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Here & There Among the English Churches


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With the Roman occupation of the Province of Britain the basilica was introduced into this country, the typical Roman building for the administration of justice and transaction of public business. The plan of a secular basilica has been traced in the remains of Caerwent (Mon.), and we should naturally suppose that it was adopted for some of the earliest churches in this land, as throughout Western Christendom in general. That this was the case is proved by an example at Silchester (Hants). The structure has perished, but the foundations and parts of the pavement remain, and these enable us to trace the plan.

The basilica plan came in again with S. Augustine's mission from Rome. When S. Augustine landed in Kent in 598, he found a Christian church, S. Martin's, in use at Canterbury, a remnant of the perished Christianity of earlier days which had been assigned to the use of Bertha, the Christian wife of Ethelbert the King of Kent. The nave of this building is still standing and its walls form the chancel of the present S. Martin's, while the tub-shaped font, with its early ornament of interlacing circles may be the very

one in which King Ethelbert was himself baptized. Other churches dating from S. Augustine's mission, of which portions are still extant, show the basilica plan with apse at the east, as at Reculver (Kent). This church also had a feature common to these early churches and occurring also at the ruined S. Pancras, Canterbury, viz.: an arcade or screen of three arches with two pillars separating the eastern part from the nave.

There are indications of a similar triple chancel arch at Brixworth (Northants) and in this last example the arches dividing the nave from the aisles and constructed in Roman brick remain, though filled in with masonry when the church was altered at a later period. At Brad-well-on-Sea (Essex) is another instance of a small church of the Saxon period. Its rectangular nave is practically unaltered, while the chancel has perished, though traces of the triple chancel arch may be seen blocked up in its Eastern wall.

There are a few other examples of pre-Conquest churches constructed on the Roman basilica plan, of which Worth (Sussex) is the most interesting, because it affords an instance of a complete and unaltered Saxon cruciform basilica. Wing (Bucks) has some later additions but shows the basilica form perhaps better than any other church now existing in this country, and gives a good idea of what the first English churches of larger scale must have been like. It has the distinctive marks of the Roman basilica- the aisled nave, the apse at the east end, and the confessio or crypt beneath the altar, where in the very early Christian churches the bodies of saints and martyrs were laid to rest.

The churches of early Celtic Christianity were constructed upon a different plan. They were small in scale and without apse for the altar. Sometimes the church consisted of one oblong rectangular chamber, while in other cases a small square-ended chancel is added at the east. Examples of this plan are found in some primitive oratories of Celtic missionary saints that still remain in Cornwall, as at Perranzabuloe and S. Madron, near the Land's End. The influence of this plan was felt throughout the country, and the great majority of churches of the Saxon period followed it, owing to the work of Celtic missionaries from lona and Lindisfarne, to whom the conversion of Saxon England was largely due.

Anything like complete examples are rare, but the little church of S. Laurence at Bradford-on-Avon has come down to us unaltered. It was built by Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne, at the beginning of the eighth century, and is an aisleless church with rectangular chancel of small proportions. There is no tower and no west entrance, while the outside walls are ornamented with a roughly executed shallow arcading. At Escomb (Durham) is another example of a pre-Conquest church that has suffered little alteration, and like Bradford-on-Avon it follows the Celtic plan. The entrances are at the sides.

While few churches that are in use to-day go back altogether or even in great part to a time before the Norman Conquest, yet below some of our cathedral or abbey churches are hidden away remains of very early English sanctuaries, such as the crypts at Hexham and Ripon that witness to the missionary activity of S. Wilfrid in the seventh century. But the interest of these is historical and romantic rather than picturesque or architectural.

Some of our Saxon churches were towerless, like the examples at Bradford-on-Avon, Bradwell-on-Sea, and Worth, or at least had no tower as an integral part of the structure, but, speaking generally, when pre-Conquest masonry is found in a church, it most often occurs in the tower, which in a good many instances goes back to the Saxon period, when all the rest of the building belongs to later styles. By far the greater number of these Saxon towers are situated near the east coast in the counties of Northumberland, Durham and Lincolnshire and in East Anglia; Lincolnshire alone having about thirty, of which Scartho may be cited as a typical example.

Their geographical distribution in that part of the land most exposed to the raids of Danes and Northmen suggests that the builders of these towers intended them to serve as refuges or defences in times of trouble. Some of the later Saxon towers, however, belonging to the tenth century, were more ornate and highly-finished. Of such, the one at Earls Barton is a fine example. Its long-and-short work and the "baluster" shafts are also seen in the towers of Sompting (Sussex) and S. Michael's, Oxford.

