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The archaeology of Street Churchyard

Notes of a talk by Charles Hollinrake given to the Street Society.

Street has been badly served, archaeologically speaking. There has been one excavation before some building at Millfield School, but otherwise hardly anything. The new housing estate near the Parish Church was put up with no archaeological investigation. This is most regrettable, because Street churchyard is unique in the county, one of the most important sites in Somerset. The church itself is a neat early mediaeval building, and a small excavation is at present taking place within its walls, but the real archaeological interest is in the area around it.

An aerial photograph shows how the extensive churchyard once extended into the neighbouring car park, and was oval in shape. This strongly suggests that it was a 'lan', a sixth century sacred enclosure, probably bounded by an earthen bank and ditch. The graveyard would have come later, and then a preaching cross, finally a church building.

The site of the lan (this is the Somerset term; in Welsh, llan) is at the edge of the flood-plain of the River Brue, an area of hard clay. The edge of a flood-plain was often settled in the iron age.

West of the churchyard runs an ancient, probably Roman, road, which crossed the Brue at its narrowest point. The road was excavated in 1920 by Arthur Paul, and was a stone track in a wooden box-like structure, laid on a bed of brushwood. During the 1986 drought one could see the grass above the stone road withered and yellow, compared with the rest of the field. There are plans to do a dig this year or next on this site.

The present main road from Glastonbury runs along a twelfth century causeway. The original road surface lies about a metre below the present tarmac.

Much of Mr Hollinrake's talk is adequately summarised in his own notes which are appended below, but he made a number of other interesting points.

St Kay (variously spelled), after whom the settlement (Lantokay) was named, was probably the first Christian to take over the sacred site and to surround it by a bank and ditch. All his churches, listed below, were beside rivers, which were the chief mode of transport at the time. The dedication of the church to St Gildas came later, and the present dedication, to the Holy Trinity, later still.

Finds of Roman pottery in the churchyard indicate that the church was on the site of a Roman building, and the gold Iron Age coin shows that the Romans built on the site of a still older building. The gold coin must have belonged to a temple or a palace. It would not have been in daily use as money. Around 1900 Joseph Clark paid the gravediggers for ancient artifacts found in the churchyard.

Other local churches on Roman sites are known, including Glastonbury Abbey and Wells Cathedral. There are Roman sites at Marshall's Elm and other local places, and very possibly others remain to be found in Street itself.

Why, it may be asked, was St Kay never linked with Glastonbury? Glastonbury, after all, laid claim to as many saints and monarchs as it could, in order to attract pilgrims: Joseph of Arimathea and King Arthur were called in to help. The answer is that Street is an older foundation than Glastonbury. The 'lan' is an early form of religious site, around AD 550; whereas the earliest remains in Glastonbury date from the late 6th century. Mr Hollinrake made an earnest plea that local government should take the importance of Street to heart, and give a chance for more investigation into its origins and place in the life of the region.

Mr Hollinrake's printed notes follow:

Historical Background

  1. 6 July AD 680 Heddi, Bishop of Winchester, grants to Abbot Hemgisel the land called Lantocal 3 cassates and also two pieces of land in the island surrounded by marsh called Ferramer [Meare].
  2. In the same year [681] Haeddi, bishop of Winchester, gave Lantocai, which is now called Legh. King Caedwalla later confirmed this donation, though a pagan, and with his own hand made the sign of the holy cross.
  3. [AD 681] In the same year Bishop Haeddi gave 6 hides at Leigh-in-Street to Glastonbury, with the consent of Cenfwine and Baldred, and this donation was confirmed by Caedwalla who inscribed the sign of the cross with his own hand, although he was a pagan.
  4. 1086 (Domesday Book) The Church (Glastonbury Abbey) holds Overleigh (LEGA) itself. Before 1066 it paid tax for 4 hides. Land for 10 ploughs of which 2 are in lordship. One of these was thaneland, however it could not be separated from the church. In lordship 4 ploughs, with 1 slave, 7 villagers and 10 smallholders with 5 ploughs and 2 hides. Meadow, 35 acres; pasture, 30 acres; woodland, 6 acres. 2 cobs; 8 cattle; 20 pigs; 55 sheep. Value £8; when Abbot Thurstan acquired it, 60s.
  5. AD 1278 Essoin taken before the kingsin the chapel of St. Gyldas near Glastonbury on Monday the morrow of Easter, in the sixth year of King Edward [ 18th April 1278].
  6. AD 13 40 "then the most religious Gildas again desired to lead a hermit's life; and going away to the bank of a river near Glastonbury, he built a church in the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, which is called the 'Chapel Adventurous', where he prayed and fasted assiduously ....... in the same place where he had lived as an anchorite there is now a parish church dedicated in the saint's name." [from a vita of St. Gildas, probably produced at Glastonbury].
  7. AD 1545 The churchyard of Saynete Geld of Strete [will of John Bayly]. AD 1545 The churchyard of St. Gelys yn Strete [will of John Rode].

