WE PAY more attention to what our churches are like than why that is so. Who scattered them so liberally over England? Who gave them the aisles, transepts, chapels, towers, windows, and tombs that impress us today?
A tour through the Cotswolds reminds us of the input of prosperity from the wool trade, and some great city churches remind us of the part played by merchants and guilds. But the greatest driving force, the most widespread, as this book reminds us, came from the gentry: those few thousand men and women who ruled the countryside and had perhaps, collectively, the greatest share of national wealth.
It was they, in the tenth and 11th centuries, who established the network of parish churches which is still with us. When laws about church maintenance developed, chancels became the responsibility of clergy, and naves that of parishioners, but in practice the gentry were as important as either. They had the wealth and willingness to pay for repairs, extensions, and embellishments. The glories of our rural churches, right down to the 19th century, are largely due to them.
Professor Nigel Saul’s book provides an admirable account of this process from late Saxon times to the early 16th century, when most of our historic churches were built. It covers much more than its title suggests, because it frames the part played by the gentry within the wider history of church-building during the period. It shows how their desires and resources caused churches to evolve from small two- or three-cell structures into complex layouts with towers, porches, transepts, and side chapels, furnished with imagery, glazing, and interior decoration. Far more was due to the gentry in this respect than to population increase or liturgical developments.
One aspect of these changes, much discussed by historians, has been the supposed separation of elite and popular culture. The gentry, it has been argued, originally shared in the folk culture and religion of their social inferiors. Then, during the later Middle Ages, they began to withdraw from it, notably (in the sphere of religion) by building private chapels in their manor houses and worshipping there.
The author exposes the falsehood of this assumption. Lords and ladies of manors had chapels for weekday worship, but they took care to appear in their parish churches on Sundays and festivals. They needed to maintain their status by presiding over community worship and displaying their importance to their tenants and neighbours. They used the churches to publicise themselves through tombs, heraldry, and private pews: indeed, they pioneered the provision of seating, which gradually extended to the classes beneath them.
OUP monographs do not come cheap, but this will be a valuable companion and reference book for anyone seriously interested in medieval English churches. It is illustrated with more than 50 of the author’s photographs and draws on huge numbers of sources and examples. By choosing to approach church buildings through their gentry patrons, Professor Saul has produced a work of true originality, taking us further in our understanding than we have travelled hitherto.
Dr Nicholas Orme is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University. His next book, The History of England’s Cathedrals, will appear in September.
Lordship and Faith: the English gentry and the parish church in the Middle Ages
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