English Church Architecture has evolved over the two thousand years of the Christian religion, partly by innovation and partly by imitating other architectural styles as well as responding to changing beliefs, practices and local traditions.  Christian Architecture encompasses a wide range of both secular and religious styles from the foundation of Christianity to the present day, influencing the design and construction of buildings and structures in Christian culture.

Church Architecture overview

  • Anglo Saxon, c.600 – c.1066

    The earliest example of Anglo Saxon churches in Oxfordshire date from 1000-1050 and are St Michael at the NorthGate, Langford and North Leigh.  They all boast Anglo Saxon features such as:

    • long-and-short quoins (masonry blocks at the corner of a wall)
    • double triangular windows;
    • narrow, round-arched windows (often using Roman tile);
    • herringbone stone work
    • west porch

    It is rare for more than one of these features to be present in the same building. A small rounded apse was typical of the Anglo Saxon and Norman churches but these nearly all disappeared into larger chancels in the 13th Century.

  • Norman, c.1066 – c.1180

    The 150 years after the Norman conquest saw a huge programme of church building and the parishes created mostly survived to the present day.

    The Romanesque style, usually called Norman in England, is a development of the Anglo Saxon.  The churches were massive in relation to the space they enclosed, their walls pierced by windows with semi-circular arches. Internal vaulting used the same shaped arch. Unsupported roofs were never very wide and windows are relatively few and small.  Carved decoration is distinctive and can be concentrated in doors, chancel arches, corbels and capitals and on fonts.  The great Norman church at Iffley is one of the finest Norman parish churches in England. On a much humbler scale the little church at Broughton Poggs has hardly been touched since it was built in the 12th Century .  Splendid Norman doorways and tympana can also be seen at Church Hanborough, Great Rollright and  Kencot

  • Early English Gothic, c.1190 – c.1250

    The style is spare, simple and monastic in character with little carving The period is reckoned by Pevsner to run from about 1190 to 1250.

    The style was developed in Norman France in the mid 13th Century and quickly spread all over Europe. The most significant and characteristic development of the Early English period was the pointed arch known as the lancet. Pointed arches were used almost universally, not only in arches of wide span such as those of the nave, but also for doorways and lancet windows good examples of which can be seen at Witney and Faringdon and in the splendid chancel at Stanton Harcourt.  Spires began to appear at this time, notably at Witney, Bampton and Shipton uner Wychwood.

  • Decorated, c.1290 – c.1350

    Decorated architecture is characterised by its window tracery. Elaborate windows are subdivided by closely spaced parallel mullions (vertical bars of stone), usually up to the level at which the arched top of the window begins. The mullions then branch out and cross, intersecting to fill the top part of the window with a mesh of elaborate patterns called, typically including trefoils and quatrefoils.   Windows also became larger, increasing the number of mullions between the lights; above them, within the arch of the window.  Exotic forms included the ogee arch, in which the curves of the arch are reversed in the upper part thus meeting at an acute angle at the apex. Larger windows inevitably weakened the walls, which were now supported by large exterior buttresses that came to be a feature. Columns forming the arcades within churches of this period became more slender and elegant, the foliage of the capitals more flowing.  Oxfordshire has some of the finest window tracery in the country, most notably at Dorchester Abbey but it’s also worth looking at Bloxham, Broughton, North Moreton, Hampton Poyle, Ducklington and Chipping Norton if you can.

    In Oxfordshire changes during this period included comprehensive remodelling in the new style at Cropredy and Chinnor, the rebuilding or extending of chancels, for example at Great Haseley and Lewknor, the widening or raising in height of side aisles, the erection of spires at Bloxam and the addition of chantry chapels and porches for those churches that didn’t already have them.

  • Perpendicular c.1350 – c.1550

    The Perpendicular style began to emerge circa 1350.  It was a development of the Decorated style of the late 13th century and early 14th century, and lasted into the mid 16th century.   The mullions and transoms in Perpendicular churches are  vertical and horizontal allowing huge windows, often filled with stained glass.   Another feature is that doorways were often enclosed by squared mouldings and the spaces between the moulding and the door arch – called spandrels were decorated with quadrifoils etc. Ornate stone ceilings, using fan Vaulting, made for huge unsupported spaces.

