Building Materials in Anglo-Saxon Churches and Towers
By Richard Harbord
The Round Tower, Vol.38:1 (2010)
Introduction: In his book, ‘East Anglian Round Towers and their churches’, Bill Goode and other more recent writers have reviewed the way building materials were used in the early round tower churches without putting them in an historical framework so that is what is attempted here.
Church historians know that the Romans had used a wide range of building materials, which in theory could also have been used in construction during the Anglo-Saxon period. For example, Saxons fired clay pottery in kilns so why not also bricks? The Romans provided a precedent for building forms with their churches and temple-like churches built in small numbers all over Britain. The 7th century cathedral of St Chedds on the Essex coast is built of materials robbed from the adjacent Roman fort so why could this not be repeated elsewhere in East Anglia? In the middle Saxon period there were continental examples of round bell-towers so why not also in England? All this led historians like Munro Cautley to speculate wildly and suggest a pre-Viking 9th century date for the first English round towers. Thirty years later Bill Goode was more cautious and suggested a 10th century start date.
The 6th century missionaries in East Anglia camped out in the ruins of Roman forts. They used a portable altar and preached in the open, which may have started a long-standing tradition. The earliest churches of the Anglo-Saxons may have been built originally as timber mausoleums, later extended and adapted for worship. Otherwise dwellings and barns were probably converted into churches. In West Stow, Suffolk; timber long-houses, or ‘halls’ for extended 6th century pagan families have been found. There is no obvious connection between them and churches. In Essex the extensive forests allowed a prodigious use of timber but further north in East Anglia much of the woodland had been replaced by farmland even before the Romans arrived. The extensive areas of heath and wasteland had mainly poor quality woodland so as the size of the population increased, timber became scarcer. The great carpentry tradition of Essex is less strong in Suffolk and even more so in Norfolk.
A lot has been written about the use of timber and flint in churches. Much less has been said about the humbler building materials that also played a part in church development and the conditions that surrounded them. Some early dwellings may have been made of turf slabs but a roof of this type of building needs planking to support it. Much of East Anglia is covered by the ‘Claylands’. Buildings made of this simple material are still in use today. Puddled clay is placed in wooden moulds to make building blocks. These are sun dried and then placed over a firm plinth, in courses. They are then weather-proofed with a stiff external render. Deep eaves to the thatch are provided to throw rainwater clear of the walls. Many of the dwellings in the outer suburbs of Norwich were made in this way in the Middle Ages. ‘Cob’ construction is where the clay is stiffened by adding chopped straw, horse hair etc. This weak form of construction could be further strengthened by integrating a timber frame into the fabric. This allowed two storeys to be built with this form of construction. When walls are painted white; colourful decorative patterns added and with a carved door panel it is possible to imagine such a simple building serving as an early church.