The Norman churches: Thousands arose stone-by-stone across a conquered land
Scholars may debate the socio-cultural implications, but there’s no doubt that the English landscape changed dramatically during the high middle ages. Over hill and over dale, Norman churches, cathedrals, and castles imposed massive, immovable, yet beautifully delicate structures across bucolic scenes. But would they stand the test of time?
Norman churches of England: Their place in the history of a new nation
Story by Andrew Hatcher
Photography by Lionel Wall and Matthew Slade
As any English schoolboy or girl will tell you, 1066 is the year of the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest, a date that for centuries has been central to the history of the nation.
It is true that a unified England of sorts had been pulled together in the years after the Romans left in AD410, and we see the early movement toward a united nation under Anglo-Saxons kings such as Alfred the Great and his immediate descendants.
And certainly, this island story would not be complete without mention of the unity that was brought by the mission of St Augustine in AD597 that brought Christianity to the British Isles.
But these early efforts at nationhood lacked a sense of solidity and permanence and were prone to the invasions of the feared Vikings.
So it is to 1066 and the arrival of the Normans, portended so clearly when Haley’s Comet flashed across the night sky in the early part of the year, that the English look to when telling of the origins of their national story, and if there is to be a figure at the centre of this, it would have to be England’s first Norman king, William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy
Who were the Normans?
So who were the Normans, this new dynasty from northern France who came across the English Channel with such power and strength to conquer the Anglo-Saxon army of Edward the Confessor’s chosen successor, King Harold?
Who were these Normans who so famously shot King Harold in the eye with an arrow at Hastings?
The Normans, a name in French that means Norsemen, were in fact recent descendants of the Vikings who had settled in north western France at the end of the 800s. They were traders and Crusaders, as well as warriors, and for 200 years they had ruled their patch of France close by to the French kings in Paris.
Often warring with their bigger neighbor, they fought for control of the castles that gave domination over the rich agricultural land that in turn gave control over the food supply.
Like so many warring clans going back to the time of the Bible and the birth of civilization and settled society in Ancient Mesopotamia, the Normans understood the physical control of this, the fields and the granaries, was at the very heart of their survival.
Over time, they had become more and more successful and, by the time that William inherited the duchy, they had come to rival the richest and most powerful of all Europe’s monarchs, including the Holy Roman Emperor himself.
So the Norman state that William the Conqueror was in charge of when he arrived on the Sussex coast in October 1066 was strong and confident, and William had clear plans for England after his coronation at the Confessor’s abbey church at Westminster in December 1066.
At the heart of this plan was the imposition of Feudalism and the replacement of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy and theocracy, leaving England pretty much in the hands of the Norman elite that he had brought with him.
In all this, William chose to work closely with his half-brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, who was later responsible for commissioning the Bayeux Tapestry.
As we have said, William was quick to bring in Norman nobles, administrators and clerics to run this new section of his Norman empire, and, in fact, he soon left to return to pressing business in Normandy, leaving instructions as he sailed back across the English Channel, returning only when he needed to lead his armies against rebellion.
Most notably this included the Harrying of the North in 1069-70 with the Domesday Book, written some 16 years later, still recording that many villages across the northern counties were ‘laid waste.’ Such was the shocking power and devastation of the occupying Norman force.
As we have said, at the heart of these plans was Feudalism that, in essence, demanded the domination of the Anglo-Saxon population, both high born and low. But given that the invading force never numbered more than some 10,000 Normans, help would be needed to achieve the subjugation demanded by the new king.
As a result, Odo ordered, on the new king’s instructions, a massive castle building programme, using the famous Norman motte and bailey plans that were so well copied in other parts of the world soon after.
These Norman castles were quickly built by masons and engineers brought in from Normandy, who worked on individual projects up and down the country under the watchful eye of the Master Mason. In general, there would be 2 types of masons who worked under him, the hewers, who carved the stones, and the layers, who placed the stones in to the building.
All of this, of course, was paid for by draconian taxes extracted from the local population. Taxes and tax collection, after all, lay at the heart of why the Domesday Book of 1086 was commissioned and why the surveyors sent out to every English town and village were ordered to be so thorough.
Of all the castles of England, the Tower of London, still perhaps London’s most iconic tourist attractions some 950 years later, is the most famous. Within a generation or so, 50 or so more Norman castles, such as the one in Kenilworth in Warwickshire, with its magnificent red sandstone keep, were to dot the English landscape.
Why did the Normans build cathedrals and churches?
