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. 
Earls Barton tower, detail of window openings and pilaster strips

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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.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Saxon towers are not totally rare - quite a crop in North Norfolk, in my estimation. Never used for defensive purposes, as far as I can tell, and would probably be pretty rotten for that use - the enemy could simply smoke you out. Most church towers are follies pure and simple - built for the glory of God and to make vertical points in an otherwise horizontal landscape - but have no liturgical function whatsoever. Even the bells are decorative, unless a sanctus bell for use at the Consecration. You are absolutely right about the pilaster strips, etc. NOT being an imitation of wood: there are stone churches from just after circa 600 (St Augustine's Abbey site, Canterbury) and numerous Continental examples from the early period for them to imitate. Wherever you find wooden churches, e.g. in S.E.Poland, New Zealand, the builders often strive hard to make them look like stone - and certainly don't add little sticks in the Earls Barton manner as decoration! I have some soft stone in a bag from near the Earls Barton tower - this is so friable, that I believe the builders must have been skilful enough to select much STRONGER pieces for the pilaster strips - not primitive stone-working, but, on the contrary, VERY sophisticated. And what's more, still standing, and not much of it worn away!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes. These people were quite sophisticated enough to build in stone and develop a style of stone decoration that they were happy with. I'm sure you're right about the defence aspect. Wooden floors would of course have been vulnerable to attack by fire too.