Show Some Decorum: Against an Imitative Model in the English Parish Church

Meg Bernstein

Nave facing east, St. Mary and All Saints, Great Budworth (Cheshire) i Fig. 28 Nave facing east, St. Mary and All Saints, Great Budworth (Cheshire) Photo: (Joopercoopers (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

As a building type, the parish church has frustrated scholars largely because the tools that we have been given for their analysis have been derived from the study of great churches: in particular, a monographic approach driven by documentary evidence, biographies of great patrons, or the study of a complex set of intertwined buildings. These points of entry fail to help us understand parish churches, which number in the thousands, and are the most ubiquitous part of the built environment of the Middle Ages.

The parish church is not merely derivative of the great church and needs to be acknowledged as having its own history and internal logic. However, while parish churches are not derivative of great churches, they do exist in a network with them. As I shall demonstrate, the frustrated relationship between the genre of the parish church and that of the great church is mediated by decorum, a concept originated by the ancient Greeks, but most memorably developed by the Roman author-architect Vitruvius in his treatise De architectura.1 Paul Crossley has defined decorum as ‘the suitability of forms to the aims and ideals of the institution’.2 Suitability, in this case, does not entail functional appropriateness, but rather an awareness of which stylistic elements befit the status of a given building. Following this logic, a parish church would express, through its architecture, deference to a cathedral, in much the way a subject would express deference to the king through comportment.3

Art historians have associated the architecture of the early-thirteenth century with a contemporary atmosphere of reform within the church. High-level prelates sought to improve the church and the pastoral care it delivered, particularly to laypeople. Though the statutes of Lateran IV and the diocesan synods that followed it contribute few specific pronouncements about art and architecture, the overall spirit of the English episcopate was invested in making the experiences of laypeople within the church more consistent and effective. Peter Draper writes that the reduction of ornament in parish churches between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is evidence of a ‘change in demeanour [that is] a reflection of the wider reform movement in the Church … it indicates a different view as to the appropriate appearance of a parish church within the wider context or a broad hierarchy of building types’.4

This essay begins by establishing the relationship between parish churches and great churches within the scholarly literature. It then goes on to address the development of a sense of decorum that builders and patrons of parish churches obey, which I argue was almost universally observed (though never explicitly legislated) after the conclusion of an experimental phase by the end of the first quarter of the thirteenth century. The prevalence of this sense of decorum is conveyed through analysis of the ‘cathedral-like’ exceptions that survive in extant parish churches from the late-twelfth and early-thirteenth centuries. I argue that this transition towards a codified parochial decorum coincides with a contemporary reform movement within the English church and the final stages of the consolidation of the parish system, wherein local communities had access to their own church building, resident priest to administer the sacraments, particularly the rites of baptism and burial which had previously required traveling to a more regional minster church. Though I do not wish to pose a causal relationship between parochial decorum and these other factors, I believe that ecclesiastical reform and the definition of the parish system formed fertile ground in which parochial decorum could ferment. This decorum, I argue, is ideological, and should not be necessarily mistaken for austerity or economic constraint. Parish churches continued to be built in a range of budgets, from humble to lavish, for the remainder of the Middle Ages. Although a dearth of documents regarding parish church finances before the fifteenth century prevents the elaboration of specifics regarding spending, the standing fabric reveals ostentation in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century building that exceeds the ‘cathedral-like’ motifs that are abandoned within parochial contexts early in the thirteenth century.5


Coming to terms with the great church

The parish church has been the subject of a troubled historiography, with what Peter Draper has described as a ‘tacit assumption that parish churches are simplified versions of larger, more ambitious churches with the vocabulary not well understood or well executed’.6 Numerous studies, ostensibly of parish churches, have focused not on this building type precisely, but on the ways that they conform, or attempt to conform, with ‘greater’ churches.7

The so-called ‘greater church’ or, more commonly, ‘great church’ is a term that appears in scholarly literature throughout the twentieth century. It was likely coined by the prolific architectural historian Francis Bond (1852–1918), who defines the greater church as ‘a convenient term for churches of monks and canons, cathedrals, and collegiate churches, excluding small ones, and also excluding parish churches’.8 The term is further taken up by Harry Batsford and Charles Fry in their The Greater English Church of 1940, who, in spite of the title, use ‘greater’ and ‘great’ interchangeably in the text. Batsford and Fry write that ‘the greater churches, as they are called in this book, for want of a better collective name, were almost invariably constructed on a larger and grander scale than their workaday parochial relations’.9 They distinguish great churches from their counterparts as places where ‘a community of men or women, largely withdrawn from the world, could offer in the seclusion of their choir a continual round of worship and intercession undisturbed by the duties and distractions of secular life’.10 By this definition, one is led to believe that a great church can be understood as any church with a pulpitum, or stone screen, blocking access to the liturgical choir where a religious community (cloistered or uncloistered) could worship unfettered by the laity.

Christopher Wilson refined the term in his The Gothic Cathedral: The Architecture of the Great Church 1130–1530 (first published in 1990). In spite of its title, the monuments discussed are best described as cathedral-scale and include monastic and collegiate churches. He writes that ‘since the buildings which form this uppermost stratum of Gothic architecture include hardly any features specific to their different institutional functions, and since influences passed freely between them, it is logical and appropriate that they be considered as a single category, namely the “great church”’.11 According to Wilson, great churches mostly possess a cruciform plan, a basilican form with a three-storey central vessel with aisles, stone vaults, and either a central tower or a twin-tower facade, often with an ambulatory.12 Wilson’s characterisation helps us to establish definition of the architecture of a parish church in negative. The parish church does not have a three-storey elevation, vaults, an ambulatory or radiating chapels. We add to this the fact that unlike great churches, which typically have western entrances, parish churches are generally entered through a southern doorway or porch. Scale does not have a place in Wilson’s definition, which also excludes any mention of form or function, and thus does not consider any differences in liturgical or social need between great churches and parish churches.

