The Ground Plan of the English Parish Church — £ 2.99
If, like me, you often find yourself in an English Parish Church looking for the place where one of your ancestors was Baptised, Married or Buried, you will find this short book from 1911 invaluable.
They are all different, and yet the same - why? What are the different parts called? Can I work out how old it is just by looking at the structure?
A. H. Thompson's introduction to the subject gives just enough information, without over-burdening the reader with technicalities or arcane language. It concentrates, as the title suggests, on the ground plan, not on the architectural features or styles. (A book covering this is under construction.)
This eBook version contains the entire text and all 16 illustrations. Please see the extract below for the Preface, Contents and Chapter III.
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THERE is as yet no book entirely devoted to the development of the plan of the parish church in England, and the body of literature which bears upon the subject is not very accessible to the ordinary student. The present volume is an attempt to indicate the main lines on which that development proceeded. It is obvious that, from necessary considerations of space, much has been omitted. The elevation of the building, and the treatment of its decorative features, window-tracery, sculpture, etc., belong to another and wider branch of architectural study, in which the parish church pursues the same line of structural development as the cathedral or monastic church, and the architectural forms of the timber-roofed building follow the example set by the larger churches with their roofs of stone. To this side of the question much attention has been devoted, and of late years increasing emphasis has been laid on the importance of the vaulted construction of our greater churches, which is the very foundation of medieval architecture and the secret of its progress through its various "styles." It is expected that the reader of this book, in which a less familiar but none the less important topic is handled, will already have some acquaintance with the general progress of medieval architectural forms, with which the development of the ground plan keeps pace.
THE AISLELESS CHURCH OF THE NORMAN PERIOD
§29. During the century after the Norman Conquest, the great abbey churches and cathedrals represent the work of a foreign architectural school, gradually acclimatising itself in England; while, on the other hand, the parish church continued to be planned by local men, open to receive the improvements which more skilled foreign masons had introduced. Consequently, while local art received a continually increasing refinement, the plan of the church developed upon traditional lines, and not upon those novel lines which foreign masons would have laid down for it. The chief proof of this is seen in the persistence of the aisleless plan with rectangular chancel and western tower. The tendency of a Norman builder would be to design his church with an apsidal chancel, transepts, and a central tower; his practice would vary, but this would be his favourite plan. On the other hand, the rectangular chancel and western tower remained the favourite terminations of the parish church in England. But, while a large number of rubble-built, unbuttressed Norman towers, usually heightened or otherwise altered in the later middle ages, remain in many parts of England, their relation to the plan suffers some change. The ground floor of the Saxon tower was, as we have noticed, the main entrance to the church. The Norman western tower either contained no western doorway at all, or provided merely an entrance, which was used only on special occasions. At Caistor the ground floor was probably the main porch of the aisleless church; and there are exceptional instances, as at Finchingfield in Essex, where, in fairly advanced Norman work, the same arrangement was clearly contemplated. On the other hand, at Laceby, between Caistor and Grimsby, a south doorway, coeval with the western tower, has always been the main entrance to the church. Similarly, at Hooton Pagnell, and at Blatherwycke in Northamptonshire, south doorways, of the same age as the tower, form the chief entrance. These last three are early Norman examples; but we may go back even further, to find the same thing in churches which are usually reckoned as late Saxon work, at Heapham in Lincolnshire, and Kirk Hammerton, between York and Boroughbridge. In south Yorkshire there are a few churches of the middle of the twelfth century whose western towers are noticeably derived, in their plan and general construction, from the Saxon type – Birkin, Brayton, and Riccall. But in all three, the main entrance to the church was made through a south doorway, the arch of which is covered with elaborate late Norman ornaments. The western tower was thus reduced to the state of a bell-tower at one end of the church, and, while increasing in size and in magnificence, was actually a less indispensable part of the plan than before.
§30. The nave of the Norman aisleless church was usually short, and, where the church was entirely rebuilt, rather wide in proportion to its length. The naves of churches like Garton-on-the-Wolds or Kirkburn in Yorkshire, give the effect of spacious halls, of no great length, but wide and lofty. It cannot be doubted, however, that the fabric of the Saxon church was frequently kept, or that the church was rebuilt upon Saxon foundations. It is not unusual, as already stated, to find Saxon quoins still existing at the angles of naves to which aisles have subsequently been added. Evidences, on the other hand, of the westward lengthening of a Saxon nave in the Norman period appear to be rare. At North Witham in south Lincolnshire, the south and (blocked) north doorways are Norman work, in the usual position near the west end of the nave. East of them, however, in the centre of the nave walls, there are distinct traces of the inner openings of a north and south doorway, which may belong to the late Saxon period. That we have here a case of the twelfth century lengthening of an earlier nave may be inferred. The probability is increased by the fact that, in the neighbouring church of Colsterworth, where aisles were added during the early Norman period to a late Saxon fabric, the nave and aisles, towards the end of the twelfth century, were certainly extended a bay westward. As little architectural work is done without a precedent, we may assume that the builders at Colsterworth were following the example of North Witham.
