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St James church, Avebury

 

St James dedications in Wiltshire

There are twelve dedications to St James in Wiltshire. Travelling on the old route from Exeter to London, the first sizeable place encountered in Wiltshire is Ludgershall. The church is dedicated to St James, and this probably goes back before 1291, when the town's fair was held on the apostle's feast.


The modern bridge at Woodbridge.

North Newnton church.


The next sizeable place on that route is Devizes but halfway between is Upavon, where the Hampshire Avon needs to be crossed. An alternative crossing point, requiring only a short detour, is at North Newnton where the roadside pub is still, significantly named the Woodbridge Inn (although the adjacent bridge is no longer wooden). The church at North Newnton is dedicated to St James and appears to have attracted large numbers of people on his feast day presumably to view a relic.

The church at Stert, two miles from Devizes, is another St James dedication, although the first evidence is not until 1733. On Devizes Green at Southbroom, just outside the borough, the Andover road met that from London into Somerset, which diverged from the 'great west road' to Bristol a few miles north of the town. In the eastern corner of Devizes Green stood a leper hospital whose patron was James (after 1208 shared with St Denis). Near the present church of St James, a house called Spitalcroft (more recently simply Croft) is reputedly on the site of the hospital.

Only ten miles to the west and on the road into Somerset is Trowbridge. The church's dedication to St James seemingly goes back before 1200 when a charter for a fair on the apostle's feast was granted.

If instead the medieval traveller was using the 'great road' from London having already passed Reading and was following the Kennet valley through Marlborough heading towards Calne and Chippenham they would reach Avebury. The church at Avbury was dedicated to St James by the mid-thirteenth century (see photograph at top of this page). This is, however, an improbable dedication for the original minster and – the place-name suggests a putative St Afa (see the separate article about St Afa.)

The present parish church, and former minster, was not the only medieval religious establishment in Avebury as a priory of the abbey of St Georges de Boscherville near Rouen existed until the Dissolution (the site is not known but most likely to be the precursor to Avebury Manor, just to the north-west of the parish church).

Rouen, and the abbey of St Georges de Boscherville, is on one of the roads of St James from the Channel. Plausibly – although there is no actual evidence – the priory at Avebury was dedicated to St James (see the article about the alien priors.

The presence of a skew passage in Avebury church strongly suggests that large crowds of visitors needed to be 'managed'. Very plausibly there was a relic of St James in the chancel at Avebury until the Reformation (see the article on skew passages.


Cherhill church.


Only a couple of miles towards Bristol from Avebury is the church at Cherhill. This chapelry of Calne, with substantial parts of the nave and chancel from the twelfth century, was dedicated to St James by 1405.

Elsewhere in Wiltshire the church at Dauntsey, with two Romanesque doorways, is also dedicated to St James. It is on the opposite side of the Wiltshire Avon to Somerford. The river is forty to fifty feet wide and, as Somerford suggests, may have been tricky to cross in the winter 'so a wish for safe passage could have contributed to Dauntsey's choice of its patron saint.' (Jones forthcoming).

DR Graham Jones considers that another possible factor in adopting St James 'was the presence outside nearby Malmesbury of a probable relic or miraculous image of the apostle associated with his three-day fair at the same place. The fair was granted to the monks of Malmesbury Abbey in 1252 and was still operating in the seventeenth century.' This fair was held at a farming settlement of the monks called Whitchurch. In 1535 offerings made from or at an image of St James at Whitcurch were taken by the abbey.

The double patronage of both the chapel and fair is also known at Ashley, a place on Wiltshire's northern boundary which transferred to Gloucestershire in 1930. It is half-a-mile to the west of the Fosse Way and readily accessible from either Tetbury or Malmesbury.

The remaining St James churches in Wiltshire are at Buttermere on the eastern border, a difficult five miles from the London-Bristol road on the far side of a steep scarp and a dedication known only from 1763; Berwick St James, in the south, which lies about a mile from the London to Exeter road and whose dedication is presumed from circa 1191; and Bratton, five miles south-east of Trowbridge and two-and-a-half east of Westbury, of which it was a chapelry and with no firm date for its dedication earlier than 1754.

Further research is needed to establish if there is any additional evidence for pilgrimage associated with these churches.

Acknowledgements

This article summarises research in a forthcoming article by Dr Graham Jones. Graham most helpfully looked in detail at Wiltshire dedications to St James in response to my request for assistance in understanding St James' dedications, and visited St James' at Avebury.

Sources

Jones, Graham, 2007, Saints in the Landscape, Tempus.

Jones, Graham, forthcoming, 'Devotion to St James the Great in medieval Britain, and its European context: How many roads to Compostela?'

 


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 the prehistory of Avebury and environs

Overview of prehistoric Avebury and environs

Altars not burial mounds

Henges – brands or performances

Henges – dead or alive

Simulacra photos

Sound in the prehistoric landscape


Avebury and environs in the Roman period


Articles about Anglo-Saxons in and around Avebury

What was a bury?

St Afa

East Kennett: the church on the boundary

Upstream-downstream

Wiltshire battles

Understanding the Wansdykes


Articles about Medieval life in and around Avebury

Overview of medieval Avebury and environs

St James' – from minster to mother church

St James dedications in Wiltshire

Skew passages

The alien priors

Medieval graffiti

The 'barber-surgeon'


Articles about aspects of Avebury's twentieth century history

Overview of twentieth century Avebury

Avebury ghosts

Keiller's occult connections

Halloween 1938

Mary's annunciation

photo gallery