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Reformation under the Victorians

09 October 2015

John Goodall surveys dramatic changes that took place in parish-church art and architecture in the 19th century

Paul Barker, country life picture library

Parish-church art: treasures from the 19th century and before, in glass and stone Vaults: the ceiling depicting a flight of silver swallows at St Martin’s, Low Marple, was designed in 1895 by Henry Wilson and Christopher Whall

Parish-church art: treasures from the 19th century and before, in glass and stone Vaults: the ceiling depicting a flight of silver swallows at St Mart...

NO LESS surely than the Reformation, the 19th century transformed the life and appearance of the English parish church. Interiors that had since 1540 been treated largely as functional spaces, their form subject to the liturgical prescriptions of the Prayer Book, now became stridently aestheticised.

By the end of the century, beauty — however interpretations of the word might differ — emerged as an inspiring principle of creating, furnishing, and worshipping in churches.

What made this process so extraordinary was the sheer calibre of the figures involved in it. Throughout the middle decades of the century, the debate over the design and decoration of churches lay at the very heart of the Victorian endeavour.

Indeed, with the possible exception of Wren’s church design in London, not since the Middle Ages had ecclesiastical art been of such central and formative importance to society as a whole.

Part of the explanation for the scale of change within the Church and its buildings lies in the wider social, intellectual, and political context of the period. The Napoleonic Wars exerted extraordinary pressures that, after 1815, demanded release.

Calls for radical reform naturally touched the Established Church, and brought into question its temporal interests. Steady industrial growth, meanwhile, created new congregations outside the historic parish system.

Advances in science also radically altered the relationship between long-accepted biblical narratives, and ideas about the world. Initially, at least, the Church took these changes in its stride, but, in the later decades of the century, religious and scientific endeavour became increasingly unhappy bedfellows.

In the same period, the expansion of the British Empire had a huge impact on Christian practice. Now the world became a forum for a debate about the part played by Christianity in society, and the Anglican Communion became a truly global confession, competing internationally with its rival Churches.


AT THE heart of all this change, however, there was, within Anglicanism, a straightforward, aggravating concern to which much of its internal dissent related. This was a simple question about the character of the English Reformation, and the degree to which it constituted the birth of the Church of England.

Since at least the early 17th century, it had been argued by some individuals that the Reformation, and the fact of establishment under the governance of the Crown, was manifestly a secular concern.

In this sense, it was a distraction from the grand narrative of English church history, which ran back unbroken through its events to St Augustine’s first mission of conversion in 597. Of particular relevance in supporting this claim was the apostolic succession of the episcopate, and, by extension, of the priesthood.

This idea began to be celebrated in architecture during the late 18th century through the antiquarian movement. Antiquarianism — essentially the exploration of history through the study of artefacts — involved many of the clergy, and it encouraged the promotion of the medieval Gothic style in church architecture.

Buildings and furnishings in this form celebrated the connection of the past with the present, and lent weight to the claims of the Church to antiquity (and, therefore, authority).

The popular appetite for the Middle Ages, meanwhile, was fed by the Romantic movement, and the novels of Walter Scott in particular. In the first decades of the 19th century, some clergy with antiquarian interests additionally turned to the Continent to supply artefacts for their churches.

The Napoleonic suppression of religious houses put huge quantities of Roman Catholic glass and fittings on the art market. These were occasionally bought up and refitted in English parish churches.


DURING the 1830s, within the Established Church as a whole, there was an interest in reform and renewal.

At the heart of this was a collective desire to increase its vitality of life, and, as part of this, to create more intensive regimens of public prayer. For Evangelicals, whose sympathies graduated into Nonconformity, particular emphasis was placed on preaching, and also on the involvement of the Church in the world beyond the liturgy. Theirs was a social as much as a religious cause, and part of the crusade that they led against the established order involved the reform of inherited church institutions, and the redistribution of their funds.

