Clues from the Past in Kirtling Parish Church

By Carol Davidson Cragoe
Visit Kirtling Parish Church for a record of the twists and turns of history as seen in an ancient building. Find out how to 'listen' to your own church - there's bound to be some history bound up within its structure.
Kirtling Parish Church from the south side  

Interpreting parish churches

The parish church is much more than the repository of the local community’s faith. It is a record of the twists and turns in the history - religious, political, and social - of the whole country.

'Tracing its history is a business of piecing together clues ...'

The architectural details of the building itself are full of clues, which can be followed by the informed eye. Some churches still retain details that pre-date the Norman Conquest whilst others have histories that do not stretch back nearly so far. But whatever the case, most parish churches can bear at least some scrutiny and repay the visitor with a greater sense of history.

Take Kirtling Parish Church, in Cambridgeshire. Christians have worshipped here for over a thousand years, and the church has been altered and changed many times along the way. Tracing its history is a business of piecing together clues from looking at the actual fabric of the building both inside and outside, from the landscape around the church, and from documentary records.

The church setting

Image of the gravestones in Kirtling parish church graveyard
Gravestones commemorate the dead of Kirtling
Approaching Kirtling church, you go through the churchyard to get to the building itself. It’s full of old graves, and it is worth stopping for a moment to consider their significance.

The inscriptions on the gravestones can provide interesting information about the people who lived, and were buried, at Kirtling in years past. But the fact that Kirtling has a graveyard at all is also important, because not all churches had the right to have burials.

'Manor houses and churches are often very close together ...'

That Kirtling did is an indicator of its status as a parish church with a full complement of services (including baptisms, marriages and burials), rather than a less important ‘dependant chapel’ where only masses were celebrated.

Another thing to consider is the relationship of the church to the surrounding houses. Kirtling church is some distance from the village, but there is an old farm house called Hall Farm just outside the churchyard. Was this perhaps the site of a manor house?

Manor houses and churches are often very close together, and the name Hall Farm might suggest a connection to a manor house or hall. Another building whose occupants might have had an impact on the church is Kirtling ‘castle’, now a private house called Kirtling Towers, on a large mound just to the south of the church.

This was probably never a proper stone castle, but it was a fortified site nonetheless. You won’t necessarily find an answer to every question right away, but these are things to keep in mind.


Image of the tower at Kirtling parish church
West tower - built from parishoners' donations
The outside of Kirtling church is dominated by the large west tower. Built in the 14th century, it bears testimony to the role of ordinary parishioners at Kirtling.

Unlike cathedrals and monasteries, which had substantial endowments to fund their building programmes, parish churches had to rely on the generosity of the local community. The tower would have been one of the parishioners’ main projects. In fact, parishes often engaged in competitive tower building, trying to outdo their neighbours with a bigger, taller, fancier tower.

'The parishioners’ responsibilities did not include the chancel ...'

Kirtling's tower does not have a spire, however, perhaps because the parishioners ran out of money before it could be added. There are five bells in Kirtling's tower, also paid for by the parishioners. These were - and indeed still are - rung to call people to church, and for special occasions such as weddings and funerals.

Another thing to notice on the outside of Kirtling is the chapel at the east end of the church, next to the chancel - not least because it is built of brick, and the rest of the church is stone. The parishioners’ responsibilities did not include the chancel, repairs to which were paid for by the rector.

The only person allowed to sit in the chancel during services was the patron of the church, who was usually the lord of the manor. The position of this chapel, therefore, suggests either that it was built by one of the rectors, or by someone whose social status was such that they could have their chapel in this prominent position.

The Tudor brickwork and the mullioned windows indicate that it was built in the 16th century. As it is quite similar in style to the gatehouse of Kirtling castle, it seems likely that it was built by Edward North at the same time as he was renovating the castle, in the 1530s.

Entering the church

Image of the Anglo-Saxon porch at Kirtling parish church
South door and porch
As in most parish churches, the entrance to Kirtling is through a porch. Kirtling’s porch is now a part of the south aisle, but a closer look reveals that it was once at least partly free standing.

The left (west) side has a small buttress and a plinth with chequered flintwork. There is a similar buttress on the right (north) side, but it is partially buried in the aisle wall and the plinth does not extend along the whole length of the aisle. This shows that the porch was built first and that the aisle came later. This is confirmed by comparing the stylistic details of the porch and the aisle. The aisle windows are similar to the chapel windows, suggesting that they - and the aisle - probably date to the 16th century.

'The arch into the porch ... has a pointed head and complex mouldings ...'

The arch into the porch, on the other hand, has a pointed head and complex mouldings suggesting an earlier, 15th century date. This date for the porch is confirmed by the flintwork plinth, which is also typically 15th century.

Small details

Image of a narrow window at Kirtling parish church
Window dating from before Norman Conquest
Tiny details can be just as important as large ones. Take the small window to the left of the porch. Barely more than a slit in the wall, it is quite unlike any of the other windows.

In particular, it has a monolithic head and long-and-short work jambs. These techniques are typical of the Anglo-Saxon period and suggest that Kirtling church was built before the Norman Conquest.

