in 1787, Public Act, 27 George III, c. 59 summarised as:[12]

"An Act for making and declaring the Gaol for the County of Devon, called the High Gaol, a Public and Common Gaol; and for discharging Denys Rolle and John Rolle Esquires, and their respective Heirs and Assigns, from the Office of Keeper of the said Gaol; and for improving and enlarging the same or building a new one; and also for taking down the Chapel in the Castle of Exeter; and for other Purposes therein mentioned".

John Janitor was followed by his son Roger and then Roger's sons William and John.[13]


Canting arms of Alabaster of Bicton: Azure, three cross-bows bent or[14]

During the reign of King Edward I (1272-1307) the manor of Bicton passed to Galfride la Balister, (alias Alabaster, Arblaster and the Latinised form Balistarius, meaning "the Bowman", as in the case of the Domesday Book tenant Nicholas the Bowman)[15] the husband of the daughter of the last in the male line of the Janitor family of Bicton.[16] The canting arms of the family of Alabaster of Bicton were: Azure, three cross-bows bent or.[17] He held by the same tenure and held elsewhere by the grand-sergeanty, as suggested by his name, to "attend the king with his cross-bow and arrows in hunting".[18] Raph la Balister was the tenant in 1229 and was followed by Galfride, Reginald, Galfride, Richard (died 1318[19]) whose son was Walter. Walter la Balister left three children:

  • Raph Alabaster (d.1351[20]), died without progeny
  • Alis Alabaster, died without progeny
  • Agnes Alabaster, who married husband unknown and left a daughter and heiress named Joan, who married Raph Sachevill (d.1395[21])


Raph Sachevill (d.1395[22]) married Joan, the heiress of Bicton. His son and heir was John Sachvill, whose grandson was the last in the male line and left daughters as his co-heiresses. One of the daughters, Johanna Sachville, married John Copleston (d.1497).[23]


Arms of Copleston: Argent, a chevron engrailed gules between three leopard's faces azure[24]

Henry Copleston (born 1473), "of Bicton",[25] son and heir of John Copleston (d.1497) inherited Bicton from his mother Johanna Sachville.[26] The Coplestone family took its name from the Devon manor of Copplestone. Pole (d.1635) states that the earliest record of this family he was able to find was in a deed dated during the reign of King Edward II (1307-1327).[27] The great antiquity of this family thus seems somewhat overstated in the traditional Devon rhyme, dismissed by Hoskins as containing "not a word of truth":[28]

"Crocker, Cruwys and Copplestone,
When The Conqueror came were all at home".

The exact relationship of the Bicton family to the several Copleston branches of Copleston, Bowden, Instow Upton Pyne, Kingdon and Woodland is not known.[29] Henry's son was Charles Copleston, who married Anne Reigny, the daughter and sole-heiress of Richard Reigny of Eggesford.[30] The family thenceforth made their seat at Eggesford and Charles sold the manor of Bicton to Sir Robert Denys[31] (1525–1592) of Holcombe Burnell


Arms of Denys of Holcombe Burnell & Bicton, Devon: Ermine, three battle-axes gules. These arms may be seen at the Livery Dole Almshouses & Chapel, Heavitree Road, Exeter. They are differenced from the arms of the 12th-century Danish Denys family of Orleigh Court, near Bideford, Devon, (Azure, three Danish battle-axes or) from which the family of Holcombe Burnell was descended

Bicton was purchased from the Copplestones by Sir Robert Denys (1525–1592), MP, who built a mansion house near the site of the present Orangery, now within the Bicton Botanical Gardens. He was the son of Sir Thomas Denys (d.1561) of Holcombe Burnell, Sheriff Of Devon, Privy Councillor and Chancellor to Anne of Cleves. He received a royal licence to empark, and stocked his new park with deer. He added formal gardens with slopes, terraces and parallelogram ponds.[32] His son Sir Thomas Denys (1559–1613) married Anne Paulet, daughter of William Paulet, 3rd Marquis of Winchester and had issue two daughters, co-heiresses. The eldest was Anne Denys, who by her marriage to Sir Henry Rolle (d.1616) of Stevenstone, brought Bicton to the Rolle family. The younger daughter Margaret Denys (d.1649) married Sir Arthur Mainwaring of Ightfield, Shropshire, carver to Prince Henry, eldest son of King James I.


