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The Ground Plan of the English Parish Church  —  £ 2.99

Go to the eBook Shop 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.
     Some historical and architectural questions, which arise out of the consideration of the ground plan, and have an important bearing upon it, are treated in another volume of this series, which is intended to be complementary to the present one.
     The writer is grateful to his wife, for the plans and sketches which she has drawn for him, and for much help: to Mr C. C. Hodges and Mr J. P. Gibson, for the permission to make use of their photographs; and to the Rev. J. C. Cox, LL.D., F.S.A., and the Rev. R. M. Serjeantson, M.A., F.S.A., for their kindness in reading through the proofs and supplying suggestions of the greatest value.
                                                A. H. T.

26 January 1911


Chapter I


01. The basilican church plan
02. Problem of its derivation
03. Rival theories of its origin
04. The Roman basilica: old St Peter's
05. Basilicas at Ravenna
06. Tomb-churches and baptisteries
07. Centralised plans at Ravenna
08. Relative advantages of the basilican and the centralised plan
09. The basilican church at Silchester
10. Early churches in Kent and Essex
11. Bradford-on-Avon, Wilts.
12. Escomb church, Durham
13. Early Northumbrian churches
14. Wilfrid's churches at Hexham and Ripon
15. Brixworth, Northants: other basilican plans
16. ...cont.
17. Exceptional occurrence of the basilican plan in England

Chapter II


18. The normal pre-Conquest plan
19. The western bell-tower
20. Plans in which the ground floor of the tower forms the body of the church
21. Barton-on-Humber and the centralised plan
22. Centralised planning in England
23. The Saxon lateral porch
24. Development of the transeptal chapel
25. Towers between nave and chancel
26. Development of the cruciform plan
27. ...cont.
28. Influence of local material upon the aisleless church plan

Chapter III


29. Survival and development of the aisleless plan after the Conquest
30. The nave of the aisleless church
31. Rectangular chancels
32. Churches with no structural division between nave and chancel
33. Churches with apsidal chancels
34. The quire
35. The transeptal chapel
36. Cruciform plans: North Newbald and Melbourne
37. Later developments of the cruciform plan
38. Symbolism in planning

Chapter IV

Nave, Tower, and Porches

39. Survival of the aisleless plan
40. The addition of aisles
41. Use of aisles for side altars
42. Twelfth century aisled plans
43. Ordinary method of adding aisles
44. Consequent irregularities of plan
45. ...cont.
46. Gradual addition of aisles
47. Raunds church, Northants
48. Conservative feeling of the builders for old work
49. Aisles widened and rebuilt
50. Rebuilding of aisles as chantry chapels: Harringworth, Northants
51. Newark, Cirencester, Northleach, and Grantham
52. Naves lengthened westward
53. The western tower in relation to the plan
54. Engaged western towers, etc.
55. Rebuilding of towers
56. Porches
57. Position of the porch in the plan

Chapter V

Transepts and Chancel

58. Cruciform churches with aisled transepts
59. Addition of transeptal chapels
60. Variety of treatment of transeptal chapels
61. Transeptal chapels as a key to original ground plans
62. Incomplete cruciform plans
63. Irregular cruciform plans
64. Central towers with transeptal chapels
65. Transeptal towers
66. Lengthening of chancels
67. Encroachment of the chancel on the nave: Tansor
68. Chancel chapels
69. Churches with one chancel chapel
70. Chantry chapels attached to chancels
71. Effect of the addition of chapels on the cruciform plan
72. The aisled rectangular plan
73. Variations of the plan with aisled nave and chancel
74. Development of the aisled rectangle at Grantham
75. Deviation of the axis of the chancel

List of Places

Chapter III


      §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.
      §31. The great majority of Norman rectangular chancels have been lengthened and enlarged; for the plain "altar-house" at the east end of the nave was too small for the purposes of the ritual of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and afforded no intermediate space between nave and chancel. However, short and approximately square chancels were by no means invariable; and, before the middle of the twelfth century, oblong chancels of considerable length in proportion to their width were being built. There is a good early twelfth century example at Moor Monkton, in the Ainsty of York; and the chancel of the middle of the twelfth century at Earl's Barton, Northants, is of considerable depth, and was of ample size for all later purposes. At Earl's Barton the eastern portion was the chancel proper; while the western portion supplied that space for a quire which was not provided in less elongated plans. In by far the larger number of cases, the rectangular chancel had a wooden roof. There is, however, a fair number of churches in which the system of ribbed vaulting, as employed in larger buildings, was used. Thus at Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland, there is a small square chancel with a ribbed vault. At Warkworth, there is a long vaulted chancel of two bays, built during the first quarter of the twelfth century; and at Tickencote, Rutland, two bays are combined in one by the use of sexpartite vaulting. In these cases the chancel arches are wide, forming the western transverse arches of the vaulting: that at Tickencote is of remarkable magnificence.
      §32. There are certain cases in which the chancel was of the same width as the nave, and no structural division existed between them. At Askham Bryan and at the chapel of Copmanthorpe, near York, the plan, externally and internally, is a plain undivided oblong. At Tansor, Northants, the chancel was rebuilt about 1140, when the side walls were set back in a line with those of the nave. In St Mary's in the Castle at Leicester, the long and very narrow nave was, as may still be clearly seen, continued eastward without a break into the long and narrow quire and chancel. Here the eastern half was used, no doubt, by the college of dean and canons, while the western half was the parish church. The beautiful church of St Peter, Northampton, built towards the end of the third quarter of the twelfth century, gives us a complete example of an undivided plan, aisled throughout save in the eastern bay, which forms a projecting chancel east of the aisles of the choir.