Batsford and Fry’s dichotomy between great and parish churches suggests the great church is a self-evident category, while Wilson identifies constituent elements in order to construct a definition. In practice, however, the most fundamental quality of great churches is institutional rather than architectural: they are staffed by a religious corporation—whether monastic or priestly—and may serve more than one purpose or community, whereas parish churches are staffed by a rector and serve the local laity.

North arcade, St. Clement, Fiskerton (Lincolnshire)
Fig. 1 North arcade, St. Clement, Fiskerton (Lincolnshire). Photo: James Alexander Cameron
North nave arcade, Lincoln Cathedral
Fig. 2 North nave arcade, Lincoln Cathedral (Lincolnshire) Photo: Stephen Murray. © Mapping Gothic France, The Trustees of Columbia University, Media Center for Art History, Department of Art History & Archaeology.

Parishioners and clergy did not attempt to make their parishes look like little cathedrals. They were eager to show a familiarity with the latest fashions in tracery or sculptural details; the two-bay north arcade at Fiskerton (Lincolnshire), for example, pays homage to its diocesan cathedral of Lincoln with its shafted column and foliate capital and responds (Figs. 1 and 2).13 However, the desire to express distinct parochial identity is everywhere evident in the parish church. One example of this involves Elias of Dereham, a canon of Salisbury Cathedral who was in charge of the building works for the new cathedral from 1220 until his death in 1245.14 Tim Tatton-Brown writes that his prebend,15 Potterne (Wiltshire) must have been built by Elias of Dereham himself ‘as one can see instantly that it resembles a miniature Salisbury Cathedral, with its crossing tower, large transepts, pairs and triplets of lancet windows and shafts of Purbeck marble’.16 Although there are some Salisbury-esque characteristics at Potterne, I question the description of it as a ‘miniature Salisbury’. Potterne is in every way a parish church, albeit one that borrows decorative elements from the cathedral, similarly to how Fiskerton resembles Lincoln in ornament only. It is unvaulted and has an un-aisled elevation (Figs. 3 and 4). Even for Elias, the impresario behind Salisbury Cathedral, as well as the figure associated with high-status works including the shrine of St. Thomas Becket and building projects at Winchester Castle and Clarendon Palace, the parish church occupies a very different register—one that is governed by architectural decorum—and shares more in common with ordinary parish churches than with Salisbury Cathedral.17

Nave facing east, St. Mary, Potterne (Wiltshire)
Fig. 3 Nave facing east, St. Mary, Potterne (Wiltshire). Photo: James Alexander Cameron
Nave facing southwest, Salisbury Cathedral (Wiltshire)
Fig. 4 Nave facing southwest, Salisbury Cathedral (Wiltshire) Photo: Stephen Murray. © Mapping Gothic France, The Trustees of Columbia University, Media Center for Art History, Department of Art History & Archaeology

The parish church of Skelton near York (North Riding, Yorkshire) is attributed to cathedral masons from York Minster under the patronage of the treasurer of the Minster, Richard Haget (Fig. 5). While there is no explicit evidence that the treasurer paid for the church to be built, he established a stipend for the first priest at Skelton, a Robert of Leeds.18 The transepts of York Minster were built during the episcopacy of Archbishop Walter de Gray in the period c.1220–50 (Fig. 6).19 Compelling similarities between the transepts at the Minster and Skelton have caused scholars to accept that the same masons were responsible for both.20 Among these are the moulding profiles of the arches and capitals of the west wall, which are nearly identical to the north transept of the Minster.21 The church is a bijou building of unusual quality and completeness. Despite Skelton’s formal resemblances to the architecture of York Minster’s transepts, it is built in line with parochial decorum. Unlike the Minster transepts, which have three-storey elevations and are richly moulded and polychromatic with the use of Purbeck marble, Skelton has only a single-storey elevation, is entered through the south porch rather than a west facade, and it is unvaulted. Eschewing the foliate ornament in the Minster, the predominant decorative motif of the church interior is the comparatively austere nailhead motif. Despite these conventions that separate the parish church from the related cathedral, it is clear from visual observation that it is of the highest quality.22 The masons were obviously capable of building in great church scale and mode, but they have not done that at Skelton, either by their own choice, or at the behest of their patron.

Nave facing east, St. Giles, Skelton (North Riding, Yorkshire)
Fig. 5 Nave facing east, St. Giles, Skelton (North Riding, Yorkshire). Photo: Author
North transept elevation, York Minster (North Riding, Yorkshire)
Fig. 6 North transept elevation, York Minster (North Riding, Yorkshire) Photo: Stephen Murray. © Mapping Gothic France, The Trustees of Columbia University, Media Center for Art History, Department of Art History & Archaeology

The parish church is not merely derivative of the great church; it is a group of buildings that should be considered a genre with its own history and internal logic. The relationship of this genre to the great church is not one of imitation but is mediated by the notion of decorum I will discuss in the remainder of this chapter.


Characterising the parish church: norms and innovations

By the second quarter of the thirteenth century, the genre of the parish church had developed to include expectations about what was necessary and appropriate for this type of building. As mentioned above, the distinction is not primarily related to finances, as a great many parish churches were built significantly larger than necessary to fulfil their needs, and with expensive and elaborate decoration. Rather than stemming from financial limitations, the model of the parish church is primarily related to the perceived sense of ‘appropriateness’ for this type of building. In what follows, I will address the exceptional presence of great-church attributes in parish churches: vaults, three-storey elevations, and western entrances. I will show that each of these exceptional examples occurs in an early period of the existence of the parish church as a distinct building type, prior to the solidification of a grammar of parochial appropriateness, or decorum, which formed within and among the group.

