From The Church Treasury of History, Custom, Folk-Lore, etc., edited by William Andrews; London :  William Andrews & Co., 1898; pp. 1-20.





BY  REV.  GEO.  S.  TYACK,  B. A.

IN architecture, “wood should be used externally only on the smallest and lest monumental class of buildings,” and that from the fact that it is “dark in colour, liable to warp and split, and combustible.” So we read in a standard work on the art, and the propriety of the statement will be generally admitted. Yet in any primitive society, surrounded by abundant growing timber, and supplied only with rude tools, wood must almost invariably be more commonly used as a building material than stone or brick. Its readiness to hand, the comparative ease of working it, and when wrought into serviceable lengths, of transporting it, would all be arguments in its favour; whilst its want of durability would be little felt by a race, which, having no certain records of a remote past, was correspondingly unaccustomed to provide for a distant future.


It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that only people in the rudest state reared wooden buildings. In every country, and at every time, the country districts, remote from the wealth and from the art of the more populous centres, are compelled by want of means, in cases where the resources of the peasantry only can be relied upon, to employ such local materials as are the cheapest; and in their simplicity they are content therewith. Thus it happens that in every land that was, or is, rich in forests, we find traces of timber erections in the past, and even in the present instances of them, more or less numerous in proportion as the growth of civilization has left untouched the simple tastes of the people, and the spread of population has not encroached upon the primeval woods.

The building of wooden churches is, perhaps, the most striking illustration of this position, in that the faithful of all times and climes have been wont to bestow upon their sanctuaries the highest efforts of their art. Yet the earliest Christians of Cyrene, situated as they were amid the deserts of Libya, far removed from quarries, or indeed from trees of any magnitude, built or wove their churches, according to the testimony of Sulpicius 3 Severus, at the beginning of the fifth century, of small rods or withes.

Similarly we are not surprised to find in countries like Norway and Russia, countries no less noted for the abundance of their forests than for the primitive simplicity of their peasantry, that wooden churches are far from being uncommon even to this day, although they are now rapidly giving place to more durable structures.

In the former country there are several examples dating from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and of a quaintly barbaric style of architecture. One at Urnes is remarkable for having on its external timbers much characteristic runic carving, such as is frequently found on monumental stones in northern Europe, but has survived in wood only in this, and a few other Norwegian churches. Urnes Church measures only sixty-five feet by twenty-four, and in this respect is not greatly different from the other village churches of the same class, all being but small.

A black and white engraving of the whimsical wooden stave kirk of Hitterdal, Norway.


The largest, and one of the most curious of them, is at Hitterdal, and measures eighty-seven feet by fifty-seven. Its extraordinary conglomeration of roofs, pinnacles, and gables, is 4 utterly unlike anything civil or ecclesiastical with which the rest of the western world is familiar, and suggests a Chinese pagoda rather than a Christian church. A still more fantastic example is at Burgund.

The wooden churches of Russia, of which there are many in the villages, are constructed, like Canadian log-huts, of round logs laid one on another horizontally, the only dignified feature of their exterior being the bulb-shaped dome, found everywhere in the country, from the cathedrals of the Kremlin, to the humblest hamlet church. There is a good mediæval example near Kostroma, in Eastern Russia, where the aisles are separated from the nave by wooden pillars with square capitals, the nave itself being covered with a “waggon” roof.

Turning now to our own country, and recalling the fact that it, too, was once clothed with wide-spreading forests, and inhabited even in Christian times by a simple-minded people, whose intercourse with the more cultured continent was but slight, we rather expect than otherwise to find evidence of an equally primitive style of architecture. And the evidence forthcoming is abundant.

In Roman Britain, as we know, there were 5 some few stone churches, for we have probable remains of them in Canterbury and at Dover; but it is noteworthy that such remains are confined to the south-east corner of the country, where continental influence would be most felt. The Venerable Bede speaks of a time “when there was not a stone church in all the land, but the 6 custom was to build them all of wood.” It may be that his statement is too sweeping, but doubtless it was literally true of Northern England and Southern Scotland, the districts with which the saintly monk of Jarrow was most intimately familiar.

Legend has it that the first Christian church built in the island was a wattle shed, erected by S. Joseph of Arimathæa at Glastonbury; and another legend tells of a church made of boughs only, wherein lay the body of S. Cuthbert, until so much of the stately Cathedral of Durham was completed as to allow of his relics being translated thither. The site of the earlier shrine, immediately beneath the east-front of the cathedral, is still occupied by a little church, S. Mary-le-bow, that is, according to this rather doubtful derivation, S. Mary of the boughs.

