Historic churches are a distinctive feature of Britain's landscape. Of the 37,000+ churches in England, some are no longer used for regular worship but are important for their architecture, art and history.
Here, we explore St Mary the Virgin in Edlesborough, Buckinghamshire. Almost eight hundred years old, it is full of fascinating clues about its history. In many ways, it is a typical English parish church.
Hand-drawn floor plan of St Mary's (1901-2000) by J. W. BloeChurches Conservation Trust
Looking at the church floor plan, you can see the layout follows a traditional east-to-west alignment, with the tower to the west. This orientation is common to most old churches around the world.
The materials used to build churches vary from place to place. In England they were often built using local stone. St Mary the Virgin is made primarily of light-coloured limestone which was quarried nearby.
Historic church walls often reveal a patchwork of materials used over time. Some repairs to the building were made using older Roman brick – probably from earlier settlement in the area – more modern brick and local flint. Wood was also used for structural, functional and decorative elements of the building.
Towers are a landmark, helping people find the church, and sometimes also helped sailors to navigate ships in the sea, rivers and canals. Stretching towards the sky, they symbolise reaching Heaven. They come in different shapes, sometimes with a pointed spire on top. They often have large bells inside which are rung to call worshippers to prayer and for locals to keep time.
A number of churches built at the time used battlements – a defensive feature of castles – for decorative purposes. Here, they suggest strength, power and protection from harm. In the past, anyone could claim sanctuary and safely be protected from harm or arrest inside a church.
Originally, people entered through a door in the west wall, opposite the eastern end where the sun rises in England. They walked into the church and moved closer to god as they progressed forwards towards the light. The doorway here was moved to the south wall over time, and a porch was added to protect the building and people from extreme weather. It is rare to find a historic church with the main entrance in the north wall, as this side is usually in shadow and often considered unholy and thought to contain evil spirits.
The main part of the church where worshippers, the ‘congregation’, meet is called the nave. Naves are usually large spaces with high, impressive ceilings. In early churches, they also served as schoolrooms, courtrooms, places of commerce, shelters from harsh weather and places to socialise. Even animals were kept in there sometimes! The local community who made such great use of the church maintained the building and paid for its upkeep.
People made their churches beautiful with their skill and quality craftmanship. Take a walk through St Mary the Virgin and see which features grab your attention.
The font holds the water used to welcome people into the Christian faith during the ritual of baptism. The traditional position for the font is next to the entrance, symbolising the beginning of a journey as people move past it towards the centre of the church. This stone font with a carved wooden lid is from the 15th Century.
Seating in churches has evolved over time, with basic wooden benches being added to with back supports and ends to become ‘pews’. At one time, people paid for their pews, and the ones at the front cost more, so richer families often sat closer to the holiest part of the church. Some pews are closed wooden boxes which have doors on the ends. These' box pews' would often have numbers or names painted on, with some families making them more comfortable by adding fabric linings.
From this raised platform - the 'pulpit' - a speaker can be seen and heard by everyone. Here, it is on the side of the aisle near the front, but in some later churches, the pulpit is in the centre. With an octagonal shape and elaborately hand-carved canopy suspended above, it is an excellent example of late medieval woodwork.
Angel wall painting in St Mary's (1867) by Daniel BellChurches Conservation Trust
Church walls were often covered in pictures that told stories to local people who usually couldn’t read or speak the language spoken by priests: often Latin or French was used. Many church wall paintings were destroyed in the 16th-century English Reformation. This ornate and colourful wall painting of Jesus and angels is a Victorian-era replacement.
Here, a 'rood screen' separates the chancel and nave. Rood screens were often intricately carved and brightly painted. On top was a loft which once held a crucifix – a ‘rood’ in Old English. This oak screen was added before the Reformation and so surviving, complete screens like this are rare.
The realm of the ordained
At the front of the church are the 'chancel' and 'sanctuary', the most sacred part of a church. The chancel is often separated from the main body of the church by steps or a raised platform and sometimes a screen still exists. It is where only the holiest, 'ordained' people – members of the clergy such as ministers – were able to go.
