Wall Paintings

The 12th Century Paintings

The intention of Clive Rouse, who was responsible for the work, was to reveal as much as possible of the 12th century painting of the life and adventures of St. James the Great or St. James of Compostela.

Lectionaries, martyrologies and legendaries surviving from the 11th and 12th centuries often contained cycles of illustrations.  These illustrations may have been copied from the decoration of crypts or chapels.  It is possible that one of these illustrative books was used by a travelling artist in the decoration of the church at Stoke Orchard, the gift perhaps of the Lord of the Manor or a wealthy patron.

Contained within borders, unique in England for their detail and variety, and stripped of all the later paintings, we see the church’s very own ‘Bayeux-style Tapestry’, the 12th century ‘cartoon strip’ telling the life of St. James.  The two decorative borders are of serrated leaves, tendrils, scrollwork, knots and dragons.

The story begins to the right of the chancel arch where the apostle receives the staff of Christ, the staff is the T-shaped ‘baccalus’ which pilgrims from at least the 11th century carried and had blessed before making their pilgrimage.  Unfolding clockwise is a series of scenes stretching right around the nave of the church, returning to the chancel arch where it may have been completed with a magnificent painting above the chancel arch of Christ in Majesty or Christ in Judgment.  The last visible scene today is of the decapitated heads of the apostle and Josias rising to heaven on a napkin.  The people in the frieze lack proportion but are recognizable in quite fantastic clothing.  The apostle wears ecclesiastical vestments and always with a mitre on his head; the most elaborate clothing belongs to the magician Hermogenes and to Philetus, the hat of Hermogenes the larger and most elaborately jewelled.

Photographic Display

The photographic display of the cycle of St. James in the church was created by the National Coal Board Research Establishment (then sited in Stoke Orchard), it shows more than the naked eye can see.  The NCBRE, an essential part of the restoration team, photographed the wall paintings mainly at night “to avoid halation and oblique light from windows.  Lighting was usually indirect and well diffused so as to avoid too much contrast.  It was found in photography that plates with a special emulsion or very sensitive panchromatic film were best.  Where detail on the wall was very faint, it was brought out by the use of filters and deliberate over-printing for that particular feature” (Clive Rouse p. 117).

This measured drawing by Clive Rouse of scenes on the south wall shows Abiathar seeking the help of Hermogenes (scene 4), the devils attacking St. James, who is saved by prayer (scene 5), and the capture of Hermogenes (scene 6).  ‘Wall Paintings in Stoke Orchard  Church, Gloucestershire’ by E Clive Rouse and Audrey Baker, published by the Royal Archaeological Institute (May 1967).

The Legend of St. James

So what is the story of St. James?  The death of St. James is told in the Acts of the Apostles, but the story of the wall painting is embellished by the medieval legend of the saint.  The earliest account of the Legend of St. James is the 5th century ‘Passio Iacobi’.

A growing Christian population demanded knowledge of the saints they ‘sanctified’.

From early times there had been colourful accounts of the apostles.  Some of these were written down in the 5th century and ascribed to Abdias, first Bishop of Babylon; written in Hebrew they were later translated into Greek and Latin.  A Latin version was prepared in the 6th century by Julius Africanus, and is usually called the ‘pseudo-Abdias’; this may be the source for the story told at Stoke Orchard.

The story of St. James begins to the right of the chancel arch where the apostle receives the staff of Christ, and, unfolding clockwise, the story continues in a series of scenes stretching around the nave of the church before returning to the chancel arch where it may have been completed with a magnificent painting above the chancel arch of Christ.  The final scene was lost when the chancel arch was rebuilt in the 14th century.  The last visible scene today is of the decapitated heads of the apostle and Josias rising to heaven in a napkin.  It is estimated that there would have been at least forty scenes.  Clive Rouse, to whom the church is greatly indebted, has identified twenty-eight scenes.

St. James was one of the first disciples chosen by Jesus.  After the death of Christ, Our Lord appeared to him on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias (St. John’s Gospel chapter 21 verse 2) and alone to him on another occasion (First Letter to the Corinthians ch.15 v.7).