§33. Hitherto we have dealt merely with the rectangular chancel. But there are also churches which end in an eastern apse. These are comparatively few and exceptional. In Yorkshire, where the number of Norman rectangular chancels is large, and buildings such as Adel exhibit the aisleless church in its highest state of architectural development, the number of apsidal chancels can be counted on the fingers of one hand. In Sussex, where Caen stone was largely used, and we should expect foreign influence to be noticeable, the proportion of apsidal chancels is small. In Gloucestershire, the Cotswold district contains several small Norman churches, which have been little altered: the rectangular chancel is universal. These are typical districts; and, to state a general rule, we may say that, while the apsidal chancel is foreign to no part of England, and occurs in unexpected places, as in the chapel of Old Bewick, Northumberland, it is never general in any single region. Its rarity is an important fact. Were our parish churches the work of masons sent out from the larger churches and monasteries, we should expect to find it a common feature; for in those buildings the apsidal plan prevailed. But, in the hands of local masons, its sparing employment is easily explained. To build an apse needs skill, not only in planning, but in stone-cutting. The question of vaulting the apse increases the difficulty and the expense. These difficulties would not trouble masons who had worked at the building of Durham or Ely or Winchester; nor would expense trouble the monasteries, which, according to the popular idea, were so ready to lavish money on the fabrics of parish churches. Many apsidal chancels have disappeared, no doubt; but, if we take the bulk of those which remain into account, we shall find that they have a habit of occurring in small groups, as in Berkshire, where three occur together within a single old rural deanery, and that the large majority of the churches in which they are found were not monastic property. A few belonged to preceptories of Knights Templars in their neighbourhood; and perhaps we may see in their apses a reference to the circular form of the Holy Sepulchre. But, as a rule, we may say that a band of masons in certain neighbourhoods developed some skill in building apses, that money was forthcoming, and that so a few examples came into existence. In one curious instance, Langford in Essex, which is within easy distance of four or five other apsed churches, there is an apse at the west, and there are foundations of another at the east end of the building. For this church a Saxon origin has been claimed: the plan, at any rate, indicates a survival of a plan once common in western Christendom, and especially in the German provinces. In apsed churches, like Birkin in Yorkshire, the apse does not spring from points directly east of the chancel arch. The arch is wide and lofty; behind it is a nearly square rectangular space, which is divided from the apse by another arch. At Birkin the apse has ribbed vaulting, which allows the walls to be pierced freely for windows. At Copford in Essex, Old Bewick, and other places, the roof is a half-dome without ribs: this allows for the display of mural painting, but admits of less light.
§36. A noble example of a Norman cruciform church, whose plan has suffered little alteration, exists at North Newbald in the east Riding of Yorkshire. At each angle of the crossing are masses of shafted piers, connected by wide and lofty rounded arches. The nave, as is usual, is the longest arm of the four, so that the plan is a Latin cross. It has north and south doorways: there are also doorways in the end walls of the transepts, placed in the western part of each wall. In the east wall of each transept is an arch, now blocked up, the filling being pierced with fifteenth century windows. These arches are the openings of original apses, which contained the transept altars. The chancel, probably always rectangular, was rebuilt in the fifteenth century. As a corollary of the true cruciform plan, the four arms are all of equal width. At Bampton-in-the-Bush, Oxon, where the plan of the church was greatly altered in the thirteenth century by the addition of aisles, the Norman plan was very similar to that of North Newbald. The cruciform plan of Melbourne, Derbyshire, with its aisled nave, was probably inspired more directly by continental examples. The aisleless chancel was vaulted, and ended in an apse, which was squared in later times by the addition of a rectangular piece east of its springing points. Out of the east walls of the short transepts opened wide apses, the walls of which joined the western ends of the walls of the chancel. Thus, externally, the plan of the eastern part of the church was closely allied to the plan with three apses which, in some of our larger churches, was derived from Normandy. At Melbourne, however, there are important variations from this plan. The chancel is short, there are no quire aisles, and the transept apses were rounded externally. In the larger churches of Normandy, the side apses were at the end of the quire aisles, and were usually squared externally, while the apses projecting from the east walls of the transepts, as at Saint-Georges-de-Boscherville, were left rounded. At Newbald and Bampton there seems to have been no attempt to give complete unity of design, as at Melbourne, to the rectangular chancel and transeptal apses. In any case, transeptal apses were the exception in the plans of our Norman cruciform churches, although their convenience for holding altars is obvious.
§37. The cruciform plan, beautiful as it is, was never generally adopted. It was inconvenient for purposes of public worship, as long as the rounded arch remained fashionable. In our own day, even in churches where the central tower is carried on high pointed arches, and the view of the altar is practically unhindered, the chancel is cut off from the nave by the crossing, and the acoustic problem, which in modern church planning is so necessary a consideration, is almost insurmountable. In the middle ages, this problem was not so acute; but it was undesirable that the interior of the chancel should be nearly invisible from the nave. At Newbald the tower arches are planned upon a liberal scale: at Bampton, on the other hand, where the eastern tower arch is left, the others having been rebuilt in the thirteenth century, it is very low. The low tower arches at Burford, Oxon, and the narrow arches at St Giles, Northampton, are examples of the way in which the supports of the Norman central tower interfered with the internal convenience of churches. It was not until much later that this difficulty was solved, and then only in one or two cases, when the cruciform plan had become exceptional. The plans of Bampton, Burford, and Witney, show how the builders of west Oxfordshire experimented in cruciform planning. The division between chancel and nave is felt much less at Witney than in the other two churches; for the great thirteenth century tower and spire, resting upon massive piers joined by pointed arches, throw a considerable portion of their weight upon nave and transept arcades, whose exceptional massiveness gives unity to the whole design. In the fifteenth century, however, the rebuilders of the aisleless church of Minster Lovell, between Witney and Burford, solved the problem by removing the supports of their square central tower from the angles of the crossing to points entirely within the church, and building arches from the piers thus formed to the angles of the crossing. The comparatively light piers, instead of hindering the view, allow of easy access from the nave to the transepts, and there is hardly a point in the body of the church from which seeing and hearing alike are in any way impeded. With the earlier builders, however, the natural course was to leave the piers where they were, and endeavour to lighten them as far as possible; and, in aisled churches, the difficulties involved often led to the abandonment of the complete cruciform plan.