Once you have completed your study of the exterior of the building, you should move inside. Sadly, many churches are kept locked during the day, but there may be a notice board with a contact telephone number, or you may be able to find a contact number online. In most parish churches the main door will be on the south side, opening into the nave. This guide to the interior of the church will therefore start with the nave, aisles and transepts, and then consider the chancel. If you are unsure of the names of the various parts of a church, the plan above should help.
Nave, aisles and transepts
The nave was spacious and was for the people, who not only worshipped there but were responsible for its upkeep. In medieval times most people left a small sum of money, or some corn, to the church when they died. In the gap between the end of those bequests at the Reformation and the introduction of church rates in the 17th century, the fabric of most churches saw some deterioration, which often continued until the Victorian period. It is easy to blame zealous Victorian restorers for the lack of medieval features in so many of our old parish churches, but in some cases the condition of the fabric was so poor that they had little choice other than to rebuild.
Aisles and transepts increased the size of the nave, and also provided additional east ends for side altars. Transepts seem to have gone out of fashion by the late 13th century, perhaps because of a changed liturgy or a rapidly growing population, which made aisles a more practical choice. Some early cruciform-shaped churches with transepts may have experienced the collapse of a central tower over the crossing area between nave and chancel, due to a lack of knowledge of how to provide the support required for the weight, and may have chosen a simpler plan with a western tower when rebuilding. Aisles are common in churches of all periods. In some parts of southern England village and parish are synonymous, but many of Leicestershire’s ancient parishes contained more than one village and by the seventeenth century, and perhaps long before, people from each village within the parish often had their own ‘section’ of the church, whether nave or aisle, worshipping there and taking responsibility for the upkeep of that part of the building. They might even have entered by different doors.
Features and fittings
A full list of the features that can be found in the nave, aisles and transepts of a church would be very long, and this section will concentrate on those which are commonly found and can tell us the most about religious life in the parish. Starting with the font, which is usually near the south door, it takes in the features in the main part of the nave and to the west (towards the tower, or the back of the church) before moving eastwards. That said, every church is different, and some features may be in a different position in your church.
It is surprising how many medieval fonts can be seen in Leicestershire churches, considering that a Parliamentary Ordinance of 1644 required them all to be broken up and replaced by simple basins, as baptism was no longer to be by the total immersion of infants a few days after birth. Some might have been removed from the church and returned when times changed, having survived intact perhaps solely because they made useful troughs for livestock. In many parishes the font is the oldest feature of the building; the church may have been upgraded regularly, but the font was left alone. It was an important indicator of full parish status. Not every medieval church had the right to baptise, and many buildings which look like parish churches were actually chapels of ease, whose worshippers would have to attend their mother church for baptisms and burials. An early font may therefore have been a source of pride, which may help to explain their survival. Originally sited close to the south door, some fonts have been moved several times, raised on plinths of varying height, and may have had several covers over the years. On some medieval fonts it is still possible to see where the first cover was hinged and locked, an essential safeguard not only to prevent the water being taken but also to keep it clean, as the water would not have been changed regularly. Fonts and font covers can be plain or elaborate, depending on how much the parish wanted to spend.
Seating and galleries
Early churches had few or no seats and the weak and arthritic who could not manage to sit on the floor had to ‘go to the wall’, where they could lean, or to integral seats built round the base of pillars. By the later medieval period wooden benches appeared, but it is difficult to know how common they were; very few medieval seats survive in Leicestershire. Longer sermons began to be introduced from the 17th century, and wealthy parishioners responded by instructing village carpenters to make seats for them. By the Georgian period these had mostly been replaced by sturdy uniform box pews (as seen at King’s Norton and Appleby Magna, below) for those who paid a pew rent, and benches at the back or along the wall for children and the poor. Seating throughout the church would have restricted the use of the building and would also have reinforced the social pecking order, ensuring everyone was regularly reminded of their place. Leicestershire still has many churches with box pews, although large numbers were taken out and replaced by pine or deal bench pews in the 19th century. Since the 1980s, many of these Victorian additions have themselves been removed and replaced by chairs, to provide more flexible seating, allowing the church to be used for a wide range of community activities.
