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St James church, Avebury


St James' – from minster to mother church to pilgrimage destination

Much of what we know about the origins of St James' church at Avebury comes from the building itself. In the exterior north-west corner of the nave is so-called 'long and short work', a style of building normal between 1000–1050. Now inside the porch are four fragments sculptures which would have once been part of the decoration of the church. Professor Rosemary Cramp's Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture: Vol VII. South-West England published in 2006 (p200–1) describes them thus:

  1. ninth or tenth century fragment decorated with figures possibly representing a miracle scene, or a benediction.
  2. tenth century impost fragment
  3. tentth century fragment, part of an architectural feature (built into the south porch above no.2).
  4. tentth century cross-shaft fragment set into the north-west corner of the nave externally The first two fragments were discovered when the chancel was rebuilt in the 1878. They could well come from an earlier chancel. This would have been much smaller than the present chancel, but nevertheless situated just to the east of the present chancel arch.


    'Long and short work' and tenth century cross-shaft fragment

    Tenth century sculpture now in porch

    The round windows inside the nave are also tenth century.

    Although the church contains several excellent examples of twelfth century carving – notably the south doorway and the font – and other fragments of architectural features from this time, these date to several centuries after the foundation of the church and thus offer no help towards understanding the origins. In contrast, the name 'Avebury' reveals that the settlement is typical of a number of other Wiltshire burhs – see What was a bury?

    The small church at Rhulen in Radnorshire has no chancel; the altar is situated in an alcove at the eastern end.

    The roof of the seventeenth century theshing barn at Avebury.

    Right from the start of the burh in the seventh or eighth century, the focus of community life would have been the church. Occupying the same site as the western end of the modern day nave, it would have been wooden. Probably the first building did not have a separate chancel at the end of the nave, although most likely subsequent buildings did. The carpentry would have been of a fine standard – smaller but as well-made as the seventeenth theshing barn which still stands at Avebury. These wooden buildings would have been replaced rather than restored once the timbers began to rot. Quite plausibly there were two or more such churches before the stone-built church was erected in the first half of the eleventh century. We know that this had an apsidal chancel, that is the eastern end was semi-circular.

    Historians have been quick to term these early churches as 'minsters'. And then perplexed as to what the function and 'defining features' of these minsters might have been! (I have written about this topic more extensively in Minsters and Valleys.) The reality is that the 'functions' and status of these churches, and the communities they served, evolved over the centuries. When the burhs were founded they would have had some similarities with the initial colonies in the Americas during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The settlers needed to defend themselves against both wild animals and 'the locals' and they needed to farm effectively to (hopefully) ward off starvation. And yet the underlying motive was to set up idealistic religious communities. Yet we do not think of the successful settlements in, say, Virginia as essentially religious in nature. IThe Wiltshire burhs were founded before the mid-eighth century so, by the time we get enough surviving records to shed much light on them, they are already over three hundred years old. The earliest Virginia colonies reached the same sort of age in the late nineteenth century and, by then, were quite different from the pioneering communities. We should expect the same extent of change for Anglo-Saxon communities too.

    Indeed, there is evidence for just this process. The historical research has rarely focussed on Wiltshire, still less on Avebury, but the available historical evidence for this area fits the generalisations very well. We must assume that in the ninth century the community at Avebury included several priests. These would have performed services at Avebury itself but they would have also toured the surrounding area providing spiritual guidance, preaching and (presumably) performing Masses in the homes of the local thegns or freemen – the 'county set' of their time.

    Sometime in the later part of the ninth century these thegns were organised into administrative 'hundreds'. Nominally there were a hundred 'hides' of land in each hundred, with a hide being thought of as the amount of land needed to support one man and his family – a 'smallholding' in modern parlance. Thegns owned at least five hides (hence place-names such as Fyfield, which is a contraction of 'five fields', using the original sense of 'field' as all-but-synonymous with 'hide').

