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A Brief Description and History of the Parish of Zeal Monachorum by Dr Nick Burgess PhD

The Parish of Zeal Monachorum covers an area of almost 3,400 acres (1370 hectares) at a height of 280 - 640 feet above sea level (85 - 195 metres).  It lies at the centre of Devon, situated between the A3072 Okehampton to Crediton road on the south and the B3220 Torrington to Morchard Road on the north, about halfway between Crediton and Okehampton.  The village itself is on the south-facing hillside of the Yeo valley looking towards Dartmoor.  The current population of the Parish is about 350.      

In the Domesday Book (1086) the present parish of Zeal Monachorum consisted of four manors, Zeal Monachorum and Burston (both known as Limet, because of their proximity to the River Limet or Yeo), Newton and Loosebeare,.

There is some debate as to the origin of the name of the village.  There is a local Saxon reference dated AD967 to land at Lesmanoac, and early maps refer to the settlement as Monkenfield, Munkton and Monks Nymet.  The present name, written earlier as Sele and Zele, is said to derive from the fact that the manor of Zeal Monachorum had been given to the Abbey of Buckfast in 1018 by King Cnut (along with the manor of Down St Mary), hence a "cell of the monks" ("celle" in Old French and "cella" in Latin).  [see footnote]

The manor remained the property of Buckfast Abbey until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539.  The link with the Cistercian abbey is seen on the village sign at the top of Town Hill outside the church (reproduced in the top left corner of the web site pages).   The sale of the manor of Monckenzeale or Zealemonachorum is reported in documents of 1616.       

In 1841 the Parish covered over 3000 acres and had a population of about 600.  The Lord of the Manor owned nearly 500 acres, and other large estates included Beer, Sutton, the three Newtons, Burrow, Loosebeare, the Higher, Middle and Lower Burston, Barons Wood, Gillhouse, Foldhay, Higher Week, Serston, Nymphays, Waie and Tuckingmill.  By 1901 the population had dropped to 316 and by the end of the 1st World War in which 19 members of the parish lost their lives, the population was only 271.  It has fluctuated only slightly since then.        

The parish church dates from 1235 with a late-Saxon font and a yew tree reputed to be at least 1000 years old in the churchyard.  The exterior of the tower dates from the early 16th century with a 13th century interior still extant.  It was originally one storey higher.  Five of the present peal of six bells were cast in 1749 and the sixth was added in 1925.  The Devon Association of Bellringers was founded at Zeal Monachorum in 1924 and the parish team has been active (and very successful in competition) since then, apart from a break from 1967 when the tower became unsafe.  After strengthening and renovation, ringing began again in 1990.  In 2005 a major restoration was undertaken, funded by a local appeal which raised over 30,000.  The bells were rededicated on 18 August 2007.  The church clock was also refurbished in 2007 with joint Devon County, Parish Council and Parochial Church Council funding. 

Regular community events are held in the village hall which is maintained and managed by a locally elected committee.  The hall was originally a primary (public elementary) school which had 108 pupils in 1923 and many more during the 2nd World War when evacuees arrived, but it closed in 1954.  The Church Hall stood in what is now the car park until it was demolished in 1958.

In the village in the1930s there were two shops, a Post Office, 2 pubs (the Red Lion and the Burston Inn; a third, the North Star Inn, burnt down in 1928), and a blacksmith in Rattle Street (so named because of the noise of the hammers on the anvil!); by the 1960s there was only a combined shop and post office which closed in 2002. In 1980 the Red Lion had been closed for some years, but Waie farmhouse was converted to the Waie Inn which has since extended considerably to offer a wide range of leisure facilities. 

Today, Zeal Monachorum fortunately remains to some extent as Hoskins described it fifty years ago, "a small cob and thatch village in unfrequented country"


1. Adams, Ann (2002): "Zeal Monachorum, a Devon Rural Parish 1066-1801" (printed privately). 

2. Godeck, JWG (1977): "Zeal Monachorum, a short history and guide" (printed privately). 

3. Hoskins WG (1978): "Devon" (David and Charles, Newton Abbot).  

Much of the above information is taken from the Parish Archive held by Erica Eden. Thanks are also due to Norman Vicary and others in the Parish for their personal reminiscences.


What's in a name? (by Mike Bostock)

Zeal Monachorum, as stated, has been written as Sele, Zeale or Zele Monachorum, and, depending whether you believe the origin to have been Latin, Old English, Old French or a mixture then you can have fun working out what the origins may have been.

"Monachus" is the Latin for "monk".  The genitive (possessive) plural my research leads me to deduce is "~orum" thus giving rise to monachorum equating to "of the monks".  So that bit seems to fit.

If one assumes that the Sele or Zele  has Latin roots too then it could have derived from "cella" meaning "cell".  This was the explanation favoured by Rev Godeck, although there are a range of alternative meanings that may also be appropriate, some, perhaps, more so, e.g. "storeroom, (wine) cellar, larder; temple chamber, sanctuary; room, garret; pen; and monastery"

I am no Latin scholar (as may be apparent) but I was taught that the Latin "C" was a hard "C" so it would be difficult to imagine how this could corrupt to Sele or Zele (although one of the references shows that both French and English Latin use the soft "C" - it is difficult to guess what was in ecclesiastical use in the 11th century!).  So what if it was "sella" meaning "seat, chair, stool"  (I think it means an article of furniture, not as in "country seat, country mansion")?  It's unlikely that a "piece of furniture of the monks" forms the origin.

If we try Old English then "sele", "sl" or "sel" all seem to be variations of the same word that mean "hall, house, castle, dwelling or prison".  Well they could fit but then we would have to reconcile a mixture of languages in the name.  Is there a precedent for this? I don't know.

If we try Old French (as that's where the Cistercian monks had their roots) then again "selle" means "seat of wood" and "zle" means "zeal, fervour, devotion", neither or which quite fit.  However, "celle" or "cella" (which I assume would be a soft "C") does have the rather convenient meaning of "a small room" or, even better (with the religious context), a "sacred site".

So you see, there is plenty of ammunition for the debate!

Oh and one other thing, although Buckfast Abbey was founded in 1018 it wasn't until 1147 that it became a Cistercian abbey, so that may blow the Old French theory out of the water ... but there again, it may not :-)


Latin http://www.nd.edu/~archives/latgramm.htm  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latin_spelling_and_pronunciation  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latin_regional_pronunciation

Old English http://home.comcast.net/~modean52/oeme_dictionaries.htm

Cistercian Monks http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cistercian

Buckfast Abbey http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buckfast_Abbey

French Etymology http://atilf.atilf.fr/dendien/scripts/tlfiv4/showps.exe?p=combi.htm;java=no;


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This page was last updated 18-Oct-2020

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