St James’ is an ancient Grade-1 listed Church and a sense of wonder will always develop when you think that people have been worshipping on this site for nearly a thousand years.
No one is really sure when people first began to gather on the high ground at Finchampstead to give praise. It is easy to imagine how, standing on the hill and viewing the countryside around, they felt closer to God. It is quite possible that some form of worship goes back to pagan or pre-christian times.
The original St James’ church building was created by Sir Alard Banestra with the help of monks from Reading Abbey and local Villeins and surfs, etc. Dates vary, probably due to the long period of years it took to build the original church but it is thought to have been started in the 1120’s and completed in about 1134.
Simple Saxon Churches were improved by the later Normans who engaged in an intensive programme of building throughout the land. It was during this time that St. James’ took its present basic form in c1150.
Just inside the main door standing by the Font: Here you can see the most ancient part of the Church – and the first intriguing historical puzzle. The font is certainly older than any other part of the building. A mason probably crafted it c1030. The base is believed to have been built around 1855.
If you look left you will see in the wall a Holy Water Stoup: This dates back to pre-Reformation times and was only discovered in 1915. In 1855 the churchwardens decided to cut an offertory box into the wall and unwittingly sliced through the top of the Stoup.
Turning left at the font, look down the aisle into the Chancel where you can see the whole of the original Norman Church Nave, Chancel and Sanctuary. Here you are looking at the work of craftsmen who lived over 800 years ago. The circular shape of the Sanctuary is known as an Apse and is a rare feature in English Churches. Many Norman Churches were built with Apses, but the majority were squared-off in later construction.
Look to the right in the Sanctuary, you will see a Piscina: In the Sanctuary wall there is an arched recess, known as a Piscina. This is where the Sacred Vessels are cleansed after Holy Communion. St James’ Piscina was re-discovered in 1855 when various alterations were being made to the Church.
Amongst the Church Plate is a Chalice and Paten of silver dated 1591. These are not kept on Church premises, and can only be seen during Holy Communion services or on special occasions.
Facing the Sanctuary you can see above the altar one of the most glorious features of St James’; the eastern facing stained glass window depicting the transfiguration: This was dedicated, in 1932, to the Rev Egerton-Corfield by the Parishioners of Finchampstead. The window framing above the altar and the window frame in the South Wall of the Nave was constructed during the 14th Century.
On the right of the Chancel is the Pulpit: Most pulpits have their origin in the reign of James I (1603-1625). It is decorated with mid 1400’s tracery, probably taken from the rood screen which would have divided the Nave from the Chancel. There are no other remains of the original Rood screen.
Now look upwards at the Nave Roof: You can see above the fine moulded tie beams and wall plates of the Nave roof – a fine example of 15th Century carpentry. The north Chapel too has a massive timbered roof with cambered tie-beams and moulded wall plates of about the same period.
Turning left through the arches is a little Chapel: The Chapel, or in some sense a northern Transept, was started around 1375. Look more closely and you can see how this was constructed. The builders, in making the two arches leading to the Chapel, knocked through the original outside wall of the Church. They cut in half one of the old original slit windows, which can still be seen above the arches to the Chapel. They also decided to replace the original arch between the Nave and the Chancel with a much larger one giving more visibility between the Chapel and the main part of the Church.
About a hundred years later, the Chapel was enlarged to its existing size and over a century after that (c1590) a separate entrance was constructed in the corner which we now all refer to as the 1590 door. Thomas Harrison, Esquire, of East Court, probably did much of this work as he left his initials, and date, on the outside lintel of the door.
The banner of General Sir John Watson, V.C., G.C.B. which formerly hung in the Henry Vll Chapel in Westminster Abbey was brought back to Finchampstead on his death when it was hung over his memorial bust in the chapel wall, until it became so fragile it was retrieved and repatriated with the Watson family.
Here also is the Organ Console, a Compton, refurbished in 2006. St James’ Church prides itself on its fine music; choristers and music accompany many services.