West galleries, for a choir and singers, became common in the Georgian period, and galleries were also added to provide additional seating in town churches (such as Market Harborough, where they still survive) or for children (at Appleby Magna, close to a large school). They became unfashionable in the 1850s and most have been removed, although evidence of their fixings can remain.
Royal arms, decalogue, creed, Lord’s prayer, charity boards
There was no requirement to display the royal arms in a church until 1660, but earlier examples do exist, and many more were probably destroyed during the civil war. Originally placed above the chancel arch, they are now more commonly seen on the west wall of the nave, over the south door or on the north wall. It was common for the arms to be updated by over-painting the initials or changing the number at the accession of a new monarch (perhaps when an archdeacon noticed that the wrong monarch was named), so C II R became G R or G R became G II R, G III R or G IV R, often ignoring any required changes to the arms themselves. The royal arms below, at Thornton, purport to be those of George IV, but are earlier. They could have originally been painted during the reigns of George I, II or III; although George IV succeeded to the throne in 1820, these predate the Act of Union of 1800 and still show the arms of France in the second quarter (the claim to the French throne was finally abandoned in 1800). From 1801 the arms of England and Scotland were in separate quarters and the Hanoverian arms were moved to the centre, surmounted by the elector’s bonnet until 1816, and then the royal crown of Hanover, which would be in the centre of these arms if they had been updated correctly.
In the 18th century, Archdeacons began to insist that other painted boards were also hung up in the church, and repainted when necessary, showing the words of the ten commandments (Decalogue), the Apostle’s creed and the Lord’s prayer. Boards with details of parish charities, including endowed schools, were also required to be painted and hung up in the church where all could see them, as a reminder to ensure that money left to charity was distributed according to the wishes of the donor, minimising the risk of loss through fraud or maladministration.
Tables and chests
Always look for old tables in churches, as some may have been used as communion tables in the late 16th or 17th centuries (see below, Chancel). A few tables from this period are still being used for that purpose, while others stand near the entrance, stacked with hymn books and service sheets.
Many churches have an old wooden parish chest, used to store important documents, and often dating from well before Thomas Cromwell’s instruction of 1538 that records of baptisms, marriages and burials were to be kept. Early chests have three locks, one for the incumbent and one for each of the churchwardens.
Pulpit and lectern
After the Reformation the focus of the service moved from the Mass to hearing the word of God. Although medieval pulpits survive in some churches, it was not until 1547 that every church was required to have one. Similar injunctions were issued by Queen Elizabeth and again (presumably because many churches had not complied) by James I. The latter appears to have been effective, as oak pulpits survive in large numbers from this period. Medieval churches, with their thick stone pillars and echoing sound, were not designed for preaching, and many Jacobean pulpits were topped with testers (sounding boards) to improve the auditory experience. Double and triple-decker pulpits also began to be introduced from the later 17th century, with integral lower desks for the priest to conduct the service and for the parish clerk (a lay person) to lead the responses. A good example, from the 18th century, can be seen in King’s Norton (above).
Lecterns (reading desks) would have been used by priests and choirs in medieval times. Their number would have expanded from 1538, when an injunction of Henry VIII required every church to have a copy of the Bible in English. A common form of lectern in the Middle Ages was the eagle, which carried the triple symbolism of being the bird which flew closest to heaven, was the carrier of the Gospels to the corners of the earth and was the symbol of Gospel-writer St John. Many of today’s eagle lecterns date from the late 19th century, and were popular memorial gifts.