    One of the defining features of Perpendicular is the four-centred arch, which can be seen in the East window at Ewelme.  Other examples of Perpendicular architecture is New College chapel built in 1379-86, the chancel of Adderbury, the nave at Chipping Norton, the Milcombe chapel at Bloxham and splendid “needle” spires at Kidlington and Church Hanborough.

  • Late mediaeval

    The late mediaeval period saw an unequalled development in church architecture in England. Walls became thinner; solid buttresses became more elegant flying buttresses surmounted by pinnacles; towers, often surmounted by stone spires became taller, and more decorated, often castellated; internal pillars became more slender; unsupported spaces between them wider; roofs, formerly safely steeply pitched became flatter, often decorated with carved wooden angels and a bestiary, where they were steep they were supported by carved hammer beams; windows occupied more and more of the wall space; decorative carving more freely flowing. Figures also multiplied, particularly on the west fronts of cathedrals and abbeys.  Finally, where money was available, the nave roof was often raised to create and extra row of windows  known as a clerestory.

    By the fourteenth and fifteenth century patterns of church patronage continued to evolved and people outside the aristocracy became increasingly involved in commissioning churches.  The wool trade in Oxfordshire meant there were significant funds available and this money was put to good use in places like Burford and Chipping Norton.

    In the aftermath of the Black Death worship become more publicly inclusive, which might well, explain the enlargement of naves and aisles for worship.  In addition the protracted war with France left England isolated artistically – perhaps explaining why Perpendicular  is perhaps the most truly English, and also the longest lived of all the Gothic architectural styles.

     

  • Reformation

    The Reformation, in particular the Act of Supremacy and the break with the Catholic Church, had catastrophic consequences for parishes throughout the country.  Much was destroyed or sold; wall paintings were lime washed, statues and panel paintings defaced, and Roods literally turned into firewood. In fact out of the thousands of Roods that existed in England prior to the Reformation only four remain (none in Oxfordshire). That said, change was not all bad.

    The Book of Common Prayer saw the replacement of Mass in Latin with Holy Communion in English and, because people could now understand what was being said, saw the replacement of images with words, most notably over the chancel arch.  Worship was more inclusive so the nave became a bigger focus for the congregation and the installation of pews became more common.

  • Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century

    Churches in Oxfordshire did not have it easy in the seventeenth century. During the Civil War in the 1640s for example, parliamentary troops partially destroyed the church at Faringdon and at Radley.  The eighteenth century was also a period of neglect and deterioration.  In Oxfordshire only a few new churches were built most notably at Shrivenham, Chiselhampton and Wheatfield.  The process of alteration and renovation continued however at Dorchester, Warborough and Deddington all gained a tower.

    During these centuries there was great activity amongst the Non Conformist churches.  The Baptists spread rapidly during this period and Hook Norton and Cote are good examples of their typical chapels.  Quaker Meeting Houses proliferated and there were many Meeting Houses built including Burford and Charlbury in the 18th Century. John Wesley founded Methodism in the early part of the 18th Century, though many of their chapels date from the early 19th Century and later.  The Catholic Relief Acts of the 1790s saw some limited building, but their main expansion came with full emancipation in 1829.

  • Nineteenth Century

    Huge population growth in the nineteenth century brought with it a surge in building of all kinds including church buildings. Victorian church architects, many inspired by the writings of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, were great Gothic revivalists.  This enthusiasm coincided with the writings of Newman, Keble and Pusey, the founders of the Oxford Movement, calling for a recognition of the Catholic heritage of the Anglican Church and was further evolved by the Arts and Crafts movement under John Ruskin and then William Morris.  For church architecture this meant the inclusion of decorative polychrome brick or stonework as can be seen at Keble College in Oxford.

    William Morris’s influence on church architecture was also primarily decorative particularly through the use of stained glass a particularly good example of which can be found at Bloxham.  Perhaps of all people however he should be credited with the concept of protection rather than restoration.

    The enormous number of new churches included works by many of the great architects of the day such as GE Street at Milton under Wychwood, Gilbert Scott at Leafield, TL Pearson at Freeland and A. Bloomfield at St Barnabas, Oxford.

Architectural glossary

  • Altar

    The holiest part of a church. In the medieval period the altar was a table or rectangular slab made of stone or marble, often set upon a raised step. After the Reformation wooden communion tables replaced the stone altars.

