Affeton and West Worlington

Affeton Castle gatehouse seen from the southern approach
Affeton Castle gatehouse seen from the southern approach

Affeton Barton

Affeton, to the west of the pretty village of West Worlington in Mid Devon, is one of those isolated spots in the interior of Devon suffused with an aura of timelessness. Affeton Barton, as it is known today, nestles above the northern slope of the valley carved out by the Little Dart River that flows westward past Chulmleigh where it joins the River Taw on its northward journey to the sea.

Affeton Mill viewed from the bridge
Affeton Mill viewed from the bridge
The Little Dart River from Affeton Mill Bridge
The Little Dart river

The road to Affeton from the south crosses the Little Dart at Affeton Mill Bridge. The climb out of the river valley gives way to open grassland to the left, and beyond the park the tall chimneys and stair turret[note 1] of Affeton Castle gatehouse rise high above a thick double hedge. Behind the castle a collection of farm buildings occupy part of the plot where the large fortified mansion once stood.

Affeton down the ages

early days

The manor is listed in the Domesday Book by its former name of Afton; a parish was probably established there in the 13th century, with the de Affeton(or de Afton) family holding sway as feudal lords. The de Affeton line in the parish was superseded by that of Stucley[note 2] around 1434 when Sir Hugh Stucley whose family were from Huntingdonshire married Katherine, the only daughter and heir of Sir John de Affeton. Sir Hugh was created a knight and became High Sheriff of Devonshire in 1448. Exemplifying the tenacity of the aristocratic family in the heartland of rural England, the current owner of the Affeton estate has the same name and held the same position five and a half centuries later in 2006.

Sir Hugh and Katherine were the progenitors of a Devon family that played a prominent part in the affairs of the county and on the national stage for the next two hundred and fifty years.

They elbowed and fought and grabbed with the rest. They became administrators, courtiers, soldiers of fortune and sea-going adventurers; but with all their opportunities they never rose to the topmost rung of the ladder. [7]

Affeton has always been a small parish, and was effectively merged with the adjacent parish of West Worlington when in 1437 Edmund Lacy, Bishop of Exeter, gave the rector of West Worlington ministry over its smaller neighbour:

[with authority to administer] sacramentals to the parishioners of Affeton, and to admit them to divine office in his own parish church; and so to receive tithes, obventions and oblations from them, provided that the chancel, rectory house and other obligations are maintained; all without prejudice to the benefice of Affeton and its future rectors. [8]

The Affetons and the Stucleys after them occupied the extensive castellated mansion whose reconstructed gatehouse we can see today at what is now known as Affeton Castle.

Affeton Castle gatehouse

The grandeur of the estate prior to the Civil War was noted in William White's gazetteer of 1850:

This was one of the most splendid seats in the county, and had an extensive park, with large fish ponds, woods, a warren, &c.

The mansion was built in the shape of an E and surrounded by a moat which has long since dried up. The gatehouse probably dates from the mid fifteenth century. It was converted to a shooting lodge in the 1860s, the central gateway being filled in and the interior redesigned and adapted for residential use. The only original interior features are the stone newel within the 49ft. spiral staircase of the stair turret, and the first floor doorway opening off it.

a time of strife

As in so much of Devon, the peace and tranquillity of Affeton was shattered during the Civil War. The Royalist sympathies of the mansion's incumbent Sir Thomas Stucley were known to General Fairfax, and in 1646, on route from Crediton via Chulmleigh to challenge the King's men at Torrington, a small detachment of Fairfax's Parliamentary army was sent on the short detour to Affeton to raze the mansion and the church which had become the Stucley chapel.

Family loyalties were often divided during the Civil War, the Stucleys being no exception, and Thomas's brother Lewis was chaplain to Oliver Cromwell until the monarchy was restored. This disunity may lie behind the targeting of the Stucley mansion by Royalist forces on two earlier occasions.

Thomas was most likely within the walls of Exeter which was under siege at the time, but Lady Stucley must have been forewarned of the imminent assault. She had time to conceal her valuables along with her servants and cattle in the prehistoric settlement in Burridge Wood [note 3]; these days the only inhabitants are the sheep. This settlement is shown on the map to the south-west of Affeton, on the opposite side of the river.

Burridge Wood earthworks
Burridge Wood earthworks
map of Affeton Barton area
Map reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey and Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland

Thomas's troubles did not end with the Parliamentarian victory. Later in 1646 he was hauled before the Commissioners in Exeter to account for his support of the King during the hostilities. He told them that his Affeton house had been plundered several times during the war, and he was now financially ruined. This plea fell on deaf ears and he was fined £300 for aiding the Royalist cause. To pay off his debts Thomas was obliged to sell half the Affeton Barton farmlands on a 99 year lease.

memorial plaque to Sir Thomas Stucley in West Worlington church

engraved inscription on memorial to Sir Thomas Stucley

The decorative plaque shown above hangs on the north wall of the chancel in the Church of St Mary in nearby West Worlington. The inscription engraved on slate commemorates Sir Thomas who was buried in a vault beneath the church.

tranquillity is restored

A farm house or barton (in the Devon vernacular) was built over the foundations of the sacked manor house, using stones from the ruins. The property passed to the descendants of Sir Thomas's niece, Sarah, who married into the Bucks, a wealthy family of merchants from Bideford. They divided their time between Affeton and their larger family seat of Hartland Abbey on the North Devon coast.