His execution under Herod is briefly noted in The Acts of the Apostles (ch. 12, v. 2).  As the first apostle to suffer martyrdom James was venerated. 

The story at Stoke Orchard was embellished by medieval legend, Christ gave his staff to St. James either when he was called to be a disciple or during one of the appearances after the resurrection.  St. James first preached in Judea, and after an unsuccessful mission to Spain he returned to Jerusalem and there made many converts among the Jews.  Worried by the preaching of James among the Jews of Jerusalem, Abiathar, the High Priest, wishing to smear the reputation of the apostle, begged the magician Hermogenes to use his magic to prevent James from converting the Jews to belief in Christ.

Hermogenes decided to send his disciple Philetus to confront James and to discredit the faith of the apostle but, after listening to James, Philetus was converted.  He returned to Hermogenes, claiming that the doctrine of James to be true and recited to him the miracles he had seen.  He counselled Hermogenes to become a disciple too.  In anger, Hermogenes incarcerated Philetus with magic bonds as a punishment, but Philetus sent his servant or son to meet James asking for his help to free him.  James gave him his sudarium*.  The servant returned and laid the sudarium upon the bound Philetus who was instantly freed from all the enchantments of Hermogenes.

*(‘Sudarium’ i.e. a kerchief or napkin with miraculous powers; compare that with the kerchief of St. Veronica miraculously stamped with the face of Christ).

The enraged Hermogenes then commanded his familiar spirits to bring James before him, but they too fell under the Saint’s power.  James then requested the familiar spirits to bring their former master to him, bound but unharmed.  Philetus removed the chains and Hermogenes was converted.  To protect him from the devils Philetus gave the staff of James to Hermogenes.  Then Hermogenes brought his books of his false craft and enchantments to James to be destroyed, but rather than pollute the air with the odour of the burning James, Hermogenes and a sailor threw the books into the sea from a boat.  Repenting of their former sins, Philetus and Hermogenes were baptised.  James continued to preach the Gospel of Good News, but was arrested and thrown into prison.

The story as seen at Stoke Orchard moves forward to the apostle’s martyrdom.

The High Priest, Abiathar, turned to King Herod Agrippa who ordered the soldier Josias to arrest James.  On the way to King Herod’s palace a paralysed man begged St. James to heal him, which he did.  Enchanted with this marvel both Josias and the beggar fell down at the feet of James and asked to be baptised.  When Abiathar heard of this, he sent a message to Herod that both James and Josias be beheaded.  As Josias refused to renounce his new faith in the presence of Herod, Josias was struck or had his ear cut off before being condemned to the same fate as the apostle.  At the place of execution, James begged a pot of water and, giving Josias the kiss of peace, baptised him.  Both James and Josias were beheaded, their souls taken up to heaven on a napkin.

At Stoke Orchard the final scene, set in Heaven, was lost when the chancel arch subsided.

The last scene at Chartres Cathedral in the window apex is Christ in Glory, and we might assume that a similar scene completed the story of St. James at Stoke Orchard.

The Story of St James as told in the Wall Paintings (and photographs) at Stoke Orchard:


Scene 1. Christ calling St. James and the giving of the staff.

Christ has long hair and a close beard; he wears a robe sprinkled with crescents.  The figure on the right (St. James?) has his head bowed.  Is he receiving a blessing?  On a smaller scale to the left of Christ are two unknown figures.  This scene appears in the glass of Chartres Cathedral, where the story of St. James is told in thirty panels, but told with differences reflecting their different sources.

The paintings at the east end of the south wall have been destroyed by damage to the plaster and by the insertion of a late medieval window.  Scenes may have shown James preaching in Judea, as at Chartres, and of Hermogenes, the magician, sending his disciple Philetus to confront James.

South Wall:


Fragments of early border and later paintings 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th century.

In scene 1, there is scroll work in the upper border; in this photograph, on the end of tendrils, in the lower border are three small animal heads with open mouths.