The resistance to both vaulting and three-storey elevations in English parish churches is particularly curious given that parish churches in France frequently have both. French Gothic architecture loomed large in England, where ideas were imported, though usually not deployed in precisely the same ways. Many English parish churches were owned by monasteries located in France or in the Duchy of Normandy, and communication, material exchange, and conflict between the two countries was frequent. There is a different, and perhaps more imitative, relationship between great churches and parish churches in France than in England, though French parish churches still appear to be more austere and smaller in scale than the cathedrals. But as we see at Notre-Dame, Auxonne (Fig. 7) a three-part elevation with vaults is possible, and indeed frequent. Even in Saint-Martin, Etampes, where the east end and first nave bay have a three-storey elevation, significant space in the middle zone is maintained even when the triforium is unarticulated (Fig. 8).23

Nave facing north east, Notre-Dame, Auxonne (Côte-d'Or)
Fig. 7 Nave facing north east, Notre-Dame, Auxonne (Côte-d'Or) Photo: Stephen Murray. © Mapping Gothic France, The Trustees of Columbia University, Media Center for Art History, Department of Art History & Archaeology
Nave facing east, Saint-Martin, Étampes (Essonne)
Fig. 8 Nave facing east, Saint-Martin, Étampes (Essonne) Photo: Stephen Murray. © Mapping Gothic France, The Trustees of Columbia University, Media Center for Art History, Department of Art History & Archaeology

Though more comparative research needs to be done on the role and form of parish churches in the two countries, I pose the initial theory that the divergence between French and English parochial architecture has a lot to do with the difference between triforia—the thin passageways typical in French great churches—and the wide galleries more frequently built in England, spaces large enough for people to use for reasons both spiritual and banal.24 Gallery altars existed in English monastic and cathedral churches, but upper level chapels were infrequent in English parish churches, with exceptions like the tower chapel at the Romanesque church at Brook (Kent), and porch chambers in the fourteenth century and later.25 These upper spaces would also be used for storage, for singing during the liturgy, treasuries, and maintenance.26 This extra space was probably not necessary within the parish church, where relatively simple liturgy was used and spaces like treasuries were unnecessary. Three-storey elevations may have been eschewed because they posed unnecessary expense.



One primary difference between the normative parish church and the great church strikes visitors immediately: the parish church is nearly always entered from a lateral door. Parish churches typically favour a south entrance as the primary point of ingress into the church, although evidence of a blocked door on one side of the nave is common, for example at Acton Burnell (Shropshire) where the northern porch is used for entrance and a southern doorway has been blocked. The general dispensation for a southern main entrance rather than one on the north seems to be a matter of preference, rather than of liturgical necessity. A minority of parish churches are accessed from a western portal, whereas the vast majority of great churches have their primary entrance in the west.27

The placement of towers within the parish-church structure affects the location of parochial entrances and thus necessitates comment here. The parochial preference for a south entrance has to do with the frequent location of single towers centred at the extreme west of the church, as opposed to great churches, which generally opted for a twin-tower western composition after the Norman Conquest. In the eleventh century, as Carol Davidson Cragoe notes, only churches with minster status had towers; there is no evidence of towers in tenth-century wooden churches, and stone local churches also lacked them.28 Minster churches typically had towers positioned over the crossing, so central towers only occurred in cruciform churches that served to buttress them on all sides. This arrangement was ideal, because it meant that the tower emphasised the altar. Churches originally built with central towers in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries are typically the only ones that retain them later on, even if they are rebuilt. Western towers began to appear in local churches in the second half of the eleventh century,29 and became, by a wide margin, the norm for English parish churches. Gerald Randall estimates well over seventy-five percent of churches to have them, and Cragoe’s rethinking of his statistics, which include all churches in current parochial use, suggests that if only purpose-built parish churches were accounted for, the percentage could be significantly higher than eighty-five percent.30 Some west towers have doors, but they are fairly uncommon.

In his study of Romanesque facades, Philip McAleer notes that most parish churches conform to a limited number of west-front formulae: a ‘simple west wall’ or a western tower. McAleer has designated the type of western tower utilised by parish churches as a ‘tower-facade’.31 A tower-facade is a separate block appended to the western part of the nave, accessible from the nave by a wide arch known as a ‘tower arch’. Rather than being set atop the nave, tower-facades are discrete volumes to the nave, and McAleer points out that they can easily be read as such because they are typically much narrower than the nave. According to McAleer, these are unique to parish churches, and probably existed at a large percent of parish churches as a continuation of a ‘Saxon habit, as west towers in the identical position were common during the pre-Conquest period’.32

Melbourne (Derbyshire) has a Romanesque west front with an unusual feature: a twin-tower facade, which, although it was never finished, communicates ambition and grandeur (Fig. 9). It has often been suggested that Melbourne was not originally intended to be a parish church due to its ambitious qualities, like the twin-tower facade, clerestory wall passage, and west gallery above a vaulted ground storey occupying the interior of the west facade. However, Richard Gem, conceding that Melbourne has many unusual features, concludes that ‘there is nothing to indicate it was ever intended to house a religious community’ as the fantastic nave is ‘the precise converse of what we should expect to find in a typical monastic church (e.g. the simple unaisled nave of Kirkham priory)’.33 Instead, he recommends that Melbourne’s showiness ‘probably reflect[s] an intention to impress and declare the status of the patron’.34 It should be noted that Melbourne is early: though it is not securely dated, it can be placed stylistically in the first half of the twelfth century, prior to the development of the parish church mode. Hence, while writers have sought to show that its anomalies prove it was not intended as a parish church, I argue that it was built before a parish church decorum had been established and thus that there is no reason for it to be dismissed as un-parochial.