George Stucley Buck who was the great grandfather of the present owner, Sir Hugh Stucley the 6th Baronet, had a distinguished political career as Member of Parliament for Barnstaple. As lineal representative of the ancient Stucley family, he was given permission to change his name from Buck to Stucley by Queen Victoria in 1858 as part of a Grant of Arms proclamation:

He was awarded the hereditary title of baronet the following year.

Stucley coat of arms
Stucley coat of arms

Two infamous Stucleys

Captain Thomas Stucley
Captain Thomas Stucley

The most colourful of the Stucleys raised in the family seat of Affeton was Captain Thomas Stucley, that notorious swashbuckler of the Elizabethan age.

The third son of yet another Sir Hugh Stucley of Affeton, a wealthy clothier who was sheriff of Devon in 1544, he was born around 1520 to Jane Pollard daughter of Sir Lewis Pollard, though it was claimed during his lifetime that Thomas was an illegitimate son of Henry VIII.

A cohort of royalty and popes, his remarkable life included many adventures on the high seas as a mercenary and a pirate. He was also an arch manipulator and intriguer, acting as political advisor and diplomat to his Catholic friends and traitor to others, most notably Queen Elizabeth I of England who described him as 'a faithless beast rather than a man'.

Thomas was widely portrayed in dramas and poetry after his heroic death in the Battle of Alcazar.

Sir Lewis 'Judas' Stucley

The story of how Sir Lewis Stucley was encouraged to betray Sir Walter Raleigh on his return from Guiana by the unscrupulous King James I is the subject of this Devon Villains feature.

West Worlington

Little Dart valley from approach to West Worlington
The Little Dart valley seen as one approaches West Worlington

Follow the road along the ridge from Affeton to the east for a mile or so and you reach West Worlington, with its neat thatched cottages rendered in various pastel hues nestling closely together at the top of a steep hill. As the road bends to the right a set of shallow cobbled steps take you to an archway through Church House into the churchyard of St Mary's.

The church has an attractive twisted spire built on top of a low tower dating from the late 13th century that may have been rebuilt in the 17th century. Close examination shows the spire to be constructed of wooden shingles.

entrance to Church of St Mary, West Worlington

Church of St Mary, West Worlington

steeple of Church of St Mary, West Worlington

Inside the church an ornate screen of late Perpendicular Gothic style from about 1500 encloses the chapel in the south aisle. Beyond the entrance to the church the narrow road descends steeply between more thatched cottages.

ornate screen in Church of St Mary, West Worlington
looking down the steep hill in West Worlington


stair turret - A small or subordinate tower, normally forming part of a larger structure, housing a spiral or winding staircase. [return]
The spelling of Stucley offers myriad alternatives. Following the early de Styuecle, there have been the later variants Stewkley, Stucle, Stukeley, Stuckley, and Stukely. I'm sure there are others. I have adopted the modern spelling in use since the Stucley baronetcy was granted in 1859. [return]
This news item from Trewman's Exeter Flying Post of September 22, 1869 gives a different version of events. Rather than making a prior escape, the occupants of Affeton Mansion may have been driven from their home to Burridge Wood by Fairfax's pikemen in an act of forbearance:
Sir George Stucley has had the castle gateway at Affeton restored; and on Wednesday Sir George entertained his tenantry in the old guard house which had not been in use since 1646, when the army under General Fairfax, upon their march to Chulmleigh, obliged the then owner (Sir Thomas Stucley) to throw open his mansion and to borrow himself and his valuables in a circular encampment near Burridge Wood, which remains to this day distinctly visible. [return]


History, Gazetteer and Directory of Devonshire by William White, Plymouth, 1850. Reprinted by David and Charles, 1968. †
Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales, 1300-1500: Southern England by Anthony Emery, Cambridge University Press, 2006. †
Some Old Devon Churches by John Stabb, Simkin et al, London, 1908-1916. †
Devon by W.G. Hoskins, Collins, 1954; new ed., Phillimore, 2003.
Devon, Its Moorlands, Streams and Coasts by Rosalind Northcote, Chatto and Windus, 1908. †
The Life and Times of Thomas Stukeley, 1525-1578 by Juan E Tazón, Ashgate Publishing, 2003. †
A Devon parish lost: a new home discovered by Sir Dennis Stucley bt., Presidential Address, Transactions of the Devonshire Society, vol. 108, p1-14, 1976. [return]
The register of Edmund Lacy, Bishop of Exeter, 1420-1455: Registrum commune, Volume 61, Devon and Cornwall Record Society, The Devonshire Press, 1972. [return]
† signifies that the book could be accessed via the internet when this piece was written.

other sources

Much detailed historical information on Affeton and the Stucleys is found in A brief note on Affeton by Lieut-Cmdr. J.H. Stucley, an uncle of the current Baronet Stucley and a distinguished World War II navy veteran awarded the DSC for action in the anti U-boat operations.