Arms of Rolle: Or, on a fesse dancetté between three billets azure each charged with a lion rampant of the first three bezants

Dennis I Rolle (1614–38)]] was the son and heir of Sir Henry Rolle and Anne Denys, and was buried at Bicton. His elaborate tomb monument [33] with heraldic achievement[34] is contained within the Rolle Mausoleum, the remnant of the former Parish Church of Bicton to the immediate east of which stands the new church of St Mary built in 1850. The Mausoleum is the private property of Lord Clinton and is not open to the public. The inscription on his monument is as follows:[35]

"The remains of Dennis Rolle Esq.
His earthly part within this tombe doth reste
Who kept a court of honour in his breast
Birth, beauty, wit and wisdom sat as Peeres
Till Death mistook his virtues for his yeares
Or else Heaven envy'd Earth so rich a treasure
Wherein too fine the ware too scant the measure
His mournefull wife her love to shew in part
This tombe built here a better in her heart
Sweet babe his hopful heyre (Heav'n grant this boon)
Live but so well but oh! dye not so soon.

Obiit anno D(omi)ni 1638 Aetatis 24 Reliquit filium unum aes quinque ("He died in the year of Our Lord 1638 of his age 24. He left one son, age 5")

His widow's wish was not met and the couple's son Dennis died soon after his father, leaving only daughters who were excluded from the inheritance by entail. The manor of Bicton, together with all the other Rolle estates including Stevenstone then passed to Henry Rolle (1605–47) of Beam, near Torrington, the elder son of John Rolle (1563-post 1628), MP, the uncle of Sir Henry Rolle (d.1617). He himself died without progeny and the Rolle estates, now increased by the addition of Beam, devolved following his death in 1647 upon his closest male cousin, 21 year-old Sir John Rolle (1626–1706), MP, of Marrais in the parish of St Mary Week, Cornwall. He was immediately thereupon married to his young cousin Florence Rolle of Bicton, one of the surviving daughters of Denys I Rolle. Thus his claim to the Inheritance of Rolle of Stevenstone and Bicton was strengthened and consolidated. The estates stayed in the hands of his descendants until the death of his great-great-grandson John Rolle, 1st Baron Rolle (1750–1842), who as a young man lived at nearby Tidwell House, East Budleigh,[36] and who died at Bicton House aged 86. His elaborate monument [37] designed by Pugin exists in the Rolle Mausoleum next to the Victorian parish church.

Trefusis, Barons Clinton[edit]

Arms of Trefusis: Argent, a chevron between three spindles sable
Heraldic achievement of Baron Rolle (d.1842) on top of main gates to Bicton House. The escutcheon shows Rolle impaling Trefusis (Argent, a chevron between three spindles sable), the family of his second wife. The sinister supporter, a greyhound, is that of Trefusis. The motto commences Nec Rege.. ("Not with the King") and therefore dates before 1837, the accession of Queen Victoria
Dripstone sculpted heads depicting Baron Rolle (left) and his second wife Louisa Trefusis (right) either side of external porch of (north) private entrance to Rolle pews, in the church at Bicton erected by Louisa in 1850. The sculpted heads in the same positions at the public (south) entrance are those of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert[38]

In 1822 at the age of 66 the childless Baron Rolle married, as his second wife, his very distant cousin the 28 year-old Louisa Trefusis (d.1885). Whilst Rolle himself was descended from George Rolle (d.1573), the second son of the founder of the family, George Rolle of Stevenstone (d.1552), MP for Barnstaple, Louisa was descended from his 4th son Henry Rolle, who had married Margaret Yeo, the heiress of Heanton Satchville, Petrockstowe, Devon. Henry Rolle's great-grandson Robert Rolle (d.1660), MP, of Heanton Satchville, had married Lady Arabella Clinton, one of the two co-heiresses of their nephew Edward Clinton, 13th Baron Clinton and 5th Earl of Lincoln. On the extinction of the senior line of the Rolle-Clinton union on the death of George Walpole (d.1791), 16th Baron Clinton, their heir became the descendants of their daughter Bridget Rolle (1648–1721) who had married in 1672 Francis Trefusis of the manor of Trefusis in Cornwall. Louisa Trefusis, the second wife of Baron Rolle, was 5th in descent from Francis Trefusis and Bridget Rolle, being the daughter of Robert George William Trefusis (1764–1797), 17th Baron Clinton, of Trefusis, Cornwall. A marble bust of Louisa exists in the Orangery at Bicton. Louisa and Rolle shared a love of gardening and created the grand landscaped garden at Bicton, now open to the public as Bicton Park Botanical Gardens. An American traveller Elihu Burritt visited Bicton in 1864 and described her hostess in terms of great praise:[39]

