Thursday, 25 December 2014

St Nicholas Church

Commanding a superior view of Barry Island and the Bristol Channel, St Nicholas Church 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. Located by the modern A4050, it was the former parish church and would have formed a part of the network that was the medieval village of Barry; it also contains the mortal remains of many of old Barry’s former villagers' and no doubt those of its more affluent locals'. Unfortunately, in regard to the de Barri family there are no monuments to them or their patronage as is common with many of the Vale’s older churches’ (their line died out in the 14th century). There is but an echo of the final resting place of the de Barri family as ‘dressed-lias stone coffin shaped slabs’ were located in the customary chancel position; this was often reserved for the local gentry, the closer to the alter, the closer to God. There are no gravestones that predate the 18th century as what you now see it an inferior Victorian facsimile of the real thing; the medieval church was destroyed in 1874. 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.  

Detailed information is unfortunately lacking regarding the medieval church, we do know though 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) which is fitting given that it is contiguous with the local harbour. The medieval church could have been Norman in origin; this is reinforced by a ‘circular sutton-stone style Norman font’ although no other evidence from this period is extant. The original church was small being around 14 meters in length by 5.9 meters. The church was basic and encompassed a chancel and nave. The church features dressed-stone lancet windows (a feature of early Gothic ecclesiastical architecture). Its door was again of Vale limestone but chamfered, again a common feature of stone building from the medieval period denoting a well-constructed building. The windows apparently also possessed iron grilles and internal shutters and it is possibly that the roof was actually thatched during this phase.  We also know that the church interior floor was possessed of crushed up robbed Roman bricks, the first phase walls also contained Roman brick again they 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 15th century the church underwent a number of changes. The roof seems to have been possessed of the now universally popular Cornish slates with glazed, serrated ridged tiles just like the castle and the chapel on the island. The chancel was rebuilt owing to subsidence, but funds must have been lacking as the walls were bonded with clay rather than mortar as in the first incarnation of the church. A commodious Perpendicular door was erected as was a 'carved stone bracket for a statue of the patron saint' added over the south inner door. It seems that St Nicholas’ was also to benefit from that popular 15th century innovation in churches, the rood screen. The chancel arch was rebuilt in a flat, pointed style, possibly to accommodate the rood screen.

It seems likely that the church yard during the medieval period only had one actual wall (the north side), the rest seems to have made-do with earth banks and ditches. This is reinforced by the discovery of late thirteenth to early fourteenth century pot shards in the bottom of the S.E corner ditch. Most of the burials were located to the south of the church yard, some were marked by rough slabs. At the S.E. side of the churchyard there existed a 10 meter squared ditch enclosure as well as a stone structure; it's exact purpose remains a mystery, but the excavators assert that it may have had some agricultural function associated with the collection of tithes for the priest or/and the glebe. The priest's actual living was literally provided for by the community and the actual tithe was traditionally ten percent of crops and animal produce as well as the glebe land hence there is some credibility in this structures function being related to the churches' form of revenue.  During a later medieval phase a dry stone wall was constructed over this area, this came to form the east side of the church yard. 

The later medieval church yard of the 15th century was embellished with an ornate cross of the Somerset school which was located to the right of the porch; like many church yard crosses of this period, it would have been possessed of a set of stone steps. The cross depicted on one side an image of the Virgin Mary with possibly a scene of Christ crucified on the other side. This church yard then would have looked like many of the extant examples left in the Vale of Glamorgan. 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, as per usual, whitewashed over during the Reformation.  Like most medieval interiors of well-made buildings, the rood screen and church itself would have been painted and colourful. 

(St Nicholas  church as  it stands today)

Of course the medieval and post-medieval church yard was exponentially much more than simply a place of death, on the contrary it was full of life as it was frequently used for a variety of purposes; post medieval evidence of coins and ale jugs attests to this as church yards were used as meeting places, for fairs, plays and places of business.

During the laying of service trenches in 1960 the remains of a ‘medieval domestic building with associated rubbish pits were discovered’. In 1983 the house was excavated and the remains of what is speculated, given its close juxtaposition to the church, to be a priests house came to light. It originally stood on the east-side of the church entrance, NE of the medieval church. It was aligned E.W., 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 other than it was constructed of perishable materials, perhaps of turf and that it was probably destroyed by fire.

The second house, possibly constructed late thirteenth century had walls built of the ubiquitous Vale limestone, in this case rubble bonded with clay and the now familiar fragments of reused Roman building materials were also discovered; the wall as also pointed with mortar suggesting a building of some status. Unusually, in this instance two complete Roman roof tiles were recovered.

This in itself is worthy of consideration. 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'.

Again the ubiquitous late 13th and early 14th century pot shards were found in a rubbish ditch along the south wall. To the east section of the house shards of an earlier 13th century jug were excavated. Both contexts contained evidence of domestic cooking and a varied diet in the form of animal bones (ox, pig, horse and chicken) and fish bones and mollusc shells. It seems likely than that this was indeed a domestic residence although unfortunately we cannot be completely certain of its actual use. The variety of food waste excavated suggests a good diet beyond the pottage of the humble peasant and may be indicative of status i.e. a pampered parish priest. The excavators assert that this building seems to have fallen out of use toward the end of the medieval period perhaps around the early fourteenth to the early fifthteenth centuries’ date range. Given that in the 15th century Barry was amalgamated with Porthkerry due to a much reduced population, the building might have become redundant as a consequence of this.

The church is presently used by a local scout group.  

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