Scene 2. (left splay) Philetus disputing with Hermogenes the Enchanter.

Scene 3. (right splay) Philetus thrown into a tower, with chains.

Here, the plaster has been stripped back to expose the stonework; on the left just the feet and lower legs of Philetus remain.  Hermogenes, the magician, is arguing with Philetus, once his disciple.  Hermogenes is wearing an elaborate jewelled head-dress and a multi-patterned robe.

On the right splay a figure, a guard perhaps, is blowing a horn.

Behind battlemented walls a semi-prostrate figure is seen, chained by the neck with his hands bound.


Scene 4. The chief Pharisee seeks the help of Hermogenes to destroy St. James.

Scene 5. St. James, at prayer beset with devils, protects Philetus and his son.

The seated figure, Hermogenes, is seen wearing a cape-like garment decorated with lines of crescents and having a jewelled border; he holds a long staff with a grotesque head.  Pleading with him is a bearded figure with hair in a long plait; he may be Abiathar, the High Priest, who, worried by the preaching of James among the Jews of Jerusalem, wishes to smear the reputation of the apostle, and begs Hermogenes to use his magic against James.

Note the trellis-patterned trousers with crescents in the lozenges.  At Chartres cathedral in France, the story does not show the priest.

Hermogenes sends devils, shown as flying demons with wings and claws, to bring James, Philetus and his son bound before him, but the devils are driven off by the prayers of the saint.

The people in the frieze lack proportion but are recognizable in quite fantastic clothing.  James wears ecclesiastical vestments and always with a mitre on his head; the most elaborate clothing belongs to the magician Hermogenes and, to a lesser degree, Philetus, the hat of Hermogenes the larger and most elaborately jewelled.

In the larger border a scroll spews from the dragon’s mouth.  With human hands the dragon is beautifully drawn, but is the dragon a power for good or evil?  Below to the left, a bird-like head appears, and, to the right, two entwined dragons appear to be biting their own backs.


Scene 6. Hermogenes sized by devils at the command of St. James.

Scene 7. St. James (holding staff) tells Philetus to unbind Hermogenes.

Scene 8. Philetus unlooses Hermogenes’ hands.

Hermogenes, identified by his hat, is shown full face and is bound hand and foot.  He is raised from the ground by a winged devil on either side.  The curved form of his shoes with up-turned toes stresses his connection with the occult.  James, having loosed the demons, sent them to bring Hermogenes before him, bound but unhurt.

There are breaks in the plaster, but it is possible to identify two figures in the centre; that on the right is clearly James, for a wears a mitre.  With a tau-headed staff in his left hand he talks to Philetus, who is identified by his hat and chequered garments.

In the next scene, a nervous Philetus does as asked by James and reaches out to untie the wrists of Hermogenes.  Over the east end of the south doorway only the head and a hand of Hermogenes has survived.

In the bottom left corner we see the dragon biting its own back. 

The background, here and elsewhere, is dotted with crude stars, and is part of the 12th century decoration.


Scene 9. (over south door) Hermogenes and St. James converse.

Scene 10. (over south door) Philetus’ son tells his father to fetch St. James’s staff.

Scene 11. Philetus hands the staff of St. James to Hermogenes.

The heads of Hermogenes and James, identifying them by their hats, are visible.  More clearly seen in the stained glass of Chartres Cathedral, Hermogenes is overcome and ‘all confused’ by the generosity of St.  James.

There are the heads and shoulders of two figures: to the left is the son of Philetus, who is small and hatless, raises his hand as he converses with his father.

Next, Philetus, still half-length, has the tau-headed staff of James in his right hand while pointing to it with his left.  Hermogenes, on the right, reaches out to receive it.  Fearing attack from devils, Hermogenes had asked for something which belonged to James, by which he may be protected.

Hermogenes still wears his identifying hat but he has abandoned his vestments and magician’s shoes in favour of a simpler cloak and simple shoes that come up round his ankles.