    Selkley Hundred around 1841.

    In Wessex each hundred 'adopted' a 'mother church', almost always the 'minster' of the burh. Avebury became the mother church of Selkley Hundred. Note that these churches were not created to 'be' the mother churches of the surrounding hundred. Rather, the most important church near the centre of the hundred was 'adopted'. Indeed, there was something of a chicken-or-egg scenario because the hundreds 'shaped up' around the burhs. Bear in mind these burhs now fulfilled the role that market towns did later – villages, towns and the concept of parishes are still a long way in the future for Wessex (although towns are already establishing themselves in Mercia to the north). The burhs were the 'central' and most important places in the hundred, so the churches in the burhs became the mother churches by an all-but automatic process.

    After this the social importance of burhs and their churches change steadily but, ultimately, rather dramatically during the tenth century. By the eleventh century minsters have lost their predominant role and, instead, a multitude of 'manorial' churches have appeared throughout the countryside. These would evolve, from the mid-twelfth century, into the parish churches which are such familiar part of medieval and later England. But about half of them – and an even greater proportion in Wiltshire – are the result of the thegns acquiring greater status and wealth and building 'private chapels' on the doorsteps of their homes. Gone is the need for the peripatetic priests associated with the mother churches.

    Quite how things changed in the tenth century remains unclear as documentary sources are almost non-existent so often the only evidence is the 'end result'. Some minsters go into complete decline.. Others evolve into medieval monasteries (such as Malmesbury). Others merely become unexpectedly large parish churches – and Avebury is as good an example as any. The substantial rebuilding of the twelfth and later centuries is evidence that the church either had wealthy benefactors or generated a healthy income. These are not mutually exclusive, of course.

    The income would most probably have come from 'pilgrims' paying their respects to a notable relic – almost certainly of St James. This is entirely consistent with former minsters retaining, after the eleventh century, a richer 'devotional life' than surrounding churches.

    For several hundred years, the former minsters remained more important emotionally and spiritually than the 'new fangled' parish churches. For example, merchant guilds of the tenth and eleventh centuries were more likely to be based at minsters (one of the rare survivals of a statute for such a guild is from Great Bedwyn, at the time the most important place in east Wiltshire, although its status steadily declined after Marlborough was granted a market charter in 1204).

    In the eleventh century Avebury was destined to evolve into a town the size of Ramsbury or even Amesbury. But it didn't simply because after the Norman Conquest both Devizes and Marlborough were founded about six or seven miles away, and these greatly distorted local commerce. Only with the growth of coaching routes in the seventeenth century did Avebury regain some importance. The Five Mile Act of 1593 also worked to the benefit of Avebury and led to a number of Nonconformists settling here. Intriguingly, former minsters which, like Avebury, might be thought of as 'failed towns', are surprisingly often the focus of Nonconformism in the seventeenth century onwards – they are seemingly 'big enough' to support such communities without already being too 'urban' (and therefore subject to the Five Mile Act). Avebury was, handily, just over five miles from Calne, Devizes, Marlborough and Wroughton. (See Brian Edwards','Changing Avebury', in The Regional Historian No.12 (2004).)

    Back to the mother-daughter relationships

    Evidence for the vestiges of the evolution of minsters into mother churches may survive in the relationship with the 'daughter' churches. A whole range of documentary sources reveal what seem at first to be unlikely links between non-adjacent parishes. For example, wills may reveal gifts to both the 'mother' and more local 'daughter' churches. Lucrative burial rites may have been retained for as long as possible, meaning that corpses had to be carried through several parishes before burial. Romescot or 'Peter's Pence' (money levied annually to be sent to Rome) was commonly collected by the former mother churches until the Reformation.

    Curiously, mother churches often retained the rights to perform judicial ordeals until quite late. Frustratingly there is little evidence of such judicial activities at former minsters, still less of when the practice became extinct and the current model of courts of justice took over for all but jurisdiction of ecclesiastical matters at episcopal seats.