To Saxon towers, as a rule, a parapet has been added at a later date, as at Earls Barton, or a storey has been superimposed, so that it is not easy to say what may have been the normal form of finish. The tower of Sompting (Sussex) seems to be the only Saxon tower which retains its original outline, each face terminating in a gable, and the whole being crowned by a blunt four-sided spire of timber.

In the eleventh century, before the Norman Conquest, and especially under the rule of Edward the Confessor, Norman influence was strong, and when Harold built the church of Waltham (1060) he fully adopted the fashion prevailing across the Channel, so that, with its massive cylindrical pillars, it must be classed as "Norman." On the other hand, the Saxon fashion of building lingered to some extent after the Conquest, Saxon architects and, masons being sometimes employed by Norman founders of churches, so that there was some overlapping of styles. Thus the towers of S. Peter-at-Gowts and S. Mary-le-Wigford in Lincoln, and of S. Michael's, Oxford, are "Saxon," though post-Conquest in date.

The Northmen who settled in North-Western France were, like the Saxons in Britain, barbarian invaders of outlying provinces oi the Roman Empire who came from the Teutonic tribes of Northern Europe. When, after their conversion to Christianity, they began to build churches, they took for their model the ruins of Roman buildings in their new home. The Norman architecture was thus, like the Saxon, a local type of the widely spread early Christian architecture of the West, based upon the later Roman style, with its semi-circular arches, and hence named Romanesque. After the Conquest of England by Duke William in 1066 there followed a great church building era in the Norman dominions on both sides of the Channel, extending approximately over a hundred years (1075-1175).

The great cathedral and abbey churches sprang at once to their full growth and proportion, and smaller churches were raised everywhere, so that our present parochial churches really begin with this period. This Norman style inaugurated by William and his barons seems the material embodiment of their spirit and genius. Its dominant note is one of sternness, and from the first it wore an expression of solemn grandeur. Everyone acknowledges this effect on entering one of the greater churches such as Gloucester or Tewkesbury with their huge cylindrical pillars, or on walking beneath the ponderous vaults of Durham Cathedral.

But even the smaller churches of the age affect us by their mass and power. There is, for example, no building so small which is nearly so impressive as S. Sepulchre's Cambridge. This is specially interesting as the earliest of four round churches in this country built in imitation of the plan of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem and dedicated in this name. S. Sepulchre's, Northampton, also belongs to the Norman style, its pointed arches being a later addition. The Temple Church, London, is of the transition from Norman to Early English, while the fourth example at Little Maplestead (Essex) has its very graceful hexagonal colonnade of the decorated style.

In some of their greater churches the Norman builders in England adopted the apse at the east end, after the usual fashion in Continental Romanesque churches, as at Peterborough, Norwich and Tewkesbury. But the Anglo-Norman builders soon reverted to the insular fashion of the rectangular chancel. This appears in the complete Norman churches of Adel (Yorks), Barfreston (Kent), Iffley (Oxon), Stewkley (Bucks), and Studland (Dorset).

The first two are towerless, as is also the richly adorned late Norman church at Kilpeck (Hereford), while Iffley, Stewkley and Studland follow a characteristically Norman plan, in which a central tower stands between an aisleless nave and a chancel. The churches just mentioned all have excellent examples of typical Norman doorways, with receding orders of semi-circular arches, adorned with the characteristic zig-zag moulding, and especially at Iffley, Barfreston and Kilpeck, with beak-heads, medallions, and figure-sculpture in the greatest profusion.

In the centuries that followed our Norman parish churches were in many cases altered, enlarged and even rebuilt. But the parts of the structure upon which the Norman builders had spent most care and lavished their ornament, were generally spared. Accordingly it is in the cylindrical pillars of the nave arcade, as at Steyning (Sussex), Sherburn-in-Elmet (Yorks), Sandridge (Herts), and Minster-in-Thanet (Kent); or in a richly moulded doorway, as at Patrix-bourne (Kent), Dinton (Bucks), Quenington and many another church in the Cotswolds (Gloucs); or in the tower as at S. Clement's Sandwich and Castor (Northants), that we most commonly find Norman work surviving in our parish churches. S. Peter's Northampton has preserved an arcade, late in the style in which the columns are of slender proportions, and not only have elaborately carved capitals, but are girded by a band of ornament.

The Norman towers are massive, commonly central and have the look of the baronial keep, the belfry-stage being sometimes ornamented by a range of arches, some of which were pierced for the sound of the bells to escape, as at Old Shoreham (Sussex) and S. John's Devizes. Larger towers have more elaborate arcading as at S. Clement's (Sandwich), and the interlacing arcade, the use of which as a surface ornament is very characteristic of the style, appears on the great central towers at Tewkesbury and Wimborne Minster. The central tower of Castor (Northants) deserves special notice for its beautifully executed coupled belfry lights and the scaly diaper with which its exterior surface is covered.

