Thursday, June 3, 2010

Knowlton, Dorset


Layers of history (2)

This is the ruined medieval church of Knowlton, Dorset, a village recorded in Domesday Book but now vanished – according to some online sources as a result of the Black Death. This church forms one of the most dramatic bits of historical ‘layering’ in southern England because it is built right in the middle of a circular prehistoric earthwork. The earthwork is a henge, the term for a round or oval prehistoric monument, usually bounded by a ditch and bank, and dating to between 3000 and 2000 BC. Henges are generally thought to have been ritual sites, and are often close to other prehistoric monuments – neighbours of this one include more henges, barrows, and other earthworks.

Judging by the abundance of semi-circular arches, the church must have been built originally in the Norman period – probably the early-12th century. No-one knows why the builders positioned their church inside the henge, though one would like to think that they knew that the site had been used for ancient rituals and wanted to adopt it for their own. Although churches in henges are uncommon, examples of continuity between pre-Christian and Christian religious ideas are not unusual – think of the abundance of ‘pagan’ carvings on the outsides of churches, for example. There are also quite a few circular churchyards where there is no evidence of earthworks, possible evidence of the reuse of an ancient ritual site of some kind.

The fact that the church stands here has helped to preserve the earthwork – earthworks on farmland often get flattened as a result of centuries of cultivation. The church’s unusual siting has probably helped its survival too – although the village has disappeared, the ruined church (itself an example of architectural layering with its Norman nave and later, probably 15th-century, tower) still stands, roofless but proud.

11 comments:

bazza said...

Next time I stay at the Dormy Hotel in Ferndown I'll detour to Knowlton on the way back to London!
Thanks for another informative and interesting post; you could probably go on posting articles like this indefinitely without going out side of southern England. That's OK with me. I tend to blog about the arts but I might include some local buildings now my appetite is whetted.

Kit and Kaboodle said...

What a lovely blog entry. Strangely I wrote about Knowlton (far less knowledgeably!) a couple of days ago myself. I suspect there must be something in the air!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: It's definitely worth taking a detour to Knowlton. Southern England is indeed very rich in buildings.

K and K: Coincidence corner: good to see your picture of Knowlton, and of Odda's Chapel, which I've also blogged about at http://englishbuildings.blogspot.com/2009/01/deerhurst-gloucestershire.html.

Hels said...

You would assume that if a large amount of money was put into building a substantial church in an area, it would have been to serve a fair-sized community.

Yet not a trace of the village/town/community remains? This is a job for archaeologists and social historians

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: There are plenty of examples in England of quite substantial medieval churches serving very small communities – there's not necessarily a direct relationship between the size of the village and the size of the church. Big churches occur in small villages when there was a rich local patron (or patrons) who wanted to build a church. There were all kinds of reasons why a patron would want to do this: to glorify God, to ensure his/her future in the next life, to create a space where masses could be said for the souls of dead members of the patron's family, etc.

Having said all that, archaeological work would almost certainly reveal the sites of former medieval houses somewhere near this church, but I'm not aware that this work has been done. It's only in the last decade or so (I think) that much research has been done into the prehistoric monuments at Knowlton.

LondonGirl said...

Wonderful article!

Hels, you said, "Yet not a trace of the village/town/community remains? This is a job for archaeologists and social historians"

There are actually quite a lot of so called "DMVs" in England - Deserted Medieval Villages. They used to be thought to be all victims of the Black Death in the 14th century, but the current thinking is that while many were mid-14th century casualties, they weren't all.

Philip Wilkinson said...

LondonGirl: Thank you. Absolutely - DMVs became deserted for many different reasons. Plague (14th century); change in land use (small crop farms giving way to large-scale sheep pastures, for example, which happened in some places in the 15th century); villages being moved or wiped out wholesale to make way for a landscaped park around a nobleman's house (18th century especially); changes as a result of enclosures (various centuries) all these are examples of developments that could lead to villages vanishing.

LondonGirl said...

I've recently been reading a fascinating book about the decades-long excavation and research at Percy Wharram, there is an awful lot which can be learned from the DMVs.

Philip Wilkinson said...

This is one of the DMV sites on which a lot of work has been done, isn't it? Fascinating stuff, which I must read up.

LondonGirl said...

Wharram Percy, I meant to say, sorry! Do have a look at some of the research, it's fascinating.

Ridinghunter said...

Sorry to disappoint you, Bazza, but the Dormy Hotel closed on 19th December, 2004.