What was important at this juncture, however, was the response of “High” Anglicans, who were at the opposite extreme of sympathies within the Church to the need for reform. Since the status quo was, by general consensus, inadequate, they began to look back beyond the foundation of Protestantism for a vision of renewal.

After all, the roots of Anglicanism — as they perceived it — lay in this pre-Reformation Church. Leading the field in this respect were the Tractarians, so-called from a series of tracts published in Oxford from 1833 — hence the alternative name, the Oxford Movement.

The interest of Tractarians in church renewal did not initially extend to the furnishing and architecture of buildings. But this was about to change.

The Ecclesiological Society (before 1846 the Cambridge Camden Society), and its journal from 1841, The Ecclesiologist, played an important role in making information about English medieval liturgy, as well as its architectural setting, widely available. The avowed purpose of this body was to catalyse a model for the appropriate restoration of churches, and the reform of the liturgy. Its case for the re-adoption of ceremonial was controversial but it steadily won ground.

For Ecclesiologists — as for all High Anglicans — the eucharist was of paramount importance. It was essential, therefore, that furnishings should be appropriately dignified. The altar — what the Prayer Book called the holy table — needed to be lengthened, and raised up in its medieval position against the east window, possibly against a backdrop of images. It should be placed, moreover, as 13th-century example dictated, within a deep chancel, demarcated by a screen or chancel arch.

The chancel should, in turn, be cleared of all pews used by the congregation. In their place, there should be a piscina for washing the liturgical instruments, sedilia for the sacred ministers in the sanctuary, and stalls in the chancel for other clergy and members of the choir.

For the late 19th century was also a period of enormous change in parochial music. The practice of vesting church choirs, and placing them in the chancel stalls between the altar and the congregation, proliferated.

This change encompassed the final demise of the church band, which had been steadily losing the fight against the organ for musical control of services since the mid-18th century.

At the same time, clergy of all persuasions were keen to move away from the metrical psalms that had been the staple of congregational singing since the 16th century. In their place, there emerged the hymn. For those of High Church persuasion, hymns could be sung with reference to season and feast, some of them with words drawn from translated Latin texts.

What was to become the standard compilation to the end of the 20th century, Hymns Ancient and Modern, was first published in 1861.


NO LESS significant were the changes advocated by Ecclesiologists to the arrangements of the nave. The pulpit was noticeably reduced in scale, and the furnishings that had so long adhered to it — the reading desk and clerk’s desk, creating the “triple-decker” — disappeared, the former to be replaced by a free-standing lectern.

The eagle lectern of brass, for reading the Gospel in medieval churches, returned almost universally to Anglican buildings. All that had changed was its position: in medieval churches, the lectern stood beside the altar; now, it generally occupied the position of the reading desk, on the (south) nave side of the chancel screen.

There was a striking desire, meanwhile, to tidy up the internal appearance of parish churches. Galleries and box pews confused the architectural logic of the interiors they furnished. In addition, the Ecclesiologists shared with almost all other reformers a strong hostility towards the practice of renting pews in a church.

To tidy up the appearance of the building, and to accommodate large congregations, therefore, the naves of churches began to be filled entirely with open benches. In many churches, the practice of seating men, women, and children in different parts of the interior was revived.

For Tractarians, there was a radical imperative behind such seating systems: they explicitly challenged the primacy of the family as a social unit. It was a striking statement that God came before all things.

The internal reordering of churches was as remarkably varied in detail as it was consistent in conception. The chancel was provided with a single eastern altar, and lined with choir stalls. In contrast to medieval churches, therefore, the entire focus of the interior was on this single furnishing.

Secondary altars, it should be said, remained rare in Anglican churches, until the 1860s, when some urban parishes created morning chapels after the long-standing example of cathedrals. These were used for weekday services.

To underline the importance of the chancel altar, it was often provided with a reredos. The traditional Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments, by contrast, rarely achieved much prominence, except as wall paintings.

