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 St. James 
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History of The Church of St. James the Great, Dauntsey, Wiltshire

The following is copied from a leaflet available inside the church.  It was put together by Robin and Joan Slade with input from other church members – their information coming from church documents.  Our thanks go to them for allowing it to be copied here


"Except a man be born of water and of the spirit he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God"

A church with much character and legend, it can be accurately dated back to 1177 when it was claimed by Malmesbury Abbey.  However, since the Abbey had granted its Dauntsey estate in fee by 1086 and since the manor house and estate was later tithe free, it is possible that Dauntsey church was built before the Norman conquest of 1066 and at that time belonged to the Abbey, having given it away in 1086 it was then reclaimed in 1177.  Then or later, but before 1263, the Abbey gave up its claim to the church:  the benefice became a rectory gifted to the Lord of the manor.  As with many rural parish churches, the history and development of the church is intimately connected with that of these Lords.  Parish priests can be traced back to as early as the 13th century.  In 1961 the living was united with Brinkworth rectory.

1763 heralded the renaming of Dauntsey church – it became, as we know it today, 'St. James the Great of Dauntsey'.  Although it stands within the precincts of Dauntsey Park the church is approached via a lane at the rear.

We enter the Church on the south side, and directly walk into a church whose obvious history cries out to be investigated.  Directly opposite, above the north door, hang the Royal Coat of Arms* of George II; a possible reason for this could be that from 1611 the King was patron by lapse (negligence), as was the Bishop of Salisbury in 1757.

The earliest remaining parts of the church are the doorways and doors on the north and south entrances - they date from the 12th century.  It is believed the nave is also from that same period.  The aisles, arcades and porches were added in the 14th century with the possibility that they were refurbished in the 15th or early 16th century, but kept in the style of the 14th century on the orders of Henry Earl of Danby (d. 1644).

The tower, which contains a peal of five bells, was built in 1630, probably by Sir Henry Danvers.  The pews situated directly in front of the tower are from early last century, 1906, when the roof and aisles were renewed.  At this time the tympanum (Doom board*) was discovered under stone slabs by the north porch doorway.

Looking now to the east, the nave and aisles house several rows of 17th century pews in 15th century ends.  Over the eastern bay of the nave is a finely panelled ceiling with angel bosses.  These are a rare feature in a country church they are normally found in larger town churches.  The Rood screen is 17th century with 14th century tracery consisting of delicate vine leafs and bunches of grapes.  It is believed that the panels on the pulpit are English of around the 14th century.  The windows to the north and south, believed to be from around the 14th century, have an apex of ogree lights with blank spandrels within a square frame.  The bottom section of the windows to the right still have their original square openers.

Along the centre and transverse aisle are some interesting if well worn tomb slabs.   More are to be found partially showing under the choir stalls and one rarity written in Latin beneath a radiator on the north wall in front of the chapel.

The earliest monument in the church lies in the chancel:  It is an alabaster slab immediately in front and to the north of the Communion Table.  It is to Joan Dauntesey, who died in 1455, and to her third husband John Dervale, who predeceased her.  Joan was the daughter of Sir John Dauntesey who died in 1413 and it was through her that the Dauntsey estate went to the Stradling family.  Dauntsey folklore relates that the parish priest named Cuthbert murdered Edward, the last male member of the Stradling family.  The murderer was caught on the evidence of a kitchen boy who had hid in an oven and was an eyewitness.  Cuthbert was starved to death in a cage hanging from a tree in the Rectory gardens, whilst his two accomplices were buried up to their necks in the entrance to the Manor gardens.  There are no actual memorials to the Stradlings in the church, although Edward's sister Anne married Sir John Danvers, and so introduced the Danvers family to Dauntsey; later in the 17th century the family left a prominent mark on the church.

To the north of the chancel is the tomb of Sir John and Lady Anne dressed as a knight and his lady in brasses on the slab; around the top edge - also in brass - is given the occupancy and dates of the tomb.  Above the tomb can be seen fragments of a stained glass window with Sir John and his wife kneeling, and their sons and daughters behind them.  Anne out lived her husband by 25 years; she had a fine canopied tomb built for her on the south wall of the chancel set in a recess with a brass place and ornate surround.  As the shield of the Danvers arms Anne's initials are to be found on the roof of the chancel and on the choir stalls, it can be presumed that she was responsible for furnishing at least this part of the church.  Above is what remains of another 14th century window with three female figures.  Originally there were probably four - they would have been Mary Magdelene, Margaret the Saint for Child Birth and missing Catherine or Dorothy.

