To paraphrase that Fast Show character “Aren’t churches great?” As sites of the social history of any given parish they are probably second to none. They hold registers of the key changes in most of our lives – births, deaths and marriages. Each of these is accompanied by a ritual, so when archaeologists refer to a site being ‘ritual’ they are thinking about this sort of activity. So, through these events and records you can trace family histories of the individual parish and beyond. But there is more to churches than this, and in this first blog on the subject I’ll look at churches and how we might begin to use them to study a ‘local’ past.
Many churches have long histories and the associated material culture, the cornerstone of archaeology, gives us a wealth of information. What is the material culture of a church? Well, we might begin with the fabric of the building itself – what is it – stone, brick or even wood? Yes, there are wooden churches in Britain you might be surprised to learn. It is common to find the fabric of a church has been added to since its founding, and careful observation can tell you the story of some of these changes.
One easy way to track the changes made to a church is to look at the windows – are there different types of windows around the church? There are key changes that characterise periods or styles. In very early churches such as the earliest known in Britain – the Anglo-Saxon Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex – windows in keeping with the overall size of the building, are very small as glass at that time was still very expensive. In the early Middle Ages, along with the Norman conquest, a new style – the new Romanesque or Norman appeared in England. These churches were relatively large in relation to the space they enclosed. Inside the building semi-circular internal arches appeared and the walls were pierced by much larger windows and doors with the same same shaped arch as can be seen in the images below.
Looking at the fabric of a church reveals much to the trained, or even novice eye! Have a look at these images. Each shows a view of a church where the changes that have been made in the past are fairly easy to see. At St Michael’s in Betchworth (Surrey) you will see the lower windows have an almost symmetrical appearance. However, the single windows date to the mid-14th century and the double windows to the late-14th century. Dore Abbey (Herefordshire), as the name suggests, was dissolved by Henry VIII and what you see today is a church that consists of the central elements of the original abbey. The archway appearing in the wall was at one time the chancel. St James’ church in Hilcott (Wilts) dates to the 13th century and was dedicated by 1442. The original building was built of flint rubble, brick, and ashlar. The chancel and nave date to this period with the nave being altered and north vestry and south porch being added in the 14th century. The impressive tower shown here dates to the 15th century. In 1862 further work took place including extensive remodelling of the nave and chancel. The second image from St James shows the difference between the original building material of flint rubble and the later 19th century extension.
So, looking at churches and the changes evident in their structure is one way of studying local history, one that can be integrated into lesson plans which feature changes in historic periods, for example the Tudors and the Reformation. These resources are there for us to use and engage with as they are in many cases an anchor for the community. Not all churches, or indeed other religious buildings, are as old as some of the churches featured here, but they too are part of the story of our community wherever we live. Try to see how many synagogues, mosques, chapels or temples are in your area – when were they built, and what does this tell us? They may be difficult to find, or none existent; but this too tell us something. In the next part of this blog I’ll look at how else we can study past in our local community using churches.