Places of Worship

Investigations within active places of worship are still comparatively rare and often limited in scale. However some have benefitted from tree ring dating and small-scale excavations which are helping to refine chronologies of buildings, as well as studies of folk belief through graffiti surveys. Many churches have never been surveyed with modern techniques though the second editions of Pevsner are now complete and offer brief architectural summaries (Hartwell 2009). These are not a substitute for detailed survey when interpreting the archaeology and history of a building.

The region’s late medieval churches are poorly recorded although many original elements of furniture and fabric may survive within them. The previous framework noted that, unlike other parts of the country, few medieval churches went out of use until very recently (Newman and Newman 2007, 106). Instead many were subject to several phases of rebuilding, depending on the needs and resources of their communities intensifying in the 16th and 19th centuries. However without detailed contextualised surveys it is difficult to know how much of the original structure, fixtures and fittings survive.

The in-depth study of individual churches appears to be mostly dependent on local interest groups and such studies rarely find their way to the local HER. The National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies (NADFAS) support surveys of fixtures and fittings of artistic merit. Graveyard and ledger stones surveys are common and a national survey of memorial stones set in floors was launched in 2015. This is being run in partnership with the Churches Conservation Trust and The Church Monuments Society. The NADFAS has on line lists of records produced and details of where copies are held. An online resource covering the Romanesque sculpture of Britain and Ireland is currently under construction although some parts of the region are yet to be completed (

Exceptions to the general picture are major surveys of the stained glass in the churches of the region, now complete for Cheshire (Hebgin-Barnes 2010) and Lancashire (Hebgin-Barnes 2009) (Fig. 30) with Cumbria currently being compiled.

The photographic archive of the glass studied and recorded during conservation of the early sixteenth century east stained glass window at St Martin’s, Bowness–on-Windermere (Cu), with grant aid from the British Academy and CWAAS has now been uploaded onto the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi (CVMA)website. The glass is attributed to John Petty (d. 1508) of York Minster with many earlier fragments re-used in the window (Neil 2002 a and b)[C.K1] . This is still awaiting an analytical report (N. Neil, D. O’Connor, pers. comm).

There are other projects photographically recording monuments and elements of church fabric such as misericords. However there is no consistent effort to record all elements of each church as an integrated whole with archaeological or historic building surveys at appropriate levels.

The Carlisle Cathedral Romanesque Project is training volunteers to measure the fabric of the building to identify the extent of changes made throughout its history. The ultimate aim is to construct a 3D model of the building during three key phases for visitors to view; the Norman period, the later Middle Ages and its current configuration. Also at Carlisle excavations were undertaken in 2016 by OAN within the cathedral precinct around the Fratry (dining) building. This was in advance of an HLF bid to restore and bring the building back into use as a learning hub for the cathedral. (OAN forthcoming[C.K2] ?)

In general few archaeological excavations occur at churches and are limited to watching briefs. Where they are undertaken, such works often provide new insights into the construction and development of the building. St Bartholomew’s church, Wilmslow (Ch) is thought to originate in the 13th century, with the current building dating to the early 16th century. Recent work revealed significant post medieval features along with charnel material which may be late medieval in origin. It also exposed the bases of the 16th century columns flanking the central aisle (Raynor and Miller 2013).

A watching brief at St Peter’s churchyard, Prestbury (Ch) revealed the remains of a medieval cross slab of the 13th/14th century, amongst the foundations of the vestry (Adams et al 2015) (Fig.31). Another significant find was a medieval piscine the church of St Nicholas, Whitehaven (C), recently published (Bowd 2016). A watching brief by Aeon Archaeology at St Alban’s Church, Tattenhall (Ch) identified medieval foundations and a wall that may be part of an earlier building (Cooke 2016).

Some churches were included in the major tree-ring sampling exercise that took place across the region. The roof timbers from St Mary’s, Stockport (Ch) dated to one felling of AD1308-33 (Arnold and Howard 2011). Further sampling of the vestry roof timbers showed that these were from a single felling in AD 1623 (Arnold and Howard 2014). Archaeological recording accompanying this work showed that the stone fabric was contemporary with the medieval chancel. It contained a number of hidden features, including evidence for a first floor (Matrix Archaeology 2015).

Occasional finds logged with the PAS give indications of religious practice and belief and include pilgrim badges and ampules. A rare late medieval silver pilgrim badge found near Preston (L) in 2011 is perhaps the most significant of these especially as it may be an import (PAS record ID: LANCUM-61F133) (Fig. 32)

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