Scene 12. (left splay) Hermogenes hands his books of magic to St. James.

Scene 13. (right splay) The shrine in which the evil books were kept.

With hat slipping off, the head of Hermogenes is shown by the window; facing him are the hinges and ties of a book.

On the right splay, what looks like a building, is possibly a reliquary or ‘Zaberna’ in which Hermogenes kept his books.  The Zaberna is not shown in the glass of Chartres.

On the sill, cloth and shoes of a figure, possibly of Hermogenes.


Scene 14. Unidentified?  A Familiar of Hermogenes in argument.

Scene 15. St. James, Hermogenes and a sailor cast the evil books into the sea.

Scene 16 Unidentified?  Another Familiar of the former Enchanter

Scene 15 where the books of Hermogenes are thrown into the sea (rather than being burnt and fouling the air) comes between two figures, both shown with patterned clothing.  On the left (scene 14), we see a figure in profile, who has curling and interlacing locks of hair, and who faces another of which little remains.  At the bottom of the stripped window jamb are the feet of this unknown character, and at the window’s edge, the jewelled border of a robe.  A hand reaches out to the clearer figure.

To the right of the boat scene, a second fantastic figure, similar to the figure in scene 14, is apparently addressing a figure opposite to him of which little remains.  Who are these mysterious figures in patterned cloaks?  Are they evil-doers or familiar spirits, former associates of Hermogenes?  The boat has thick masts fore and aft.  Hermogenes, with his hat, is in the middle, James in his mitre to the left and a hatless figure, probably a boatman, to the right.  Books, shown as rectangular objects, are falling into the water; below these are rough vertical lines, which might represent tongues of flame.

West Wall


Scene 17. Uncertain.  St James with staff overcoming Jews and Infidels by his preaching.   The Familiar is overcome by St.  James.

Scene 18. A vision of Christ, in an attitude of blessing, assisting St. James.

The left half of the scene has been destroyed owing to a settlement in the south-west corner of the building.  There are two figures to the left of James, the smaller with snaky locks and chequered garments, the other in a long tightly fitting garment: though idols were usually shown unclothed, the one appearing to be kneeling may be an idol.  At Chartres, Hermogenes is seen destroying a naked figure standing on an altar.

In the text of pseudo-Abdias, the probable source of the wall paintings at Stoke Orchard, when the repentant Hermogenes asked James for baptism James first instructed him to go from house to house telling all those who had listened to him that they had been deluded.

On the right Christ, with his arms crossed in front of his body, is making a gesture of blessing.  Is it possible that the wavy lines above the border represent water in which a recumbent figure is receiving baptism?  Not only is there the celebration of the sacrament of baptism, but also a celebration of the triumph of Christ over the powers of evil, as symbolized by the dragon.

In the upper border two discerning faces look on.


Scene 19. (left splay) St James baptising converts.

Scene 20. (right splay) Unidentified.  A dragon on the sill is part of the scene.

The mitred James raises both hands and holds them above the small uncovered heads of two standing figures, who are perhaps immersed in water as the wavy lines below them suggest.  Behind James are the bare heads of three bearded figures; are they also waiting to be baptised?

Along the bottom of the sill there are more wavy lines with some creature representing the powers of evil from which the baptised have been released.

To the right of the figure with beard and dark hair the spotted and blotched area may represent a scalloped wing of a dragon or monster.


Scene 21. Probably a continuation of the last: St. James preaching before the prison doors.

The upper border shows a winged and clawed dragon with long ears and who holds the stems of a scroll in his mouth.

Another blotched and spotty area suggests the second wing of the dragon, while, above it is part of a building with masonry walls, a gabled roof, and a series of windows, three of which seem to be blind.  To the right a figure with a very high pointed mitre, suggesting James, is kneeling on a kind of platform, indicated by heavy diagonal lines.

It seems probable that the scene corresponds with the story at Chartres, where the saint, having been thrown into prison, delivers a sermon to his disciples from his cell.

