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St James, Postlip, Gloucestershire

(51°56′22″N, 2°0′15″W)
SO 998 268
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Gloucestershire
now Gloucestershire
medieval Worcester
now Gloucester
medieval St James
now St James
  • Jon Turnock
6 June 2014

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The hamlet of Postlip is located between Winchcombe and Bishops Cleeve on the east edge of the Cotswolds. St James’ Chapel is located within the Postlip Estate, immediately north of Postlip Hall at the top of an embankment. The chapel is a small 12th-c two-cell structure constructed from ashlar masonry. Later additions include the late Perpendicular windows to the east and west of the building, and the late 19th-c sacristy north of the nave. The most notable Romanesque survivals are the south nave doorway and the chancel arch. In addition, there are four round-headed slit windows in the following locations: south nave wall (east of the south doorway), south chancel wall, north chancel wall, and north nave wall; all, however, are internally and externally devoid of sculptural decoration.


According to Domesday Book (Moore (1982), 169 d), the manor of Postlip belonged to the Greston Hundred and was held by Ansfrid de Cormeilles. Postlip eventually descended to William de Solers who founded a chapel on the manor during the reign of Stephen (1135-54). The chapel was granted to Winchcombe Abbey along with the tithes of the manor (which had previously been given to St Peter’s Abbey, Gloucester). In addition, William provided a house and land for the residence and sustenance of a priest, on the condition that the priest was sent from Winchcombe Abbey and provided daily services at the chapel while William was present (Landboc Winchelcumba, 82-83). The manor later passed to William’s son, Roger de Solers, who confirmed the grants made by his father to Winchcombe Abbey in a charter issued between 1193 and 1195 (Landboc Winchelcumba, 83-85).

In later centuries the chapel was apparently used as a farm building until it was restored by Mrs Elizabeth Stuart Forster in the early 1890s. At this time the chapel returned to Catholic use and a sacristy was added to the north of the nave. Rich neo-Romanesque decorative work inside the church, especially in the chancel, is testament to this restoration campaign. Further repairs took place in the early 1990s with the support of English Heritage.


Exterior Features


Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches

Alterations to the church

Some 12th-c features appear to have been repaired or renewed during the modern restoration campaigns. The left-hand corner of the S doorway tympanum has been repaired; the lintel, below, is a modern replacement; and many of the supporting stones have been renewed. The partially destroyed and blocked W nave doorway appears to be contemporary with the S doorway judging from the style of the nook shafts, bases and plinths. Originally, the arch may have been carved with geometric patterns like the S doorway. Sections of masonry around the N and S nave windows appear to have been renewed.

Relationship to other regional churches

The Postlip sculptors were influenced by, and perhaps related to, the ‘Dymock School of Sculpture’. Fish scale ornament was applied to the bases of the chancel arch at Dymock church, Gloucestershire, possibly as early as c. 1090, and to the tympanum at Hampton Bishop church, Herefordshire, in the early 12thc (Gethyn-Jones (1979), 24-31, 66-71, plates 11c and 55b). The chip-carved saltire cross is a ubiquitous feature of churches attributed to the school. Within the southern Welsh Marches, this motif was probably first used at Chepstow Castle c. 1070 and became especially popular in Herefordshire and Gloucestershire from the end of the 11thc (Gethyn-Jones (1979), 3-4, plate 5b; Baxter). Beading on the early 12th-c tympana at the churches of Kempley and Dymock, Gloucestershire, may have inspired the beading and ball ornament present at Postlip. Common characteristics of the chancel arches at Postlip and Kempley are the roll moulding and saltire cross designs applied to the 1st orders of the arches.