      §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.
      §34. The most important feature in the apsidal plan is the provision of the distinctly marked quire space between the nave and chancel. This space also occurs in plans where the chancel is rectangular; but in such cases it becomes the ground story of a tower. There are famous examples of this at Iffley, near Oxford, and Studland in Dorset, where the chancels are vaulted. Coln St Denis in Gloucestershire, where the tower is of very wide area, and projects noticeably north and south of nave and chancel; and Christon in Somerset, are further instances of the plan. The tower between nave and chancel, without transepts, is seldom found in an apsidal plan. It occurs at Newhaven in Sussex, where there is a small apse. Here the plan is virtually that of some small parish churches in Normandy, such as Yainville, near Jumièges. The majority of such plans in England, however, end in a rectangular chancel. Precedent for the plan is, as we have seen, to be found in Saxon churches. At St Pancras, Canterbury, we have noticed the westward prolongation of the apse: at Brixworth a definite presbytery or quire space was planned, on a large scale, between apse and nave. In later Saxon churches, where the chancel was rectangular, a tower, with or without transeptal chapels, was sometimes built between nave and chancel; and here, although externally the division was not always clearly marked, an internal quire space was divided off from the nave by the western arch of the tower. The aisleless plan, therefore, with a tower above the quire, and a rectangular chancel, points to a development along old-fashioned lines, even in churches in which, as at Iffley, the builders have acquired great skill in expressing themselves in Norman terms. In certain districts, as in Gloucestershire, this plan was a favourite one. Even in the fourteenth century, Leckhampton church, near Cheltenham, was rebuilt in faithful adherence to this tradition. Here the tower is narrower than the small chancel, and the nave has a south aisle.
      §35. In the cases of Dover, Breamore, Stow, and Norton, we have watched the gradual evolution of the cruciform plan with central tower. It must be noted once more that to the cruciform plan the central tower built on piers and arches is essential. It is possible, as in the Gloucestershire churches of Almondsbury and Avening, to pierce the north and south walls of a tower and add transeptal chapels: the plan will have a cruciform appearance, but will still be only an elongated plan with lateral additions. It is possible, in a church where there is no central tower at all, to extend the side walls at right angles north and south, and so form transepts; but here again the transepts have no structural reference to a central point in the plan, but are mere widenings of the nave or aisles. The thirteenth century aisleless churches of Potterne, in Wiltshire, and Acton Burnell, in Shropshire, are both cruciform in plan. The church at Potterne was planned throughout with reference to the crossing of transepts, nave, and quire, above which its central tower rose: the tower space is the central point of the whole. But, at Acton Burnell, there is no central tower or space: the body of the church consists of a long aisleless nave and an aisleless chancel beyond; and the transeptal chapels are simply stuck on, as it were, to the eastern part of either wall of the nave. This is at once noticeable in elevation, when the chapels are seen to be mere excrescences, with roofs lower than the nave. Moreover, where there is a true central crossing, with a tower above, such as we find in almost all our cathedrals, a transept on either side is necessary for the support of the tower. The transepts need not be wholly symmetrical, although in most cases they are; but they must be there. On the other hand, where there is no central tower, and the crossing is merely apparent, symmetry of treatment is quite unnecessary. While there are two transeptal chapels of similar size at Acton Burnell, or at Achurch in Northamptonshire, there are far more instances in which a less regular treatment was adopted. Thus, at Childs Wickham in Gloucestershire, and Montacute in Somerset, there is only one transeptal chapel, in each case on the north side. At Corbridge in Northumberland, transeptal chapels, extended outwards from the aisle walls, are of different lengths. At Medbourne in Leicestershire, a long aisleless transeptal chapel was built out from the north side of the nave in the thirteenth century. Within the next fifty years a south chapel was built, but, instead of copying the proportions of the northern chapel symmetrically, the builders gave their new chapel a much greater width, and placed its altars in an eastern aisle. The plan is thus accidentally cruciform. At Acton Burnell and Achurch it is, no doubt, designedly cruciform; at Montacute and Childs Wickham, imperfectly cruciform. But all three varieties belong to one class, the longitudinal plan with transeptal extensions. The structural feature which makes the truly cruciform plan, the central tower upon arches and piers, is wanting. And this distinction between churches planned from a centre, and churches whose plan follows a longitudinal axis, although often overlooked, is essential.

      §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.
      §38. The cruciform church gives occasion for a brief remark on one aspect of medieval building which is often exaggerated. The revival of interest in medieval architecture, in the early part of the nineteenth century, was accompanied by an insistence on symbolism in the plan and design of churches. A minute symbolism, which often was the fruit of pious imagination, or was derived from the fancies of post-medieval writers on ritual, was read into every detail of the medieval church fabric. It is true that, as has been said, some builders worked imaginatively, imitating in the round naves of a few churches the rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre. Other instances of devout imitation might be found, if we looked for them. But the imitation of a concrete model is a different thing from translating abstract mysteries into the plan and elevation of a building. And, although the ground plan with nave, transepts, and chancel, certainly forms a cross; and, although, as time went on, the resemblance to the chief symbol of the Christian faith was no doubt recognised and valued, the plan itself, as we have shown, came into being from entirely natural causes. Where the central tower was introduced, the plan was dictated by structural necessity. Where there was no central tower, transeptal chapels provided accommodation for altars, for which the body of the church afforded no convenience. In this and in other cases, medieval builders were impelled by practical common sense and the requirements of the services of the church; and symbolism, if it was a consideration at all, was purely secondary.


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