The Romanesque architecture of which the Norman was a local phase, proved the starting-point of that great development of architecture in Western Europe which goes by the name of Gothic. But the transition from the round-arched style, with its massive appearance and strongly-marked horizontal lines, to the graceful pointed Gothic, with its dominant vertical lines was gradual, and the first step in the development was the introduction of the pointed arch.

At first this was applied to arches of construction only, decorative or subsidiary arches retaining their round form. Thus, while the arches of the arcade of the round church of the Temple, London, are pointed, the windows have semi-circular heads. All through the period of transition, in the later half of the twelfth century, there was some overlapping of the two forms. The nave arcades of Wimborne Minster and Great Bedwyn (Wilts) are Norman in character, but with pointed arches, while on the other hand S. Mary's, Shrewsbury, has arcades that are Early English in detail, though the semi-circular form is retained for the arches.

The Early English or first phase of pointed architecture in this country was not a mere development of Norman, but a great advance in the art of construction consequent upon the introduction of the pointed arch. Stability no longer depended upon mass of material, but pressures were gathered together and carried to the ground through piers and buttresses. Thus, it was not necessary for walls to be of excessive thickness, and there followed the slenderness that is so marked a feature of the style, as seen, for example, in the beautiful clusters of shafts that carry the nave arcade at West Walton (Norfolk).

The distinctive window of the style is a single narrow light with rather sharply pointed head, called from its shape the lancet window. Such windows, generally in a group of three, form the usual lighting of the east end of village churches in Kent and Sussex where this style is most prevalent. The chancel of Hythe (Kent) shows very fine work of the kind on a large scale, while Stone-by-Dartford (Kent) has a little church of most refined workmanship, whose pillars have in their capitals the stiff, conventional foliage which marks the style. The churches of Uffington (Berks) and S. Cuthbert's Darlington (Durham) are examples of this period.

Towards the close of the thirteenth century, from about 1275 onward, the style of architecture began to undergo a change, not by the introduction of any new principle, but by the continuance and development of the impulse given in the preceding age. This second phase of Gothic is usually known as Decorated, and to it we owe some of the most striking creations of our architecture, particularly in parochial churches.

The most notable feature of the style is the enlargement of the window with the development of tracery. The lancets of the Early English became groups, the groups passed into windows of many lights and the heads were filled with figures of geometrical, and a little later, of flowing form. Men delighted in the new and ever-varying forms of tracery and in the coloured histories which glowed within them.

We have practically complete churches of this style in the very beautiful examples at Shottesbrooke (Berks), Etchingham (Sussex), Heckington (Lines), Tideswell (Derbyshire), and Patrington (Yorks). The lovely Minster of Beverley shows in its nave the later or "flowing" phase of Decorated style, and much of the great churches of Grantham and Boston (Lines.) exhibits it on a grand scale. Splendid large chancels were sometimes added to churches at this period, as at Cottesbrook (Northants) and Norbury in Derbyshire.

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Pictures for Here & There Among the English Churches

One of England's smallest Churches
One of England's smallest Churches >>>>
Christchurch Priory, Englands longest Parish Church: Old Shoreham Church
Christchurch Priory, Englands longest Parish Church: Old Shoreham Church >>>>
Boxgrove Priory, Which grew from a small Benedictine Cell to an Important Monastery
Boxgrove Priory, Which grew from a small Benedictine Cell to an Important Monastery >>>>
Wimborne Minister in Dorset County and the Norman Abbey Church at Shrewsbury
Wimborne Minister in Dorset County and the Norman Abbey Church at Shrewsbury >>>>
S. Andrew's Church at Hornchurch
S. Andrew's Church at Hornchurch >>>>
The Flint Church at South Ockenden: Mellor and its Pulpit
The Flint Church at South Ockenden: Mellor and its Pulpit >>>>
West front, S. Cuthbert's, Darlington
West front, S. Cuthbert's, Darlington >>>>
Church at Castor: Bakewell where the Vernons rest: and S. Nicholas King's Lynn
Church at Castor: Bakewell where the Vernons rest: and S. Nicholas King's Lynn >>>>
S. Wulfram's and S. Botolph's: two superb Lincolnshire Parish Churches
S. Wulfram's and S. Botolph's: two superb Lincolnshire Parish Churches >>>>
Felpham Parish Church, and its Associations
Felpham Parish Church, and its Associations >>>>
S. Michael's, Coventry
S. Michael's, Coventry >>>>
Lovely Beverley Minister and S. John Baptist at Tideswell, Derbyshire
Lovely Beverley Minister and S. John Baptist at Tideswell, Derbyshire >>>>
Wymondham's Market House, a fine relict of the Sixteenth century
Wymondham's Market House, a fine relict of the Sixteenth century >>>>

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