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18 September 2014
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The Early Church: The People's View

By Carol Davidson Cragoe

Image of Church of SS Peter and Paul at Lavenham in Suffolk
An example of the 'glass box' style at SS Peter and Paul at Lavenham, Suffolk ©
As local churches evolved from chapels into proper parish churches, they took on a wider range of liturgical services, including baptisms, burials and feast day celebrations.

To accommodate these new functions, churches were extended and enlarged. Chancels - separated from the nave by a heavily decorated chancel arch - were lengthened and sometimes widened, as the liturgy grew more complex and thus required more space in which the priest could operate. New liturgical fittings like piscinas and sedilia were installed.

'... weddings in the Middle Ages were celebrated outside, in front of the church door ...'

The first addition to the nave was often a tower at its west end. Although some towers were round, especially in East Anglia, most were square, of which a good example is the late Saxon tower at St Benet's, Cambridge. Although there was no set order for enlarging a parish church, the next addition was often an aisle alongside the nave, often in response to a specific new demand on the space inside the church.

One reason was the need for new altars, which could be added at the side without intruding on the nave. Another factor was the need to provide additional standing or sitting room for the growing congregations, especially prior to the arrival of the Black Death between 1347-48.

External features were also added over time, such as a porch over the main south door to the nave. Porches served a variety of purposes, the most practical of which was to provide cover. For example, weddings in the Middle Ages were celebrated outside, in front of the church door, and a porch would protect the proceedings from the elements.

'... in the later Middle Ages, English parish churches developed their own form ...'

As demands on space continued to grow, some late medieval porches became more elaborate two-storeyed affairs; the upper storey was used as a chapel, as a room for the priest, or as a meeting room or place to educate children.

Some architectural distinctions between minsters and the new parish churches remained. Minsters were bigger and more likely to be cruciform than ordinary parish churches. But in the later Middle Ages, English parish churches developed their own form, especially in areas made rich by the wool trade.

Aisles were extended east alongside the chancel and west around the tower to form a rectangular plan. Clerestories were added, and windows enlarged to make these churches into something resembling a huge glass box, mirroring the architectural designs and styles seen in larger cathedrals.

Published: 2005-02-02

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