This is interesting, because the Domesday Book (written in 1086) records that Kirtling had been an important place in Anglo-Saxon times, but it doesn’t mention the church. However, the Domesday Book is notoriously unreliable about churches and this window suggests that Kirtling was one of the churches its authors omitted.

'... the doorway is Romanesque or Norman in style ...'

Inside the porch, the doorway is Romanesque or Norman in style, and so dates to the 12th century. It has a tympanum depicting Christ seated on a throne, and several bands of chevron ornament. This throws up more questions about the history of the church.

The relationship between door and porch is the easiest to answer - the walls of the 15th-century porch slightly overlap the door surround, so the porch was clearly put on later. But how can the door be dated 100 or so years later than the little window? The answer seems to be that the door was intended to bring the old church up to date with the latest architectural fashions.

This ties in with the history of Kirtling castle, which came into the possession of the de Tosny family after the Conquest. It was they who fortified the raised mound site, and the work on the church would have been a statement of their power as Normans over the English people living in Kirtling.

Anglo-Saxon church

Image of Kirtling parish church's nave
The nave - the Anglo-Saxon core of the church
Coming through the door, you are now in the nave. Arcades on either side separate it from the aisles. Above the arcades, the clerestory windows flood the church with light.

At the far east end is the chancel arch, and beyond it the chancel with the altar. On the west wall, above the tower arch, is the triangular ‘scar’ of the nave roof before the clerestory was added. Its height shows that the nave was very tall, another indicator that the core of the church is Anglo-Saxon in date.

'The north arcade has six arches or bays, all the same.'

There are no documents to tell us what Kirtling’s Anglo-Saxon church looked like, but the building itself provides its own record. Reading this ‘record’ may at first seem daunting, but with careful study its secrets will be revealed.

The north arcade has six arches or bays, all the same. They are similar in style to the porch opening and so also date to the 15th century. Going into the north aisle, however, we find two curious things. One is a blocked lancet window in the west wall, showing that there was an aisle here as early as the late 12th or early 13th century, long before the present arcade was built. Thesecond is that the easternmost bay is actually much wider than the rest of the aisle, and is in fact a transept. Keep these clues in mind – they might be useful later.


Image of the south arcade at Kirtling parish church
13th-century south arcade
The south arcade is very different, and is in two sections. The western three bays have round, chamfered arches and octagonal piers, dating them to c.1200 (the smaller arch at the far end is the inside of the door).

The eastern arch is larger, with a pointed head and mouldings similar to those of the north arcade, again indicating a 15th century date. Between the two types of arches is a short length of plain wall, which gives us a very important clue to the development of both aisles.

'... the transepts predate the c.1200 south aisle, and may have been Anglo-Saxon ...'

It tells us that when the south arcade was built in c.1200, there was already something where the present large arch is now. Otherwise, the arcade would have continued right up to the east end of the nave. This ‘something’ was almost certainly an arch leading into a transept like the one still existing on the north today.

Therefore, the transepts predate the c.1200 south aisle, and may have been Anglo-Saxon, like the nave. The transepts probably flanked a central tower (a common feature in larger Anglo-Saxon churches), as remains interpreted thus have been found under the floor of the east end of the nave. This means that the Anglo-Saxon church was cruciform, although the nave did not yet have aisles.

So, not only was there a church here at the time of the Conquest, but it was a very large and important church. Perhaps that isn’t surprising, as Kirtling was owned by Harold Godwinson, the English king.

Changes in the Middle Ages

Image of the clerestory at Kirtling parish church
The clerestory above the nave - added in the 15th century
By the early 13th century, Kirtling church not only had a central tower flanked by transepts, but it also had acquired north and south aisles. This would have made it one of the larger parish churches in Cambridgeshire, as befitted its status as a church associated with a fortified site.

The first major change to the nave came in the 14th century, when the west tower was added. The central tower was probably taken down at this time, perhaps because it had become structurally unsound. This must have left the east end of the nave looking a bit messy, as the scars where the central tower had been would have been very visible.

So, a few years later in the 15th century, the parishioners began a major programme of works. They added the porch over the south door. Then they rebuilt the whole north arcade, including the transept arch. They also rebuilt the south transept arch, and added the clerestory.

Documentary evidence

Image of the view into the north transept at Kirtling parish church
North transept - a late-15th-century addition
Information from some wills surviving in the local records office suggests that the work was probably funded by bequests such as that made by Margaret Page (died 1572), who left some land to the church 'for the building', and by John Turnor, who left 20 shillings for church repairs. Why the south arcade was not also rebuilt, we will probably never know. Perhaps they ran out of money or perhaps the north side was just more important.

The north transept has several niches for statues, with elaborate late medieval surrounds. A Guild of St Mary is recorded at Kirtling in 1470 and in 1472 and a different document refers to 'lighting candles to St Mary in the chapel', suggesting that this transept was a Lady chapel.

'This must mean that the original south aisle was quite narrow ...'

Remember how the buttresses on the outside of the porch showed that the porch was once partly free-standing? This must mean that the original south aisle was quite narrow, so that the porch stuck out beyond it.

