Medieval Churches of Northamptonshire

Medieval Churches of Northamptonshire

Medieval Churches of Northamptonshire

The Evolution of Religious Space, 800–1550

Dr Paul S Barnwell

English Heritage

37 Tanner Row

York YO1 6WP


The Medieval Churches of Northamptonshire project, was begun in the 1980s by the former Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. During that period, the techniques of non-invasive structural analysis were applied to the 300 pre-Reformation parish churches, parochial chapels and chapels of ease in the post-1974 county, to create the first systematically collected corpus of such analysis relating to a particular part of the England.

The resulting records, which will ultimately be deposited in the National Monuments Record, form the basis for an analysis of the patterns of evolution of church buildings in an area which, in the middle ages, was neither sufficiently wealthy for earlier buildings to be replaced wholesale, nor so poor that early buildings remain unaltered. The result is that almost every surviving pre-Reformation place of worship has a long evolutionary development, and that chronological patterns of change can be established.

Aims of the Project

The aim of the project is to produce a book which will not only identify and describe the patterns which can be traced, but also seek to explain them in terms of the evolution of the religion and the Church in medieval England. While much of the analysis relates to the functions for which space was required, a second stand is to try to re-create something of the visual, religious and emotional experience of the layfolk who worshiped in the buildings at different stages in their evolution. This will draw upon the history and development of parish institutions, of formal liturgy, of forms of representation (both liturgical and artistic) and of devotional literature as well as of the buildings themselves and their fittings and furnishings in order to try to understand the religious ‘environment’. The intention is to cast light on the nature of the religious experience of our medieval ancestors and to emphasise its constantly changing nature.

Schematic views of the impact of different altar positions in twelfth-century churches on the view of the laity. Drawn by Allan T Adams.  English Heritage. NMR.

In addition to exploring aspects of medieval culture, the project has a practical purpose to deepen understanding of the significance of medieval parish churches, perhaps the most characteristic of English buildings. This will assist in the management of the changes to them which will be an inevitable consequence of the cycle of repair and renewal in living buildings, as well as of the changes of use which are engendered by redundancy.

The Monograph

The precise arrangement of the proposed monograph, which will be heavily illustrated with photographs, drawn plans and sections and imaginative reconstructions of interiors, has not been finalised, but its contents can be divided into four broad parts:

  • Introductory. A brief scene-setting section which will explain the origins of the project, the historical and conservation issues the book seeks to address and the methodology, as well as giving a brief overview of the development of the medieval Church in Northamptonshire.
  • The Evolution of Fabric and Form. The physical evidence of medieval places of worship will be examined to establish the broad chronological pattern of development in the county. The main punctuation marks will be the Gregorian Reform, the Fourth Lateran Council, and the rise of the Feast of Corpus Christi, rather than events (such as the Norman Conquest) from secular or art history.
  • Form and Function. Using the same periodisation as above, the reasons for the evolution of the form of churches will be examined, concentrating more on trends than on individual examples. Significant findings already discerned relate to the ways in which both greater and lesser churches may have been used in the pre-Conquest period, and to changes in the later 11th and the 12th centuries. These can be related to developments in ecclesiastical organisation (the foundation of parishes; the status of the clergy), in doctrine (particularly relating to the Eucharist) and in liturgy and devotion.
  • Concluding. Why do these buildings matter? At one level because they represent fixed points in the landscape, which have endured for centuries and enable communities to reach back into the past. But at another level because they have, both during the middle ages and subsequently, been the focus of some of the most powerful and divisive events to have affected the lives of those communities as their members have engaged in the constantly evolving human quest to understand and express their place in the world.


The recording of the buildings has been completed for some time, much of the necessary wider research has been achieved, and a first attempt at an analysis of the evolution of church fabric undertaken. It is anticipated that the remaining work will take two or three years, so that publication will probably not be feasible until 2008 or 2009.

Imaginative reconstruction of Vespers for the Dead in St John the Baptist’s Church, Blisworth, on the eve of the Reformation. Drawn by Alan T Adams. © English Heritage. NMR.

Publications to Date

During the course of the protracted evolution of the project there have already been some publications on aspects of the work as it has developed. They include:

H Richmond, ‘Outlines of Church Development in Northamptonshire’, in L A S Butler and R K Morris (eds), The Anglo-Saxon Church: Papers on History, Architecture and Archaeology in Honour of Dr H M Taylor, CBA Research Report 60 (London, 1986), pp 176–87

T H Cocke, ‘Northamptonshire Towers and Spires’, in J Bold and E Cheney (eds), English Architecture Public and Private (London, 1993), pp 1–11

P S Barnwell, ‘Churches Built for Priests? The Evolution of Parish Churches in Northamptonshire from the Gregorian Reform to the Fourth Lateran Council’, Ecclesiology Today, 32 (2004), pp 7–23

P S Barnwell, ‘The Laity, the Clergy and the Divine Presence: The Use of Space in Smaller Churches of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 157 (2004), pp 41–60

P S Barnwell, ‘The Use of the Church: Blisworth, Northamptonshire, on the Eve of the Reformation’, to appear in Ecclesiology Today

Related work is to be found in P S Barnwell, C Cross and A Rycraft (eds), Mass and Parish in Late Medieval England: The Use of York (Reading, 2005)