To the north of the chancel stands the chapel that houses the tomb of Henry Danvers, created 1st Earl of Danby by Charles I.  In his youth he was page to Sir Philip Sidney and later became a distinguished soldier.  The village school and Alms Houses are only one monument to his philanthropy.  On the east end of the tomb is an epitaph by George Herbert, the Elizabethan poet who stayed for some time at Dauntsey Park.  In the same tomb lie buried Henry Danvers' father, Sir John Danvers, and his sister Lady Gargrave.  On the north wall of the tomb chamber is the Bisset Memorial, and it is interesting that the charitable distribution of coal mentioned here thereon certainly continued for many years well into the 20th century.

On Henry Danvers' death in 1643 the Dauntsey estate passed to his younger brother Sir John, named after his grandfather.  His political views were the opposite of his brothers; he sat in judgement on Charles I and with the Restoration he was condemned as a Regicide, he died in 1655.  As a result the estate was forfeited to the Crown and then granted to the Mordaunt family in 1690, whose name is linked principally with Charles Mordaunt, Earl of Peterbrough.  Above the doorway can be seen the burial cloth from a coffin depicting the arms of the Earl of Peterbrough.

Returning to the chancel we find in front of the altar steps two memorial slabs to the Mordaunts, neither of whom were of great renown.  But of Charles Henry, the last Earl of Peterbrough who died in 1814, it is said his grand funeral cost £3000, and the funeral cortege travelled 11 miles around the village carrying his body from Dauntsey Park to the church next door to allow all the villagers to be able to partake of the spectacle.  His memorial with its raised marble coronet is an ever-present hazard to the unwary.

Lord and Lady Meux lived in the Manor house in the late 19th early 20th century.  The east window above the altar was commissioned by Lady Meux in memory of her husband Sir Henry, who died in 1900.  It is said that the central figure, St. Catherine of Alexandria, bears a striking resemblance to Lady Meux.  Lady Meux, a former chorus girl, was indeed a person of great character and determination.  Due to her background she was not considered the right person to marry Lord Meux and the local gentry made it quite plain she was not welcome in their homes.  The stories concerning her activities are many; on one occasion having quarrelled yet again with the vicar of Dauntsey and wanting no more to do with his arguments she tethered one of her pets, a tiger, to the front of the house to prevent any further communication with him.

One or two other little items worth looking out for in the church are:  the remains of the paupers' pews situated just to the right inside the door of the bell tower where it is being used as part of the doorway.  The screen to which it is attached is possibly part of a larger screen that hid the paupers from the gentry.  The paupers' pews still remained in the church until the early part of the 20th century - one dear lady no longer with us remembered them well.  Also standing in the chapel are four statues of Saints made of wood with a cloth and plaster covering - they date from before the Reformation when the church was a Roman Catholic Church.

The Doom board*, believed to be from around the 14th century or possibly earlier, was used to put the fear of God into the people.  Most people, particularly the poor, could not read and these paintings put the message across in a very effective way.

In the centre our Lord is exalted and seated on a rainbow, with His hands raised in blessing.  High on his left is a representation of the sun, and the Angel Gabriel sounding a trumpet.  On his right is depicted the moon.  Also on his right but lower down, is an Angel with a drawn sword thought to be Michael driving Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden; the fiend is seen blowing the hunting horn and calling the wicked to Hell.  On the opposite side is shown the Celestial Mansion which is Heaven, with the redeemed souls being received at the gate by St. Peter who holds the key of admission.  An angel above sounds a note of triumph.  A further figure, again with a trumpet, is shown leaning over the battlements of the walls welcoming the people home.  In the lower right hand side of the board is the entrance to Hell depicted as the jaws of a vicious mythical beast, and the sinners are being pulled reluctantly in by a large chain.  No hope of escape for them.  On the left are those chosen to enter Heaven walking along the path to their judgement.  Some poor souls are still in their shrouds awaiting their doom.  In the top centre at the feet of Jesus are two kneeling figures, believed to be depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John and Apostle.  Over the many centuries it is thought this particular part of the painting has been over painted several times on the instructions of the Lords and Ladies of the Manor who have had themselves painted in this place of honour.  This was quite a common occurrence as they often thought wealth brought one closer to God.

* Unfortunately the Doom board and the Royal Coat of Arms were not on display when we visted the church to take photographs - they had been sent away to be renovated.  Hopefully we will visit the church again after they have been re-hung and add the photographs to the site.

Before reproducing any part of this text please contact the church officers regrading copyright.

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This page was last updated on 29/06/2022 12:22:29
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