The Archaeology of Britain: An Introduction from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Industrial Revolution

By John Hunter; Ian Ralston | Go to book overview

Chapter Thirteen

Landscapes of the Middle Ages

Churches, castles and monasteries

Roberta Gilchrist


BACKGROUND

Within a generation or so of the conversion to Christianity, each Anglo-Saxon kingdom had become divided into large parishes (parochiae) administered by a minster church. These minsters (from the Latin monasterium) were instigated by episcopal or royal initiative, and their siting was frequently coincident with royal vills; Welsh churches, by contrast, were established in association with secular llys (courts). These early minsters of the seventh to eighth centuries housed communities of priests or monks, living a collegiate or monastic lifestyle, who had pastoral responsibility for the inhabitants of the parochia. Between the tenth to twelfth centuries, large minster churches were supplemented by the proliferation of private, or proprietary, churches, with a resident priest who served a local community. It is now believed that there had been an immense shift in settlement patterns from the ninth century to the mid-eleventh century. It is supposed that complex, multiple estates based on Anglo-Saxon royal and ecclesiastical centres of the seventh to tenth centuries fragmented into smaller, self-contained local manors. The emergence of these manors, and the social class of local lords (thegns), created the small field churches of the late Saxon period; the evolution of the nucleated village sometime during the ninth to twelfth centuries provided the social impetus for the local community church. These local churches, the ancestors of parish churches, did not immediately have full rights, such as baptism or burial, but were subject to the authority of the old minsters, which presided as superior, or mother, churches. From the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, the parochiae of the minsters were broken down into smaller territories of individual parishes, giving rise to the parochial system of the Middle Ages (Blair 1988, 1-14).

Churches subsequently became the focal point for ritual and social life in a medieval community. They were used as a place of worship and regular meeting, for religious and seasonal festivals, baptism of infants, marriages, and burial of the dead. Chapels, known as chapels-of-ease, were built to serve parishioners who lived some distance from the parish church, and palaces, castles and manor houses often had private chapels that served the resident family and retainers. Some 12,000 English churches and chapels of medieval date survive today as standing buildings, in addition to several hundred ruined churches and the countless sites of former churches that exist only as buried archaeological deposits. The expansion of towns in the tenth to eleventh centuries also resulted in the proliferation of parishes, some of which were carved from the territories of earlier minsters. Towns that expanded in the late Saxon period can be ranked according to the number of churches that they once possessed: London 100+, Norwich and

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