Charles II – The English Civil War – ‘Royal Coat of Arms’: Oliver Cromwell (The Commonwealth 1653-59) ordered all Royal Arms to be taken down throughout the country and to be destroyed. The loyal churchwardens of Finchampstead wasted no time in hiding the plaque somewhere safe, as the date on the panel and the King’s initials testify: C.R. (Carolus Rex) 1660. It was finally retrieved and proudly displayed.
On the edge of the chancel, you will see the Lectern, (reading desk) beside which is a fine Memorial plaque to Henry Hinde dated 1580: Henry was Purveyor at Court to four monarchs; Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth I. Look up to find a small statue of St. James brought back from a pilgrimage to Spain. From here you have a fine view of some of the stained glass windows in the nave: Jesus as a baby, as a 12 year old in the temple and then at a wedding at Cana in Galilee.
On the south wall of the Nave, a 17th Century brass depicts Elizabeth Blighe who died in 1635. Further down the south wall, opposite the main door is our most recent Brass plaque, erected in 1990 in memory of Lady Helen Gladys Liddell, MBE. Lady Liddell, who was born on the 20th April 1883 and died on the 24th June 1984, was an active Christian and a Churchwarden for many years and lived in the Manor House, adjacent to the Church, for much of her married years. Walking back down the aisle westwards you will face the fine oak casing which houses the organ pipes. The casing was built by a local craftsman in 1952 but, with the organ restoration in 2006, louvres were cut to improve sound quality and a splendid new front grille was added which includes some decorative pipes.
Continue down the aisle of the Nave and find the Vestry: Immediately on your left you will see the list of Rectors of Finchampstead. Prior to 1299 they are largely unknown. In the vestry you can see hanging on the wall a plaque with the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ written in ‘olde’ English style. Try reading this aloud. A door leads, via a narrow spiral staircase, up to the ‘Ringing-Chamber’ and on upwards to the ‘Bell-Chamber’. Then, via a steep fixed ladder, the journey continues to the roof of the tower. Here, on the top of the tower, it is possible to have a wonderful panoramic view for miles across many counties.
The Tower: The magnificent red brick bell tower was built in 1720 from bricks made out of the ground once forming part of the glebe lands then known as ‘Bricknells’. On the four sides of the tower the open-lattice windows deserve special mention. Once a year close to the 25th July, during our Patronal Festival marking the celebration of St James’, the tower is opened to the public. If you are energetic it is worth climbing to the top of the tower to see the breathtaking views.
The Church Bells: The Bell Chamber houses six fine bells; five dating from 1792 and the sixth was added in 1885 to commemorate the eightieth birthday of the Reverend Edward St. John, then Rector of the parish. Now, like centuries before, the Church bells ring out to welcome parishioners to the weekly services. The bells were refurbished and rehung in 2005.
The Church Porch: One of the most recent additions to the Church building is the 19th Century porch and this is where we keep all our current PCC and Church services notices. Visitors: please sign the ‘visitors book’.
The Manor House and Church Centre: The Manor House was given to the Church by one of St James’ active parishioners, Lady Liddell. It provides much needed meeting space and committee rooms. These may be used by any church group or church member for their meetings or activities, by prior arrangement with the Church Centre Administrator. This building also houses the Parish Office.
A Parish Hall was added to the north easterly corner of the Church Centre in the early 1990s which now allows for much larger social gatherings and is used for Sunday Club, Fledgelings, Mothers’ Union, St James’ Handbell group and many other Church and community activities. Coffee is served here after services.
A major internal and external conservation project was undertaken between August 2009 and April 2010 on the church building, to preserve as much as possible of almost a millenium of history, but at the same time sensitively update it to serve as the home of a growing community of Christians in the twenty-first century and on into the future. More information about this conservation project can be found here.
with grateful thanks to Olive Butchart (St James’ Church Archivist)
Virtual Tour of St James Church
You can now explore St James’ Church (inside and outside) on Google Street View! Click here to start your tour.
Don’t miss the panoramic view from the top of the tower!
Thanks to Andrew Emptage of The Art Company in Wokingham for producing this tour.