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Villages and their churches

by
09 August 2013

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Your Answers

Why are so many English village churches to be found so far from the villages that they serve?

England is divided into two, in terms of human settlements. Villages are chiefly to be found in the lowland zone, roughly south and east of a line from Exeter to York. Here churches are usually close to villages, but not always. Some churches predate villages, having been built on Roman sites or as Anglo-Saxon minsters before there were villages in their neighbourhoods. Even when church and village were founded together, which was often in the tenth century, churches have often lost their villages. Villages have moved to gain access to better land or passing trade, have disappeared through depopulation, and have been uprooted by landowners to beautify their estates. Sometimes churches have moved with their villages, but often they have not, resulting in the anomalies noticed by your correspondent.

The highland zone, roughly north and west of the line described above, is not characteristic village country. Here, most people have lived in hamlets and isolated farms, and churches were necessarily sited in lonely places, with the duty to serve a widely scattered community.

(Professor) Nicholas Orme (Lay  Canon),  Exeter

Almost always, the answer will be that the village moved away from the church rather than that the church was built in an isolated spot.

Churches were built in Anglo-Saxon and early Norman times by landowners for themselves and their tenants, and were generally near the landowner's house and the village. Later on, the village might move because of deliberate depopulation to make way for more lucrative sheep-farming, for example.

Sometimes the village moved naturally from a site that was no longer suitable, perhaps because of new roads or a new development providing employment, or the growth of a town. The Black Death may have caused a village to shrink. The lack of a workforce may have encouraged sheep-farming, or different ways of farming with fewer people. Each case has to be looked at individually.

(Dr) Mary Alexander, Guildford

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