The Church of St James
St James’ Church is a Listed Building and part of a Scheduled Monument. The collapse of the chancel-arch in 1984 led to the formation of the Lancaut Church Preservation Group, which instituted a major repair programme. The church was finally de-consecrated in 1987. Ownership was then transferred to the Gloucestershire Heritage Trust. However ownership was lost when that Trust dissolved itself without appointing a successor. The church reverted to the Crown. In 2013 the Forest of Dean Buildings Preservation Trust petitioned the Crown through the escheat process and eventually a fresh title was created and the church vested in the Trust’s ownership.
Lancaut is a small peninsula in Gloucestershire, almost surrounded by the River Wye, within the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. On the plateau above is the Iron Age fort known as Spital Meend. Part of the banks of the fort were used when the ramparts and ditch, now referred to as Offa’s Dyke, were constructed. This stretch of the Dyke is now thought to have been built some time before the reign of King Offa. The earliest recorded Christian activity in the Wye Valley occurs in the 7th century and this includes a reference to Lancaut.
It would appear that Cewydd, a monk from Llancarfan, a major ecclesiastical community in Glamorgan, founded a monastic settlement on the Lancaut peninsular in the first half of the 6th century. Little more is known of this settlement, which may have been destroyed in skirmishes with the neighbouring Mercian Saxons, or by Viking pirates. It is clear a church existed in the early 12th century, because it acquired a splendid figured lead font, but there is some debate about whether it is built on the original monastic site. None of the present stonework dates before the latter part of the 12th century, but there is some evidence that it may have been constructed upon the foundations of an earlier structure.
It adds to the intrigue of Lancaut that this modest church should possess a fine arcaded lead font ornamented with seated apostles and curling tendrils of foliage. The design is sophisticated and beautifully executed. Sand-cast in three flat sections, it was welded together with the seals over the joins concealed by carving a continuation of the pattern. The same mould was used for at least five other local fonts, at neighbouring Tidenham, Siston, Frampton-on-Severn, Oxenhall and Sandhurst.
The church continued as an independent rectory throughout the Middle Ages, although perhaps dwarfed by its wealthier neighbour at Tidenham. The Lords at Chepstow Castle held the right to appoint the rectors and regular institutions are recorded from the late 13th to the mid 16th century.
In 1711, the rectory of Lancaut was joined with Woolaston, under the patronage of the Duke of Beaufort, and thus it remained until 1932, when it was united with Tidenham. Regular services were discontinued in the 1860’s and some 20 years later it was decided to remove the roof. Despite some repairs to the walls and gable tops, weathering inevitably took its toll.
The Forest of Dean Buildings Preservation Trust has successfully raised the funding to implement a conservation programme originally proposed by Gloucestershire County Council and English Heritage in 2007. It is anticipated work will commence later in 2014.
As the project develops, the Trust will be promoting an appreciation of the self sufficient village community that once existed at Lancaut; developing a better understanding of the influences of the Celtic church and its progress along the Wye; and reassessing the circumstances of the foundation of the first religious community at Lancaut.
© 2014 Forest of Dean Buildings Preservation Trust
Reg. Charity No. 1147757; A company limited by guarantee No. 6859885