The Round Tower churches of Norfolk and Suffolk are a signature architectural style of these two counties. There are a few round tower churches elsewhere in England and there are vastly more churches in the two counties that do not have round towers but they are nevertheless a cherished symbol. Let’s put this into perspective: there are around 180 round towers in all, of which 120 are in Norfolk, 42 in Suffolk, 7 in Essex and 2 in Cambridgeshire - all East Anglian counties. A further 3 are in Sussex and 2 in Berkshire.
So why do they occur so much in this part of England? It is widely believed to be because of the lack of local quarried stone suitable for the usual square configuration. Thus towers were built with rubble faced with the flint that is abundant in this area. The coincidence of these towers with the lack of quarries is hard to argue with.
What is also interesting is not only that the towers are often round but that there are so many of them. Towers were big undertakings for church builders in any period so they tend not to be readily demolished once built. The comparative rarity of Anglo-Saxon towers elsewhere reinforces the fact that there were not too many stone Saxon churches at all. Compared with the rest of England, these two counties have a superabundance.
It is popularly believed that this can be accounted for by the peculiar vulnerability of these two counties to Viking raiders. It is a theory, however, is increasingly under challenge. The Round Tower Churches Society investigate the architecture of these churches with the thoroughness only justifiable by true devotees and they believe that a defensive role was secondary, if it was there at all (“The Round Tower” December 2011). I am not sure I agree. It’s not that I don’t follow their logic it’s just that I can’t think why so many towers were built in this part of the world at all if it is not something to do with the Viking raiders.
The towers are generally from the Anglo-Saxon and Norman periods, sometimes built in the first period and raised in the second. Again, however, the Round Towers Society cast some doubt on whether all towers that are ostensibly Saxon are indeed so. They point to Haddiscoe St Mary Church tower which they strongly believe to be as late as the last decade of the c11 but which has double-triangular bell openings that are so characteristic of Anglo-Saxon architecture. If they are right then that has profound implications for the dating of other churches in England. It would take a bigger expert than myself to counter their arguments but we should acknowledge at least the fairly obvious fact (repeated ad nausam on these pages) that new church architectural fashions did not sweep away the old overnight. So perhaps we should at least look at the “Saxon” round towers with a degree of circumspection.
The reason for this “specialist” page is simple. Quite a few of those I have seen have been attached to locked churches, whilst others have had little else of outstanding architectural interest. So I have decided to put them here to save myself the considerable trouble of creating a page for each!