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What to look for in Churches

Whole books have been written about this - and earn some of the others a worthwhile amount of money, I presume! I am not a professional author nor do I claim to be a real expert - but I’ll do my best!

So let’s start with some basics.

In English mediaeval architecture there have been six recognised “styles” : Anglo-Saxon; Norman (aka “Romanesque”); Transitional; Early English; Decorated; and Perpendicular. Of these, the last three are collectively known as “Gothic”. Unsurprisingly, on the whole the later the period the more evidence of it you will see in our churches. In reality, very few churches indeed are of one style. Churches went through a great deal of change and expansion over the centuries so most churches are a bit of a mongrel mix!

You might call the Gothic period the “pointy arch” period. Before Gothic architecture the pointed arch was almost unknown in Europe. Indeed, we might say perhaps a little simplistically that the pointed arch defines the Gothic period. So, when you see round arches the chances are you are seeing elements Anglo-Saxon or Norman architecture.

The actual dates for these period are not precise. That is because, unsurprisingly, these different styles did not happen overnight. We call the period between Norman and Early English “Transitional” because for a period our architecture exhibited a mixture of the two styles and it can be said that some things did not occur before and after that period so it had some of its own characteristics. In truth, however, there were always transitional period (small “t” and small “p”)  between any two styles of architecture. Not everything was adopted immediately; not all church builders would have learned the new styles at the same time; and some places and people would be more conservative than others.

The periods are (approximately) : Saxon 600 - 1066.                            Norman 1066 - 1160.                         Transitional 1160 - 1200.                                                                                                         Early English 1200 - 1300.            Decorated 1300 - 1350.                    Perpendicular 1350 - 1660.                                              

The Outline of an English Parish Church

Let’s talk about the structure of churches and develop a vocabulary of terms. You will find that there is a huge range of terminology in church architecture, much of it very abstruse, some of it rather pretentious and quite a lot of it pretty unnecessary. You will enjoy expanding your own architectural vocabulary but don’t get hung up about it.

The “classic” plan of a church is the so called “cruciform” model. If you were to see one from the sky it would have the rough shape of a crucifix. The top of the cross is the chancel. This is the place where you find the altar and usually the choir stalls. It is the “holiest” part of the church. The chancel always faces east. The reason for this is that this is the direction of Jerusalem from whence Christ will return. It follows then that the longest part of the cross - the nave - is at the west end of the church. The nave is where the congregation sits - or in mediaeval England where it stood. By the way, the plan of cruciform churches was not to emulate Christ’s own cross: it is merely coincidence, surprising as that may seem!

The nave may well be quite “fat” compared with the chancel. This will probably be because it has one or two aisles. The aisles are adjacent to the nave and separated from it by an arcade of arches. Aisles were built to expand the capacity of a church for a bigger congregation because, of course, our population has grown greatly over the centuries. Aisles also gave scope for more elaborate processions around the church.

Above the nave arcades the walls may well be extended upwards, well above the height of the aisles themselves, so that they are higher than any other part of the church except the tower. This upward extension will have a row of windows designed to shed extra light throughout the nave of the church. This upward extension and its windows is known as a “clerestory”.

At the eastern end of an aisle you may well see a “chapel”. At its simplest this might be no more than another altar. At its most sophisticated it might be a completely separate space separated from the rest of the aisle, perhaps, by an arch.

The two arms of the cross are the transepts. By definition, the one on the left is the north transept and the right hand one is the south. In these transepts there will also very often be chapels. The place where the four elements - transepts, nave and chancel - meet is known as the “crossing”. A crossing might, therefore, have as many as four arches. Almost all churches - even is they are not cruciform - will have one of these: the chancel arch that separates nave and chancel.

Most churches have a tower at the west end. Not all have towers. Those that don’t often have “bell cotes” which are simple open stone cradles for one or two bells. Some, of course, also have a spire. A few churches have central towers (which, incidentally, is the strict definition of a cruciform church) and one or two even have them separated from the church altogether.

Most churches, but by no means all, have their main entrance towards the south west of the church. Many churches have west doors in their towers as well, but these are generally disused: the ground floors of towers have a tendency to be a mixture of vestry and junk room in many churches. North doors are common too, but these tend to be not just disused but blocked up altogether. The north side in early mediaeval times was regarded as the “Devil’s Side” and no decent person was buried there. By definition it was the coldest side of the church. The notion of the “devil’s side” has long since been abandoned but the north side is still often rather unloved: here you will find the often appalling vestry annexes, boiler houses, unkempt churchyards and crumbling masonry. With entrances mainly on the south side this is not, perhaps, surprising.

The south door will more often than not have a porch. These were far more important in mediaeval times than they are now. Much church business, including weddings, would have been carried out here. Some even have a room above called a “parvise”. Often they are now disused and often they have been used in the past as schoolrooms.

Bottesford Church, Leicestershire. This church has been supported by the wealth of the Earls of Rutland whose monuments fill the chancel. This wealth allowed the church to be developed into the classic cruciform church. Note the south transept forming one of the arms of the “cross”. To the right (the east) is the chancel. This chancel even has, unusually, a clerestory of its own, an adornment usually seen only on a nave. Note the nave to the left (the west) of the chancel surmounted by its own mighty clerestory that looms over all the rest of the church except, of course, the tower.

Ok. That’s the “classic” plan. There are plenty of those churches, especially in large towns are wealthy villages. Indeed some of them are not far off being small cathedrals - see Ludlow, Shropshire, for example. The church explorer will find, however, that many of the most interesting churches do not conform to this plan at all. And the reason that they are often more interesting is because they have not had wealth lavished on them to add the aisles and chapels, clerestories and porches. This means that less of the ancient fabric and features have been lost. Bottesford, shown above, happens to be a beautiful church and has plenty of interest but many churches like it have been developed haphazardly with poor attention to proportion and symmetry and with much of their character torn out.

 The “minimum requirement” for a church is no more than a chancel for the priest and the sacraments and a nave for the congregation. In the Saxon and Norman periods, in particular, most churches would have started out with that simple plan, maybe with a tower if they were lucky.