West front, St. Michael, Melbourne (Derbyshire)
Fig. 9 West front, St. Michael, Melbourne (Derbyshire). Photo: Author

As Cragoe has suggested, the rare parish churches that did have decorated west fronts, such as Iffley (Oxfordshire), had patrons with significant architectural pretensions and a desire to imitate great churches (Fig. 10).35 Iffley, of the late-twelfth century, has long been thought to have been the donation of minor aristocrat Robert de St. Remy or his daughter, Juliana, but recently has been reattributed to an even more powerful family, the Clintons.36 In spite of its showpiece west front, Iffley’s patron did not dispense with the parochial custom of including a south door, which Jennifer Sherwood calls ‘even more exuberant’ than the west doorway’s decoration (Fig. 11).37 The south door at Iffley is finely carved with roses, chevron, and some figural sculpture on the capitals. This door, which faced the manor house, was likely retained as the door for primary lay use.38

Exterior, view from the south west, St. Mary, Iffley (Oxfordshire)
Fig. 10 Exterior, view from the south west, St. Mary, Iffley (Oxfordshire). Photo: John McNeill
Exterior, view from the south, St. Mary, Iffley (Oxfordshire)
Fig. 11 Exterior, view from the south, St. Mary, Iffley (Oxfordshire). Photo: John McNeill

West fronts are comparatively less frequent in the periods during which the Early Gothic and Early English styles were in use. One exceptional example is the magnificent west front at Felmersham (Bedfordshire) from about 1220 or 1230, a neat Early English riff on blind-arcaded Romanesque west fronts like Iffley (Fig. 12). The doorway is flanked by blank arches containing subarches and quatrefoils at the top. Above the door are seven dogtooth-decorated blind arches, and atop that a window zone with a larger central window (replaced with Perpendicular tracery) with a lancet on either side. Felmersham was hospitable to a west front since it has an Early English central tower and therefore did not need a tower in the western location. As the church was built in one go, however, the central tower was a thirteenth-century decision, rather than maintenance of earlier fabric as it often is elsewhere.

West font, St. Mary the Virgin, Felmersham (Bedfordshire)
Fig. 12 West font, St. Mary the Virgin, Felmersham (Bedfordshire). Photo: Author

Humbler than Felmersham is Boldre (Hampshire), which has a west front that corresponds with the western three nave arcade bays added to the eastern three nave bays excavated from the wall of the earliest, un-aisled iteration of the church (Fig. 13). The Victoria County History gives the date of the earlier arcade to c.1130, while Nikolaus Pevsner considers it to be from c.1175.39 Boldre has only a south aisle at the west front, as a mid-thirteenth-century north chapel is just the length of the earlier nave bays. An arch at the west of the north chapel now leads to a modern vestry; the Victoria County History establishes the possibility of a previously-existing north aisle.40 This is plausible due to the fifteenth-century north wall, which could have replaced an earlier arcade. The church is of the single-gable style, the south aisle roof descending almost directly from the nave roof rather than having its own gable or lean-to roof. Hence, the arrangement is that of a single central doorway headed with a pointed arch, with a string course above, followed by a bar-tracery. The south door is far east in the twelfth-century work. This was probably judged sufficient for continued daily use when the church was extended west, as it was not replaced with a door in the newer work. Instead, it gained the western door. Boldre likely did not have a tower until the early-fourteenth-century one on the south of the chancel was built; its unusual location is due to the fact that the church lacked a crossing tower and has a west front. The normative presence of western towers in parish churches can be posited as the primary reason for a lack of western portals.

West front, St. John, Boldre (Hampshire)
Fig. 13 West front, St. John, Boldre (Hampshire). Photo: Author


Prior to the Conquest, vaults were used in England primarily in crypt spaces.41 The Normans were architecturally ambitious, however, and used vaults in both ecclesiastical and secular contexts.42 Although vaults became de rigueur in cathedrals and are frequently used in monastic churches, only a minority of parish churches have any sort of vault. Romanesque parish churches are more likely than Gothic ones to have a vault, and while a majority of the forty-nine surviving apsidal parish churches have east-end vaults, some have square-ended chancels like Iffley and Tickencote (Rutland) (Figs. 14 and 15).

Chancel vault, St. Mary, Iffley (Oxfordshire)
Fig 14 Chancel vault, St. Mary, Iffley (Oxfordshire). Photo: Author
Chancel vault, St. Peter, Tickencote (Rutland)
Fig. 15 Chancel vault, St. Peter, Tickencote (Rutland). Photo: Author

Of the many thousands of parish churches ‘retaining work of the Early English and Decorated periods’, Larry Hoey identified only about sixty that were in any part vaulted, or which showed evidence of former vaults or even an intentionto vault.43 Most frequently, the parochial vaults that Hoey identifies (thirty-four of sixty) are placed over chancels. Other possible locations are a transept (Bishopstone, Wiltshire), west tower (Sherburn-in-Elmet, North Riding, Yorkshire), or the east bay of an aisle (Aldingbourne, Sussex) (Figs. 16­–18).

Chancel with view of vault, St. John the Baptist, Bishopstone (Wiltshire)
Fig. 16 Chancel with view of vault, St. John the Baptist, Bishopstone (Wiltshire). Photo: Stephen Dunn
West tower vault, All Saints, Sherburn-in-Elmet (North Riding, Yorkshire)
Fig. 17 West tower vault, All Saints, Sherburn-in-Elmet (North Riding, Yorkshire) Photo: Rita Wood, Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland
East bay of south aisle, St. Mary, Aldingbourne (Sussex)
Fig. 18 East bay of south aisle, St. Mary, Aldingbourne (Sussex). Photo: James Alexander Cameron

Very few English parish churches had vaults throughout, unlike in the Channel Islands or in many French examples. In English parish churches, vaults are used only to punctuate space, not as a consistent ceiling strategy. In many of these placements, the vault goes over an altar, as in Aldingbourne, where the eastern bay of the south aisle has a miniature copy of the vaults in the south transept of nearby Chichester Cathedral and Boxgrove Priory (Figs. 19–21). The thirteenth-century vault at Aldingbourne is later than the late-twelfth-century aisle that it is in. The addition of the miniature vault to an otherwise unvaulted building serves to demarcate the space to house an altar. In 1227, the church, which was a prebend of Chichester Cathedral, was assigned by the Chapter to the Dean of Chichester; it was held by the deans of Chichester until the nineteenth century.44 Ian Nairn suggests that the rib vault was ‘probably done by the masons from Chichester, as the cathedral held the advowson’.45 Although the advowson was simply the cathedral’s right to choose the rector and thus cannot be considered definitive evidence of masons from Chichester, in this case it seems plausible, as the cathedral, priory, and parish are all within less than five miles of one another. The presence of a distinctive rib vault over one bay of the aisle at Aldingbourne seems to be a rare example of intervention from cathedral prelates who opted for a visual motif characteristic of great church, not parish church, architecture. No matter how unusual it is, however, it is only one bay; to vault the entire aisle would have been quite expensive, not to mention uncouth.

