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Kent, United Kingdom
Author of Tracing Your Family History Through Death Records. http://tiny.cc/pzwuay My blog has moved to: http://www.heritagefamilyhistory.co.uk/blog

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Parishes Churches of England

Ivychurch, Kent
My love of family history has also led to a great love of parish churches. Although I started visiting churches in order to hunt for the graves of my ancestors and to see the place where they were often baptized, married and buried, over the years I have become fascinated by the history of the churches themselves and how they reflect the course of history. Our parish churches were not just participants in our family story but are a  vital and immensely important part of our national heritage too. In my new blog I will give you a little background to our parish churches and the sites on which they stand, and also an idea of what to look out for when you visit. Then over the coming months I will highlight some of my favourite churches from the ones I have been lucky enough to visit so far on my travels.

Part One. What to Look Out For In a Parish Church.

Our parish churches have stood often though centuries of time and have not only their own unique history to tell but also reflect the history of the country as a whole, many of which would have affected our ancestors.

Gosforth Cross
Learning how to read a church is a long process and I still feel I have a long way to go in understanding all there is to know about them. Each church is, of course, unique and many are extremely old. It may surprise you to discover however that many are built on pagan sites while many pagan ideas were also incorporated into the Christian faith in its early years in Britain. Christianity in Britain dates back to the 3rd century and the early Christian authorities astutely decided that, in order to encourage the locals to convert to Christianity, pagan sites of worship should be re-used as places of Christian worship, while pagan customs were also absorbed and many festivals, notably Christmas continued on the same days of the year but being rededicated to a Christian saint. For many centuries after its introduction to the country the Christian culture shared its imagery and etchings with the deities that had been worshipped there before the coming of Christianity. The stone crosses and tombstones at Gosforth in Cumbria are a prime example representing the beliefs of what was an effectively an Anglo-Danish population, as a result Viking settlement.

Gravestones are a noticeable feature of churchyards today but Christians were not the first to use them in a commemorative manner. They are again thought to originate in a pagan usage connected with the belief that they became the place where a spirit rested after death. Early Christians worshipped in each other’s homes or met outside to worship and gradually it became customary for a cross to mark regular places of worship. As churches began to be built crosses were often erected to mark the site and by the sixth century it became the norm for a cross to be placed where a church was to be built.

St John Beckermet
It is not clear at what point individual tombstones became the norm, because early ones may well have weathered away but as early as the sixth century burials in the churchyard were encouraged in order to encourage worshippers to remember the dead in their prayers and by the eighth century they had became consecrated places. The wealthier classes were commemorated in stone from Anglo Saxon times and you can still see examples of many surviving cross slab tomb stones as they are known such as the one shown here at St John Beckermet in Cumbria.

Although today the churchyard is a quiet, restful place this was not always the case and it had a variety of uses apart from the burying of the dead! In medieval times it proved to be a very convenient meeting place for the locals, and many non-religious, recreational activities took place there such as wrestling and archery contests and village fairs. Most of these activities took place in northern part of the churchyard, the south side being favoured for burials, as there was a general belief that the north side harboured evil spirits. You may note in many churchyards that the southern side of the churchyard is considerably higher than the north due to the great number of burials that took place there, which significantly raised the level of the ground!
As family historians we often concentrate on searching for our ancestors gravestones or rush inside the church to get a feel for the place where they were married. However take the time to also study the external fabric and shape of the church. Studying the fabric of the church walls can sometimes tell you a lot about pre-Christian communities that lived there in the area! Many churches sit on, or near to, the site of earlier churches or other non-Christian buildings.
Green Man, Thornham Magna, Suffolk
If you look carefully you can often see a mixture of building materials in your parish church. Although these are usually made up of stone, brick or tiles of different sorts - sometimes you may spot something more unusual At Teynham near Faversham in Kent you can see  not only many Roman tiles but amazingly the remnants of a broken Roman hypocaust. This must have been come from the local Roman villa, which was located a stone's throw away. Sometimes you may notice a later extension to the church because of a change in the material while if your church wall takes a step inwards at some point this often also indicates an extension.It made sense to reuse old sites for building because there was often a plentiful supply of building material that could be reused, thus saving much time and effort in transporting new building materials. Your study of the external walls will often also reward you will a variety of decorative carving often in the shape of Gargoyles or that ancient pagan symbol of fertility, the Green Man. Sometimes however you will find something that is unique and often humourous such as these three caricatures I found over the priest's door at the back of a church that I annoying failed to note the name of. They surely have to be caricatures of either members of the local clergy or congregation!