Enclosed space of the 'chancel', St Mary's (1401-1900)Churches Conservation Trust
During a service, you will find people with an official role in the chancel: the choir, singing along to the music, the clergy and the celebrant, and sometimes an organist, too. There are usually seats for the choir and the clergy and these spaces are often full of symbolism. There is normally also a small room nearby, called a ‘vestry’, where the clergy can get dressed and prepare for services.
Altar table and Medieval window (1201-1300)Churches Conservation Trust
The sanctuary is the holiest part of the church which most people could not enter, and it is where you will find the altar or communion table. Often you will see candles, a cross and a bible or prayer book on the altar. Behind is an impressive 13th-Century window, allowing light to flood the main body of the church in the mornings.
When the clergy had to stand for a long time during services, the 'misericords' – a ledge underneath the seats in the chancel – allowed them to rest.
Ornately carved wooden mermaid (1989)Churches Conservation Trust
Misericords are often intricately carved – these are from the 15th Century and are decorated with animals and mythical creatures, including a mermaid suckling a lion.
Architectural features can tell us a lot about a building and churches often have distinctive elements that have enabled them to stand the test of time. It is hard to imagine, now, how such impressive structures were built hundreds of years ago without the machines and technology that is used to build similar structures today. They would have taken many years and lots of people, gradually constructing the building from the ground, up.
Columns and arches
Columns are a common feature in churches. They carry the weight of the roof, creating openings and and allowing light through the large, open space. The shape and size of a church’s columns are clues to when it was built. There are many different styles of arches from different parts of the world and different time periods. This style of pointed arch is known as ‘Gothic’ and so can help you recognise a Gothic building.
Although this timber ceiling looks plain, church ceilings were once full of colour and decoration. High church ceilings give a sense of space and grandeur and, like spires and towers, they lift people’s eyes and spirits toward heaven. High, vaulted ceilings also make music and prayer louder and create a special, echoing sound.
Stained glass windows bring colour, beauty and luxury to a church. They often tell stories or remember saints from the Bible. In medieval England, glass was very expensive, and special coloured glass was the most expensive money could buy. In the 16th Century, many medieval church windows were destroyed but some here remain from the 13th Century. Beautiful stained glass from later master craftspeople – Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907) with his 'wheatsheaf' signature motif and Margaret E. Aldrich Rope (1891-1988) – adds to the colourful display in Edlesborough.
Heart of the community
Through the centuries, countless feet have worn away the floors of the churches of England, as can be seen in these medieval tiles. Parish churches like this witnessed every aspect of life and in the past almost everyone living in the local community went to church. People would gather for services which taught the word of God from the Bible.
A parish is a geographical area. In the past, almost everyone in England could walk to their local church and people would often stay in a single parish for their whole life, possibly moving from one village to another and not much further. They were usually born, baptised, married, had children and were buried in the same place.
Music played an important part of life in the church. The organist operated the large pipe organ by fingering the keyboard and pumping bellows with their feet. The sound is made when air is forced through long pipes, with different sized pipes making different tones. The organ accompanied the choir. The sound created is distinctive and atmospheric, and is still often heard in churches today.
Memorials often commemorate important or wealthy members of the parish. They can take many forms and are usually made of brass or marble. Memorials can include representations of the deceased and they often offer information about their lives.
Over the years, many people scratched graffiti into the walls and timber of churches. Sometimes this can give us insights into the life of everyday people from a parish hundreds of years ago. Masons, who built churches out of stone, would often scratch their ‘mark’, like a signature or tag, to identify their work. Sometimes the same mason’s mark was used in a single family, passing down the generations. Registers were kept of who each mark belonged to, so we can sometimes still identify them today.
Many of the church features explored here can be seen in other historic churches around the world. What will you discover in your local historic church?
Contributors: Elizabeth Bell, Jessica Clarke, Holly Freeman, Chloë Meredith and Jamie Taylor
With thanks to: The Friends of the Church on the Hill
More information on St Mary's Church