Vault detail, east bay of south aisle, St. Mary, Aldingbourne (Sussex)
Fig. 19 Vault detail, east bay of south aisle, St. Mary, Aldingbourne (Sussex). Photo: Historic England Archive
South transept vault, Chichester Cathedral (Sussex)
Fig. 20 South transept vault, Chichester Cathedral (Sussex). Photo: Author
South transept vault, Boxgrove Priory (Sussex)
Fig. 21 South transept vault, Boxgrove Priory (Sussex). Photo: Author

Parish church vaults were by no means widespread, and Hoey’s study of Early Gothic and Decorated examples shows that the greatest distribution is in southern England, particularly the southern counties of Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Hampshire.46 He asserts that there are fewer Early English and Decorated style parochial vaults than Romanesque, and that they seem to be more common from c.1180–1230 than later where and when they occur.47



Three-storey elevations in English parish churches are even scarcer than vaults, and the corpus of parochial three-storey elevations is small enough to discuss in its totality here. Virtually all English great churches possessed three-storey elevations by the twelfth century, so the contrast between parish and great churches in this regard is quite stark. These are isolated experiments, rather than indicative of a greater trend. Parochial three-storey elevations are virtually non-existent after the first quarter of the thirteenth century as customs and decorum for parochial architecture come to be normalised in practice.

The parish church of New Shoreham (Sussex) has both vaulting and a three-storey elevation in its massive chancel, making it a particularly interesting case study (Figs. 22–24). Its dedication to St. Mary de Haura is unique and refers to its seaside location, as ‘de Haura’ is a derivation of ‘de havre’ or ‘of the harbour’. The six-bay, aisled nave was mostly lost in the eighteenth century. Since its loss, the only remnants of the nave are masonry fragments of the west wall. As demonstrated by these fragments, the nave was aisled, with thick piers; a clerestory window remaining on the south side shows that it had at least a two-storey elevation, though blank space between the arcade and clerestory window provides the possibility that it might have had a three-storey elevation like the choir.

Chancel facing east, St. Mary de Haura, New Shoreham (Sussex)
Fig. 22 Chancel facing east, St. Mary de Haura, New Shoreham (Sussex). Photo: Author

In contrast to its ruined nave, New Shoreham’s five-bay, aisled chancel remains intact. Notably, the piers on the north and south sides are of dramatically different designs: on the north side are alternating round and octagonal piers with stiff leaf capitals, and on the south, compound piers. Despite the diverse appearances of the north and south arcades, they are close in date to one another.48 While Ian Nairn attributes this to ‘a change in the direction of the masons’ lodge’, Peter Draper argues that it is a reflection of ‘an inventive and exploratory period’ prior to 1200.49 The differences at New Shoreham continue in the second storey; on the north gallery there are paired openings in the three western bays, and later, single trefoil openings in the two eastern ones; the south side has large, single openings.

North elevation, St. Mary de Haura, New Shoreham (Sussex)
Fig. 23 North elevation, St. Mary de Haura, New Shoreham (Sussex). Photo: Author
South elevation, St. Mary de Haura, New Shoreham (Sussex)
Fig. 24 South elevation, St. Mary de Haura, New Shoreham (Sussex). Photo: Author

Scholars have debated who was responsible for the building of New Shoreham’s impressive, vaulted, three-storey chancel. It has been conventionally thought that it was built by a member of the Briouze family and that the choir was intended to be given to the monks at Sele, with the nave for parochial use. Sally Woodcock argues that there is no positive evidence for this, nor is there any mention of St. Mary de Haura being anything other than a parish church. Irrespective of Woodcock’s assertion, a three-storey elevation in a parish church is exceptionally rare in England. It is worth mentioning that many middle-rank monastic structures have two-storey elevations, like Boxgrove, also in Sussex. Although it is tempting to believe that New Shoreham is simply an extraordinarily fancy, exciting, and experimental parish church, the stylistic evidence and comparanda suggest that it was perhaps intended for monastic or mixed parochial and monastic use.

Another example of a three-storey elevation occurs at Hythe (Kent). Though technically a dependent chapel of the parish church of Saltwood, Hythe functioned as a normal parish with its parishioners able to receive all sacraments associated with traditional parishes; the major functional difference was that the priest was referred to as the ‘parish chaplain’.50 Because it was used in every way as a parish church, it is included in this study. Hythe’s Early English chancel is of three stories (arcade, gallery, clerestory), and was intended to have both aisle and high vaults, though it was not completed with a stone high vault until J. L. Pearson’s restoration of the 1880s (Fig. 25).51 Likewise, Pearson finished the north chancel elevation to match the south side. Though at this time pre-restoration images have not been located, in an 1889 essay on the church by Scott Robertson, a canon of Canterbury Cathedral and frequent contributor of ‘descriptions of buildings’ to the pages of Archaeologia Cantiana, it is noted that ‘the architect who designed its magnificent chancel’, in addition to the unfinished vaulting plan, ‘was not able even to complete the north wall of St. Leonard’s so fully as he did the south wall’.52

Chancel north elevation, St. Leonard, Hythe (Kent)
Fig. 25 Chancel north elevation, St. Leonard, Hythe (Kent). Photo: James Alexander Cameron

Why was Hythe’s chancel built with such unusual features within the realm of parish church architecture? Geographic and economic context provide some clues. Hythe was one of the original prosperous Cinque Ports in the Middle Ages.53 These towns on the southeast coast of England were responsible for discharging royal ships, acting both defensively as well as providing cross-Channel transit. In return for their service to the Crown, they were granted significant freedoms of self-governance, ability to levy and evade taxes, and independent jurisdiction. In the context of these freedoms, it is unsurprising that the church is unusually fine and that the designers or patron experimented with an unusual elevation when a similarly-experimental elevation in a similarly-prosperous place even a decade later probably would have been deemed unacceptable. One might look at the church of Hull, built in the 1290s, also in a major port city, where the size and scale are impressive, but the designers chose a conservative two-storey elevation.