After Henry V111 dissolved the monasteries in the 1530s the church became the sole centre of local religious life. The church took on many of the roles previously undertaken by the monasteries and by 1600 was responsible not just for the administering of ecclesiastical duties but also the secular day to day running of the parish including the provision of poor relief. Added to this was the gradual breakdown of the manorial system which meant that the parish also gradually replaced the administrative functions of the local manor. Therefore the church, both in terms of its administrative body, and the church in terms of the building itself increasingly became the centre of parish life.


Now let’s take a tour inside the church.

Mayfield, Sussex
You will usually enter through a porch but don’t just pass through in your haste to get inside however. Very often there will be features of interest on the outside of the porch itself, such as a coat of arms, or perhaps a sundial to help mark the passing of time and to indicate when services were due. In medieval times the porch was often used as a place where legal documents, such as wills, could be signed and many would have had a small altar upon which oaths could be sworn. Many porches were also used as schoolrooms or courtrooms too although it is hard for us to imagine such a small room being used for this purpose today.

Stoup, Ivychurch
Once inside the church look to see if there is a stoup. If there is you will know that the church was standing before the Reformation and dates back to the time when the state religion was still Catholicism. The stoup holds holy water for the congregation to cross themselves with as they entered the church. Like many features of the medieval church stoups were destroyed during the Reformation. Similarly look for any piscine.  These were the basins where communion vessels were originally washed after mass had taken place and if you find more than one you will know that the church contained more than one altar. Many churches had side chapels that were often dedicated to the Virgin Mary (usually known as the Lady Chapel) or another saint.

Many of us today are not church goers and are not familiar with the layout of a typical Western Church but this layout  has not changed over the years, apart from the position of the communion table or altar which did change with the course of time and according to the predominant beliefs of the day.

At the back of the church you will usually find the font and its position here is symbolic of an infant’s entrance into the Christian church while I feel it may also have been convenient for the parents to make an exit with a screaming child where necessary!

Fonts vary tremendously in date and you may have you wondered why many have lids. In the thirteenth century witchcraft was rife and in 1236 the government ordered that all fonts must have a locked lid in order to prevent holy water getting into the wrong hands! Conversely Oliver Curing Cromwell's ordered that all lids should be removed from fonts and thus you may see many fonts that have clearly once had a lid but only the clasps remain where it once rested. Font styles vary from the plainly austere to the highly decorated. Decoration was not just used to look nice but was almost always symbolic and used to represent a story or meaning to the congregation.

Although the layout of the church has not changed much through the ages, what has changed dramatically is the d├ęcor, which has greatly reflected the changes in government and politics throughout the centuries! The majority of our older parish churches today present a polite, demur and colourless interior but this was not always the case. The Reformation in England and Wales which introduced Protestantism to the country was responsible over the years for totally changing the way our churches looked. A typical pre-Reformation church would have been highly decorated with statues of saints and the Virgin Mary and paintings depicting bible stories. These were an easy way of imparting religious morals to our ancestors, the majority of whom would not be able to comprehend the church services they attended for the simple fact that they were all in Latin. Most churches would have had what was known as a "Doom" which was a painting depicting what would happen to you on the Day of Judgment (in other words when you died) depending on whether one went to heaven, hell or purgatory! One of the few surviving examples of this is at Wenhaston in Suffolk.

Rood screen, Mayfield
The other predominant feature in the pre-Reformation church was the Rood. The word rood comes from the Anglo Saxon for "cross" and was a depiction of the Crucifixion comprising of a statue of Christ on the cross flanked by his mother the Virgin on one side and John the Baptist on the other. Below this was a screen usually made of carved wood called the rood screen which effectively separated the congregation from the clergy and above it was the rood gallery where prayer were once chanted. Sadly most roods and many rood screens, doom picture and wall paintings as well as stoups and piscine were destroyed once the Reformation really got under way under Edward V1. We will however take a look at some of those that survived later in this series. Imagery was seen as idolatrous and an integral part of the old Catholic faith which England had broken away from. The king rather than the pope was now the head of the church and radical changes had to be seen to be made.
The Rood and the Doom were replaced by what were considered to be more fitting features - the royal coat of arms and extracts from the Bible.

Today many churches are removing their pews to make the church more accessible for general use but this is nothing new. In medieval times there were no pews and people stood during the service unless they were weak or elderly for whom there was often a stone bench along one wall of the church. This still survives in a few churches and from here derives our saying “the weak shall go to the wall”.

Before you leave your church, always remember to look up to the ceiling as many will be adorned with angels or other figures of interest, or it may be the case that the structure of the ceiling is worthy of note itself.


In the next installment of my parish church blog we will look at the church of Thornham Parva in Suffolk.

Thornham Parva, Suffolk

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