Once the hearts of their communities, these churches have much to tell us about the people they served and their own stories. In this Expedition, we'll explore a typical English church from the 12th-century: St Mary the Virgin in Edlesborough, Buckinghamshire.
Iconic buildings through time
Churches are often awe-inspiring structures—the people who paid for their creation did not spare expense in praising their god and appearing publicly to be closer to heaven.
From England’s oldest surviving church—built in 590 CE—to the present day, their towering spires and fine decorations can give us clues about when and how a church was built. Think about the human who placed the final stone, right at the top, with no modern safety equipment!
Church on the hill
Built on a hill, St Mary the Virgin’s height and pale colour make it visible for miles around. The tower, added in 1340, was probably the tallest structure local people had ever seen. Tall churches symbolise reaching for heaven and being closer to God. They are easy to find, too!
MaterialsChurches Conservation Trust
St Mary the Virgin is made primarily of locally quarried limestone. Some repairs to the building were made using older Roman brick—probably from earlier settlement in the area—and cement and decorated with flint. Wood was used for both structure and decoration.
In the late medieval period, battlements—a defensive feature of castles—were also used as decoration. Here, they suggest strength, power and also protection from harm. In fact, a person could once claim sanctuary and safely take refuge in a church.
Entering the churchChurches Conservation Trust
Entering the church
Churches are traditionally laid with the main entrance is in the west wall. People move closer to god as they progress eastward from the entrance to the chancel. At some point, the St Mary’s main entrance was moved to the south wall.
Looking inside the church
We have entered the church and are standing in the centre of the nave, the main part of the church where the congregation meets. Church naves are usually large spaces with high, impressive ceilings.
In early churches, the naves also served as schoolrooms, courtrooms, places of commerce, places to socialise and shelters from harsh weather—even animals were kept in here sometimes! The congregation who made such great use of the church maintained the nave and paid for its upkeep.
Arches span openings and support weight. They connect different spaces, giving the church an open feel. There are many different styles of arches. Pointed ‘Gothic’ arches like this can help you recognise a Gothic building.
Columns are a common feature in churches. They carry the weight of the roof and allow spaces to be big, open and bright. The shape and size of a church’s columns give clues to when it was built.
This timber ceiling looks plain, but church ceilings are often 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.
The font holds the water used in the Christian ritual of baptism. By tradition, fonts stand just inside the church entrance, symbolising the beginning of the life journey. This stone font with a carved wooden lid is from the 15th century.
From this raised, skilfully carved pulpit, a speaker can be seen and heard by everyone in the church. It stands on the north side of the nave near the front, but in some later churches, the pulpit is in the centre of the nave.
Pews and benches
Seating in churches has evolved over time, from basic wooden benches to pews with backs and arms. People once paid for their pews, and those closer to the altar cost more—the rich could afford to be ‘closer to God.’
Decorating the Church
Medieval churches were designed to amaze people. Inside, they were highly decorated, brightly coloured and covered in images that gave messages and told stories. A lot of church decoration was destroyed or covered up during the Reformation in the 16th Century.
After that, English churches were plain and white—just as many appear today. The Victorians often returned some colour and decoration in the 19th Century. Church walls often have ‘scars’ from architectural changes, showing how the building has changed over time.
Ceramic tiles are tough floor coverings that also add decoration. These are from the Victorian period. Victorian tiles are common in English churches, but tiles from different time periods can also often be seen, with older tiles made by hand from clay, then painted or glazed.
Often intricately carved and brightly painted, rood screens separate the chancel and nave. On top of this oak screen was a loft which held a crucifix—a ‘rood’ in Old English. Complete screens like this, added before the Reformation, are rare.
Church walls were often covered in pictures of Bible stories, for people who couldn’t read, or understand the French or Latin languages spoken by priests. Many church paintings were destroyed in the 16th century. Pre-Reformation examples are rare. This painting of Christ is a replacement from 1867.
Stained glass windowsChurches Conservation Trust
Stained glass windows
Stained glass windows bring colour, beauty and magnificence to a church interior. Many tell stories or commemorate saints. In medieval England, glass was very expensive, and this special coloured glass made by master craftsmen was the most expensive money could buy.
The Realm of the Ordained
At the front of the church are the chancel and the sanctuary. The chancel has seats for the choir and the clergy. It is often separated from the main part of the church by steps or a raised platform and sometimes a screen, to keep the ’holiest’ people closer to God and apart from ordinary people.
The sanctuary, where the communion table sits, is the holiest part of the church. These areas were once full of decoration and symbols.
The Celebrant—the person conducting the service—stands here, right at the front of the church, for the most important parts of the service. Often you will see candles, a cross and a bible or prayer book on the communion table. A communion table is also often called an altar.
MisericordsChurches Conservation Trust
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. Misericords are often intricately carved. These are from the 15th Century and are decorated with animal shapes and mythical creatures.
This stone basin, or ‘piscina,’ is used to wash the ‘ciborium’ (a container for bread) and ‘chalice’ (a cup for wine) used during communion. It is usually carved into the stone wall on the south side of the sanctuary. A hole at the bottom allows water to drain out.
Services were often accompanied by music. An organist played alongside the choir by fingering the organ’s keyboard and pumping bellows with his or her feet. Air is forced through long pipes, creating sound, with different sized pipes making different tones.