The Churches Before The Fifteenth Century
Updated by Richard Surman
The Churches Before The Fifteenth Century
Churches. To imagine our church in earliest times of Christian England is, alas, to enter the controversial world of archaeology. There was a Christian Church in the Roman settlement at Silchester, Berkshire, and its remains have been excavated. It had an apse at the west end instead of the east where one would expect it to be, and the altar which is supposed to have been wooden and square, was also in the west. The east end was square.
The church is said to be 4th century. Only the foundations remain. The form of worship was probably more like that of the Orthodox church today than the western rite. But there are enough later pre-Conquest churches remaining to give us an idea of the architecture of those times. They are called Saxon. There are two types. The southern, of which the earliest churches are found in Kent – three in Canterbury, St Mary Lyminge, Reculver, and, most complete, Bradwell, Essex, all of which are 7th century – were the result of the Italian mission of St Augustine, and were reinforced after the coming of St Theodore in 669.
In plan and style they resembled certain early Italian churches. The northern group found in Northumberland and Durham are survivals of the Celtic church, and their architecture is said to have come from Gaul, and is more barbaric looking than that of their southern contemporaries. Their three distinctive features were, according to Sir Arthur Clapham, an unusual length of nave, a small chancel, less wide than the nave, and very high side walls.
Churches. In the northern group, the most complete is Escombe, Durham (7th and early 8th century?), a stern building, nave and chancel only, with squared rubble walls, small windows high up and square or round headed, and a narrow and tall rounded chancel arch. We have a picture of the interiors of these northern churches from near contemporary accounts. The walls and capitals and arch of the sanctuary were adorned ‘with designs and images and many sculptured figures in relief on the stone and pictures with a pleasing variety of colours and a wonderful charm’.
We learn, too, of purple hangings and gold and silver ornaments with precious stones. Elsewhere in England the most considerable remains of pre-Conquest work are those at Monkwearmouth (Durham), Jarrow (Durham), Brixworth (Northants), Deerhurst (Glos), Bradford-on-Avon (Wilts), the tower of Earls Barton (Northants), Barton-on-Humber (Lincs), Sompting (Sussex), the Crypts at Repton (Derby), Wing (Bucks), and Hexham (Northumberland).
From the pre-Conquest sculpture, like the crosses at Bewcastle and Ruthwell, and the carvings at Langford (Oxon), Romsey (Hants), Bexhill (Sussex), St Dunstan’s Stepney (London), and the moving relief of the Harrowing of Hell in Bristol Cathedral, and from such enrichment as survives in such objects as St Cuthbert’s stole (Durham), the Alfred Jewel in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, the beautiful drawing in the Winchester Psalter and Lindisfarne Gospels in the British Museum, we know that these Romanesque masons, sculptors and illuminators were very fine artists, as fine as there have ever been in England.
Churches. However, it is safer to try to imagine our parish church as it was in Norman times, as far more of our old churches are known to be Norman in origin than pre-Conquest, even though as in the church of Kilpeck (Herefordshire) the pre-Conquest style of decoration may have continued into Norman times. It is narrow and stone built. Let us suppose it divided into three parts. The small, eastward chancel is either square-ended or apsidal. Then comes the tower supported internally on round arches.
The nave, west of the low tower, is longer than the chancel. The windows are small and high up. The church is almost like a fortress outside. And it is indeed a fortress of Christianity in a community where pagan memories and practices survive, where barons are like warring kings and monasteries are the centres of faith. These small village churches are like mission churches in a jungle clearing. There are no porches, and we enter the building by any of the three doors to the nave on the north, south or west.
Inside, the walls of the nave are painted with red lines to look like blocks of stone. The raftered roof is hidden by a flat wooden ceiling which is painted with lozenges. The floor of the nave is paved with small blocks of stone or with red tiles. There are no pews. We can only see the chancel through a richly moulded round arch, that very arch which is now the South Door of your parish church. Above this chancel arch is a painted Doom, not quite so terrifying as that of the 15th-century church, for all the painting here is in the manner of the mosaics still seen in basilicas of Italy and eastern Europe.
Churches. The splays of the windows in the nave have figures of saints painted on them. But it is through the chancel that we see the greatest riches. Stained glass is rare. If there is any it is in the sanctuary and black with much leading and giving the impression of transparent mosaics. The walls are painted everywhere with figures, also recalling mosaic pictures. There are bands of classic style, patterns dividing them. The altar is of stone, small and box-like, recalling the tombs of Christians in the catacombs of Rome in the very earliest days of Christianity.
The altar stands well away from the eastern, semi-circular end of the apse. It is covered with a cloth hanging over its four sides, decorated with vertical bands. Our Lord is depicted on the cross as a King and Judge, not as a man in anguish as in later crucifixions. The religion of the time was less concerned with Him and Our Lady as human beings, more concerned with the facts of Judgement, Death and Hell. It was more ascetic and severe.