The chancel elevation at Hythe has been compared to the choir elevation at Canterbury Cathedral from the 1170s and 80s, though stylistically it can be dated to the first quarter of the thirteenth century.54 The archbishop of Canterbury was the patron of Saltwood and therefore its dependent chapel Hythe, which is the basis of Hoey’s assertion that ‘it was quite likely the archbishop who paid for the reconstructed chancel and who may have inspired, directly or indirectly, the connection with Canterbury’.55 As early as 1889, Canon Robertson noted in print the Hythe connection with Canterbury.56 The major similarity between Hythe and the Canterbury choir is the middle storey, which in both locations features a pair of openings, each with two arches.57 The three storey elevation and (aborted) plan to vault the chancel places Hythe in a unusually high-status category for parish churches, made all the more unusual considering it was technically not even of parochial status.

The prosperity of Hythe and its Canterbury connection can be levied as explanations for its quirks, but many churches had ecclesiastical patronage and resisted these ‘great church’ markers. One example of that is Stone-next-Dartford (Kent), which in the 1260s was built by masons from or inspired by Westminster Abbey likely under the patronage of the bishop of Rochester, Laurence de Santo, who also had a manor to the west of the church (Figs. 26 and 27).58 Despite the bishop’s patronage, which encouraged the use of metropolitan decorative motifs, the church had neither three-storey elevation nor vault.

Exterior south elevation, St. Mary the Virgin, Stone (Kent)
Fig. 26 Exterior south elevation, St. Mary the Virgin, Stone (Kent). Photo: John McNeill
Nave facing west, St. Mary the Virgin, Stone (Kent)
Fig. 27 Nave facing west, St. Mary the Virgin, Stone (Kent). Photo: John McNeill

The three-storey elevations at New Shoreham and Hythe seem to be isolated experiments, not indicative of any larger trend. Both are in the south-east, unsurprising given the much higher number of parochial vaults in southern England.59 It is noteworthy that these experiments are all early; I have found no examples after about the 1230s. Considerably later, Perpendicular churches at Great Budworth and Astbury (Cheshire) share similar two-and-a-half storey elevations (Figs. 28-29). At Astbury, a small blank middle storey with traces of a painting of St. George and the Dragon suggests that a painted programme for the middle level was either planned or fully executed there. This zone gestures to the idea of a triforium rather than a true middle storey. These later examples reflect an awareness of what is expected for parochial elevations by the time the parish church as building type was solidified, and a self-conscious subversion of that expectation.

Nave facing east, St. Mary and All Saints, Great Budworth (Cheshire)
Fig. 28 Nave facing east, St. Mary and All Saints, Great Budworth (Cheshire) Photo: (Joopercoopers (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Nave facing east, St. Mary, Astbury (Cheshire)
Fig. 29 Nave facing east, St. Mary, Astbury (Cheshire). Photo: Historic England Archive

As this chapter has demonstrated, parish churches, with their characteristic decorum, emerged in response to the demands of pastoral care that demanded a move away from the dispersed minster system. This led to the establishment of a discrete building type with meaningful differences to other church types, namely ‘great churches’. This shift eventually resulted in the ‘parish church mode’: a set of formal characteristics understood as acceptable for parish churches regardless of how grand or lavish a building was intended to be. This mode is repeated ad infinitum, at least until the Reformation. While tracery and ornament change, the shape that the parish church of 1240 or 1250 does not. The late-medieval parish church is almost without exception composed of an aisled nave with a one or two-storey elevation, square-ended chancel, and southern entrance, all surmounted with wooden roofs. Parish churches can be supersized—made to hold a much larger volume of space, like Boston (Lincolnshire) or Hull (East Riding, Yorkshire)—but it is only the size, not the features, that can be called cathedral-like. Parish church architecture is part of the overall parochial identity. Many parish communities were quite wealthy in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, but they channelled their money into decorative features like beautifully-painted rood screens, elaborately-carved wooden angel roofs, and stained-glass windows, rather than building fabric: things that unfortunately have been more subject to the whims of reformers and the environment than stone buildings.

We return to Draper’s insights that tell us that the ‘change in demeanour’ of parish churches in the thirteenth century is ‘a reflection of the wider reform movement in the Church’.60 With the emergence of the parish system over the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries came the reality that many parish priests, often poorly educated, were left to their own devices in administering pastoral care to villages. Manuals for pastoral care, termed ‘pastoralia’ by Leonard Boyle, were one of several means by which the church sought to remedy this isolation and convey information to these priests.61 Although in 1179 at the time of the Third Lateran Council there were hardly any pastoral manuals available, by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), there were about a dozen, with even more written after the council.62 Pastoral literature did not make prescriptions to clergy about how their churches should look, but it spoke the parish church as a total environment that increasingly became codified by its agents, lay and ecclesiastical. For parish churches, perhaps the most direct impact of the various reforms happening in the thirteenth century was the gradual acquisition for parochial clergy of a special class and identity, and with it the resources to help them perform their function.63

The architecture of the late-twelfth-century parish church was not yet fully codified; its combination of characteristics was still emerging. The quirks I have shown in this chapter, including vaults and three-storey parochial elevations—both great church motifs anomalously imported into local churches—demonstrate a tentative transgression of boundaries between parish and great-church modes. However, the expanding role of the laity, which began to be codified around the time of Fourth Lateran in 1215, indisputably altered the parochial landscape in terms of patronage and the maintenance of buildings. The notion of decorum enables us to see how parish churches fit into the broader landscape of ecclesiastical architecture, and the ways in which they were built to deliberately reflect their identification as churches for and by laypeople.