The final project the parishioners carried out before the Reformation was the widening of the south aisle in the early 16th century, and the removal of the remains of the south transept. There have been some later repairs, but this essentially gave us the nave as seen today.

The east end

Image of the black marble tomb of Edward, second Baron North of Kirtling Castle
The black marble tomb of Edward, second Baron North of Kirtling Castle
The east end of Kirtling church is much less complicated than the nave. The chancel arch has similar details to the north arcade, and like it, dates from the 15th century.

It is not known what it replaced. There must have been a chancel arch in the Anglo-Saxon period, but there is no way of telling whether it survived until the 15th century or had been rebuilt before in the intervening years.

'Inside the chancel ... is a black marble chest with two steps leading up to it ...'

We can be more certain of the chancel itself. The present east window is 19th century, as it had to be rebuilt after a bad storm in 1810 when 'the wind was so extremely high that it blew down the chancel window of [Kirtling] church' (Cambridge Chronicle, 1810). A blocked lancet window in the chancel north wall, however, shows that the chancel had reached its present size by the early 13th century. Again, there is no telling what the Anglo-Saxon chancel was like, but a church as large as Kirtling would certainly have had one.

Inside the chancel, immediately adjacent to the altar, is a black marble chest with two steps leading up to it. It might be mistaken for another altar, but it is in fact the tomb of Edward, first Baron North of Kirtling Castle, who died in 1564. Next to it is the truly enormous tomb of his son, the second Baron, who died in 1600.

This tomb is inside the brick built chapel that can be seen so clearly from the outside. It had probably originally been intended to be a chantry chapel for the North family, but as chantries were abolished in 1547, it was converted into a mausoleum. Other memorials to the family include the painted hatchment panels with their coats of arms which adorn the walls of the church. The family considered the chapel to be their property, not a part of the parish church.

In the early 20th century, the then vicar tried to use the chapel for services, but the family's influence was such that the ensuing dispute ended with the resignation of the vicar.

The fittings

Image of a carved wooden angel on the wall at Kirtling parish church
A wooden angel that survived the destruction of the English Civil War
Most of the liturgical fittings, such as the pulpit and pews, that we see at Kirtling today were installed in the 19th century. Only the font, another product of the 15th-century parishioners’ renovations, is medieval. That this should be the case is a testament to two things - reformation and restoration.

The Reformation of the mid- 16th century stripped Kirtling of all of its images. The medieval windows would have been full of stained glass, and brightly coloured pictures of saints and religious scenes would have been painted on the walls. There was a rood screen across the chancel arch, and above it the rood, a life-size representation of the Crucifixion.

'The pictures have gone, but ... some of the angels are still there.'

All these images were destroyed at the Reformation as being 'superstitious' or 'idolatrous', because the Protestant reformers believed that people were worshipping the actual images rather than God. This process of destruction did not stop at the Reformation.

During the Civil War, the parliamentary commissioner William Dowsing came to Kirtling. He ordered the destruction of 'three superstitious pictures and 14 carved angels in the roof'. The pictures have gone, but perhaps he did not come back to check because some of the angels are still there.

After the turmoils of the Reformation and the Civil War, religious life calmed down. Most churches received new fittings, such as pulpits and box pews. At Kirtling both the pulpit and the pews are 19th century, however, as all the old fittings were swept away during a ‘restoration’ of the church in 1862.

The 19th-century restorers believed that they were putting the church back to what it had been in the Middle Ages, but in the process they often threw away a great deal of history. Guide books often refer to 19th-century restorations as ‘modern’, but as we move into the 21st century, they too are becoming part of history.

Final thoughts

Image of an exterior wall showing blocked window
The exterior walls reveal centuries of rebuilding
Kirtling has developed and changed greatly over the years. Aisles were added to its cruciform Anglo-Saxon core. Then the central tower was taken down and replaced by a west tower.

A clerestory was added and the aisles were rebuilt. A porch and a chantry chapel were added. Repairs and restorations were made. Fittings were added - and removed. In short, it is a typical Anglican parish church. It is unique in the specifics of its development as it responded to local needs, but it is also universal in representing the ebbs and flows of English religion over 1,000 years.

'Chancels were enlarged, and chapels were added'

Whilst no two parish churches are alike, their development generally followed a consistent pattern. Most parish churches with medieval fabric have their origins in the Anglo-Saxon or early Norman period. When first built, they were either two-celled structures with only a nave and chancel, or cruciform, as at Kirtling.

They soon began to be enlarged. Common additions were aisles and towers, the latter usually at the west end. Chancels were enlarged, and chapels were added. Throughout this process of change and development, the central core of nave and chancel often remained largely intact. Finding it, however, is often a case of working backwards, mentally removing each layer of additions.

Top tips

Image of the Tudor brickwork at Kirtling parish church
The Tudor brickwork of the chapel at the east end
There are many ways of looking at buildings, but here are some tips for getting the most out of your next visit to a parish church, or indeed any other historic building.

Published on BBC History: 2005-02-01
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