The church is dedicated to St Arvan who, legend has it, was a ninth century Hermit who supported himself by coracle fishing for salmon in the nearby river Wye. There was apparently for many years within the church a stone carving showing a coracle and a salmon.
For much of the later medieval period the Church was in the gift of the Augustinian priory of St. Kingsmark (Cynfarch) in Chepstow. A few interesting early artefacts have been excavated in nearby fields in St. Arvans which point to a possible early Christian settlement here.
The church has an interesting history; it has been enlarged and enhanced a number of times down through the ages. The origins of the Church are Celtic, probably of the ninth century, as indicated by the original circular nature of the churchyard. The current Nave walls and Chancel are now the earliest parts. The Chancel is fully medieval including the original c1300 South Window. Also in the chancel south wall is an early Norman Priest’s doorway, some exterior stone carving seems to have Saxon influence. It was enlarged between 1813 and 1823.
Celtic cross in west windowEven earlier is the Celtic Cross. This is one of only three similar 10th Century crosses in Monmouthshire and was probably a tomb or churchyard cross rather than a wayside marker. It is similar to cross slabs of the same period found in both Scotland and the Isle of Man and demonstrates the Celtic links of these Churches. The cross was discovered during the Victorian enlargement of the Church, buried near one of the nave walls, and was in 2 pieces. For many years it lay flat on the sill of the West window to the North aisle but in 2008 was dowelled back together (not quite straight!) by CADW at their Tintern Works. It now stands near the main entrance and Font. The stone depicts on the front a Plain Latin Wheel Cross flanked by panels of interlacing patterns. The back face has flanking panels, possibly of bird- headed angels. It is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
The distinctive octagonal tower is built, like the other external walls of local red sandstone, was added in 1820, the gift of Nathaniel Wells, of Piercefield Park, now Chepstow Racecourse. The tower has a pyramid roof of sandstone slates. Wells himself was churchwarden here and was remarkable in that his mother was a Negro slave on the family’s plantations in St Kitts. He was Britain’s first black High Sheriff when he was appointed High Sheriff of Monmouthshire by the Prince Regent, and a Deputy Lieutenant of the County.
The Tower has a Ordinance Survey Benchmark.
There is a single bell cast in 1751 at the Chepstow Bell Foundry by William Evans (1710–1767). It is still tolled for services.
There is a memorial tablet to Nathaniel Wells in the Chancel on the South Wall.
A major restoration of the Church took place in 1883. This was designed by the and influential Landaff partnership of Architects J. P. Seddon and John Pritchard, who is best known for his restoration of Llandaff Cathedral, where he was also buried. John Pollard Seddon (1827 – 1906) was a prominent, renowned English architect. He not only designed a very large number of buildings, many of which were churches, but he was also a leading Arts and Crafts furniture designer. 2,000 of his building designs in England and Wales are catalogued in the V & A Museum.
It was at this restoration that the two side aisles, complete with dormer windows, were added.
These dormers are uncommon for a church and the detailing of them has led to many of the current roof problems. ‘The end walls of the aisles have unusual stepped triple light windows with trefoil heads’.
Whilst much of the stained glass is also from the Victorian period, we have two very fine modern windows in the North Aisle given in memory of the Price family.
A refurbishment and partial restoration took place in the 1980s when the curved ceiling of the chancel and sanctuary were finally decorated as had been intended at the Church’s Victorian restoration. This exceptionally fine craftsmanship using medieval colours and gold leaf, was carried out by Campbell Smith and Co. who also carried out decoration and gilding in Westminster Abbey and many Cathedrals including Gloucester, Exeter, St. Edmundsbury together with work at Buckingham Palace, Windsor castle and other national institutions.
At a similar time a statue of Our Lady by eminent sculptor, Siegfried Pietsch, and sacrament house (the place of reservation of the Blessed Sacrament) were commissioned for the Lady Chapel.
Behind the lectern are two brass memorial tablets to members of the Jenour Family, who were worshippers at St. Arvans and benefactors of the Church. Sir Arthur Maynard Jenour was to become the Chairman and Joint Managing Director of Aberthaw Cement. He was one of Wales’ leading Industrialists. He also became High Sherriff of Monmouthshire.
The altar rails and choir stalls are modern but are in home-grown oak by local craftsman, Andrew Pyke.
Externally, this attractive church is surrounded by the original circular churchyard bounded by stone walls. It contains several table tombs including that of Zouch Turton who died in 1814. The Church was Grade II Listed in 2001 due to its three distinctive periods from medieval to Victorian.