[1] Vitruvius, Vitruvius on Architecture, Thomas Gordon Smith (ed.) (New York: Monacelli Press, 2003), chapters 1, 2, and 5; Marden Fitzpatrick Nichols, Author and Audience in Vitruvius’ De Architectura (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p. 156.
[2] Paul Frankl and Paul Crossley, Gothic Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 28.
[3] This idea of a building’s style fitting its status is found in numerous examples. Kimpel and Suckale have argued that the abbey church of Mouzon was deliberatively conservative (referencing the older cathedral of Laon) so as not to compete with the more local and more recent work at Reims Cathedral. Dieter Kimpel and Robert Suckale, L’Architecture Gothique En France 1130–1270, (trans.) Françoise Neu (Paris: Flammarion, 1990), p. 293; Michael Davis argues that the parish church of Notre-Dame-des-Menus in Boulogne-Billancourt exemplifies architectural decorum fitting to its station even though it was the subject of the elite patronage of Philip IV. Though Davis suggests that the task of designing the church was given to a mason of status perhaps exceeding that of a typical parochial commission, even in the hands of an elite mason, the parish is ‘stripped of exactly those signs—four-light tracery compositions, exterior gables, and statue niches—that mark episcopal and royal buildings’. Michael T. Davis, ‘Splendor and Peril: The Cathedral of Paris, 1290–1350’, The Art Bulletin 80:1 (1998): p. 55.
[4] Peter Draper, The Formation of English Gothic: Architecture and Identity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 227.
[5] On parochial financing in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the likely involvement of parishioners, see Richard Morris, Churches in the Landscape (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1989), pp. 284–5; For the later Middle Ages and the dearth of documentation for parochial finances in the High Middle Ages, see Gabriel Byng, Church Building and Society in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
[6] Draper, The Formation of English Gothic, p. 175.
[7] Lawrence Hoey, ‘Style, Patronage and Artistic Creativity in Kent Parish Church Architecture: c.1180–c.1260’, Archaeologia Cantiana 115 (1995): pp. 45–70; Carol Foote Davidson, ‘Written in Stone: Architecture, Liturgy, and the Laity in English Parish Churches, c.1125–c.1250’ (Ph.D. diss., Birkbeck, University of London, 1998), pp. 64–5; Draper, The Formation of English Gothic, p. 175.
[8] Francis Bond, An Introduction to English Church Architecture from the Eleventh to the Sixteenth Century (London: Oxford University Press, 1913), p. xxiii.
[9] Harry Batsford and Charles Fry, The Greater English Church of the Middle Ages, The British Heritage Series, second edition (London: B. T. Batsford, 1940), p. 1.
[10] Batsford and Fry, The Greater English Church, p. 1.
[11] Christopher Wilson, The Gothic Cathedral: The Architecture of the Great Church 1130–1530 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1990), p. 7.
[12] Wilson, The Gothic Cathedral, p. 7.
[13] Nikolaus Pevsner and John Harris, Lincolnshire, Buildings of England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), p. 279.
[14] John Harvey, English Mediaeval Architects: A Biographical Dictionary Down to 1550, second edition (Gloucester: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1954), p. 81.
[15] A prebend is a cathedral benefice, the endowments of which are given to support a member of the cathedral chapter. See Stephen Friar, A Companion to the English Parish Church (Godalming: Bramley Books, 1996), p. 358.
[16] Tim Tatton-Brown and John Crook, The English Church (London: New Holland, 2005), pp. 58–9.
[17] Adrian Hastings, Elias of Dereham: Architect of Salisbury Cathedral (Much Wenlock: RJL Smith & Associates, 1997); Nicholas Vincent, ‘Dereham, Elias of (d. 1245), Ecclesiastical Administrator’, in Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
[18] Christopher Wilson, David E. O’Connor, and Michael A. J. Thompson, St Giles Skelton, a Brief Guide (York: Borodin, 1978), p. 1.
[19] On the chronology of the transepts at York Minster, see Lawrence Hoey, ‘The 13th-Century Transepts of York Minster’, Gesta 25 (1986): p. 227; Sarah Brown, ‘Our Magnificent Fabrick’: York Minster An Architectural History c.1220–1500 (Swindon: English Heritage, 2003), pp. 11–45.
[20] Early commentators made the romantic suggestion that Skelton was built using leftover materials from the Minster, but given an absence of evidence to prove this theory, it has been rejected. Wilson, O’Connor, and Thompson, St Giles Skelton, a Brief Guide, p. 1; Christopher Norton, St William of York (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2006), p. 58.
[21] Wilson, O’Connor, and Thompson, St Giles Skelton, p. 2.
[22] In particular, Wilson has pointed to the quality of the magnesian limestone ashlar which is of ‘a quality normally found only in the greater medieval churches’. Wilson, O’Connor, and Thompson, St Giles Skelton, p. 2.
[23] Not all French parish churches have three-storey elevations, and in fact there are regions in France where three-part elevations are not the norm: southern and western France are quite different from northern France, and as Robert Branner shows, there is a strain of churches with two-story elevations with ‘large panels of solid wall between the arcades and the clerestory’. Burgundian Gothic Architecture (London: A. Zwemmer, 1960), p. 72. 
[24] True triforia in English churches are found somewhat infrequently. Even Westminster Abbey, touted for its Frenchness, has a gallery so wide that it was recently renovated to house a museum. Examples of English triforia include the choir of St. Mary Overie (now Southwark Cathedral), and Malmesbury Abbey.
[25] On upper levels in parish church porches in the fourteenth century and beyond, see Helen Lunnon, East Anglian Church Porches and Their Medieval Context (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2020), pp. 81–8.
