A Brief Introduction to Church Buildings

The parish church is so familiar in our cities, towns and villages that many people hardly notice them. However they characterise towns and villages and many people feel attached to them regardless of whether they are religious or not, in some cases when threatened by demolition there is a public outcry. Often churches are the focal point of towns and in this post I will provide a brief introduction to the parish church.

Parish Churches 

There is evidence for Christian worship in Britain since the Roman period; Lullingstone Roman Villa provides some of the earliest evidence for this.  Following the end of Roman rule, Christianity fell from being the dominant religion. This continued until St Augustine re-established the church in the C6 and began converting the people of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

The history of the church is a broad subject and I do not intend to cover all details in this post as many others have already done so. However several phases of church construction can be discerned.

  • Medieval 597- 1547
  • Reformation 1547- 1659
  • Restoration 1660 – Stuart and Georgian
  • Victorian Gothic revival  1840 – 1890


Norman (1066 –1200) – Gothic (1200 – 1500)

The first church founded in England is considered to be St Martins, Canterbury (AD580).

A few Anglo – Saxon churches such as St Marys Deerhurst, Glos survive intact although most have been altered and they usually have small windows and sometimes incorporate Roman masonry. The arrival of the Normans brought a new architectural style, the Romanesque with it’s round arches. This was followed by Gothic which progressed to Early English (C13), Decorative (C14) and Perpendicular styles (C15), not all churches followed this trend.  Typical features of gothic include lancet windows, tracery which became more elaborate over time and the pointed arch. Stained windows were also introduced.

The medieval church was characterised by Chancels (rood screen) which divided priests from the congregation. Typically most churches contained statues or paintings of saints. In fact many churches would have been full of colour with tapestries and paintings. In the C19 much of the colour was stripped by the Victorians who preferred to see the original masonry.

Key examples:

–  St Mary, Deerhurst, Glos (Grade I 126587)

–  St Martins, Canterbury


The dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII was followed by the largest land grab to date, with parcels of land handed to nobles. Many churches survived this destruction with the most notable change being to the alter which was replaced with small tables. In the C19 the Victorians reinstated these, seats were also introduced and the congregation sat on pews.

Restoration and Georgian

Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 many churches were altered, in some churches a Decalogue panel often replaced the east window in a reredos. Again like other features, some Decalogue panels were removed in the C19. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, there was a need for new churches in London. The government introduced new legislation to provide more churches and the architect Christopher Wren was responsible for rebuilding 52 churches in London such as St Mary-le-Bow.

In the C18 a new style was adopted in many new churches, this was called Baroque a style which was already popular in churches in Europe (particularly Italy and Spain). Typical characteristics of a church from this period are the tall pulpits and box pews. The pews became increasingly important and box pews were introduced. The front rows were usually taken by high status members of society, with the rest of the congregation sitting behind.

Victorian Gothic Revival

The Victorians were keen to revive the Gothic style and many churches were built in this period, Pugin championed the style not just in churches but in public buildings such as the Houses of Parliament.  The style was at its height between 1855 and 1885 and the Gothic was the main style for Anglican and Catholic churches. Typical features include turrets, pointed arches and bay windows.

Author: Jeremy Fazzalaro

Photo: Taken by author

All sites mentioned in this post can be found on the national heritage list for England (http://www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/)


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