"This lady is a remarkable woman, without equal or like in England...she is a female rival of Alexander the Great. The world that the Grecian conqueror subjugated was a small affair in space compared with the two hemispheres which this English lady has taken by the hair of the head and bound to her chair of state. It seems to have been her ambition for nearly half a century to do what was never done before by man or woman in filling her great park and gardens with a collection of trees and shrubs that should be to them what the British Museum is to the relics of antiquity and the literature of all ages".

Adopted heir[edit]

Hon. Mark Rolle (1836-1907), by Sir John Collier (d.1934). Collection of Lord Clinton

Rolle's second marriage also produced no progeny, and at his death in 1842 Rolle decided to appoint as his heir Louisa's younger nephew, the six-year-old Hon. Mark George Kerr Trefusis (1836–1907), the younger brother of Charles Trefusis (1834–1904) 20th Baron Clinton. Whether his marriage to Louise had been by chance or design, in fact the Trefusis Barons Clinton would have had an excellent claim to be his closest kin and legal heirs. Thus Rolle had followed his family's ancient practice of keeping the estates "in the family". His will required his young heir to change his name to Rolle, which he duly performed, and to adopt the Rolle arms in lieu of those of Trefusis. However, his design to revive the Rolle family was ultimately unsuccessful as Mark Rolle produced only two daughters and no son, and the Rolle inheritance passed to his male heir, his nephew, Charles John Robert Trefusis (1863–1957), 21st Baron Clinton.


Bicton Obelisk on the edge of the park was built in 1742 by Henry Rolle, 1st Baron Rolle (1708–1750)[40] as a visual attraction for the gardens.


Henry Rolle, 1st Baron Rolle in 1743 also built the four-sided pillar in the centre of the four-cross-ways between Bicton and Otterton.[41] As well as serving as a signpost for the various places to which the four roads lead, it incorporates biblical inscriptions, such as "Her ways are ways of pleasantness", etc.[42]

Current ownership[edit]

The mansion house was sold by Lord Clinton to Devon County Council and is now Bicton College of Agriculture. The Botanical Gardens were restored by Lord Clinton to their pre-war splendour and opened to the public in 1963. In 1986 he gave them to a charitable trust which sold the gardens to Simon and Valerie Lister, a Devon couple from a farming background who have turned it into a commercial visitor attraction named Bicton Park Botanical Gardens, claimed to be "Devon's most magnificent historic gardens".[43] However, as for the rest of the land comprising the former manor of Bicton, this remains in the ownership of Clinton Devon Estates, owned by Baron Clinton. Part is operated as an equestrian venue known as Bicton Arena (50°39′59″N 3°19′02″W / 50.6664°N 3.3171°W / 50.6664; -3.3171 (Bicton Arena, Devon)).

Bicton Old Church[edit]

Old Bicton Church, Devon, 1795, viewed from south. Watercolour by Rev. John Swete (1752-1821) with caption: "Bicton Church, 31 March 1795". Devon Record Office, 564M/F8/26. The road can be seen between the two stone walls and behind the "paling" fence. No such view exists today as a high earth bank has been built up on the far side of the road as part of the 19th-century landscaping.
Church of St Mary (1850), Bicton, Devon, viewed from SE. Visible behind (to the west) is the "Rolle Mausoleum" housed in the ruins of the Old Parish Church, demolished in 1850
Bicton Old Church viewed from NE. Only the chancel and tower of the former building survive. The tower retains the roof shape described and painted by Swete. The chancel is now the "Rolle Mausoleum" containing monuments to Dennis Rolle (d.1638), in situ and to John Rolle, 1st Baron Rolle (d.1842)
View of St Mary's Church (1850), Bicton, chancel end, looking northwards to the Orangery, apparently built on or near the site of the former manor house. The tops of the monkey-puzzle trees lining the main entry drive to the Georgian Bicton House, situated to the left (west) can be seen behind. The land between the Monkey-Puzzle trees and the church is the site of the Bicton Park Botanical Gardens, which includes the Orangery