There is a break from the north-west corner to just east of the north door where the wall has been rebuilt or refaced, accounting for a number of scenes to the identity of which there is no clue.  Eight scenes may have been lost at this point.  The story at Stoke Orchard continues with the scourging and death of St. James, where, in part at least, the story is Biblical; in a brief line of the twelfth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we read “It was about this time that King Herod attacked certain members of the church.  He beheaded St. James, the brother of John, and then, when he saw that the Jews approved, proceeded to arrest Peter also.”

North Wall


Scene 22. St. James scourged and condemned before Herod Agrippa and his court.

In the centre is a figure wearing an elaborate head-dress and robes seated on a throne.  He has a long beard and his hair falls over his shoulder; his cloak, highly patterned, has a heavily jewelled border.  Over his left shoulder is an attendant.  The centre figure may represent King Herod or Abiathar, the High Priest.

Owing to the stripping of the plaster only the upraised arm with a scourge grasped in the hand of the torturer and fragments of the trellis-work tunic survive.  In the window splay (scene22) kneels James wearing mitre and vestments.


Scene 22 continued (left splay), St. James between his tormentors.

Scene 23. (right splay), St. James led to execution heals the paralytic.  Josias looks over his shoulder.

The left splay, a second scourge is just seen to the right of the head of James.

On the right splay, the mitred head of the saint with a hatless figure close beside him approaches a figure in the foreground that seems to be lying on a chequered pavement with his head supported on a cushion with a trellis-patterned cover.  He raises a hand as if appealing to the saint and, with the other, touches a bandage which is bound round his head.  This incident is shown at Chartres where a cord about the neck of James is visible.

In the texts, this incident took place while James was being led to execution by a scribe called Josias.


Scene 24 St. James, blessing the healed man and Josias is converted, whose head a dove touches.

In the centre, James wears a mitre different in shape from that worn in other scenes.  He raises both hands and gives his blessing with his right.

To the left of James is the head of the paralytic, identified by the bandage, who raises a hand in adoration.  To the right is Josias who kneels on one knee.  Both the paralytic and Josias are shown in profile and wear trellis-patterned garments and decorated shoes.  A dove emerges from a cloud above and touches the head of Josias.

In the texts it is recounted that Josias, so amazed at the healing of the paralytic, was converted and, kneeling down, begged for absolution and baptism.  At Chartres, both the paralytic and Josias are shown kneeling before James.

In the upper border, two creatures with feathered wings face one another; their heads are long and large with big ears, while their tails are thick.  The plant between them is elaborately scrolled.


Scene 25. Josias is assaulted and his ear is cut off in the presence of Abiathar, the High Priest.

On the left, partly overlapping the figure of Josias in the last scene is a spirited figure brandishing a sword or scimitar in his upraised right hand.  He has snaky locks, associated with evil doers, and represents the executioner.  Half of his tunic is patterned with groups of dots while the other has trellis design.  His left hand seizes the neck of a figure before him, who probably represents Josias.  Josias has short straight hair; one leg of his trousers is decorated with the same material as the executioners, the other decorated with horizontal bands.  Both his feet are slightly off the ground.

Facing Josias, to the right, is a commanding figure seated on an architectural throne.  His horned head-dress is perhaps the most fantastic shown in the whole series of paintings; it is like a Byzantine crown.  His straight hair is worn hanging to the shoulder.  The cloak is fastened at the neck.  Drapery of a lighter material falls in front of the right part of the throne.  Texts tells us that the High Priest demanded that Josias should renounce his Christianity and, when he refused, commanded that he should be “struck on the mouth with fists”, and then sent to Herod with the request that he should be executed with James.  At Chartres, in the presence of a lady, the ear of Josias is cut off and red blood streams from the wound.

In the upper border we see the long broad tail of the creature from the previous scene.

The North Chancel Wall.


Scene 26. (continues from the north wall) St. James asks for water to baptise Josias.

Scene 27. St. James embraces Josias.

Scene 28. The execution: and the souls of St. James and Josias carried up to heaven in a napkin.

