InfoBritain - Travel Through History In The UK :
History Of Churches
History Of Churches
Religion makes much of spirituality, but in essence its interests are far more down to earth. Religion has always been part of the struggle to survive, and find security in a dangerous world. The earliest religious sites closely mimicked the earliest fortifications. There were basically two ways that ancient people could look for safety in the event of attack. They could flee to the hills, or they could try and surround themselves with earth banks or ditches which might give some hope of keeping attackers at bay. Often these two options were combined, with earth banks and ditches built around hill tops. But of course danger wasn't necessarily going to run at you with a club. People also faced the threat of disease, hostile weather, crop failure. Fleeing to the hills, or throwing up a circular earth bank wasn't going to help you with those things. But as people struggled to come to terms with the range of danger that life threw up, they tended to turn towards the symbols of safety which were familiar to them - hills, and encircling earth banks. With hills as the most basic of refuges, it is fitting that hills are amongst the oldest of shrines. Hills provided shelter in times of attack. They also seemed to lift people up towards the great symbol of wider security in their lives - the sun. The sun ruled the daily and yearly struggle for survival, giving the security of light after a dark night, and heat which allowed plants to grow, and people to be fed. Hills lifted people closer to this source of security. This all meant that hills were revered in many ancient cultures all around the world. The Hindus had their mythic Mount Meru, the Japanese revered the goddess Fujiyama, who dominated the landscape from Mount Fuji. Islam had Mount Hira near Mecca where Muhammad saw an angel. And Christianity had Mount Sinai where Moses was given the ten commandments. With hills and mountains being spiritual places, it also made sense to build artificial hills to celebrate the gods. The Egyptians did this with their pyramids, the people of Mesopotamia with their ziggurat, and the Maya with their temples at Uxmal and Chichen Itza. In Britain neolithic people may have celebrated hills such as Glastonbury Tor, but they also built their own ritual hills. A dramatic example can be seen as a huge mound built close to Avebury stone circle, known as Silbury Hill.
Earth ramparts at Old Sarum
So hills, and structures built to look like hills, may constitute the earliest churches. But closely related to hills are the earth banks and ditches that ancient people typically built around hills to increase the security they offered. Certainly in ancient Britain, the building of ritual circular earth works became the main theme of religious architecture, with famous examples at Avebury and Stonehenge in Wiltshire. Interestingly, even the details of earth bank castle design were copied at religious sites. Embankments of ancient forts were often topped with palisades of wooden or stone uprights. These uprights were mimicked at religious sites by symbolic wooden, and then stone uprights, seen so spectacularly at Stonehenge. The relationship between early military and religious architecture was in fact so close that sometimes one structure would double up and carry out both functions. According to English Heritage this dual role was played by Old Sarum, a huge bank and ditch fortification in Wiltshire. Old Sarum overlooked fields and pasture, and it was from these fertile areas that people would have fled when trouble threatened. When not being used as a fort it is likely Old Sarum was used as a market area, and as a religious site. This kind of close relationship between military and religious architecture then set the pattern for all church building to come. Eventually with the triumph of the Roman civilisation in Europe the old bank and ditch structures were left behind, ancient Britons often making their last stands against Roman invaders from within the ramparts of their hill top forts. But even though the Romans built their castles and temples with new technology in stone, the old patterns simply continued in new ways. Roman temples, and the early Christian churches which followed them, continued to draw on the symbolism of height, light and of military architecture. The Roman Temple of Apollo, the sun god, was built on a hill, the Palatine Hill, in Rome. As always the hill was a symbol of security, and seemed to raise people closer to the sun god. Anything tall seemed awe inspiring, a fact exploited by builders of both churches and castles. Tall religious structures were carefully created to make them appear as though only a supernatural force could have made them. People still look at the tall stones of Stonehenge today and wonder how people could possibly have moved them, stood them up, and raised heavy cross pieces across the top. The structure was so constructed to give the impression that only a god could have created it. Exactly the same impression was given by early Christian churches. The Hagia Sophia Church of Constantinople gave rise to wonder in anyone who stood inside looking up at its incredible height. Like any magic trick, the idea was to give the illusion of supernatural power. Shortly after the construction of Hagia Sophia in 532AD a man called Procopius of Caesarea wrote: "Whenever anyone enters this church to pray, he understands at once that it is not by any human power or skill, but by the influence of God, that this work has been so finely tuned" (quoted in Byzantium and the Crusades by Jonathon Harris P11). Similarly, castles also tried to give the illusion of a supernatural power in the height of their walls and towers. The aim was to produce something so awe inspiring that it would appear that the heavens were on the side of the castle defenders. Many castles were rarely, or never, involved in fighting, doing their job just by the way they looked.
