Lancaut sits in splendid quietness, in a sweeping bend of the river Wye, almost cut of except for one narrow trackway, but this is a landscape which once witnessed a thriving medieval village of people farming, fishing and quarrying, now all but gone save the farm house. The landscape we find our self in has a long history, which can be pushed back into the prehistoric, at the neck of the peninsula at its narrowest point defined by cliff edges is an Iron Age Hillfort known as Spital Meend whilst on the opposite bank we find another Iron Age hillfort at Piercefield. This intense activity is possibly linked to the movement of people through the landscape as they crossed the River Wye, later we see down stream a Roman Bridge crossing the Wye and the continued crossing of the river we see with bridges at Chepstow.
The History of Religion Lancaut
The first evidence of a record settlement in Lancaut is from the Llandaff charters, where the abbot of Llan Cewydd (church of St Cewydd who is a relatively obscure 6th century Welsh saint) is mentioned in c.625AD. Whilst there is later mention of a podum ceuid in c.703AD (poda/podum often described a monastic settlement) in c.703AD (1). This appears to be the beginning of Lancaut’s Christian association, and has defined how we know the site today. An early Christian site, which may well have influenced the continued used of the site and association with religion. The historical evidence is however not clear with the later Offa’s Dyke running along the eastern hillside of the river Wye, the proximity may have terminally ended the monastic establishment, and the later site may well be unconnected, but we will never know, one of many mysteries of the site.
The Church of St James
The church of St James the church we see today dates from the later medieval period, there is no mention in the Doomsday book. There is however evidence the church dates to at least to the 12th century with a font now found in Gloucester Cathedral dated to this period. There first recorded association with St James dates to the 18th century with no clear reason why this dedication. The body of the church dates to around the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th century. With subsequent additions such as the piscinia which is 14th century. The phases of the church are currently thought to have begun with the nave, followed by a chancel which was later rebuilt in the post medieval period (2).
Intriguing Religious Theories
Lancaut is a place full of stories what is true is not clear but two of the most wide spread focus on how the church came to be and why it was there. Some have suggested that the Cistercian monks which eventually founded the magnificent Tintern Abbey first set up a church here before moving to the more suitable site at Tintern (3), this remains a local story. But there are other stories which have more tantalising hints, such as the theory that Llancaut was a leper colony (4), a place for the sick, this again appears to be a local story, but what is interesting to note is the area around the church does have an unusually large number of medicinal herbs including the non-native elecampane (once used to treat respiratory ailments) (5).
The Medieval Village
The village was small with only 10 tenant house holds recorded in 1306 (3) and in 1551 only 19 adults. In the post medieval period we see only two inhabited houses in the 18th century and in 1848 only 16 inhabitants. The village was never small reflected in the size of the church and no evidence of expansion typical of churches with growing congregations. Today all that is left of the village is the farm sitting above the church. The landscape is quiet, once a landscape populated with people farming, fishing, quarrying, this world has gone quite, including that of the church, as you approach the church the empty base of a medieval church cross perhaps summarises this change.
What Happened to Lancaut and the Church?
Throughout the medieval era the church appears to have been an independent parish, until 1711 where the parish was merged with another with the new focal point at Woolaston, at this time we see the church is substantially rebuilt and restored (2). The church continued in use into the 19th century over the century the congregation dwindled, leading to services only being performed in the summer and eventually in 1865 the rector of Woolaston ordered the church to be abandoned. The roof, its fittings and the 12th century font were removed, but still the church remained consecrated until q1987 (6). Since the 1980’s efforts have been made to preserve and understand this church with a nominal £1 fee the church came under the ownership of the Forest of Dean Preservation Trust.
The Landscape Continues
This landscape has seen a lot, it has seen multiple religious settlements, a village grow up and gradually recede. A church consecrated and centuries later deconsecrated there is something circular about this story. People come and go. In the medieval period we would had seen making their way to church, perhaps the priest walking across the fields meeting is parisoners, people would be farming, fishing and quarrying. Many memories were created, families were brought up and people died, people carried on. Today the landscape is quite, the occasional walker or rock climber walking past. Nature is reinstating their presence, but with time has come stories and our changing relationship with this landscape has inspired stories and revealed our identities, I will exploring our changing relationship in my next blog!
All photos by W Tregaskes (author)
1 Davies W 1978 An Early Welsh Microcosm: Studies into the Llandaff Charters, London
2 Parry C 1990, A Survey of St James’s Church Lancaut Gloucestershire, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society,
3 Wilkinson P, 2007, Lancaut Gloucestershire http://englishbuildings.blogspot.co.uk/2007/09/lancaut-gloucestershire.html (accessed 26/1/2018)
4 WVAONB, 2010, Timeless Beauty of Lancaut http://www.wyevalleyaonb.org.uk/images/uploads/general/Picturesque_Autumn_2010.pdf (26/1/2018)
5 Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, Lancaut and Ban-y-Gor Nature Reserves, local leaflet.
6 UK South West, St James’s Church, Gloucestershire http://www.uksouthwest.net/gloucestershire/st-james-church/ (accessed 27/1/2018)