Little of the scene on the far left remains.  The head of James with his mitre alone is clear.  This scene probably shows the baptism of Josias before his martyrdom.  All texts describe how, when Josias begged for baptism, James asked the executioner for ‘a pot of water’ and with this he carried out the sacrament.  The scene is not shown at Chartres.

Next are two figures embracing, Josias and James.

Amongst the confusion, above the block of the chancel pillar, two heads with haloes in a napkin supported by the arm of an angel (whose wing appears just below the upper border) shows the souls of James and Josias being carried up into Heaven.

Comparison with the French Cathedrals

Clive Rouse and Audrey Baker’s article ‘Wall Paintings in Stoke Orchard Church, Gloucestershire’, printed in the Journal of The Royal Archaeological Institute (May 1967), has been used extensively in the above notes.  The full article can be seen on the website of the Institute, to whom grateful thanks are given for allowing the use of the article.

Comparisons made by the authors with the stained glass panels at Chartres and with other more isolated examples at other French cathedrals, as well as a variety of texts, sometimes telling the story differently, give authenticity to the story so described in the unique wall paintings at Stoke Orchard.  However, the parish would not be celebrating this treasure had it not been for the skill of Clive Rouse and his team who ‘revealed’ the paintings in the 1950’s.

It never ceases to amaze that this little remote medieval church should have been painted with this wonderful cycle of St. James, Apostle and Martyr.  How wonderful the walls must have been when first painted; if only we could turn the clock back.  Other churches in Northern Europe may have been similarly endowed, but now this church stands unique; it is no exaggeration to say that it is a Village, Parish and National treasure.  We struggle to understand why Stoke Orchard; it may be the gift of an unknown wealthy patron, or by a member of the Archer Family, Lords of the Manor, seeking to impress their landlords, King Henry II (1133-1189), and the king’s cousin, Earl of Gloucester, William Fitz-Robert.

The Legend of St. James did not end with his martyrdom.  It was further elaborated by an account of how the body was smuggled away by two of the disciples of James (Hermogenes and Philetus in some versions) who laid it in a rudderless boat which was at length washed up on the shores of Galicia (north-west Spain), the territory of the heathen Queen Lupa.  She allowed the disciples to bury the body of the saint.  The spot where he was buried was lost until, around the year 815, a Spanish hermit had a vision in which he saw a bright light shining over a spot in a forest.  The matter was investigated and a Roman-era tomb containing St. James’ body was found.  The bishop of a nearby town had a church built on the site.

Around this shrine the city of Santiago de Compostella grew and began to attract pilgrims, who steadily increased in number until by the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a half-million pilgrims a year were making their way to Santiago.  Now, even after more than a thousand years, the shrine at Compostella continues to draw Christians from around the world.  Venerated as the oldest apostle, the first to suffer martyrdom and thus the first to enter heaven, the shrine at Compostella drew pilgrims from across Europe, many believing that the saint had special power over evil spirits and disease.  The pilgrimage to Compostella was popular in England.  Constance Storrs (Jacobean pilgrims from England to St James of Compostella: from the early twelfth century to the late fifteenth century, London, 1994 p.162) shows that in 1314 William Archer, tenant of the manor at Stoke Orchard, may have visited the Jacobean capital; but did he visit as a pilgrim?  It seems likely that Stoke Orchard, around 50 miles from the harbour of Bristol, became a ‘halting place’ for pilgrims travelling from Wales and the north of England to the burial site of St James at Compostella.  Small incised crosses in the jambs of the south doorway (see crosses also at the north door, the south west corner and on the reused stone at the south east corner) may have been made by pilgrims.  We can imagine that the church, though at times a place of quiet, would have been quite different with the noisy throng of its ancient visitors.  The scallop shell became the symbol of St James and of all pilgrims, (pilgrims attached the shell on their hats as a badge of honour) and fittingly the wooden offertory plate of the church is in the shape of a scallop shell.

