Thursday, 25 December 2014

St Nicholas Church

With a commanding view of Barry Island and the Bristol Channel such as depicted in this early nineteenth century painting above, St Nicholas Church has stood for hundreds of years like a beacon to passing sailors. It would have been a familiar sight and a landmark to the mariners' of old. St Nicholas was the parish church for the medieval village of Barry and no doubt contains the mortal remains of many villagers. Unfortunately the de Barri family, the resident medieval landowners, have no monuments or knightly effigies here as is common with many of the Vale’s older churches’. In the grave yard there are no gravestones that predate the eighteenth century; the reason for all of this? The medieval church was destroyed in 1874 and what you now see now is a Victorian facsimile of the original. The Victorians had an unfortunate habit of knocking down medieval and post medieval buildings and erecting near copies of the real thing on the former site; Margam and St. Augustine’s Church in Penarth are fine example of the Victorians’ demolishing the very thing they intend to replicate.  

What we know of the medieval church it that it was smaller than the present church and although aligned slightly off angle to the present church, it did occupy roughly the same ground. Its name is derived from the patron saint of sailors' (St Nicholas) and certainly named so because of the local harbour. The medieval church could have been Norman in origin; a ‘circular sutton-stone style Norman font’ was discovered during excavations. The original church was small being around 14 meters in length by 5.9 meters and encompassed a chancel and nave; it featured dressed-stone lancet windows. The windows apparently also possessed iron grilles and internal shutters and it is possibly that the roof was thatched at some point. We also know that the church interior floor contained crushed up Roman bricks, the early phase walls also contained Roman brick; these almost certainly would have all come from the Knap Glan-Y-Mor site. 

(Multi-phase plan depicting the  medieval church, the Victorian church, church boundary and the priest's  house.)

During the fifteenth century the church underwent a number of changes. The roof was by this point glazed with Cornish slate, the same type of tiles used on Barry Castle and St Baruc's Chapel on the Barry Island. The chancel was rebuilt owing to subsidence and a Perpendicular door was erected. It seems that St Nicholas also benefited from a fifteenth century innovation, the rood screen. The chancel arch was rebuilt in a flat, pointed style, possibly to accommodate the rood screen. It has been ascertained from recovered fragments of interior plaster that the church would have been decorated with the usual medieval wall paintings in red ocher which was whitewashed over during the Reformation; the rood screen and church itself would have been painted and colourful. It seems likely that the church yard during the medieval period only had one wall with the other boundaries being earth banks and ditches. Most of the burials were located to the south of the church yard, some were marked by rough slabs. There is evidence for a glebe within the vacinity - this was land allocated to the parish priest for his subsistence. The priest's actual living was literally provided for by the community and the tithe was traditionally ten percent of crops and animal produce  in addition to the glebe land.

(St Nicholas  church as  it stands today)

Like many church yards in times gone by, they were more than simply a place of death, on the contrary they were full of life as they were frequently used for a variety of purposes; post medieval evidence of coins and ale jugs at St Nicholas attests to this. Church yards were used as meeting places for recreation and business. 

During excavtions in 1983 a priests house came to light. It originally stood on the east-side of the church entrance but unfortunately only a part of the south wall survived, the rest was destroyed by a late Victorian churchyard wall. The house probably had two phases, an early thirteenth century phase of which we know very little and a second late thirteenth century stone built house; this included fragments of reused Roman building materials.

We know that Roman materials were re-used throughout Britain during the medieval period, but the frequency of their medieval associations within the Barry area suggest that the Roman supply depot at Glan-Y-Mor must have been well known during the medieval period and perhaps in a good state of preservation with the deliberate act of pilfering it of building materials the main factor in its reduced and forgotten state, as was no doubt the case for many of Roman Britain's fine buildings'.

The church is presently used by a local scout group.  

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