Wall paintings and stained glass
From the people’s perspective, medieval services were more informal than those of later periods. Services were long, especially the Sunday High Mass, but people could arrive and leave whenever they wished. They played no part in the service itself, which would have been in Latin and mostly conducted from the chancel, where the screen would absorb most of what was said. For much of the mass the priest had his back to the people and spoke in a low voice (as he was speaking only to God). People were free to meditate, to say their own prayers and to wander round the nave looking at the images in stained glass, wall paintings and carvings to inspire their prayer. Many Leicestershire churches had their plaster scraped from the walls during a 19th century restoration, so few wall paintings survive. Glass was fragile, and many images of saints in the windows would have been permanently destroyed in the 16th and 17th centuries. The easiest way to recognise glass of the 14th and 15th centuries (and to identify which parts have been restored) is from the outside of the church, where the silver nitrate painted on to the surface can most easily be seen.
East end of aisles and transepts
Weekday masses would usually be said at altars which stood at the east end of aisles or transepts, and the survival of a piscina (and occasionally sedilia) in these areas indicates where a medieval altar once stood (an explanation of these terms is given below in the section on the chancel). These side altars were also used for masses for the dead. In the Middle Ages, the very wealthy, or groups of parishioners who had formed themselves into a gild, might have given land to provide a rental income that would pay for the salary of a chantry priest in perpetuity, to say masses for their souls and those of their family or other gild members. Many other parishioners left ten shillings (50p) in their will for a trental, which was a series of 30 masses sung for their soul. These would usually have been performed at an altar at the east end of an aisle or transept. In the case of a permanent chantry, there would sometimes be a screen to create a separate chapel (look for marks in the stonework showing where one might have been). Following the Reformation these altars would no longer have been used, but the areas where they stood were sometimes converted to private chapels for local gentry families, and can contain splendid monuments (as were the chancels of some churches, for example Bottesford, which you can now tour online.
Chancel screen, former rood and clerestory
In the medieval period the nave would have been separated from the chancel by a screen, usually of wood. (Eastwell church has a stone screen, but there is an ironstone quarry in the village, so perhaps stone was easier to find.) A number of these wooden screens have survived, but in Leicestershire it does not seem to have been the fashion to paint them with figures of saints, as seen in so many churches in Norfolk and Devon. Above the screen would have stood images of Christ crucified, flanked by Mary and John (a group known as the rood). A clerestory, the upper part of the nave wall containing a row of windows on each side, was often added to churches in the 15th century and would have provided natural lighting at this level to allow the rood to be seen clearly. In many churches there would have been a walkway (loft) at the level of the rood, so candles could be placed next to the images. In some churches readings would have been made from this platform, there might be an altar (and piscina high up in the wall) and singers and musicians might also have stood there on some occasions, as this short video clip explains. The loft would also have provided the access required to cover the figures at certain points of the liturgical year. Roods and their lofts had to be taken down at the Reformation, but blocking up the access staircase would have been expensive, and perhaps also resisted by any who hoped that the Catholic faith would be permanently restored following the death of Edward VI. Evidence of former rood staircases is common and there are many examples across Leicestershire, either because they were never fully blocked up, or because poor quality infill was removed during a 19th century church restoration.
In the Middle Ages this would have been the holiest part of the church, where High Mass was celebrated every Sunday, and the laity (people) were not permitted to enter. After the Reformation, such beliefs were held to be superstitious, and the chancel was considered to be just another part of the building, no more holier than the rest, although the responsibility for maintaining it still fell on the rector (who continued to receive an income from the tithes paid by the people – one-tenth of the annual value of all their crops, new-born livestock and other produce).
After the Reformation of the 1530s and 1540s the chancel was used infrequently, as communion services took place only three or four times a year. It often fell into a poor state of repair, might be reduced in size to a fraction of its former length, or was widened and the chancel arch removed to create a longer nave and a small sanctuary area. Such changes would be driven by the rector, who was solely responsible for the chancel’s upkeep, and who may have been unwilling to devote income to part of the church that was rarely required. From the mid 19th century things changed again. Two movements began in the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and soon swept the country, returning church buildings and the liturgy to something closer to their medieval form, with more frequent communion services and the introduction of robed choirs, who sat in the chancel. As a result of this complex history, the chancel was often heavily restored through necessity in the 19th century, and few medieval features may remain. Modern rood groups were also sometimes added in the late 19th or early 20th century (but not a loft), returning the chancel arch to something more akin to its late medieval appearance.