More definite evidence is borne by our early ecclesiastical historians. Bede tells us that Edwin, King of Northumbria, having been converted by the preaching of S. Paulinus, “was baptized at York, on the holy day of Easter (A.D. 627), being the 12th day of April, in the Church of S. Peter the Apostle, which he himself had built of timber, whilst he was being catechised 7 and instructed for baptism. In that city also he appointed the seat of the bishopric of his teacher and bishop, Paulinus. But as soon as he was baptized, he took care, by the advice of the said Paulinus, to build in the same place a larger and nobler church of stone, in the midst whereof that same oratory which he had first erected should be enclosed.”

The same writer records that when Finan succeeded S. Aidan in 652 as Bishop of Lindisfarne, he built a church in the island; “Yet, after the manner of the Scots, he made it, not of stone, but of hewn oak, and covered it with reeds.” Subsequently Eadbert, who became bishop in 688, “took off the thatch, and covered it, both roof and walls, with plates of lead.”

William of Malmesbury makes mention of a wooden church, or stave-kirk, as the old English name was, at Dutlinge, in Somersetshire; and of the same material were reared the earliest monastic establishments of the country with their churches. Ingulphus tells us that Croyland Abbey was originally built of logs and planks, joined and worked with great skill and accuracy, and roofed with lead. King Alfred’s abbey-church at Aethelingey was of timber; and King Edgar in 8 a charter granted to Malmesbury Abbey, expresses his intention, as thank-offering for the prosperity given him by God, of restoring “the sacred monasteries in which, they being composed of rotten shingles and worm-eaten boards, divine service was neglected.” Canute granted a charter in 1032 to the Abbey of Glastonbury, which was given “in the wooden church in the King’s presence.”

The nomenclature of a few places seems to point to the existence of stave-kirks. The venerable Bede explains the name of Whitherne, or White House (Candida Casa), in Galloway, by the fact that S. Ninian built there a stone church, the whiteness of the newly-cut stone being in marked contrast to the darker timber structures with which the folk were familiar. S. Ninian, who built this church in 397, had been educated in Rome, and was the friend of S. Martin of Tours; hence his knowledge of the use of stone was gained abroad, and he is even said to have obtained masons from Tours to undertake the work. In Cheshire and in Kent we have villages named Woodchurch, and in Yorkshire a Woodkirk, both of which terms, although they may possibly mean the “Church in the wood,” seem more probably to 9 point to the existence of wooden churches, perhaps at a time sufficiently late to make them somewhat remarkable.

A black and white engraving of the church tower of stone that looks like it was made of wood, at Earl's Barton, Northamptonshire.


Another illustration of the prevalence in primitive times of wooden architecture is provided by early stone work, which is formed on obviously wooden designs. There are tombs in Egypt whose walls are simply a reproduction of square beams placed side by side perpendicularly, and others in Lycia in which the very mortices and pins of a timber structure are imitated in the more durable material. But examples more cognate to our subject are supplied by some of the church towers of Saxon times. The fine tower of Earl’s Barton Church, in Northamptonshire, is a case in point. The long pilaster-like slips and the 10 transverse bars distinctly suggest the bracing of a timber building, and the balusters of the windows look far more like the work of the turner than of the mason. Somewhat similar “turned” work may be seen in the doorway of Monkwearmouth Church, erected in the seventh century by Benedict Biscop, and the “timber-bracing” decoration occurs again in the tower of S. Peter’s, at Barton-on-Humber, Lincolnshire. It thus appears evident that our forefathers were so far familiar with stave-kirks of some pretentions to size and dignity, that even when intercourse with the continent had taught them to rise a step higher in architectural art and to build in stone, it was still some time before they could throw aside the models to which custom had wedded them, and before they learnt the capabilities of the new material.

Records are found of the existence of stave-kirks in various places, besides those very early ones to which reference has been made. Domesday Book tells of one at Bigland, in Yorkshire, and there were others at North Elmham and at Shernbourn, in Norfolk. A wooden chapel survived at Bury S. Edmund’s until 1303; S. Aldhelm’s, Durham, standing in 998, the Ladye Chapel at Tykford, and that at Spalding so late as 1059, were all of 11 wood; as also, to name a continental instance, was S. Stephen’s at Mayence, in 1011.

A black and white engraving of the Anglo-Saxon wooden church at Greenstead.


Vetusta Monumenta.