    Chrism is oil sanctified by the bishop during an annual ceremony and used for baptismal rites. Customarily the distribution was seemingly a three-tier process whereby the clergy of the 'mother churches' collected from the cathedral and then passed on the chrism to daughter churches. Presumably the 'gift' of chrism was dependent on all monies, goods and services perceived as due from the dependent churches to the bishop or the mother church having been received – i.e. a 'receipt' for payment in full – although this is never mentioned in the sources. Occasionally – and Wiltshire has examples, although not for Avebury – the distribution of chrism from former minsters persists as a 'fossil' of otherwise extinguished loyalties between mother and daughter parishes.

    This slowly unravelling relationship between mother and daughter churches was not simply conceptual. There would have been entirely pragmatic reasons for travelling to the mother church for special feasts and locally-customary religious celebrations (such as the major feasts and saints days). We might want to think of them as 'local pilgrimages' although such a collective terminology seemingly did not exist at the time. Indeed we know very little about such activities. This is quite normal for 'popular customs' – everyone knew that on such-and-such-a-day they went off to so-and-so. Only when something 'odd' happened – such as a crime which survives in the relevant court rolls – would there be a written reference.

    St James' – the pilgrims' church

    While we have little or no idea of the details, until the Reformation people from the surrounding settlements would have come to Avebury at least once a year. The feast of St James, on 25th July each year, is the most probable occasion. Those coming from the more far-flung parishes (as the settlements would become in the twelfth century) would, as they came through nearer parishes, meet up with folk travelling along the same paths. Considerable numbers of people would converge on Avebury at more or less the same time. They would more than fill the church as big as it is now.


    The skew passage as seen from the north aisle (top) and the chancel (above).

    We have to assume that by the fifteenth century there was a relic of St James on or behind the altar in the chancel. The evidence is the 'walkway' or 'skew passage' which links eastern end of the north aisle with the chancel. The doorways are fifteenth century in design and the construction (as seen from the exterior) is very much an 'add on'. This walkway is unusual for parish churches, although parallels exist in cathedrals and with the provision for access to crypts which once housed the relics of saints.

    We have to assume that by the time the walkway was constructed there were crowds of a thousand or more people gathering at Avebury on the feast of St James. They would have entered the church via either the west entrance or a now-lost north doorway before congregating in the north aisle. The walkway would be essential for crowd management, allowing people to be 'funnelled' through the walkway at a steady rate. After praying to St James for intercession and kissing the reliquary (presumably held in the hands of one of the clergy) they would leave via the chancel screen and re-congregate in the nave. Medieval authors provide accounts of the 'mayhem' at Continental churches where access to relics could not be managed effectively. These 'walkways' are discussed in more detail in skew passages.

    Avebury is situated on a important north-south route from Devizes to Swindon. Prior to the construction of a turnpike in the eighteenth century (which evolved into the modern A4), an even more important route came through Avebury – the east-west route from London to Bath and Bristol.

    Two other historic routes also ran nearby. Firstly, the Ridgeway which connected Wiltshire with East Anglia via a crossing of the Thames at Goring. The end point of this route was Wells next the Sea on the north Norfolk coast, although other important places in East Anglia could be accessed via 'side routes'.

    The course of the Roman road through Savernake Forest.

    Secondly, a former Roman road runs from east of Marlborough through the Savernake and Chute forests almost direct to Winchester. Substantial parts of the this route can still be followed. Bear in mind that in the later tenth century through to the Norman Conquest Winchester was one of the 'cultural capitals' of Europe, with extensive trade contacts with Scandinavia and the major rivers running through Germany and eastern Europe into what we now think of as Russia. These routes enabled trade with the 'Silk Roads' running through the Middle East to northern India and western China. Avebury was on the overland route connecting this trade with places to the west.

