Our Parish is rich in ancient and modern history, and the reason is probably due to the fact that it has always been on the lines of communication. The River was much narrower many years ago then it is today, and this, no doubt, meant that the crossing was easy here, so that the engineers who built the Severn Tunnel were in direct line with ancient Briton and Roman, and, later, the ferryman who journeyed, made beach-heads, or plied for hire, as the case may be, in the Parish. The very names of the Parish are historical – Portskewett, Sudbrook, St.Pierre – Welsh, Latin and French. And our population today consists of descendants of old retainers, of Midland and Cornish engineers, and a colony of former Welsh miners from industrial valleys. So the story is always changing, and for this reason it is always interesting. And no story of our parish would be complete without a reference to Harold’s Castle. In the year 1064 Harold, soon afterwards King of England, built what has been described as a castle or hunting lodge in Portskewett near the church. Whatever the building was, it is a point of much interest and it is pleasing to think that both Harold and Edward the confessor, whom some say he entertained there, probably worshiped in the church. The “Castle,” however, did not last long, it was destroyed in 1569 by Carodoc of Caerleon, a Welsh chieftain.
The parish church of St. Mary is mostly Norman with its massive walls and its chancel arch. It consists of nave and chancel, a tower at the West end, and a large porch on the South side. It is considered to be one of the best examples of early architecture in South Wales. In the North wall is the remains of what is thought to have been a priest’s door, and over it is a massive stone with Greek shaped cross cut into it.
This might be Saxon, or at least early Norman. There is also a built in doorway in the North wall of the Chancel. The East window and another on the South side of the chancel were probably built by an unskilled workman who was trying to imitate something better.
In the churchyard, lie the remains of a fine churchyard cross. Some people suppose the church to have been built by Harold. Its plainness and the military character of the tower with its turrets, and its proximity to the traditional site of Harold’s castle lead credence to this view.
The list of Rectors dates back to 1427, and its registers to 1593. Sometimes the Rector held the livings of Sudbrook and St. Pierre. At other times the livings were held severally. But since 1789 all three parishes have been joined under one incumbent.
The registers date back to 1593. They were first written in Latin and on parchment paper, and in spite of their age are still legible. The first record is of the baptism of twin girls, Elizabeth and Margaret. These books contain, of course, the bare record of births, marriages and deaths, and the entries average one a year for many years. We must remember that the population was very small until the parish changed its nature with the sinking of the Tunnel. There is one very interesting entry in 1678, “Hereafter followeth the names of such as are buried in woollen according to the new or late Act Of Parliament for that purpose.” For some years afterwards entries are made of people being buried “in Woollen” and apparently one of the relatives had to swear an affidavit that this was so. The reason, no doubt, was the fact that the English wool trade was declining and this was one way of boosting it.
From 1750 to 1836 the Churchwarden’s accounts have been preserved, and one or two references to them will be of interest. It appears that landowners and householders were required to pay a church rate, which varied from year to year. The church rate was a very old custom and a writer of 1340 says, “Every parishioner is bound to repair the church according to the portion of the land he possesses….”. (It may be of interest to note that, in this day and age, Parish Churches only receive voluntary donations towards the upkeep of the Churches and Church graveyards.)
From the Parish Notes
- King Harold lived occasionally in the parish before 1066.
- King Charles I passed through in 1645.
- During the 1939-45 war King George VI and Queen Elizabeth rested in the Royal Train at the station siding prior to their tours of South Wales.
- Mr Winston Churchill also stayed a night here during the war.
- In 1948 Princess Elizabeth followed their example.
Copies of the booklet, ‘THE HISTORY OF OUR PARISH’, by Revd .E.T. Harvard B.A. can be obtained from St Mary’s Church, Portskewett.