The sculptures at Postlip are most closely related to those at Pauntley church, Gloucestershire, another site attributed to the Dymock School. Pauntley church has a S nave doorway of two orders that is almost identical in construction to the corresponding doorway at Postlip. These doorways share a common idiosyncratic feature; the tympanum and lower voussoirs of the 1st order are carved from the same stone (also cf. the S doorway at Preston church near Dymock). The tympanum at Pauntley is similarly carved with fish scale and saltire crosses, although the scales are more uniform and the saltire crosses more complex than those at Postlip. Even the labels of the doorways share the same profile, the main difference being that the inner chamfer of the label at Pauntley is decorated with roll billet rather than balls. However, this same roll billet ornament does appear on the label of the Postlip chancel arch. The beading around the outer edge of the Pauntley tympanum is comparable to the beading on the NW base of the Postlip chancel arch. An almost identical saltire cross and roll moulding design appears on the chancel arches of both churches (arch of the 1st order, W face). It can be deduced that the same craftsmen worked at Postlip and Pauntley, and this can be attributed to the fact that William de Solers was lord of both manors and likely patron of both churches (Jurica (2010), 287, 298). There is no documentary record of Pauntley church until the later 12thc so it is unclear whether the decorative work pre- or post-dates that at Postlip.

Thurlby (2013), 71, has compared the Postlip S doorway to the corresponding doorways at the churches of Kilpeck, Herefordshire, and Alstone, Gloucestershire, arguing that all three churches were influenced by St Peter’s Abbey, Gloucester. Shared features include saltire crosses on the abaci and arches ornamented with frontal chevron. Motifs found at Postlip and in the nave of St Peter’s Abbey (now Gloucester Cathedral) include frontal chevron, scallop capitals, roll billet and ball ornamentation.

Documentary evidence

The sculptures at Postlip can be dated with unusual precision due to documentary evidence preserved in the cartulary of Winchcombe Abbey, compiled in the 13thc. This includes an introductory gloss by an anonymous scribe, a copy of William de Solers’ mid 12th-c charter, and a copy of Roger de Solers’ late 12th-c confirmation charter (Landboc Winchelcumba, 81-85). According to the 13th-c scribe, William’s original charter was destroyed in the fire that devastated Winchcombe Abbey in August 1151, meaning that Postlip chapel was presumably completed before this date. Roger de Solers’ charter records that the chapel was founded by his father in ‘tempore hostilitatis’; in other words, during the civil war between King Stephen and Matilda, the daughter of King Henry I, that began in October 1139. On the basis of this evidence, the chapel and its architectural sculpture can be dated to the period 1139-1151.

The foundation history of Postlip chapel is a curious tale that warrants further discussion. William’s charter records that he founded the chapel for the good of his soul and those of his wife, his ancestors and his descendants, a formula that is typical of other donation charters from this period. Roger’s charter elaborates, stating that his father founded the chapel from fear of war (‘propter metum guerre’). Finally, the 13th-c introductory gloss records that William was urged by his tenants to found the chapel as a place of refuge because they feared incursions by robbers and evil men.

There were intermittent hostilities near Postlip which lends credence to the suggestions that the chapel was founded for protection. In December 1139, Sudeley Castle was sacked by Waleran of Meulan and the castle was subsequently garrisoned by royal soldiers (John of Worcester, 274-77). Then, at the end of January 1140, Miles of Gloucester plundered Winchcombe. He planned a further assault on Sudeley Castle but was forced to retreat when his men were attacked by the royal garrison (John of Worcester, 282-83; Gesta Stephani, 94-95). In the following months, Robert earl of Gloucester led a campaign in the Cotswolds and recaptured the castle (William of Malmesbury, 72-73). For the next four years the castle appears to have been garrisoned by Miles of Gloucester and then his son, Roger, before it was retaken by Stephen’s forces in 1144 (Gesta Stephani, 172-75). Although there is no further mention of Winchcombe or Sudeley in the chronicles, it is likely that Sudeley was retaken by Earl Robert in the following year (Gesta Stephani, 178-79). William de Solers' political allegiance throughout these events is uncertain.

