Anglo-Saxon turriform churches

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The tower and (on the left) the baptistery of St Peter's Church, Barton-upon-Humber

Anglo-Saxon turriform churches were an Anglo-Saxon style of church that were built in the form of towers. They can also be called tower-nave churches.[1]

Several Anglo-Saxon churches were built as towers. The ground floor was used as the nave; there was a small projecting chancel on the east side and sometimes also the west, as at St Peter's Church, Barton-upon-Humber (the baptistery).[2] Archaeological investigations at St. Peter's in 1898 revealed the foundations of the original small chancel;[3] marks on the east wall of the tower also show where its walls were, and that it was narrower than the tower.[4] Later, in this case in the fourteenth century, the chancel was replaced with a nave extending eastward from the tower.

Some have suggested that the turriform churches were the earliest type of churches built in Anglo-Saxon England, particularly in small settlements where it was natural to use timber, as in non-ecclesiastical buildings.[5] However, there are no churches left that still have only the tower. The sequence of development into the usual stone cruciform church would have been:

  1. A small tower church built in timber, with a small eastern extension for the chancel and sometimes also a small "west-nave".
  2. Replacement of the chancel and west-nave, if present, using stone.
  3. Rebuilding of the ground floor of the tower in stone.
  4. Addition of north and south wings to the tower, to make a "winged square".
  5. Construction of a long nave, with the tower now at one end.[6] Usually the extension would be to the east, producing a west tower.[7]

However, this is only a hypothesis;[5] we have only one surviving Anglo-Saxon timber church, Greensted Church, a small number of written descriptions, and some archaeological evidence of ground plans.[8] The extant stone structures can also be interpreted as having been built by carpenters who were transferring their skills to masonry work.[9]

Analysis of the towers has revealed that they had far more timberwork than had been thought.[8] The tower of St Peter's, Barton-upon-Humber had three levels of timbering: a first-floor gallery (which cannot have been a solid floor, because the ground-floor nave would have been lighted only by the first-floor windows), a belfry floor, and a frame on which the roof rested - either a stepped roof or a small spire.[10]

Since the three surviving churches universally recognised as having originally had tower-naves are all in the Danelaw, one suggested reason for building them as towers is defence. Blair suggests that the Earls Barton tower church, with its heavy ornamentation, was built by a lord of the manor to impress and to "[combine] ecclesiastical, residential, and defensive functions".[11] However, with wooden floors and access from both nave and chancel, they would have been deathtraps in a Viking raid.[12] Another possibility is that they emulated Byzantine models; Fisher points out that the domed centrally planned churches of Eastern Christianity may also be regarded as towers.[13]

Surviving churches that were originally towers[edit]

Generally accepted[edit]

Norman continuations of the style[edit]

Similar churches in Scotland[edit]



  1. ^ According to Hans Erich Kubach, Romanesque Architecture, New York: Abrams, 1975, ISBN 0-8109-1024-1, p. 27, the only other place where such churches were built was Mozarabic Spain.
  2. ^ a b c Ernest Arthur Fisher, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Architecture and Sculpture, London: Faber, 1959, OCLC 1279628, p. 57.
  3. ^ Previous Work Archived March 1, 2012, at the Wayback Machine, St Peter's Church Project Barton-upon-Humber, 2001, retrieved 18 June 2010.
  4. ^ Ernest Arthur Fisher, Anglo-Saxon Towers: An Architectural and Historical Study, New York: Kelley, 1969, OCLC 31303, p. 44.
  5. ^ a b c Fisher, Introduction, p. 58.
  6. ^ Fisher, Introduction, p. 58; but Fisher specifies that the west-nave would be replaced by a new nave.
  7. ^ Hugh Braun, An Introduction to English Mediaeval Architecture, London: Faber, 1951, OCLC 512008, p. 187: "This had the effect of leaving the earlier turriform structure rising above the west end of a long cruciform church".
  8. ^ a b Warwick Rodwell, "Anglo-Saxon Church Building: Aspects of Design and Construction", in The Anglo-Saxon Church: Papers on History, Architecture, and Archaeology in Honour of Dr. H.M. Taylor, ed. L.A.S. Butler and R.K. Morris, London: Council for British Archaeology, 1986, ISBN 0-906780-54-3, pp. 156-75, p. 171; reprinted in Catherine E. Karkov, The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England: Basic Readings, New York/London: Garland, 1999, ISBN 0-8153-2916-4, pp. 195-232, p. 222.
  9. ^ Rodwell, p. 171: "It is scarcely plausible to imagine that masons and their apprentices arrived in England in scores, let alone in hundreds. It is inherently far more likely that much pre-conquest churchbuilding . . . was undertaken by men who were turning their hands from the skills of the carpenter to those of the mason".
  10. ^ Rodwell, p. 168; repr. p. 220.
  11. ^ John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, Oxford, 2005, ISBN 0-19-822695-0, pp. 412, 414. In his footnote he mentions a church benefactor living in a tower and a chaplain sleeping under a church tower.
  12. ^ Eric Fernie, The Architecture of the Anglo-Saxons, New York: Holmes & Meier, 1983, ISBN 0-8419-0912-1, p. 136 and p. 186, note 32, referring to Taylor.
  13. ^ Fisher, Towers, p. 16: "our modern, beautiful lantern towers, such as Ely, are descended from this early type".
  14. ^ Fisher, Towers, pp. 43-44.
  15. ^ a b Fisher, Towers, p. 45.
  16. ^ Fisher, Introduction, pp. 57-58.
  17. ^ Nikolaus Pevsner and John Harris, Lincolnshire, The Buildings of England volume 27, 2nd ed. rev. Nicholas Antram, New Haven: Yale, 2002, ISBN 0-300-09620-8, p. 192: "And so it seems that Broughton belongs to the type of Barton-upon-Humber, where the W tower was rather the towering body of a church with only a chancel to the E".
  18. ^ Michael Shapland, "St Mary's, Broughton, Lincolnshire: A Thegnly Tower-Nave in the Late Anglo-Saxon Landscape ", Archaeological Journal 165.1, December 2008, pp. 471-519 (Abstract) reports on a 2007 investigation and MA dissertation at the University of York which concludes that "[the eleventh-century tower-nave church] acted as the chapel of a thegn and may have reinforced his authority over the adjacent hundredal meeting-place".
  19. ^ Fisher, Towers, p. 46.
  20. ^ Nikolaus Pevsner and Elizabeth Williamson, Buckinghamshire, Buildings of England, 2nd ed. London/New York: Penguin, 1994, ISBN 0-14-071062-0, p. 39, reporting the theory that the unusually large tower at Fingest was a turriform nave, points out that the extant Norman nave is also large.
  21. ^ Fisher, Towers, pp. 45-46.
  22. ^ Harold McCarter Taylor and Joan Taylor, Anglo-Saxon Architecture, 3 vols., Cambridge, 1965, OCLC 58628986, volume 2, p. 710.
  23. ^ Taylor, volume 2, pp. 710-11.
  24. ^ Taylor, volume 2, pp. 711-13.

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