But alongside this huge Norman castle building programme, a huge mirror programme of cathedral building was also put in place, with 15 new Norman masterpieces put up in the next 90 years or so. Of these, 13 still remain, with only 2 lost to us: Old St Paul’s, burnt down in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and Old Sarum, soon replaced by Salisbury Cathedral, pulled down in the reign of Richard the Lionheart.
But the spiritual and political power over the population that came with the new cathedral building programme was supplemented by another one which, one could argue, was to have an even greater influence over the people of England.
This was the great Norman church building programme that, over the reigns of the 4 kings, saw some 7,000 new Norman stone churches built across the vanquished land, from north to south and from east to west, marking the landscape with new churches to fulfil both William’s political and religious ambitions.
Of these, perhaps a quarter or so remain to the present day, with many destroyed or renovated, often sadly vandalised beyond recognition in the Victorian period when the gothic style was in vogue.
So perhaps as many as 2,000 original Norman churches can be visited today, mostly continuing as working churches serving the parishes of the Church of England and other denominations, looking after communities up and down the country.
Working churches such as St Andrew’s near Salisbury in Wiltshire, or such as St Michael’s in Mickleham in Surrey, near London, a similarly beautiful Norman masterpiece. Or further north in Yorkshire, the site of the Harrying of the North, where we find the granite permanence of St Helen’s in Skipwith. The photographs of the three churches, below, are by Lionel Wall.
Photos by Matthew Slade
St Mary the Virgin, Iffley, Oxfordshire, sits above the River Thames on what would have been in the 12th century a sprawling estate. In modern times, the sprawl of Oxford has engulfed the surrounding area.
The church was funded and built circa 1170 by the Norman lord Robert de St Remy and his wife, who was a member of the powerful and wealthy Clinton family.
Historians suspect that the Church of St Mary and St David in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, sits atop the ruins of a Saxon church. The church is known for its stone carvings, and is described by Pevsner Architectural Guides as one the most perfect of Norman churches.
Placed amid a woodland glade, St. Michael & All Angels church at the edge of Copford village in Essex offers visitors a close-up view of 12th-century wall paintings. Around 34 subjects are featured in the frescoes that cover all walls and vaulted surfaces. The murals are thought to be the work of a Master Hugo of Bury St Edmonds.
The Norman stone staircase at Canterbury Cathedral leads to the library of the King’s School. It’s said to be the only C12 staircase in England. The period of C12 Norman architecture featured specific moldings around such elements as arches.
What are the characteristics of Norman churches?
All show many of the unique styles and architectural peculiarities of the Normans: the half-round windows; the door and arcade arches; and the massive walls and cylindrical pillars. All these blended so that a Norman church is both massive, square and immovable while, at the same time, also seeming delicate with beautifully carved stone ornamentation.
At St Leonard’s in Romney, on the marches in Kent where Dickens’ wrote about Magwitch in the opening scenes of Great Expectations, we see an excellent example of this size and solidity manifested in the square tower, a noted trait of the Norman church.
It is not surprising, perhaps, given the closeness to violence and rebellion in which the Normans found themselves, that the square tower, guardable on 4 sides, was a shape that could be easily defended.
At St Leonard’s in Kent and at St Andrew’s in Wiltshire, we see another hugely popular characteristic of the Normans, and that is the wide, decorated semi-circular rounded arch. This is a device that is used with both doors and windows, and, in this regard, most Norman churches we see in England match their Romanesque cousins of the continent.
Surrounding the door was usually a zigzag or a chevron masonry decoration, called a moulding, that catches and raises the eye. On both windows and doors, this pattern usually stopped at the end of the semi-circular arch leaving a straight clean column to the ground.
At St Andrew’s, we see an exquisite arch at the end of the nave, with a beautiful semi-circular design surrounding it.
The arch at St Andrew’s sits below the even more impressive, though not Norman, Ladder of Salvation wall painting. Many of these were seen as blasphemous and destroyed during the Reformation of the 1540s, and only about 40 or so remain throughout the land.
In Romney, we can also see an excellent example of Norman architecture with a wide and rounded door at the entrance to the tower, while at the entrance door in Salisbury, our eyes are also drawn to the tympanum, an ornate triangular design above the door.
In Salisbury, the chevron was used to decorate the tympanum, but various other decorations were often also used, and these included all sorts of shapes, symbols and even animals.
Common bible stories were often, in an age of illiteracy, represented in church art and frescoes, and there is no better example of this than on the tympanum at the chapel in Aston Eyre in Shropshire.