So far no allusion has been made to existing examples of the stave-kirk in England, yet there are several such, among which the right of priority on the grounds both of antiquity and interest must be given to the little Church of Greenstead, in Essex. This curious survival of a distant age is said to have been constructed in the first place as a temporary shrine for the relics of S. Edmund, 12 the king and martyr. The story of the various translations of these relics brings to our notice more than one wooden church. The saintly king was done to death by the heathen Danes on the 20th day of November, 870, and his body was first laid to rest in a wooden chapel at Hoxne in Suffolk, where it lay “in terra defossus” until 903, when it was taken, as yet untainted by decay, to a splendid shrine in a larger wooden church at Bedrichesworth, thenceforth known as Bury S. Edmunds. Another incursion of the Danes under Turkill, in 1010, drove the monks at Bury from their house, and they took with them in their flight to London, as the most precious of their possessions the relics of Edmund the “kyng, martyr, and virgyne.” Three years later they were able to make their way back to their monastery along the ancient road which ran from London to Bury through Oldford, Abridge, Stapleford, Greenstead, Dunmow, and Clare; and it was during this journey that, according to an apparently well-grounded tradition, the wooden shrine at Greenstead was erected. The Manuscript Life and Passion of Saint Edmund (now in Lambeth Palace Library) asserts that “a certain resting-place near Stapleford received his body on 13 its return from London,” and another ancient account says that it “rested near Aungre (Chipping Ongar), where a wooden chapel remains to this day in memory of S. Edmund.”

The original chapel was only twenty-nine feet nine inches long by fourteen feet wide. A few courses of brick form the groundwork, and on these are placed rough-hewn timbers, consisting of half-logs placed perpendicularly. At the top these logs are cut away to thin edges which fit into a groove in upper transverse beams which bear the roof. The wood is still sound though so time-worn that authorities differ as to its being oak or chestnut. The tower, built of horizontal timbers is of a later date, and the brick chancel dates only from Tudor times. There is no sign of any window having been allowed for in the original building, the former windows in the roof, with the present roof, being no part of the pre-Norman structure. There may have been an east window, which was removed when the chancel was added; or, if the little chapel was at first intended only as a temporary shelter for the body of S. Edmund, it may have been actually windowless at first. The porch and two stout buttresses are also modern additions to this 14 simplest of churches, which evidently had in its first state no attempt at decoration of any kind.

A black and white engraving of the plaster and lath church at Lower Peover.


In Cheshire are several important and interesting examples of stave-kirks, although none can compete with Greenstead in antiquity. Lower Peover has one dating from the days of Henry II., formed of crossed timbers and plasterwork. It has a nave and aisles, and a chancel with aisles, the tower alone not being of timber.

A black and white engraving of the plaster and lath church at Marton.


Marton Church, built in the fourteenth century, does not admit even of this exception, being wholly of wood; oak columns separate the nave from the aisles, and oak arches bear up the timbers of the roof. The belfry, within which 15 hang three bells dating respectively from 1598, 1663, and 1758, is a most skilful application of the material employed to the necessary purposes of stability and strength.

A black and white engraving of the plaster and lath church at Chadkirk.


Chadkirk, also in Cheshire, was probably originally a building of similar construction, but in successive alterations and repairs stone has pushed out the earlier wood, though the porch, the bell-cote, and most of the east wall are still of wood, and the east window retains its wooden mullions.

We open a wide field, however, when we touch on churches partially of wood. In former times the English carpenters, — artists in wood they might more strictly be called — were pre-eminent, 16 as witness some of the splendid wooden roofs, and other architectural details that have come down to our own days. The roofs of Peterborough and Ely cathedrals, the stalls at Salisbury, the dean’s cloisters at Windsor, the screens in the Palace Chapel at Chichester, and in S. John’s Hospital, Winchester, all amply attest the skill of the English craftsman in bygone days. It was natural, therefore, that such skill should frequently have been called into play in those, and other ways, in the building of churches.

A black and white engraving of the Wooden Blackmore Church in Essex, England.


In Essex we find some striking instances of wooden spires. At Blackmore is one built in three diminishing stages, the two upper ones of timber, laid horizontally in the topmost, and      [17]
perpendicularly in the middle stage. Each storey has a projecting roof, and the whole is crowned with a spire. Antiquaries have suggested that the tower of the neighbouring church of Margaretting may have been designed by the same architect, the external form being to some extent similar, and the internal arrangement of timbers so as to secure the utmost strength being equally ingenious. Stock Church, also in Essex, has another instance of a cleverly constructed wooden tower.

A black and white engraving of the interior timber work of the tower of Margaretting Church.


Ribbesford, in Worcestershire, has wooden arcades in the nave; and the churches of Newland, in the same county, and of Newtown in Montgomeryshire, are both largely of wood. The number of wooden porches and lychgates of the country, many of them excellent in design, is legion.

Many of our stave-kirks were doubtless taken down to make way for noble structures of stone, 20 but naturally the action of the weather on timbers not always perfectly seasoned has destroyed many, and fire has accounted for the destruction of not a few. The knowledge that most of the churches of the time were but wooden buildings will explain the wholesale burning of them, which the Danish marauders accomplished apparently so easily, when they descended on the eastern counties. And the wonder is that so many traces of the simple stave-kirks of our forefathers should have weathered so successfully the storms of time.