The Georgian topographer Rev. John Swete in 1795 made a watercolour painting of the now demolished old church, and wrote of in his journal as follows:

"Contiguous to where the old mansion stood and where are even now the terraces and the ponds which were perchance its quondam boast - deep in a dell

and nearly encompast by groves of tall growth, stands the Parish Church. A scenery more picturesque than this cannot well be conceived or one better adapted to contemplation - 'tis the Churchyard of Grey! From the solemnity that broods over it occasion'd by the enclosing groves and the stillness that reigns rarely interrupted by an intrusive step, it would be hardly possible for any mind not to become associated as it were, with the spot and its accompaniments, not to feel its sensibility awaken'd..."

His prose that follows descends into the truly purple sphere, and leaves the reader in no doubt that this was one of the favourite spots of the well-travelled Devon topographer. No doubt he would be truly horrified to learn that his beloved church in the grove was largely demolished in 1850 to make room for a Victorian replacement. Only part of its shell remains, as the housing for the "Rolle Mausoleum". He returns later to a more sober description:

"But to return to the scene from which I have permitted my imagination thus far to lead me astray! In addition to the sequester'd situation of Bicton Churchyard and its encircling groves, a veteran yew-tree growing at the eastern end of the chancel and the tall slender tower capp'd with a sloping roof and border'd with margins of flat stones over which rises a square pinnacle with a cross of singular architecture. These all conspire to the general effect, they all remarkably harmonized together, and by the accession of some paling and a noble beech gained as a foreground to the picture by getting into an opposite field southward, in the line of landscape the scenery acquired a considerable heightening".

Bicton Park Botanical Gardens[edit]

Railway at the Bicton Park Botanical Gardens

Between Bicton House and the Parish Church are the Bicton Park Botanical Gardens which are open to the public. Bicton Woodland Railway operates through the grounds. Spanning nearly 300 years of horticultural history, these magnificent grade 1 listed gardens are set in East Devon's picturesque Otter Valley, between the city of Exeter and southwest England's Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. The superbly landscaped park is said to combine 18th century tranquillity with modern amenities to provide all year round enjoyment for everyone of all ages including historic glasshouses, a countryside museum, the Bicton Woodland Railway train ride, nature trail, maze, mini golf, indoor and outdoor children’s play complexes, restaurant and shop.


The four glasshouses at Bicton Gardens have been designed to re-create the natural environment of plants from different continents:

The Palm House[edit]

One of the world's most attractive garden buildings, the Palm House was built in the 1820s to a daring curvilinear design, using 18,000 small glass panes in thin iron glazing bars. It contains many rare and beautiful palms, which make a romantic setting for the civil marriage ceremonies which may be arranged within this historic building.

The Tropical House[edit]

Lush foliage and exotic blooms abound in the Tropical House, home of the Bicton orchid (Lemboglossum bictoniense), named after the Park where it first bloomed in 1836.

The Arid House[edit]

The Arid House features some of the world's strangest plants, among the cacti and other succulents growing in a naturalistic desert landscape.