Five successive schemes of painting (as identified by Clive Rouse)

As one enters the church by the south door it is the Lord’s Prayer that is first noticed…and it is written in full…and is readable!  Had there remained any trace of the 12th century painting underneath much of the prayer would have been removed.  For that reason, high up and to the right, only parts of the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament in two panels remain.

In the middle of the south wall just five disjointed words of the Apostles Creed were left…“who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried…” The Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the Ten Commandments are part of the last series of wall paintings.

1.  There are no fewer than five successive schemes of painting in the church.  The first representing the Life of St. James is dated between 1190 -1220.

2.  An extensive 15th century scheme included brocade patterns in red and a large St. Christopher on the south wall whose feet alone remain (seen below the lower border of the earlier cycle and above the numbered pews).  Pilgrims on the way to the Tomb of St. James in Compostella would have been cheered to see the patron saint of pilgrims.

3.  In or around 1547 (at the Reformation) all the earlier paintings were obliterated and replaced by texts in blackletter script in frames.

4.  In or around 1603 there was another redecoration when Jacobean ornament was placed around the windows, a crowned rose and crowned thistle with the initials I.R. (Jacobus Rex) above the south and north doors, and the figures of Time and Death (seen as a skeleton on the west wall) were put up.

5.  Finally in 1723 when the nave was renewed (the date of 1723 in plaster relief is seen in the ceiling) a further comprehensive series of texts in frames and the Hanoverian Royal Arms (over the chancel arch) were executed.  Of this series five complete texts survive, with parts of three others, and the remains of the Royal Arms.  Included in the last decoration, in an oval frame to the right of the south east window, a text from Psalm 37, “Delight thou in the Lord, and he shall give thee thy heart’s desire”.

By the 16th century south window, fragments of a scene from the Life of St. James and texts from three periods survive.  Above the upper border in the centre of the south wall is a scene that may depict devils drawing a hand cart with faint traces of figures in the cart; the scene is probably a warning of the Torments of the damned in Hell.  It is difficult to see how it fits into the various schemes; it is pre-Reformation.

Non-religious wall paintings

Not all the wall paintings are religious.  The 18th century Hanoverian Coat of Arms above the chancel arch is a show of allegiance to the Crown.  The Crowned Thistle over the north doorway represented Scotland and though removed to reveal the St James cycle there was a Crowned Rose representing England, similar in size, over the south doorway.  For all to see, they displayed the loyalty of the village to the new Stuart monarchy following the death of Queen Elizabeth.

The Archer family and their landlords

Churches dedicated to the apostle James were extremely popular in the Middle Ages, particularly in the 12th century, the period in which the city of Compostella was raised to an Apostolic See, transforming the Jacobean city into one of the most desirable spiritual destinations for medieval English people (Frances E. Arnold-Forster Studies in Church Dedication, London, 1899, vol. 1, p. 86).  The dedication of the church at Stoke to St. James is first mentioned in 1269, but as the church was almost certainly built by the Lord of the Manor it would have received its dedication much earlier than 1269.

The earliest reference to the Archer Family is in a survey made in about 1182 (‘The Red Book of Worcester, London, 1934. vol. 4, p. 350).  The tenancy belonged to William Archer and continued to the death of Geoffrey le Archer in 1351.  The Archers may have begun their tenancy earlier than 1182, the tenancy probably offered to the Archer Family for services rendered in the King’s army.

The survey showed that of seven hides corresponding to Stoke Orchard belonging to the Bishop of Worcester, five hides and one virgate were in the hands of the king (Henry II), who in turn subleased them to William Archer, while the remaining one hide and three virgates were in the hands of the 2nd Earl of Gloucester, William Fitz-Robert.  (A hide was an English unit of land sufficient to support a household; a virgate was a quarter of a hide.)  For the king to be represented as the under-tenant is strange.  The Bishop of Worcester was probably not best pleased for this coveting of his lands; so while, theoretically, the tenancy of Stoke Orchard belonged to the bishop, in practice the landlord was the King and to a lesser degree his cousin the Earl of Gloucester.

