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How a typical church could have developed through the centuries.

Churches before the Conquest conformed to one of two models, the Roman basilica plan (with a semi-circular apse at the east end) and the Celtic plan (with a squared east end). Later the Saxon builders brought together both plans and developed an arrangement of their own, usually with square-ended chancels, although sometimes the end was polygonal, that is the apse, rather than being curved, was formed from several straight sides.

Considering the possible designs church builders had, over one thousand years ago, with a nave, chancel and sanctuary, it is no real surprise to find that the plan of the majority of existing churches can be traced back to the 12th century, and is one of the following five fundamental types:

1. Very rare is the circular plan as exemplified by the chapel at Ludlow castle. Only five examples are to be found in the whole country.

2. The single-cell plan is also rare, but one can be seen at Winterborne Tomson in Dorset.

3. Two-cell plan with nave and sanctuary. The squared east end design is known as the Celtic plan;the Norman plan with a round apse, common in France, was re-introduced here by the Normans. An apse is present in the parish church of St. Michael at Bulley. The apse was soon squared when churches were enlarged and rebuilt.

4. Three-cell plan with nave, chancel and sanctuary. Kilpeck is a splendid example of this basic plan.

5. Cruciform-shape with nave, transepts, sanctuary and central tower. At Melbourne (Derby) the parish church of St. Michael and St. Mary is a fine example of a 12th century cruciform plan. Examples in Gloucestershire may be found at Colesbourne and Dowdeswell.

We shall see in future articles how for the majority of parish churches the two-cell plan, with a square end, became the pattern from which future enlargements, rebuilding and improvements were made. Central towers were not always stable constructions and their piers obstructed space, sight and sound. However, they did leave free the west end and this has been filled by beautiful windows, allowing the delicate light of the evening to pour through and cast a golden aurora.

As the local population grew, or the monastic orders who owned most of the churches became richer and developed competition with other monastic orders, so the building grew in size and carvings improved, often reflecting availability of materials, tools and skilled artisans. As churches were enlarged their naves received aisles, clerestories, porches and a lengthened and/or rebuilt chancel. Existing towers were heightened and central towers were often rebuilt at the western end, often destroying evidence of past work. Many central towers collapsed under the weight of increased masonry. This process of enlargement and rebuilding has never ceased, and has never followed a strict order.




The rounded apse has been removed since the sanctuary has been lengthened. To accommodate the increased population a south aisle has been added. A rich benefactor has provided the funds for a chantry chapel to be added on to the north side.



To create yet more space the south aisle has been widened further and a south porch added.  Porches have protected many of the older carvings over doorways. The chantry chapel to the north has been extended to create an extra aisle and a sacristy added. The chancel arch has been replaced by a wider one.



Often tremendous development took place in the 15th century which resulted in the complete rebuilding of the church in the same style. In our hypothetical example the small bellcote over the west has been removed and a west tower added, although many churches had towers earlier. A two-storey porch has been added over the north doorway and both the north aisle and the north arcade have been rebuilt, all probably paid for by a guild. A south chapel has been added and built with openings to both the south aisle and chancel, and more buttresses placed to strengthen the walls. Inside the church a rich donor has presented a rood screen, rood loft and the stairs.


On the north another chantry chapel has been built (the 12th century one having been incorporated into the north aisle in the 14th century) and the sacristy has been enlarged to form the north chapel with an entrance into the north aisle. A chamber has been added over the south porch. To allow more light into the church its nave and chancel have been heightened to allow the insertion of clerestory windows. Also the tower has been raised, possibly with pinnacles and battlements added. A ring of bells now sounds following their insertion into the tower. Few changes would be made to this church in the following centuries. Any would result from improvements after repairs.

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The Parochial Church Council of the Ecclesiastical Parish of St Mary and St Nicolas Prestbury Cheltenham - Registered Charity No 1130933

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