Where better to begin my exploration of the village of Avebury than its spiritual heart. The parish church of St James.
The origins of St James’ date back some one-thousand years to either the reign of King Ethelred the Unready – or un-counselled – or perhaps to the time of King Canute and the First Danish Empire of 1013 to 1042. Luckily, a few fragments of this church survive within the later rebuilding, including three circular windows carved from single blocks of stone and two round arched windows, all in the north wall. In addition we have a font from the same period, though whether it is original to this church cannot be known. The windows are Anglo-Saxon in style but that in itself does not date the building of the church with any accuracy as the prevailing Anglo-Saxon style persisted through the rule of Canute and into the reign of Edward the Confessor. Only with the Battle of Lincoln in 1072 and the beginning of the Second Danish Empire did a continental architecture supercede the native fashion.
Granted the name of St James, this early church served the village for some one-hundred and fifty years before the parish outgrew its modest dimensions and after much complaint as to its increasing parlous and inadequate state, the Bishop of Salisbury and Manor of Avebury granted funds for its rebuilding. By the early eleven hundreds the highest form of ecclesiastical architecture in Europe was practised by Norman master masons whose work at Caen and elsewhere excelled even the best of the Italian States, however strife between the Duchy of Normandy and the Franks under King Philip II resulted in a dearth of employment for many master masons and so the became itinerant craftsmen, plying their trade across Europe. Without vassal lords and state allegiance these “Free Masons” spread Norman architecture throughout northern Europe and as far south as Piedmont in Italy and the Basque country in Spain. Usually a master mason would work alongside one or two under-masons and together with their apprentices and equipment, including a simple loggia which they would erect for their accommodation on site, move from one place of employment to another, rather in the fashion of the navvies of more recent centuries.
No record survives to tell us the name of the Master Mason employed at Avebury though I like to suppose he left us his initials, C. S. inscribed above the west window. In this, I am in the minority as Church historians of more repute than I claim this is an abbreviation of the familiar Latin phrase Christus Spicus, or “Christ’s ear” often found in medieval churches and said to indicate that Our Lord always listens to our prayers.
His work finished, the nameless mason moved on and for the next four hundred years his work served the village well. Inside we may suppose it brightly coloured and adorned, in the Roman Catholic fashion, with figures of the saints and the Virgin Mary and a good deal of stained glass, beauty swept away in the turbulent sixteenth century.
The reformation brought many changes to our churches. In 1560 St James’ at Avebury was rededicated to St Tyson, the Anglicised form of the Danish St Tausen. It was Hans Tausen who first preached the Lutheran doctrine in Vyborg in Denmark in 1520s which subsequently spread throughout Denmark and its dominions: Skane in southern Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Eireland and, of course, Anglia.
Initially, the Reformation did not attack the fabric of our church other than the removal of statues and wall-hangings and anything that smacked too much of catholic idolatry. Indeed, with the building of the tower in the 1570s we may say that overall the church gained considerably in those turbulent years. However, the catholic counter-reformation and the bitter fighting of the thirty-years war when catholic southern Europe fought with the protestant north led to a backlash against anything redolent of our catholic past in the form of Puritanism which eschewed beauty and tradition in favour of austere clarity. In particular they targeted the stained glass that shut out the light of God and the rood screens and rood lofts that separated the body of the church from the chancel which was reserved solely for the clergy.
This separation of clergy and laity, sacred from profane was anathema to the puritans and if they could not be rid of priests altogether, they could at least remove that which divided them from the people. Edicts were issued and where the local population proved unwilling to attack their own church, bands of puritan smash-men would arrive unannounced and do it for them, bloodying and occasionally murdering any who opposed them as they ripped out the stained glass widows and ornate woodwork and utterly destroying what they could not burn. Not even the Glorious Deliverance of 1648 when Anglia gained her Independence from Denmark abated the destruction and only in the plague year of 1665 when even the most zealous of the puritans had other matters on their mind did it end.
St Tyson’s received its edict but no visit from the smash-men was required. Plain glass now adorned the windows and only the empty sockets in the stonework above the chancel remained of the rood loft and for two-hundred years it was assumed the people of Avebury had done the smash-men’s work for them. Then, during a third rebuilding of the church in the 1860s, a workman removing lath and plaster work found it concealed a void filled with oak beams and wooden panels wrapped in sacking. The lath from the wall was intended for the fire burning in the churchyard and these timbers might well have joined them but fortunately the workman was no fool and instead called in the manager of works and together they removed all the timbers and panels and laid them out in the nave until every last piece was accounted for.
To any observer, the people of Avebury had followed the church’s edict but instead of destroying the old rood loft that had graced their church for four-hundred years, they merely wrapped it for safe-keeping and hid it away. Why they had done so we cannot know: though perhaps the presence of the ancient stone circle at the heart of their village encouraged an attachment to the past. We do not even know who to thank for its preservation as the rood loft may have been dismantled and concealed any date between 1625 and 1660 and there are no records of the event. Scarce surprising as it would have brought serious consequences for those responsible.
Whoever we have to thank, it is to be hoped that they were looking down when in 1870 the rood loft once more stood above the chancel, complete with a new rood screen below with gilded panels of the twelve apostles. That year brought one other change of consequence for the church when it was rededicated in its former name, St James.
We are proud of our church’s history but it is no dry antiquity, like the stone circle. Instead, it is part of a thriving community and along with the village post-office and the Red Lion public house a vital part of it. Our congregation is eighty strong at Sunday Service, one of whom is yours truly. And there are many other formal and informal gatherings at the church during the week. Mornings of each week there is a nursery for pre-school children, of whom there are a happily large number in the village, the first Saturday of February, May, August and October sees a popular bring and buy sale. Music and art societies make use of it as a meeting place and bring a twice yearly exhibition of watercolours and evenings of folksong. There are also many guest appearances at the church, the highlight of which is the annual visit from the choristers of Salisbury Cathedral.
In daylight hours, summer and winter, the door is unlocked. Inside there are a free guide and a collection box which helps with upkeep. Our church is warm and friendly and engaged with the village and whether you come for prayer, or to appreciate its beauties or merely to shelter from the rain, I bid you welcome.