Religious change in Europe and the Middle East made little difference to the basic patterns of church building. The two religions which came to dominate following the Roman period, Islam and Christianity, continued to construct religious buildings which emphasised this now familiar trinity of height, light, and stylised military decoration. Symbolic battlements often appeared in church and mosque decoration. Towers were a characteristic feature in the designs of both. An emphasis on the sun continued in the importance given to windows in church layouts. Large windows allowed in sun light, and ornate stained glass work increased the impact of light. As far as England was concerned church building really came into its own following the Norman Conquest of 1066. The Normans were great builders of castles and churches. William The Conqueror built a great many castles, and rebuilt all of England's cathedrals and many of it's churches. He also replaced many senior churchmen with Normans, and used whatever English clergy that remained as a means of winning over flocks to his new regime. The castle and church building programme were part of the same effort designed to bring security to the new Norman state. Indeed the same people were often responsible for building both castles and churches. Bishop Gundulf, known to his contemporaries as: "very competent and skillful in building in stone", built the royal castle at Rochester, beside the river Medway. He also built neighbouring Rochester Cathedral. Naturally if castles and churches were being built by the same people, they tended to look like each other. Castles had towers and walls topped with battlements, and so did churches. One of the most striking comparisons between religious and church architecture has been made by G.K. Chesterton, who after looking at the Norman Gothic style cathedral at Lincoln, wrote the following: "The truth about Gothic is, first that it is alive, and second that it is on the march. It is the Church Militant... All its spires are spears at rest; and all its stones are stones asleep in a catapult. In that instant of illusion I could hear the arches clash like swords as they crossed each other. The mighty and numberless columns seemed to go swinging by like the huge feet of imperial elephants. The graven foliage wreathed and blew like banners going into battle; the silence was deafening with all the mingled sounds of the military march... And amid all the noise I seemed to hear the voice of a man shouting in the midst like one ordering regiments hither and thither in the fight; the voice of a great half-military master builder; the architect of spears." (From A Miscellany of Men by G.K. Chesterton. Quoted in The Plantagenets by John Harvey P92)
The link between church architecture and life's battle for survival was as strong as ever. Think of church towers, some of which simply mimic castle towers, topped with decorative battlements. Think also of church towers which hark even further, using a tapering spire as a continuing reminder of the shape of a hill. The tower at Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire built between 1220 and 1258 is perhaps the most famous example in England. This tower, 404 feet high, was once the highest structure in England. It is a continuing echo of those sacred hills where people could run to in times of trouble, hoping to escape their tormentors.
The Mall, London
Today church architectural history might seem bewilderingly complex. The Christianity of East and Western Europe split along with the division of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. At the same time church building styles went separate ways in east and west. Then Christianity divided into many groups, of which Protestant and Catholic were only two of the largest. Each group had its own kind of church. But essentially the characteristics of church building have continued in the same mould since the earliest days of human civilisation. Looking around the internet at what other people were saying about church architecture, I found a Wikipedia article at the top of Google's list. This article opened with the claim that church architecture refers to the architecture of Christian buildings. In fact Christian churches fit into a much wider development which goes back to the religions of ancient peoples who worshipped the sun and whose only hope in times of attack was a sanctuary in the hills surrounded by earth banks. As a final example of this continuity think of something as familiar as the aisle which leads down the centre of a church to the altar at the end. This is a ceremonial walk way along which many important symbolic journeys are made. Brides will walk with their grooms, babies will be brought to fonts to be Christened, coffins will be carried during funeral services. Go to an ancient church like Stonehenge and you will also find a ceremonial way, which leads over the Wiltshire downland towards a circle of stones. Here ritual journeys took place, just as they do in a church today as people move between one part of their lives and another. Indeed if we think about churches in a wider sense, then aspects of traditional religious architecture spill out into the realm of secular and state ceremonial. The biggest ceremonial way in Britain today is represented by the Mall in London. Just as Stonehenge's ceremonial way leads to a symbolic circle, so does the Mall, which culminates in circles at either end, around the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace, and at Trafalgar Square. All important British ceremonial journeys of state take place here. Royal brides ride with royal bridegrooms following their weddings, old monarchs are carried along to their funerals, and new monarchs wave to crowds on coronation days. The Mall is a vast aisle in an open air church - just as the ceremonial way leading to Stonehenge once was. The key to understanding church history is to see Christian buildings as only a small part of a much larger picture where similarities are as interesting as differences.