A church has stood on the site for over 1,000 years and St Margaret’s continues to provide a focus for the life and work of the Church of England in the parish of Topsham. The Church is open every day for worship and prayer and a variety of community activities. It stands as a witness to the Christian Faith and 2,000 years of Christian tradition.
The church is one of some two hundred in England dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch in Syria, a semi-legendary saint who is reputed to have been beheaded for her faith and refusal to marry the local Roman governor in the 3rd century. Her popularity in England dates from the 11th century, with soldiers returning from the Crusades.
The native Celtic settlement of Topsham became the port of the Roman city of Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter) in the first century AD, and continued to serve it until the Roman occupation of this part of Britain ceased about the year 400. We do not know how Christianity first came to Topsham but in the 7th century the Saxon rule in East Devon saw the settlement grow into a considerable village. In 937 King Athelstan gave “a parcel of land, ie a manse, which the vulgar called Toppesham, to the monsastery Church of St Mary and St Peter in Exeter, for the cure of his soul, to have in eternal feedom so long as the Christian Church shall endure.” This gift was confirmed by Leofric, first Bishop of Exeter, and though for a time the living was seized by the crown, the Dean and Chapter of Exeter are still its patrons. The living was a “Peculiar”, not subject to the Diocese. A bronze 15th century seal in the Exeter museum shows an image of St Margaret and the dragon. Round it are the words “S’offics Pecculiaris ivris Dicc’ois de Toppesham.”
The building was re-consecrated by Bishop Edmund Lacy in the mid-fifteenth century and grew to meet the needs of the expanding population of the town in the days of its propserous overseas shipping trade.
In 1676 it was severely damaged by fire and £1500 was required to rebuild it. The tower, which survived, came almost half way across the interior of the rebuilt Church, as can be seen in old photographs. It was further darkened by galleries and a high pulpit and sounding board.
Finally this Church, except for the tower, was pulled down and St Margaret’s as we know it today was built on the ancient site, the headstones from the graves which it covered being used to pave the aisles. It was consecrated in 1877 by Frederick Temple, Lord Bishop of Exeter and later Archbishop of Canterbury. The architect was Mr Edward Ashworth and the cost of the building was £8550. The church is built in the form of a cross, with the main entrace – unusually – at the north-east corner.
Of the early Church which stood here only the font remains. All that remains of the previous church is part of the tower, the font and some memorials. That the mediaeval Church was of red sandstone we deduce from the bell tower. There is a record of mediaeval glass in the East window.