  • Ambulatory

    A covered passage behind the altar, linking it with chapels at the east end of the church.

  • Apse

    The domed or vaulted east end of the church. In Britain the apse is generally squared off, while on the continent, rounded apses were common.

  • Baptistery

    Where the font was stored and baptisms were performed, generally near the west door. Sometimes a screen or grille separates the baptistery from the nave.

  • Bay

    A vertical division, usually marked by vertical shafts or supporting columns.

  • Bell tower

    A tower where the church bells were installed. This could be separate from the church, or, more usually, attached. Sometimes called a campanile.

  • Chancel

    The eastern end of a church. The high altar is frequently situated at the east end of the chancel.

  • Chancel Arch

    The arch separating the chancel from the nave or crossing.

  • Chancel Screen

    A screen dividing the chancel and the nave and crossing. Often called a rood screen.

  • Chapel

    A small building or room set aside for worship. Large churches or cathedrals might have many chapels dedicated to different saints. A chantry chapel is a special chapel where prayers for the dead are said.

  • Charter House

    A special room or house where the governing body of a monastery or cathedral met. In Britain the chapter house is usually polygonal in shape with a slender central column supporting the roof.

  • Chevet

    Style of construction creating an ambulatory and radiating chapels at the eastern arm of a church.

  • Choir

    This is where services are sung, or more generally, the eastern arm of a church.

  • Clerestory

    The upper story of a church where it rises above the aisle roof. Window openings allow extra light into the interior of the church.

  • Confessio

    A niche for relics located near the altar.

  • Crossing

    The area where the choir, nave, and transepts meet.

  • Crypt

    A vaulted chamber made to house graves and relics, generally located beneath the chancel. Many crypts were very large, to allow numbers of pilgrims access.

  • Font

    A container, generally of stone, which contained holy water for baptism. Usually located near the west door, sometimes the fonts had elaborately carved wooden canopies.

  • Galilee

    A porch at the western end of the church used as a chapel for women or penitents. Sometimes the word refers to the entire western end of the nave.

  • Greek-cross Plan

    A style of church with four equal arms.

  • Latin-cross Plan

    A church plan with one arm longer than the other three.

  • Lectern

    A reading desk, often in the shape of an eagle, made to hold the Bible during services. Usually made of brass.

  • Misericord

    From the Latin word for “mercy” comes this term which refers to pivoting wooden brackets in choir stalls which lifted up to provide relief for clergy who had to stand during long church services. Misericords are often ornately carved and decorative.

  • Nave
  • Orientation

    The compass alignment of the church. The altar is usually oriented to the east.

  • Pew

    Wooden seats or benches in the church for the congregation. Pews only appeared at the end of the medieval period. Often pews had carved bench-ends and were carved with animal or foliage designs.

  • Pulpit

    A raised stand from which the preacher addresses the congregation. Usually reached by steps or stairs, often covered by a carved canopy.

  • Reredos

    A decorative screen behind the altar, usually highly carved.

  • Retable

    A ledge behind, or attached to, the high altar, where ornaments were placed.

  • Retro-choir

    The area immediately behind the high altar.

  • Rood

    A cross erected at the entry to the chancel. Roods often had figures of the Virgin Mary on one side and St. John on the other.

  • Rood Loft

    The gallery upon which the rood is supported.

  • Rood screen

    A screen built beneath the rood loft.

  • Sacristy

    A separate room for storing sacred vessels.

  • Sanctuary

    The high altar is placed here. This is considered the holiest part of the church.

  • Stalls

    Divisions within the choir, where clergy sat (or stood) during service. The stalls are often richly carved and fitted with misericords to help the clergy stand comfortably during long services.

  • Stoup

    A container for holy water near the west door. Can be built into the wall or free-standing.

  • Transepts

    The crossing arms of the church, generally aligned north-south.

  • Triforium

    A galleried arcade at the second floor level, even with the aisle roof. Also called a “blind-storey” – the triforium looks like a row of window frames without window openings.

  • Vestry

    A room where the clergy and choir dress and the vestments are kept.

Architectural Guide

Abingdon Baptist Church
Abingdon

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Awarded a grant by the OHCT of £15,000 for major internal improvements in 2014/2015

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