The inconsistencies within the Winchcombe cartulary do urge a degree of caution, however. William de Solers’ original donation charter apparently made no mention of violence or warfare, raising questions about the validity of the claims in Roger de Solers' charter and the gloss. G. J. White (1999) has argued that Stephen’s reign was mythologised by Henry II and his court to the extent that it became desirable for administrators to retrospectively label the period as ‘the time of war’ and exaggerate levels of disruption. The fact that the tithes of Postlip had previously belonged to St Peter’s Abbey, Gloucester, may be significant here, since the Winchcombe community could have used a narrative of conflict to legitimise their claim to the chapel.

The function of Postlip chapel and its sculpture

If Postlip chapel was built by William to protect his followers and tenants from roving bandits, what protective function, or functions, was the building expected to serve? It has been argued that some stone churches were constructed as strongpoints designed to withstand physical assaults, but this does not seem to have applied to Postlip chapel. The chapel had at least two, possibly three, doorways that would have undermined its defensibility. Moreover, some contemporaries expressed reservations about constructing churches that could be easily fortified for fear that they would be seized and garrisoned by armed forces (Thomas of Marlborough, 180–83).

It is more likely that the chapel was constructed for the purpose of spiritual protection, as a ‘castle of prayer’ to encourage peace, and this might explain William’s interest in sculptural decoration and his insistence on the attendance of a priest at least three times a week and on holy days (Holdsworth (1994), 227–28; Dalton (2000), 95; idem (1998), 3; Landboc Winchelcumba, 82–83). The presence of carved decoration at Postlip, albeit simple and entirely geometric, is testament to artistic continuity in the area during the 1140s as well as the availability of craftsmen and building materials.


E. Amt, The Accession Henry II in England: Royal Government Restored, 1149–1159, Woodbridge 1993, esp. p. 31.

R. Baxter, ‘Chepstow Castle, Chepstow, Monmouthshire’, CRSBI (http://www.crsbi.ac.uk/site/3257/).

R. Baxter, ‘St John the Evangelist, Pauntley, Gloucestershire’, CRSBI (http://www.crsbi.ac.uk/site/3314/).

R. Baxter, ‘St Mary, Dymock, Gloucestershire’, CRSBI (http://www.crsbi.ac.uk/site/3315/).

R. Baxter, ‘St Mary, Kempley, Gloucestershire’, CRSBI (http://www.crsbi.ac.uk/site/3320/).

P. Dalton, ‘Churchmen and the Promotion of Peace in King Stephen’s Reign’, Viator 31 (2000), pp. 71-120.

P. Dalton, ‘Politics, Patronage and Peace: The Foundation and Endowment of Religious Houses in Northern England in the Reign of Stephen’, Anglo-Norman Anonymous 16 (1998).

U. Daubeny, Ancient Cotswold Churches, Cheltenham 1921.

E. Dent, Annals of Winchcombe and Sudeley, London 1877.

Gesta Stephani, eds. K. R. Potter and R. H. C. Davis, Oxford 1976.

E. Gethyn-Jones, The Dymock School of Sculpture, Chichester 1979.

C. Holdsworth, ‘The Church’, in E. King (ed.), The Anarchy of King Stephen’s Reign, Oxford 1994.

A. R. J. Jurica (ed.), A History of the County of Gloucestershire, vol. 12, Woodbridge 2010.

Landboc sive Registrum Monasterii Beatae Mariae Virginis et Sancti Cenhelmi de Winchelcumba, vol. 1, ed. D. Royce, Exeter 1892.

J. S. Moore (ed.), Domesday Book: Gloucestershire, Chichester 1982.

The Chronicle of John of Worcester, vol. 3, ed. P. McGurk, Oxford 1998.

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M. Thurlby, with B. Coplestone-Crow, The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture, Logaston 2013.

D. Verey and A. Brooks, The Buildings of England, Gloucestershire: The Cotswolds, Harmondsworth 1999.

G. J. White, ‘The Myth of the Anarchy’, Anglo-Norman Studies 22 (1999), pp. 323–37.

William of Malmesbury, Historia Novella: The Contemporary History, eds. E. King and K. R. Potter, Oxford 1998.