Many churches between the Reformation and the Victorian age had no architectural division between the ‘chancel’ area and the rest of the church, or just a very short chancel or apse (curved area at the east end). From the 1840s, when liturgical changes brought chancels back into favour again, some architectural differentiation may have been introduced into these later buildings, or a short chancel lengthened.
The main items found within a chancel that can tell us about the history of the building are as follows:
Sedilia and steps
Sedilia are medieval seats where the clergy would sit during those parts of the mass (service) when the choristers were singing. Where they exist there are usually three on the right hand (south) wall of the chancel, for the priest who sang the mass (who sat nearest the altar), the deacon (who sang or read the Gospel, and sat next to the priest) and the sub-deacon (who sang or read the other Bible reading known as the epistle). They will be in the style of the architecture of their period, but the degree of elaboration may differ, as with all architectural features, and recognising this will help you to understand the wealth generated by the parish in that period. As the chancel was the responsibility of the rector, the cost of the sedilia was probably met from the parish’s tithes. The degree of elaboration can therefore provide an indication of the size of the medieval parish and the prosperity of local farming. Sometimes all the seats will be at the same level, sometimes they will be stepped, with the highest being nearest the altar. Small differences in the height of the steps may have been simply to emphasise the relative importance of the clergy in the service, but if the seats would not be a comfortable height to sit in today, the floor level has probably changed. Many medieval churches had steps leading up to the altar, emphasising its holiness, and these may have been in line with the seats of the sedilia. In 1643, during the Civil War when Puritan views held sway, Parliament ordered churches to get rid of any steps and level the chancel floor, but the cost or strong alternative religious views meant this order was sometimes ignored. From the mid 19th century, three steps came into favour again, to represent the Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but they were not necessarily placed in the same position as any medieval predecessors, and may not line up with the sedilia.
A piscina indicates where a medieval altar would have stood, whether in the chancel or in a side aisle or transept. Most take the form of a small niche at arm height in the south wall of the chancel, containing a saucer-shaped base with a drain. A piscina may stand alone, to the east of any sedilia, or can be incorporated with the sedilia into a single architectural piece. The priest’s hands and the vessels used in the mass would have been washed here, with the drain taking the water away to consecrated ground, as it might still contain traces of the bread and wine which Catholics believe becomes the actual body and blood of Christ at the mass. After the Reformation, these beliefs were considered superstitious and piscinas fell out of use. As the altar would always be at the east end, a surviving piscina indicates the length of the medieval chancel, which may differ from the length of the chancel today. Like the sedilia, a piscina reflects the architectural style of the period, but may vary in elaboration within that style. Double piscinas, with two basins in a single niche, are unlikely to be earlier than the 13th century, when priests were instructed to wash their hands before mass using a separate piscina, or later than the 14th century, when they seem to have fallen out of fashion. There is a fine example at Stoke Golding. Pillar piscinas are drains into the earth contained within a pillar, rather than within a wall niche. Few survive, probably because they would have been easy for reformers to smash in the late 16th or 17th centuries. Some may have been taken and hidden elsewhere, and later found and returned to the church. This portability means they can be found well away from their original location, perhaps tucked away in an odd corner of the church – something to look out for when walking round the building.