    Pilgrims generally followed just such trade routes, partly because the routes ran from one important place to another, but also because the necessary inns and other 'essential services' were established. At least some of the pilgrims would be familiar with at least part of the routes from previous secular journeys. But in reality there is no clear divide as merchants and other secular travellers would have sought protection of local saints in a manner not dissimilar to the way pilgrims offered their respects and sought intercession at the same shrines. Probably the only major difference was that pilgrims flocked to these shrines in great numbers on the feast day of the saint.

    Pilgrims from the south-west to Walsingham, Reading, Canterbury, Winchester and other important pilgrimage destinations would have all come through Avebury, paying their respects – and a quarter-cut penny at least – to the relics of St James. By the mid-thriteenth century the church in Avebury had been dedicated to St James. This main shrine is at Compostella in north-western Spain, and he is the patron saint of pilgrims. We can reasonably assume that pilgrimage was important to Avebury before this change in patron saint, which is consistent with the substantial increase in pilgrims in the twelfth century (see Pilgrimage in England: A concise overview

    However Avebury would be competing for the pilgrims' offerings with other churches on these same routes. Yatesbury and Cherhill, immediately to the west but in a different hundred were clearly rivals, as the St James dedication at Cherhill suggests. But neither had been mother churches so their status was never as great.

    Winterbourne Monkton and East Kennett churches are both about one mile from Avebury and connected by still-extant direct paths (the one from East Kennett following the line of the Neolithic double stone row). Although East Kennett is a curiously liminal settlement – until the 1974 changes houses on opposite sides of the main street were in different parishes – we know there was a church here in 972 as it is mentioned in a boundary charter. Local tradition holds that it was the burial place for victims of a battle between Wessex and the Vikings in 1006. (See East Kennett: the church on the boundary

    Local pilgrmage

    The congregations of the 'daughter' churches of Avebury – the same churches which make up the modern Upper Kennet benefice – would have come to St James' on the annual feast day. The local churches probably each had a procession at 'Rogationtide'. The so-called 'major rogation' falls on 25 April, with 'minor rogations' on Monday to Wednesday preceding Ascension Thursday. The oldest reference is from 470 AD in France, and the practice was well-established in England by the ninth century. Rituals associated with 'church paths' seem to have had a heyday around 1020.

    Since the late nineteenth century there has been considerable confusion about what happened at Rogationtide, as it has been conflated with the entirely different ceremony of 'Beating of the Bounds'. The latter involved walking some or all the parish boundary, checking that boundary markers had not been moved and passing on knowledge of the bounds to younger people. The parish priest typically led a service at a 'Gospel Oak' or similar landmark tree. From the limited evidence available, these ceremonies normally only took place every five to seven years.

    In contrast, Rogationtide processions went from the church directly to a 'Gospel oak' on the parish boundary. But they did not normally follow the boundary. So far as we can tell, Rogationtide processions were organised annually, although they did not necessarily go to the same boundary landmark each year. Quite plausibly 'beating the bounds' ceremonies may have taken place at Rogationtide – after all, everyone was now in the right place – but the Rogationtide rites per se were not about walking around the boundary, merely walking to it.

    We must assume that before the Reformation the congregations at Avebury and adjoining parishes formed Rogationtide processions to distinctive trees marking the parish boundary. These may well have been where roads and paths cross parish boundaries to this day – although such boundaries may have moved somewhat over the centuries. My guess is that where Green Street crosses the Ridgeway above Avebury parish might have been one of the destinations for Rogationtide processions from St James'. Another probable destination would be where the path to Yatesbury meets the parish boundary at the side of Windmill Hill.


    Articles about Medieval life in and around Avebury

    St James' – from minster to mother church

    St James dedications in Wiltshire

    Skew passages

    The alien priors

    Medieval graffiti

    The 'barber-surgeon'

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    Copyright Bob Trubshaw 2015

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Articles about Medieval life in and around Avebury

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St James dedications in Wiltshire

Skew passages

The alien priors

Medieval graffiti

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