[26] Toby Huitson, Stairway to Heaven: The Functions of Medieval Upper Spaces (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2014), passim.
[27] An exception to this is Durham Cathedral as it now stands: the original west front is now enshrined within the Galilee Porch at the west end, and due to the cathedral’s location, the main entrance is now on the north side; given the cathedral’s monastic status, it could also be accessed via the cloisters located on the south. The church of Buildwas Abbey also lacks a western entrance due to the topography of the site; a drop to the west of the church would have made this impossible.
[28] Davidson, ‘Written in Stone’, p. 244.
[29] Eric Cambridge, ‘Early Romanesque Architecture in North-East England: A Style and Its Patrons’, in David Rollason, Margaret Harvey, and Michael Prestwich (eds.), Anglo-Norman Durham: 1093–1193 (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1994), p. 145.
[30] Gerald Randall, The English Parish Church (London: Spring Books, 1982), p. 65; Davidson, ‘Written in Stone’, p. 244.
[31] J. Philip McAleer, The Romanesque Church Facade in Britain (New York: Garland, 1984), p. 382.
[32] McAleer, The Romanesque Church Façade, p. 382.
[33] Philip Dixon, Christopher J. Brooke, and Richard Gem, ‘Romanesque Churches’, Archaeological Journal 146:1 The Nottingham Area (1989): p. 28.
[34] Dixon, Brooke, and Gem, ‘Romanesque Churches’, p. 28.
[35] Davidson, ‘Written in Stone’, p. 211.
[36] Mark Phythian-Adams, ‘The Patronage of Iffley Church—a New Line of Enquiry’, Ecclesiology Today 36 (June 2006): p. 8 and passim.
[37] Jennifer Sherwood and Nikolaus Pevsner, Oxfordshire, Buildings of England (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974), p. 659.
[38] Sherwood and Pevsner, Oxfordshire, p. 659.
[39] ‘Parishes: Boldre’, British History Online, accessed 1 June 2021,; Nikolaus Pevsner and David Lloyd, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, Buildings of England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), p. 113.
[40] ‘Parishes: Boldre’, British History Online.
[41] Gerard Baldwin Brown, The Arts in Early England: Ecclesiastical Architecture in England from the Conversion of the Saxons to the Norman Conquest (London: J. Murray, 1903), p. 127.
[42] Hoey and Thurlby, ‘A Survey of Romanesque Vaulting in Great Britain and Ireland’, pp. 117–18.
[43] Lawrence Hoey, ‘Stone Vaults in English Parish Churches in the Early Gothic and Decorated Periods’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association 167 (1994):p.36.
[44] L. F. Salzman (ed.), ‘Aldingbourne’, in A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 4, the Rape of Chichester (London: Victoria County History, 1953), pp. 134–8, accessed 1 June 2021,
[45] Ian Nairn and Nikolaus Pevsner, Sussex, Buildings of England (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), p. 77.
[46] Hoey, ‘Stone Vaults in English Parish Churches’, p. 39.
[47] Hoey, ‘Stone Vaults in English Parish Churches’, p. 48.
[48] The chancel is difficult to accurately phase, largely due to the aisle walls, which have Late Norman (c.1160) blind arcading as well as arcades that appear to date to the last decades of the twelfth century. Sally Woodcock has argued that the extant aisle walls reuse material from a previous, aborted build, which she believes simplifies the overcomplicated proposed building chronology. While her argument for reuse is plausible, it seems to complicate, rather than simplify, the phasing. The large nave had been completed and was standing by the point Woodcock is discussing, so while access to the liturgical east end would be desirable, the church could have certainly been used throughout a protracted building period. When building with aisles, rather than adding them later, it makes sense for the earliest fabric to be the aisle walls, followed by arcades. Sally Woodcock, ‘The Building History of St Mary De Haura, New Shoreham’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association 145 (1992): p. 100; Yoshio Kusaba’s proposed building chronology runs from about 1165 to 1210–15, and appears to be the most sensible approach. He argues that the outer aisle walls came first (north around 1165, and south to follow around 1170), and were connected with the eastern wall of the transepts. Following this, the arcades (south and then north, both up to string level below the triforum) were built. A third phase in the sequence was completed by a master mason familiar with the post-1187 building at Chichester Cathedral, and includes the high vaults, clerestory, and flying buttresses. ‘On the Choir of the Church of St. Mary at New Shoreham: Its Chronology and Stylistic Sources’ (unpublished paper presented at the Fifth Annual Canadian Conference of Medieval Art Historians, Université Laval, Quebec City, 1985).
[49] Nairn and Pevsner, Sussex, 280; Draper, The Formation of English Gothic, p. 97.
[50] Scott Robertson, ‘St. Leonard’s Church, Hythe’, Archaeologia Cantiana 18 (1889): p. 403.
[51] Robertson, ‘St. Leonard’s Church, Hythe’, p. 404.
[52] Robertson, ‘St. Leonard’s Church, Hythe’, p. 404.
[53] Katherine Maud Elisabeth Murray, The Constitutional History of the Cinque Ports (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1935).
[54] Hoey, ‘Style, Patronage and Artistic Creativity’, p. 48.
[55] Hoey, ‘Style, Patronage and Artistic Creativity’, p. 48.
[56] Robertson, ‘St. Leonard’s Church, Hythe’, p. 409.
[57] Hoey, ‘Style, Patronage and Artistic Creativity’, p. 48.
[58] Paul Crossley, ‘The Nave of Stone Church in Kent’, Architectural History 44 (2001): p. 203.
[59] Hoey, ‘Stone Vaults in English Parish Churches’, p. 39.
[60] Draper, The Formation of English Gothic, p. 227.
[61] Leonard Boyle, ‘The Inter-Conciliar Period 1179–1215 and the Beginnings of Pastoral Manuals’, in Filippo Liotta (ed.), Miscellanea Rolando Bandinelli Papa Alessandro III (Siena: Nella Sede Dell’Accademia, 1986), p. 45–56.
[62] Boyle, ‘The Inter-Conciliar Period’, p. 46.
[63] Boyle, ‘The Inter-Conciliar Period’, p. 48.