The Avebury Church of St James tends to be overlooked when visitors arrive at Avebury with the prehistoric site and Avebury Manor being the primary destinations. However, the ancient church is well worth a visit if only to take a quick glance at an Anglo Saxon building that’s an important part of the rich tapestry of structures that make up the historic site of Avebury.
The Oldest Building in Avebury
The Church of St James, which was known as All Saints’ back in the 13th century, is located within close proximity of Avebury Manor and near the atmospheric Avebury Henge and Stone Circles. With areas of the church dating back to c.1000 AD, or even a number of years earlier, it’s by far the oldest building remaining on this historic site.
The archway around the south door is in a zigzag style dating back to Norman times and is the first clue that this small village church is of early architectural interest.
Pevsner in his Buildings of England – Wiltshire guide refers to the church as being ‘archaeologically uncommonly interesting’. There are many remaining elements of the early church and the photo above shows a Saxon window within the Saxon nave wall and the remains of a Norman arch cutting off the corner of the window.
The attractive church has, as with all ancient buildings, evolved slowly over time with numerous alterations and additions throughout the centuries, including the addition of the chancel in the 13th century.
A lancet window was also added in the 13th century and today can be seen glazed with an attractive 19th century stained window.
An Early Carved Font
The cylindrical font, also known as a tub font, possibly dates from the Anglo Saxon period when it would have been left plain and unadorned. The unusual crude carvings that can be seen on the font today were added during the beginning of the 12th century and depict two wyverns with their heads turned towards a bishop holding a crozier.
The wyverns with their twisted tails are obviously an allegory for evil but may also allude to the pagan site of Avebury itself.
A Very Rare Remaining Example of a 15th Century Rood Loft
Rood screens and lofts were an important feature of British churches from the 14th until the mid 16th century when Henry VIII established the Church of England and any iconography that was related to Catholicism had to be removed and in most part was destroyed.
Numerous rood screens survived, and were renamed chancel screens, especially in the counties of Devon and Cornwall – the Church at Ashton being a beautiful example. However, only twenty-four rood lofts are left in existence throughout the whole of Britain of which the Church of St James in Avebury has one of the best remaining examples.
The rood loft at Avebury survived solely because some brave parishioners decided to dismantle it and hide it carefully behind lath and plaster on the east wall of the nave. Sadly the names of these people, when they carried out this work and what became of them has been lost through time.
The rood loft itself remained buried and forgotten within the church wall until being discovered during renovation work that took place in 1812. It was subsequently placed in situ c.1879 when the church was heavily restored by R J Withers and a gilded panelled rood screen with painted apostles was added.
Avebury Manor – Within a stone’s throw from the church is the attractive Manor House that’s maintained by the National Trust and was the subject of a BBC television series called The Manor Reborn.
Avebury Henge and Stone Circle – Literally step outside the church and you can’t miss the enormous atmospheric prehistoric ceremonial site.
Silbury Hill – Constructed c.2400BCE Silbury Hill is the largest artificial mound in Europe and found just a couple of miles from Avebury.
West Kennet Long Barrow – One of the largest Neolithic tombs in Britain and even better it’s possible to enter the chamber.
Marlborough – A bustling market town brimming with history. For more information, check out this guide to the best things to do in Marlborough!