How to read the English Country Church
The Normands to the Tudors and the Tudors to the present.
By Dr Rev Nicholas Henderson (14th June 2022)
St Lawrence Church Alton
How to Read the English Country Church – what does this mean? A series of 4 presentations helps us to notice the architecture both inside and outside of our country churches, how the furniture, stone, wood, and glass for example during the different periods of English History has changed, and to entice us to be curious about all the nooks and crannies we come upon as we explore a church and its surroundings.
It was two winters ago, during a Covid 19 lockdown that we heard The Rev’d Dr Nicholas Henderson’s lecture entitled ‘How to Read the English Country Church’ via a Zoom platform. This presentation was in two parts with the first section covering the pre-Christian era up to the Anglo-Saxons and Part 2 focussing on The Normans through to The Tudors. Rated as ‘Outstanding’ by the listeners that evening in 2020, it was no surprise that the Alton Arts Society invited Dr Henderson to deliver Part 3 to us in person. We were therefore treated, on a warm summer’s evening, to a further pictorial and part musical journey through time as our lecturer described cultures and peoples in the architecture and art forms seen in many of our older English churches today. This lecture spanned the period from the Tudors through to the Commonwealth era.
The lecture began with music – the melody Greensleeves - which historians like to relate to Henry VIII and his time with Anne Boleyn although sadly it is more likely to have come from Iberia and Catherine of Aragon. The music served to remind us of our previous Zoom presentation which had taken us up to Henry VIII’s reign.
The focus of the Part 3 presentation was the tumultuous changes brought about by the Reformation and the establishment of a new Protestant England. Liturgical thinking is reflected in our churches with the scars related to iconoclasm still visible today. Starting with the Henrician Reform, the roles of Cromwell and Cranmer in the dissolution of the monasteries and the break from Rome, we were immediately amused by a suggestion that Cromwell was rather like Dominic Cummings! Historically we were reminded that Cranmer authored The Book of Common Prayer. We moved on to Edward VI whose reformation was likened to the United Reform Church of today. It was during this time that the Roods had been removed from churches.
We learnt about stained glass - the paler Grisaillian glass developed in the 15th century, rare to find, which is now set as bits and pieces in a modern way and which contrasts with the brighter coloured almost garish glass we see in the Victorian churches.
Moving on to furniture we heard that holy wooden tables, probably worth a fortune now as antiques, were replacing the original stone slab altars. It was during Charles 1st reign that William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury invented the Laudian Table Carpet - a fitted style of altar cloth still used today, which covers the altar table and descends to floor level. He also introduced wooden Communion Rails.
As we continued to explore the 16th century and beyond, we touched on court jesters, plague churches, the period of Preaching the Gospel, the installation of luxury Box-shaped pews, William and Mary and the establishment of parliament as the ruling power. As the emphasis changed to protestant scripture another musical interlude followed, featuring Bell Towers and examples of English Change Ringing.
The lecture ended by looking at what we might spot in churchyards: lychgates – their purpose and styles, coffins – which can be x6 deep: the deepest coffin might well collapse under the weight of 5, which explains why we see tilted headstones. Then there are large tombs reminding us of wealth. Have we noticed how new churchyards are built at a higher level than the actual church building?
One of the aims of Dr Henderson’s presentation was not to make us experts on his topic but to enable us to amaze our friends with our knowledge, as we meander through a churchyard on a summer’s afternoon walk! Personally, I shall now delight in my next church visit, just to see how much I can espy and hopefully how much I can recall from this fascinating and informative presentation on How to Read the English Country Church.