Medieval altars comprised a stone tablet (mensa) standing on a base of stone or sometimes wood. Early altars contained relics within them (something believed to have been part of a saint, such as a bone, or part of something once touched by Christ or owned by a saint, such as a piece of wood believed to have been part of the cross used for Christ’s crucifixion, or a thorn believed to have been part of the crown of thorns). The mensa would have five consecration crosses carved into it, one in each corner and one in the middle. Their perceived holiness would have made them a target for Reformers in the late 16th and 17th centuries, and many would have been deliberately smashed. A few were repaired and returned to churches in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The communion service in the first prayer book of Edward VI (1549) begins with the priest standing before the middle of the ‘Altar’, but within three years the second prayer book (1552) refers only to a ‘Table’ which ‘shall stande in the body of the Churche, or in the chauncell’, with the priest (not yet called a minister) standing ‘at the north syde of the Table’ to say the Lord’s prayer. That second prayer book was very short-lived, as the king would be dead within a year and his sister Mary was a Catholic. Unless churchwardens’ accounts survive, it is usually impossible to know when the altar was replaced by a table, but a few churches still have an Elizabethan table. A greater number are 17th century, some of which have now found an alternative use in the body of the church, as a convenient place to put hymn books, service sheets or guide books.
This may contain niches for statues and images, which would have been removed at the Reformation. The window in the east wall of the chancel is likely to be one of the largest in the church, illuminating the altar in the early morning, for the High Mass.
Patron’s tomb/Easter sepulchre
Each year on Good Friday in the late medieval period some consecrated bread and wine (believed to be the physical body and blood of Christ) and a crucifix would be ceremoniously ‘buried’ in an Easter sepulchre against the north wall of the chancel, where they would be watched day and night until they were ‘resurrected’ on Easter Sunday morning. The sepulchre might be a permanent stone structure or a wooden structure brought into the chancel each year; a tomb could also be used. The wealthy preferred to be buried in a vault under the church rather than in the churchyard, as far to the east as possible, as that was considered the holiest part of the building. A single wealthy patron who had paid for the bulk of the cost of building or rebuilding the church might be afforded the honour of a tomb in the east end of the chancel, on the north side (where there was more room), which would double up annually as the parish’s Easter sepulchre (as at Cossington, pictured above).
‘Low side windows’
These are medieval, narrow, close to the ground and usually at the west end of the chancel. Historians cannot agree on their function, and numerous explanations have been put forward. An article by Paul Barnwell published in the journal Ecclesiology Today in 2006 (on pp. 49-76) lists 22 theories that have been proposed since the 19th century, including the one that has most caught the public’s imagination over the years, that these were to enable lepers who were not allowed into the church to hear the mass. Other popular theories include that they were to hear confessions, that a priest put his arm through the window to ring a bell when mass was taking place so those who were not present could say a prayer or, more prosaically, that they were simply for ventilation, helping to disperse the smell of incense and from tallow candles that had been burning for long periods. Barnwell favours the prosaic, but the truth will probably never be known.
The medieval church had no need for communion rails, as the people were not permitted to enter the chancel. Following the Reformation, Puritans liked to receive communion at their seats in the nave or sitting round the communion table, but that was a step too far for others and became a cause of conflict between the clergy and the people in some parishes. In an attempt to introduce some order and to preserve the ‘beauty of holiness’ (which was itself a controversial concept in the 17th century), when William Laud became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633 he insisted that communion tables were placed ‘altar-wise’ (i.e. with the long sides to the east and the west in the manner of a medieval altar) and ‘fenced in’ by rails that were close enough to prevent dogs from getting into the sanctuary. A few communion rails apparently from this period survive in Leicestershire, but not always in the chancel. Many would have been broken down during the civil war period, to comply with the Ordinances of Parliament, or simply because local people had strong Puritan views. Most of the communion rails in Anglican churches today are from the 19th or 20th century.
Choir stalls were introduced into churches in the Victorian period. Organs may date from the 18th century, but are unlikely to have been in the chancel at that date, as this part of the building would not have been in regular use then. Most early organs would either have been in a west gallery, or somewhere in the nave.
Those commemorated in the chancel are likely to have been clergy or the wealthiest and most influential of the parishioners, and their monuments can tell you a great deal about the social history of the parish. From the Elizabethan period much of the money that in earlier centuries might have been spent on the church fabric was instead invested in monuments commemorating members of wealthy families.
On to Documentary evidence