Here, we see a classic wide arched Norman door, with a fantastic depiction of Jesus arriving at Jerusalem on a donkey, with one bearded character in front of him laying down palm leaves in his path.
Also, notice the exquisite Norman door, one of the oldest in existence.
A final lovely example comes from the north, from the county of Cumbria, the home of the Lake District, at St Bees Priory. Again we see a lovely wide and decorated Norman entrance door.
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Norman Towers, Doors, & Carvings
Photos by Matt Slade
Norman arches & columns
Another important characteristic of the Norman architecture was the size and the girth of the column, and these were generally both huge and cylindrical.
Many arches were often carved or decorated with flutes, spirals, chevrons, or other geometric patterns, although at Claverley this is not the case.
However, this is certainly the case in Surrey where, at St Nicholas’ in Compton, we see a beautiful pattern of decoration of the column capitals.
The capitals initially had a cushion appearance with the square block with rounded off lower ends, although later masons became more confident and theatrical in their use of designs.
Lastly, we must turn our attention to the font, which was a feature of all Norman churches. Many were removed during the Reformation and by other low church movements, over the centuries ending up in farms and the suchlike, but many remain that allow us to view and to study them.
Through this period, we can see a range of all shapes and designs being used, some quite plain and some carved with the most amazing collection of patterns and motifs.
Many were removed during the Reformation and by other low church movements, over the centuries ending up in farms and the suchlike, but many remain that allow us to view and to study them.
At Claverley, then, we very much see the former, a solid round block with carvings vertically down and around the font, while at St John’s in Crosscanonby in Cumbria, we see a far more complicated lattice design.
Finally, we travel to Warwickshire where at St Peter’s and St Paul’s at Colehill, we see extraordinary complexity and poignancy of design with the portrayal of the crucifixion.
Our tour of Norman churches comes to an end
So now we must end our ramble across England and the Norman churches that still, after nearly a millennium, pepper our rolling landscape. Norman churches make up a hugely important section of our parish churches network, and they are a part of a live and vivid historical heritage that shows us where we have been and from whence we have come.
But also, perhaps more important, a study of England’s Norman churches today shows us that our ancestors of 900 years ago were not so very different from ourselves, following them by some 40 generations removed.
We can see in these churches that the shared values, beliefs and hopes of those long departed worshippers bind us all in a common tapestry of birth, worship, and death – that is as old and as immemorial as the English landscape itself.
Andrew Hatcher was educated at East Anglia, Oxford, and York universities in England before embarking on a career in education that has taken him to posts in the Middle East, the Far East, Africa and England over the past 34 years. He has a particular interest in colonial and architectural history. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He is the author of The Greatest Leap, a decade-by-decade history of the 20th century, published by Troubador in 2015, and available in the USA at amazon.com (ISBN-13: 978-1784621735).
Lionel Wall has a life-long amateur interest in church architecture and mediaeval history. In 2009 after a long career in corporate management he created a historical church website www.greatenglishchurches.co.uk as a retirement project which has, much to his own surprise, now been viewed by over two million people worldwide.
He brings to it a deliberately irreverent sense of humour and keen sense of the bizarre, which he sees as an antidote to the stuffy and narrow approach of most writers and academics.
Lionel feels strongly that you cannot fully understand mediaeval art and architecture without also understanding something of the religious, social, and political landscapes within which it was created and within which its creators had to survive. He has an especially keen interest in the Anglo-Saxon and Viking eras.
In 2012 he discovered a remarkable and hitherto overlooked mass of 15th century sculpted friezes in the East Midlands of England where he lives. In 2013 he self-published a book “Demon Carvers & Mooning Men” about them and a second edition is in preparation in which he will more fully explore them within the context of the mediaeval building “industry.” A synopsis of the work can be seen on his website.
Although he claims he is no great photographer, his pictures are in great demand from academics and students around the world. In 2014 some of his work on Anglo-Saxon churches was incorporated into the teaching materials for England’s school curriculum.
His motto is “The more I find out, the less I know”!
Matthew Slade, was born in Essex, England, and currently lives in Rochester, Kent. He’s been interested in church architecture and medieval history since he was a young boy. Much of Matt’s spare time is spent touring the English countryside photographing churches. Fortunately for us, we can follow along those journeys through his Instagram account: @matt.afc
Serena Hackett, who designed our free coloring page, is a Graphic Design student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She has a passion for art, and her main areas of focus are drawing, illustrating, and digital design.