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When the devil came to town

Updated: Feb 13

Widecombe can boast a church so grand it's known as 'the cathedral of the moor'. The church of Saint Pancras, pictured above and below, is a lovely building. One that attracts hundreds of thousands of sightseers each year.

However, on Sunday 21st October 1638, the church received the most unwelcome of visitors. For that was the day the devil came to town... and he left death and destruction in his wake.

A local gambler, Jan Reynolds, had made a pact with Satan to ensure he won at cards more often than not. Jan is how men called John are usually referred to in Devon and Cornwall. The terms of the deal meant that he had to avoid falling asleep whilst in church; otherwise his soul would be forfeit. Anyone who's had to sit through an especially long or dreary Sunday sermon knows just how hard that can be!

Jan brought his beloved cards to Saint Pancras on the day in question. He entertained himself with a game of solitaire as the vicar droned on. After a while he nodded off, the old villain dozing in a hard wooden pew. No sooner had he started to snore than disaster struck.

The devil rode into the village on a flying horse, tethering his coal-black steed to one of the pinnacles on the church tower. A fearful storm accompanied his arrival, sending balls of fire racing through Widecombe.

The handsome church was packed with 300 worshippers. Four were killed and 60 seriously injured. Jan was spirited away and never seen again. His soul claimed as part of the pact made with the devil, he was taken to hell.

The bell clappers struck by lightning in 1638

But what really happened that day?

Assuming the devil didn't really visit Widecombe-in-the-Moor during that fateful Sunday, what did actually happen there? A great thunderstorm, it's believed, with fork lightning striking the mighty church tower, and ball lightning then sweeping through the nave.

Disappointingly prosaic? Well, perhaps not, for natural explanations of what occurred that day are scarcely less dramatic than the legend of Jan Reynolds.

Eyewitnesses spoke about a strange darkness and powerful thunder. A great ball of fire ripping through a window and tearing the roof open. The fire bounced through the nave like a pinball, slamming into the walls and pews, and burning the congregation.

Although the vicar, George Lyde, was spared, his wife was scorched "in a very pitiful manner". Meanwhile a local rabbit warrener, Robert Mead, was thrown against one of the nave's mighty stone pillars, his head striking it so hard that it left an indentation! Robert's skull was shattered and his brains fell to the ground.

Another to die was a gentleman named Master Hill, who was likewise sent crashing against the stone. His brother Roger wrote an account of the terrible incident, which can still be read on wooden boards displayed in the church tower.

I've attached a photograph of these boards here, so you can read about events in the very words of one of those present...

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