Repairing & Rebuilding Church Steeples in Stuart Northamptonshire

A New Paradigm or a Continuing Tradition?

My study focused on the evidence that the Stuart era (1603-1714) was not a period of decay and decline for parish churches, but one that saw a new-found movement in favour of conscious repairing and rebuilding. With reference to Northamptonshire church towers and spires, how did the political, religious and social structure encourage church repairs? Were these projects the start of a new movement, or a continuing trend from the Middle Ages?
Through both in the fabric of the churches, and from contemporary written sources, it is clear that there was ongoing care and maintenance happening to religious buildings, particularly in the 1610s-1630s. This little-studied period of ecclesiastical architecture saw methods of working and stylistic development which is counter to the general trend of architectural development. Parish church architecture, in particular towers, incorporated mostly vernacular features built by local masons or simplified Gothic in what is an early and conscious revival of the Gothic style. It seems that the low rank of much of the building work that occurred has caused it to be largely overlooked or wrongly classified by subsequent writers.
The domestic architecture of 17th and 18th century Northamptonshire has been well studied, and yet the ecclesiastical work of the period remains largely overlooked. Whereas the county was at the forefront of the development of classical houses from the 1550s, it was not until the 1670s that a Classical church was built, and even this building featured a Gothic tower.
At Apethorpe, a new Gothic tower and spire were created from scratch by masons working for the notable surveyor John Thorpe at the same time as they were adding the classical East Wing to Apethorpe Hall for the entertaining of James I and Charles I. At Higham Ferrers church, the elaborate spire and tower collapsed in 1629. A local mason was employed to recreate the steeple, incorporating salvaged Mediaeval fabric; creating accurate copies of original detail; and creating new mannerist Gothic features in the spirit of the original building.
The Bishops of the era were responsible for regular surveys of the condition of church fabric, and through the records and the buildings it is possible to identify the repairs brought about by these surveys. Lamport’s church tower is recorded in the survey of 1611 as being “cracked from ye top to ye bottom” and today has a large Stuart buttress holding up the south west corner.
The developing awareness of historic buildings during the Stuart period led to a shift in attitudes, which favoured active conservation and imitation of Mediaeval counterparts. The steeples of Northamptonshire illustrate this philosophical and stylistic shift, which had occurred since the Reformation. They also illustrate the religious and architectural complexities of the era and the way in which architecture was used as an expression of taste, of learning, and of power.
Conversely, I also found evidence that suggests many of the systems and habits of maintenance of ecclesiastical buildings continued virtually unchanged from the Middle Ages, thereby confirming the Stuart period as the link between Mediaeval and modern theories about historic buildings.
The number of churches just in Northamptonshire that have surviving Stuart fabric in their towers and spires shows how much work was done, and yet the lack of written study shows how overlooked this work is. A century of conservation, repair and changing attitudes to historic buildings has been forgotten.

Matthew Woollven - Thesis Abstract

Repairing and Rebuilding Church Steeples in Stuart Northamptonshire,
A New Paradigm or a Continuing Tradition?

Church Steeples in Stuart Northamptonshire