Lantokay Churchyards Historical Background

There are three Lantokay churches in England;
  1. Street, Somerset Lantocai in ca. AD 680.
  2. Landkey, Devon Landechei in AD 1166.
  3. Old Kea, Cornwall Landighe in 1086 and Landegai in 1184
Lantocai is composed of three elements:
  • lan meaning 'holy enclosure or place devoted to religious purposes';
  • to / de / di is a pet form of 'thy' or 'the cherished'
  • Cai / Chei / Ghe meaning the personal name Kea or Cai (modem Kay).
Thus: 'the holy enclosure of thy Cai'.

Landkey ca. 3 kilometres SE ofBarnstaple at grid ref: SS5931. Large churchyard with traces of a 'lan' within the churchyard.

Old Kea ca. 3kilometres SE ofTruro on the Truro River at grid ref: SS844L
Probable 'lan'.
Old Kea once possessed a large parish (an indicator of early importance) including the settlements of Kenwyn, Chacewater, Tregavethan and probably Truro. Probably the site of an important and early monastery.

There are other dedications outside England:
  1. Llandegai near to Bangor in Caernavonshire, North Wales.
  2. Churches dedicated to St. Kea in Brittany, north-west France, include: Saint-Quay "Perros; Saint-Quay-Portrieux; probably Gommenec'h; possibly Langueux and various chapels and the church at Cleder.

Saint Kea or Saint Kay Historical and Legendary Background

The following notes are taken from Orme, 2000.

No Life, or vita, of Kea survives in Cornwall or Wales but a Latin one was written in Brittany at an unknown date by Maurice, vicar of Cleder. It states that Kai, or Kenan, surnamed Coledoc, was born in Britain of noble parents called Ludun and Tagu. He became a priest and a bishop, but resigned and lived as a hermit in Wales at Ros-ene, situated by an arm of the sea called Hildrech and near the castle of Gudrun - residence of the wicked prince Theoderic. Kea cured Theodoric of a disease and was given land to build a monastery. Later he disembarked from Landegu for Brittany and built a second monastery at Cleder. After failing to bring about peace in the British civil war between Arthur and Modred, he died on the first Saturday in October and was buried at Cleder. His tomb could still be seen in a chapel in the cemetery (in the 17th century).

The historian Doble has identified Landegu with Old Kea and Gudrun with Goodern in Kea parish, concluding that Maurice's Life shows knowledge of Cornwall and that it was based on a Life written there. Some Cornish input is possible, given the role of Theodoric or Teudar as the traditional tyrant of Cornish folklore and the apparent correspondence between the saint's feast-days in Brittany and Cornwall........ Old Kea remains worth considering as the starting-place ofKea's cult.

In Brittany Kea's feast-day was kept on 3rd October, and in 1802 the same day (or the first Sunday in October) was said to be observed in the Cornish parish.

Bibliography for St. Kea and other Dark Age saints and Dark Age history.
Doble, G. H., many publications in the Cornish Saints series between ca.1925 and 1946.
Plus other general works.
Orme, Nicholas, 2000, The Saints of Cornwall, Oxford University Press.
Pearce, Susan, 1978, The Kingdom ofDumnonia, Lodenek Press, Padstow

Issues relating to Street church

  1. Street churchyard is situated just to the east of a probable Roman road that crosses the narrow floodplain between Street and Glastonbury. This location is the narrowest part of the floodplain of the River Brue.
  2. Many large fragments of Roman pottery were recovered during gravedigging in the late 19th century. Further sherds have been collected more recently. Grave digging also resulted in the find of an Iron Age gold coin and reports of masonry walls within the churchyard.
  3. Lantokai was one of a number of very small estates granted to Glastonbury Abbey in the 7th century. It is possible that these small estates were formerly owned by the monastery prior to the Saxon conquest of Somerset. Some, or all, might have been small monastic settlements or hermitages.
  4. In the medieval period, Street church was the 'mother' church to the chapel at Walton. Walton was an important settlement and chief manor of the Hundred of Ringoldsway. 'Mother' churches are almost invariably older than their 'daughter' chapels, a further indication of Lantokar's antiquity.
  5. Street was formerly known as Lega, probably from the Saxon leah, meaning a clearing in woodland or, later, pasture land. Alternatively, but less likely, is that Lega might refer to the word 'league', referring to distance (ca. 2½ miles). It is not known when it first became known as Lega, a Saxon word, or when it changed its name to Leigh in Street. Street normally refers to a Roman road but in this case it might refer to the new causeway over the marsh to Glastonbury which was built in the 12th century (the present main road).
21st April 2003.

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