Monday, October 5, 2015
Earls Barton, Northamptonshire
A flower among towers
The tower of Earls Barton church in Northamptonshire is one of the most famous bits of Anglo-Saxon architecture in England. There aren’t many towers in England that were built before the Norman conquest and this is not only the most spectacular of them, but also one of the best preserved. Every part of the tower except for the very top is Saxon, dating from the decades before 1066. We don’t know exactly how people used church towers back then. Some think they fulfilled a mixture of uses – perhaps worship on the ground floor, a dwelling for the priest above, with possible defensive use too, in times of strife. Some churches in this period may also have had bells in their towers.* However it was used, the tower’s design is full of telling details – the long and short stones making up the corners, the lovely, if irregular, bulbous columns between the window openings (see the picture below), and above all the pattern of raised stonework (pilaster strips, in the trade) that extends across the entire structure.
This kind of artful combination of straight lines, curves, and diagonals is something the Saxons did quite a lot (I noticed something similar a while back in a post I did about a church in Bradford-on-Avon). Architectural history books tell us that this sort of thing was probably copied from the frameworks of wooden structures – after all, most Saxon buildings, from humble hovels to the grand halls that are the settings for Saxon poems like Beowulf, were made of wood. But I’ve always been a bit suspicious of this idea. The pattern isn’t really that much like a wooden frame – the strips are very thin, the diagonal ‘braces’ are positioned oddly, likewise the semi-circular arches. Maybe the idea of making such a pattern comes from wooden structures, but the actual pattern – well, it’s purely decorative and I can’t help thinking that it must be there because people liked it that way. I’m rather glad they did.
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*The early history of church bells is unclear, but back in Saxon times having a tower didn’t necessarily mean you had bells.