The historic and artistic value of churches

Published: Monday, March 11, 2013


The National Churches Trust supports church buildings across the UK. In an article published in the NADFAS Review, Claire Walker, the Trust’s Chief Executive, looks at the historic, artistic and architectural value of these important buildings, which are so much part of our communities


Britain’s churches, chapels and meeting houses are central to our nation’s heritage and landscape. An unparalleled mix of history, architecture, art and faith, they form the centrepiece of thousands of towns and villages across the country. More than two-fifths of Christian places of worship are listed for their historic or architectural significance.

For 60 years, the National Churches Trust (NCT) and its predecessor, the Historic Churches Preservation Trust (HCPT), have helped to keep these important buildings alive. Over the last 60 years, we have provided over 12,000 repair and community grants, worth £83m at 2013 prices, to Christian places of worship of all the major denominations throughout the United Kingdom.

Thanks to our pioneering work, many of the UK’s 47,000 churches are today in an excellent state of repair. But many others need urgent help. Keeping a medieval church in good condition is a task which never stops. And increasingly, many 20th century churches need repairing as brick and concrete crumble.

Keeping places of worship open and in a good state of repair is vital for local congregations. It’s also important for everyone who cares about our national heritage – churches and chapels form one of the finest freely accessible collections of art and architecture in the world. With the earliest examples dating from the seventh century, they document more than 1,000 years of fashions and ways of worship.

Wall paintings

Medieval churches were full of art. In some, almost every available surface was covered in paintings; the same church may have had a carved and painted screen, a life-size rood or crucifixion, and possibly rich vestments for the priest, as well as gold and silver vessels for the taking of the Communion.

The earliest wall paintings date from the beginning of the 12th century, a time when very many churches were bright with paintings. The scenes depicted were biblical stories, biblical characters, symbolic images, or legends with a clear moral message. Where pictures could not fit, then patterns were used, and the traces of such painted decoration can often still be made out on pillars, arches and around the church windows.

The pictures told the Bible’s stories in visual terms for congregations who could not read. Many may look unsophisticated to our eyes, but in most the message or image is quite clear, which was the point of them. Some are masterpieces in their own right, and show the love and mastery of line which marks out so much British art.

‘Doom paintings’ were favourites for many artists. In these, the Last Judgement is depicted, often with imaginatively horrible scenes showing sinners about to endure the eternal torments of hell. Doom paintings were most often placed on and around the chancel arch – a large space which directly confronted the congregation.

A graphic depiction of the fate awaiting sinners is the ‘Ladder of Souls’ painting at the church of St Peter and St Paul in Chaldon, Surrey, one of the earliest to receive funding from our charity. Here, the 13th-century artist has let his imagination run riot, with the lower part of the painting showing devils dealing with those guilty of each of the Seven Deadly Sins. The upper part of the picture shows souls being weighed on one side and Christ defeating Satan on the other. The two parts of the painting are linked by a picture of a ladder, the upper part of which reaches up to heaven.

Originally Saxon, St Peter and St Paul was mentioned in the Domesday Book and is a mecca for tourists, especially walkers, who find it featured in most walking guides to the area. There’s usually a good, small choir which provides excellent music throughout the year.

Rood screens

The most arresting elements in medieval churches other than the wall paintings were screens and their associated roods, or crucifixions. Made of wood or stone, these separated the nave from the chancel.

Most were elaborately carved and painted. The rood itself consisted of Jesus on the cross, flanked by Mary and St John the Evangelist. Almost all the roods were removed at the Reformation and none now survive intact. But there are still many screens – especially wooden ones – to be seen, and they often remain the highlight of the church.

The best areas for screens are East Anglia and the West Country. In East Anglia, Suffolk is famous for its churches. The church of St Mary in Kersey, a short drive north of Ipswich, stands on high ground above its very pretty village, which prospered during the late medieval cloth-making boom in this part of Suffolk.

Kersey was a particular kind of woollen cloth, named after the village. The interior is light, with the large north aisle separated from the nave by a fine seven-bay arcade with interesting carving. Although it may not have originally belonged to the church, on display is part of a 15th-century rood screen (pictured above) with six panels in the original colour of kings and prophets. The church of St Mary is one which we helped to support over a number of years,n receiving six funding grants from 1963 to 1990.

