19 August, 2011

Burgh Castle Roman fort: Church of St Peter and St Paul

The remains of the Roman shore fort are by far the most impressive visible features on the site of Burgh Castle Roman fort, with three of the four walls and their massive bastions still standing to near full height (see my previous post for pictures).

The church of St Peter and St Paul stands one field north of the remains of the Roman fort (see map link here). It is is an attractive small church with a round tower. The listed building record identifies the tower as late 11th century, with the rest of the church being later (British Listed Buildings).

Church of St Peter and St Paul, Burgh Castle

I wonder if some of the red bricks and tiles visible in the tower (among the flintwork and around the arched window, not at the top of the tower which looks like a later rebuild) are Roman bricks and tiles recycled from the nearby Roman fort.

Close up of tower showing red bricks and tiles among the flints and around the window

Most round church towers are found in East Anglia, mainly in Norfolk, some in Suffolk, and a handful in Essex and neighbouring counties. Why round towers? One possibility is that round towers were chosen as a consequence of the local building materials. The main building stone available in most of East Anglia is flint, which comes in irregular nodules. Flint makes a perfectly good building material, especially if combined with plenty of mortar, but it isn’t great for the construction of corners. This can be solved by importing stone from elsewhere to make the corners (you can see this technique in the corners of the church doorway in the photo). Or it can be solved by avoiding corners if at all possible and building round towers.

Another possibility is that round towers happened to be fashionable, or were chosen as part of an expression of regional or local identity. A thought that occurs to me is to wonder if round church towers could have been influenced or inspired by the round bastions on surviving Roman fortifications. Remains like Burgh Castle Roman fort are impressive even now and must have been more so a thousand years ago when the Roman forts were better preserved and large buildings were fewer than today. Someone who had seen one of the Roman forts might have decided to follow this example of how to build a tower, on the practical grounds that it had clearly worked in the past, and then the idea may have been copied at nearby sites and become a local fashion. If the forts were even vaguely remembered as ‘Roman’ structures, it may also have seemed fitting to borrow some of their architecture when building churches for a religion whose headquarters was Rome. Early monastic foundations built within Roman shore forts may also have reinforced such an association. I need hardly say that this is speculative.

Burgh Castle Roman Fort is a possible site for the seventh-century monastery called Cnobheresburg, mentioned in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. If this is the case, the existing church may be a replacement for an earlier church, either on the same site or nearby, perhaps within the walls of the Roman fort. The dedication to St Peter and St Paul is consistent with an early foundation; Aethelbert of Kent built a monastery with a church dedicated to St Peter and St Paul in 602 (Bede Book I Ch. 33), the church built in York in 626 was dedicated to St Peter (Bede Book II Ch. 14), and the seventh-century Chapel of St Peter on the Wall at the Roman shore fort near Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex is a likely candidate for the church founded at a place called Ythancaestir in 654 (Bede, Book III Ch. 22). More about Cnobheresburg in another post.

Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
British Listed Buildings, Church of St Peter and St Paul, Burgh Castle, available online


Nicola Griffith said...

I think you're the only other person I know who also uses the Sherley-Price HE. I love that thing. It's so...particular.

Constance Brewer said...

Love the red brick accents. Good thought that they might have been lifted from old forts.

Rick said...

If you want to build a stone tower, without prior experience, it certainly makes sense to follow an example!

What are the two X shapes on the side of the tower? Bits of foliage that happened to take root, or part of the actual structure?

Carla said...

Nicola - the Sherley-Price translation for Penguin Classics is where I first encountered most of the characters and events of seventh-century England, and I have stuck with it ever since. Although I'm not qualified to judge its quality as a translation (though I would trust Penguin Classics of that era a long way on that score), it's a lovely piece of writing.

Constance - an expert would be able to tell you for sure whether they are certainly Roman-made bricks and tiles from the adjacent fort. I think it likely, because Roman building materials were frequently recycled. They make a smart contrast with the flints, don't they?

Rick - Not foliage. The X shapes are two crossed metal bars with a large boss at the crossing. They are probably attached to metal tie-rods that run across inside the tower to tie the opposite sides together and stop them bowing outwards. The X cross-pieces help to spread the load across the outer face of the tower.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Most of the materials filched from Roman buildings were the nicely worked stones, not bricks, but I won't put it past those AngloSaxons to have nicked those as well - half Vikings that they were. *grin* They do look decorative, after all.

Carla said...

Some of the nicely worked flint facing stones from the Roman fort may well have ended up in the church as well. They have certainly gone somewhere! The bricks do look rather decorative, especially around the window. I don't suppose that was lost on the builders.

Rick said...

Thanks for explaining the X!

And yes, the bricks around the window are rather decorative.

Carla said...

You're welcome :-)