A pulpit and lectern were placed at the opening of the chancel, and the nave was filled with pews. At the same time, there was a gradual intensification of the liturgy, and the reintroduction of decorative trappings, from vestments to flowers.

Restoration and reorganisation according to ecclesiological principles dramatically intensified from the 1870s. By that time, it is estimated that nearly 7000 historic churches — close to 80 per cent of the total — had been enlarged, rebuilt, or restored.

One almost universally encountered token of Tractarian triumph is the framed lists of rectors or vicars which today hang in so many churches. These began to be widely compiled in the 1880s as a means of articulating the continuity of the Church, from the Middle Ages to the present through the Reformation.

Occasionally, they differentiate one figure in the list as an intruder: the incumbent during the Commonwealth; for this, not the Reformation, was the interruption in the apostolic succession of the Church of England.

Some celebrations of this continuity are much more extravagant. An extraordinary display of painting and stained glass, at All Saints’, Helmsley, in Yorkshire, for example, sets the church in the wider context of universal Christianity and the conversion of northern England.

The clergy were clear leaders in initiating change to parish churches in this period, although they often had to feel their way cautiously when making liturgical innovations. A sequence of legal proceedings was initiated in a handful of churches by hostile parishioners; there were no clear winners from these exchanges, since they effectively contradicted each other, but they generated a huge amount of attention.

There were legal disputes during the second half of the 19th century about, for example, the position of the priest facing eastwards at the altar (rather than standing to the north side of the communion table, as the Prayer Book directs); the use of altar frontals and a cross; and even flowers on the altar.


MEANWHILE, in highly ritualistic churches, there was hardly a ceremony from the past that was not revived; hardly a liturgical utensil that was not recreated. No opportunity to beautify the church that was overlooked. Popular urban churches established guilds to help intensify the celebration of divine service.

The scale of destruction of historic furnishings — predominantly post-medieval, but also sometimes medieval, too — attendant on Victorian restoration was quite extraordinary. But then, so, too, was the quality of the fabrics and furnishings that often appeared in their stead. Stupendous sums of money were poured into both the restoration of old buildings and the creation of new.

In the grandest commissions, moreover, the Ecclesiological movement ensured that there existed a deliberate overarching iconography which integrated the whole into a vast machine for prayer and praise. In such cases, all the arts from architecture to joinery and from ironwork to painting, are integrated into a compelling whole. There can have been few medieval buildings that enjoyed such overwhelming and coherent displays of art.


STAINED glass is, perhaps, the most familiar and ubiquitous art form of the Gothic Revival. Interest in this medium was first expressed by architects — notably Pugin, who wanted to recreate medieval glazing schemes for entire buildings. As a result, the production and aesthetic qualities of early Victorian stained-glass schemes were very much dictated by the architect.

But the later popularity of the memorial window effectively overthrew this monopoly of control. Suddenly, there was a huge demand for individual windows created by established artists, each one answering the particular interests of a patron.

As a result, in the later 19th century it was through the medium of stained glass that the world of fine art intersected with the Gothic Revival.

Of particular importance was the contribution of artists within the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, notably William Morris. It is worth noting, too, that the workshop system that underpinned the creation of windows also helped to train highly skilled draftsmen, who transferred their skills, here necessary, to other media, including mural decoration or painting.

In this sense, stained-glass production catalysed new ideas, and disseminated them into other furnishings.

In the course of the 19th century, the face of the Church had been completely transformed. More than 4000 new churches had been created, many in urban areas, besides at least 8000 historic churches that had been restored or enlarged. Not since the Reformation had most parish churches been so well maintained, so extensively ornamented, or so intensively used.

The liturgical changes advocated by High Church reformers, meanwhile, were now so widely observed that they were no longer controversial. The future augured well, and to start with at least, the next century answered expectations.


This is an edited extract from Parish Church Treasures: The nation’s greatest art collection by John Goodall, with photographs by Paul Barker, published by Bloomsbury on 8 October, £25 (CT Bookshop £22.50 use code CT907).

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