Pews, benches and seats

Early churches did not usually have seating for the congregation, as services were short and sermons rare, so sitting was not necessary. But from the 13th century onwards, seating began to be introduced and by the early 19th century most churches had seating of different kinds. The earliest church seats look rather like low stone sills built against the walls of the church. These were for use by the ill and the elderly, hence the expression ‘the weakest go to the wall’.

Such seats can still be seen at Buckland, Gloucestershire, where they are partly concealed behind much later – early 17th-century – wooden seats with backs and canopies.

St Mary’s Church at Dunsfold, Surrey, has what many think are the earliest surviving wooden benches. Dating from the late 13th century, these still have holes in them which were made to contain candles.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, carpenters made benches that were highly decorated and marvellously carved. Many of these survive, and it is the bench-ends that draw the eye. Here, the carpenter could display his skills to the best advantage, with the flat surface being carved with an enormous variety of images, from Biblical characters to domestic scenes and from mythical creatures such as mermaids to religious symbolism. These bench-ends are superb galleries of late medieval art.

Enclosed seating, called box pews, was introduced in the 17th century and reached its most opulent in the Georgian period. Box pews were often for particular families; some were fitted with locks, others were upholstered for even further warmth and protection from the draughts in the unheated churches – one of the main reasons for their popularity.

Thousands of box pews were removed by the Victorians, but many remain, including at St Mary, Puddletown, Dorset, which has rows of box pews, installed in 1635. The little church of St James, Cameley, Somerset, is crammed with box pews, some labelled with the names of the people who sat in them.

The area around Coventry, Rugby, Warwick and Leamington Spa has plenty of urban sprawl and might not seem an obvious place to visit country churches. Yet there are many churches in villages or in secluded spots that could easily be far away from the built-up Midlands. St John the Baptist in Berkswell is a stout country church that proclaims its Norman origins as you approach, with its collection of five round-headed east windows. Perhaps even more striking is the quaint half-timbered porch, like a miniature cottage on stilts above then south door.

Inside, much of the woodcarving is by Robert Thompson, a well-known craftsman from Yorkshire. He was born in 1876 and became known as ‘the Mouseman of Kilburn’ because of his ‘signature’, a mouse carved in oak. Nine examples of this signature can be found in the woodwork in Berkswell.

Church towers and spires

Church towers and spires are an essential part of the British landscape. Even in remote and wild places you are rarely more than a few miles from one. They watch over towns and villages, act as waymarks on coastlines, and are guides in moorland. So they have practical uses, but most of all they are expressions in stone of the pride and beliefs of the parishes that built them.

Superb combinations of tower and spire were built in the Early English and Decorated periods.  Raunds in Northamptonshire is an excellent example, with four distinct lower stages – one of which has unusual W-shaped mouldings. Above these rise the spire with little spire-lights becoming smaller as they go up. St Wulfram’s, Grantham, Lincolnshire, mixes Early English and Decorated to create a wonderful tower and spire. Shottesbrooke, Berkshire, and Ashbourne, Derbyshire, both have soaring spires from the second half of the 14th century.

St Botolph, Boston, Lincolnshire, universally known as the Boston Stump, has one of the tallest towers in England, and is consequently one of the most well-known anywhere. It is topped with a decorated octagonal lantern, one of the few of its kind left. The tower was built between 1450 and 1520 and is al andmark for miles around.

The building dates back to Boston’s glory days as England’s second most important port, although the town’s prosperity had already passed its peak by the time of the tower’s completion. However, by then a project to enlarge the chancel of the 14th-century Decorated building had already made this the largest parish church in England.

 In 2012, St Botolph’s  received a £50,000 National Churches Trust Cornerstone Grant to help fund the repair and restoration of the Cotton Chapel, a tribute to John Cotton, the non-conformist minister who served here from 1612 to 1633 before sailing to Boston, Massachusetts, as part of the Puritan exodus.

Spires began to be less popular in the last Gothic period, the Perpendicular, but the towers built then are among the finest in England. Today, they are an eloquent reminder that churches have been part of our local and national landscape for so many centuries.

A future for churches

It is all too easy to take their presence for granted but their continuing good repair is down to hard work, dedication and the injection of resources, and the National Churches Trust is proud to have played a part in helping keep churches alive for the last 60 years.

Over the next 60 years the challenge will be different, and maybe even greater, but we approach it with confidence and commitment.

Information on church art and church descriptions first appeared in ‘Exploring Britain’s Churches & Chapels’ by AA Publishing.