In 1182 the landlords were Henry II (1133-1189) and the 2nd Earl of Gloucester, William Fitz-Robert (d. 1183).  They were cousins, sharing the same grandfather, Henry I  who had founded the Cluniac Abbey at Reading, enriching it with the relic of a hand of St. James given to his daughter Empress Matilda when visiting the shrine at Compostella.  Following the 20 years of civil war (1135-1154) after the death of Henry I one of the principal religious programmes of Henry II was the restoration of the status of Reading Abbey, guardian of one of the principal relics of James the Great outside Compostella.  The second landlord, the Earl of Gloucester, was also strongly linked to the Jacobean cult as his own father (an illegitimate son of Henry I) was the patron of the Priory of St James in Bristol.

In her article ‘Rediscovering the Jacobean cult in medieval England: the wall paintings of St. James the Great in Stoke Orchard’ in ad Limina, Research Journal of the Way of St. James and the Pilgrimages vol.VI (2015), Marta Ameileiras Barros (University of Edinburgh) questions whether both the dedication of the church and even the cycle of St. James were a public demonstration of the Archers’ vassalage (p. 247).

We may never know what influence the ‘Royals’ had on the Archer Family, but we can be sure that the dedication of the Church to St. James by an early member of the Archer Family would have been a popular choice with the villagers and acceptable to the landlords.  William Archer travelled to Galicia in 1314, but other members of the family may have visited Compostella before him.  When faced with the question of why this little remote Gloucestershire village should have the cycle of St. James upon its walls it is not unreasonable to imagine it as a personal thanksgiving for safe passage to and from Compostella, but there may have been another reason, more ‘political’.  Whatever the reason we can rest assured that the painting of the life, the miracles and martyrdom of St James would have been received with gratitude, delight and pride by the villagers.

The archaeological dig of 1977

When the east end of the chancel was in danger of collapsing, and before it was underpinned, the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society carried out an archaeological dig under the direction of the field Officer Roger Leech in November 1977.  It soon revealed that the chancel has been rebuilt twice.  Probably at the same time as the chancel arch was rebuilt (13/14th century) the east wall of the chancel was shortened by about three feet.  We shall never know why, nor shall we know why it was rebuilt to its original Norman length in the 19th century.  The original Norman chancel was as long as the present and, on the evidence of the drip mould on the east side of the nave wall it was both higher and as wide as it was long; square in shape, it was more spacious than the present chancel.  The 13/14th century east window of the chancel was reused.  As the chancel was extended at its second re-build it is likely that the whole of the chancel was re-plastered; any murals in the chancel would have been lost.  Possibly at the same time both the chancel and nave were lime washed.

This little church gives us glimpses into forgotten w


All the wall paintings were ‘lost’ when all the church walls were lime washed, obliterating the 1723 paintings.  And lost they remained, only to be ‘revealed’ again in the 1950’s.  Thankfully, the Victorians ignored (almost) this church in its frenzy of church restoration.  It could easily have suffered the fate of having its walls stripped bare.  Because of their neglect, this little gem of a church gives us glimpses into forgotten worlds.  Imagine standing in the nave of the church when the cycle of St. James was completed, the cycle in all its glory.

Though historic, the church is not a museum but remains a place of worship for the people of the parish, and while enjoying the richness of this church’s heritage may all visitors find it a place of prayer and thanksgiving.


The painting of the interior of the Church of St. James Stoke Orchard by Arthur Bell R.W.A is reproduced with the kind permission of David Boswell on behalf of Margaret Bell.

Thanks are due to the Royal Archaeological Institute for the reproduction of the painting by Clive Rouse and for notes accompanying the photos of the wall paintings from ‘Wall Paintings in Stoke Orchard Church, Gloucestershire’ by E Clive Rouse and Audrey Baker, published by the Royal Archaeological Institute (May 1967).

For more details of the archaeological dig in 1977, see ‘Excavation at Stoke Orchard Church’ (Transactions for 1983) pages 181-3 of volume 101 on the website of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society.

Rev. Chris Harrison 2017

Powered by Church Edit