  1. ^ Thorn, Caroline & Frank, (eds.) Domesday Book, (Morris, John, gen.ed.) Vol. 9, Devon, Parts 1 & 2, Phillimore Press, Chichester, 1985, part 2, 51:1.
  2. ^ Cassell's Latin Dictionary, 1931, p.426
  3. ^ Thorn, part 1, chapter 48: 1-12
  4. ^ Thorn, part 2, 51,1 (note)
  5. ^ Pole, Sir William (d.1635), Collections Towards a Description of the County of Devon, Sir John-William de la Pole (ed.), London, 1791, p.163
  6. ^ Risdon, Tristram (d.1640), Survey of Devon, 1811 edition, London, 1811, with 1810 Additions, p.50; Pole, p.163
  7. ^ Cassell's Latin Dictionary
  8. ^ Swete, p.142
  9. ^ Pole, p.163
  10. ^ Risdon, p.51
  11. ^ Swete, Rev. John, Illustrated Journals of, published as Travels in Georgian Devon, The Illustrated Journals of the Reverend John Swete, 1789–1800, Gray, Todd & Rowe, Margery (Eds.),4 vols., Tiverton, Devon, 1998, Vol.2, pp. 140–145
  12. ^ Parliamentary Archives, catalogue entry. HL/PO/PU/1/1787/27G3n99 1787
  13. ^ Pole, p.163
  14. ^ Pole, p.468
  15. ^ Pole, p.163
  16. ^ Risdon, p.50
  17. ^ Pole, p.468; Risdon, Tristram (d.1640), "Tristram Risdon's Notebook"; Not to be confused with the possibly later and apparently unconnected family of Alabaster/Arblaster of East Anglia/Essex whose arms were Ermine, a cross-bow bent in pale gules (Heraldic Visitation of Essex, 1634, p.485: William Scot of Chigwell, co. Essex, will was dated 20 November 1597, married Prudence daughter and coheir of Edmund Alabaster of Bretts Hall in Tendring, Essex. The Arms of Scot include as eighth quartering the Arms of Alabaster, namely Ermine, a crossbow palewise gules[1])
  18. ^ Risdon, p.50
  19. ^ Pole, p.163, regnal year 12 Edward II
  20. ^ Pole, p.163, regnal year 25 Edward III
  21. ^ Pole, p.163, regnal year 18 Richard II
  22. ^ Pole, p.163, regnal year 18 Richard II
  23. ^ Vivian, Lt.Col. J.L., (Ed.) The Visitation of the County of Devon: Comprising the Heralds' Visitations of 1531, 1564 & 1620, Exeter, 1895, p.233, pedigree of Copleston of Eggesford; Husband of the Sachville heiress of Bicton given by Pole, p.163 as Henry Copleston, corrected by Vivian, p.233, which states Johanna was named in the inquisition post mortem of her husband John Coplestone (d. 31 July 1497)
  24. ^ Vivian, p.224; as seen in Eggesford Church
  25. ^ Vivian, p.233, mis-spelled as "Bricton"
  26. ^ Vivian, p.233
  27. ^ Pole, p.225; Hoskins, W.G., A New Survey of England: Devon, London, 1959 (first published 1954), p.76, states, without exact source, possibly erroneously, that Pole found the deed dated earlier, in reign of King Henry II (1154-1189)
  28. ^ Hoskins, p.76: "the hackneyed jingle has not a word of truth in it"
  29. ^ No connecting details given in Vivian, p.233
  30. ^ Vivian, p.233
  31. ^ Pole, p.163; Risdon, p.50 states otherwise, that Henry Copleston's grandson sold it to Sir Thomas Denys
  32. ^ Swete, p.142
  33. ^ Image of monument to Denys Rolle (d.1638)
  34. ^ Image of heraldic achievement of Denys Rolle (d.1638), Bicton Mausoleum
  35. ^ Quoted by Swete, p.142
  36. ^ Swete, vol. 2, p.145
  37. ^ Image of monument top Baron Rolle (d.1842)
  38. ^ Church pamphlet-guide "Saint Mary's Church, Bicton: A Brief History"
  39. ^ Lister, Simon & Valerie, Brochure, Bicton Park Botanical Gardens, 2001, p.6
  40. ^ Gray, Todd & Rowe, Margery (Eds.), Travels in Georgian Devon: The Illustrated Journals of The Reverend John Swete, 1789-1800, 4 vols., Tiverton, 1999, vol.2, p.145
  41. ^ Swete, vol 2, p.145
  42. ^ Swete, vol 2, p.145
  43. ^ Guidebook, Bicton Park Botanical Gardens, 2001, cover & p.7


  • Swete, Rev. John, Illustrated Journals of, published as Travels in Georgian Devon, The Illustrated Journals of the Reverend John Swete, 1789–1800, Gray, Todd & Rowe, Margery (Eds.), Vol.2, pp. 140–145, Tiverton, Devon, 1998

External links[edit]