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CHURCH ARCHITECTURE by Edward Wyatt

SPIRES AND BUTTRESSES

BROACH SPIRE

A broach spire (octagonal) rises straight from a square tower without a parapet. The broach is the pyramidal masonry filling the four angles. The triangular space at each angle is covered by masonry inclined from each right angle on the base to a point along each diagonal side of the octagon. As a result the square tower changes into an octagonal spire. They date mainly from the 13th century but some persisted into the 14th century. Tall slender broach spires are at Leckhampton and Shurdington.

PARAPET SPIRES

Broach spires were superseded by parapet spires, which rose from the tower but from within the parapet. This made repairs much easier since a ladder could be placed on top of the tower rather than on the ground. The junction of tower and parapet was masked by ornamental carving and the parapet was decorated with pinnacles. The most superb example is the early 16th century spire at Louth, in Lincs, which is 294ft (98m) high. It is generally agreed that for an aesthetic design both tower and spire should be the same height.

The spires have crockets along their ridge which act as steps for the steeplejacks. Often they increase in size as they go up the spire. This also lessens the distortion to the shape caused by long lines which seem hollow in the middle. Ruardean church has double pinnacles. Parapet spires are more common than the broach type. Perpendicular churches generally do not have a spire.

NEEDLE SPIRES

The genius of Sir Christopher Wren is shown in his towers and spires of the 51 churches he designed after the Great Fire. Spires were built from different materials, some are covered with lead and are whitish in appearance. Needle spires, delicately thin in their taper, are usually made of lead. This is a feature of some modern churches. Stone spires have suffered from the wind. Several spires have had their top blown off or had the spire lowered for safety. The spire from St. John’s Northgate stands in the nearby Sophie Gardens and those from Oxenton and Corse are in their churchyards. Mitcheldean spire fell in 1733 but was rebuilt in 1760 and the spire of Painswick church was hit by lightning in 1883. Bell ringing caused the collapse of Dursley’s spire in 1798. It was not rebuilt.

On top of the tower or spire is usually a weather vane, often a cock for vigilance. Sometimes it is the emblem of a saint, a key for St. Peter or a ship, fish or dragon. The large cockerel at Winchcombe came from Bristol. It seems appropriate to have a weather vane on top of the church since the British have always been interested in the direction of the wind.

BUTTRESSES

Since the weight of a building tends to push the walls outwards they have to be supported, or buttressed. With the coming of the Gothic style the size of windows increased, the area of walling between them decreased and so buttresses played an increasingly important structural role. Thus parallel with the evolution of Gothic windows was a corresponding development in buttress design. In the old Romanesque style buttresses had been little more than wide flat strips of stone, serving no real structural purpose. Throughout the Gothic era buttresses decreased in width but increased in projection, being greatest at the base and reducing in three or four stages. Each step was capped with a sloping set-off to shed rain water. In the 13th century, in Early English style, buttresses did not always reach the full height of the church. During the 14th century they were weighted at the top by a pinnacle, whose weight acting downwards helped to sustain the outward thrust. Beneath the pinnacle the last stage of the buttress in a prestigious church might be hollowed out to form a niche which held a statue.

Flying buttresses came into use about 14th century. Often they carried the thrust of a clerestory wall over the roof of an aisle to a main buttress. There are some excellent examples at Gloucester cathedral.

BUTTRESSES AT THE CORNERS OF A TOWER

In the 13th century there were two buttresses at each corner set at right-angles to each other. At the turn of the 14th century this form was abandoned and replaced by a single buttress set at a diagonal to the corner, the French buttress. At the end of the Gothic era there was a return to paired corner buttresses, but unlike the 13th century the corner of the building was allowed to project between the two buttresses because they were set-back, providing a more interesting composition. Enclosing both angled or set-back buttresses would give the clasping buttress. The vertical stages of buttresses coincided with the string courses which run along the side of a church.

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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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