Ribchester churches, history by observation how to “read” a building.


This is a sample of the book "Ribchester churches, history by observation : - how to "read" a building" available on Kindle for £1. 75.

Many people find churches fascinating both architecturally and historically, but what are you looking at and what does it mean? Learning how to “read” a church building can add to the enjoyment of a visit and help the reader to identify the various parts and ages of construction. Ribchester has a special interest as a place with two thousand years of continuous occupation. It’s two churches cover the period from Norman times until the eighteenth century and thus provide a good example of church architecture.

Often churches have an early “core” with later additions. With a little knowledge, the type of construction can be used to date a feature or section. Sometimes visible changes are written into the fabric of the building, as with St Wilfrid’s in Ribchester where the earlier more steeply sloping roof lines can be seen on the tower and the end of the nave.

This presentation first reveals the early Roman history of the Parish church in England, it then explains the features of a typical Romanesque church building. Moving on we look at Anglo Saxon and Early Anglo Norman construction methods as seen at St Saviours in Ribchester. Finally, St Wilfrid’s is examined as a good example of how many changes over time, have been incorporated into the current building. Once understood the reader can analyse any parish church building with a little more appreciation.

Church Architecture

For The origins of the parish church we must first look to Rome. Before Christianity became the state religion for the Roman Empire in 313, being a Christian was a dangerous business. Worship was often conducted in people’s homes. Domus ecclesia or house churches were common in Rome. A titulus church could be part of a house or an entire house used for worship. House churches had a gathering area and a baptismal space. In the early fourth century twenty-five house churches are known in Rome.

In 313 the imperial family became Christian and the size of house churches was no longer sufficient. New larger churches were founded by the imperial family. The longitudinal or basilica form is the basis for most parish churches in England. This type of building had an apse at one end where the altar was placed. The main entrance was at the opposite end of the nave allowing for a good line of sight to the altar. People could stand in the Nave and processions were common. The nave is the large hall in the centre, on either side is an aisle. Not shown on the plan is a transept, this was made up of two side buildings creating a cross shape at the altar end of the nave.

Anglo-Norman architecture

Anglo-Norman was another form of Romanesque architecture. It was a statement of power with massive forms and a unity of design not seen in earlier forms. The population of Britain in Norman times was only four million or so. The fact that so much church building occurred at this time implies a highly organized industry.

In fact, a whole lay industry underpinned the building of churches. The architect was the master of works, usually of Norman origin. Under him were the master craftsmen in charge of their various departments. Plans were simple and diagrammatic.

“The labour force consisted of large numbers of skilled itinerants, whose wages accounted for two thirds of the building costs. They included, rough masons, free masons, carpenters, smiths, plasterers, glaziers, tilers, pavers, clerks,woodmen, sawyers, glaziers and hodmen together with impressed labour as needed” (West, 1979).

There were two phases of Norman decoration, the eleventh century style was more plain with little decorations, as at St Saviour’s. St Saviour’s is of the three cell type construction, with a nave, choir and sanctuary. The twelfth century phase is known as high Romanesque and had high decoration, such as chevrons and nailhead ornamental moulding.

Gothic architecture

The origins of Gothic design lie in the great churches of the Ille De France and the abbeys of Normandy. It came to Britain at the end of the twelfth century and remained for the next three hundred and fifty years. It was a synthesis of existing design using techniques for creating rectangular vaults that could feature large windows.

The use of concealed flying buttresses over the isles and pointed arches allowed the building of taller naves. Thrusts were focussed along certain points allowing for a reduction of weight and the opening of the walls for large windows.

Pointed arches are used at St Wilfrid’s. The aisles support the nave and have external buttresses to prevent the weight of the nave roof from forcing the walls apart.


Perpendicular was a late Gothic style of the fifteenth century. Most towers date from this period as does the tower of St Wilfrid’s. Crowns are typical. The current layout of St Wilfrid’s is typical of the late medieval style.


Ribchester has two churches and a complex of Roman roads. David Ratledge has conducted extensive studies as to the location of Roman roads in Lancashire. The lidar image below shows the roads and the relative location of the churches near Ribchester. The conjectured original river crossing is shown as well as the changed course of the river. River erosion has taken away a large part of the fort site.

St Wilfrid’s sits inside the roman fort site, while St Saviour’s is a little to the East of the Roman road going North.

St Saviour's

St saviours stands on the site of a Roman Mithraic temple. The image shows a similar temple at Carrawbrough near Hadrian’s wall.

“One of the least known and yet, most interesting, of the Roman sites along the course of Hadrian's Wall. Carrawburgh Temple of Mithras is a 'mithraeum', or temple dedicated to the god Mithras, a form of sun god whose cult became extremely popular among soldiers of the Roman legions.” (Britain express, 2014)

The temple in Ribchester would have been of similar construction. Mithras was a bull slaying god and sacrifices would have been performed here.

Later the site became a leper hospital under the Knights Hospitallers.

Carrawburgh, Temple of Mithras. Allun Salt 2005

In her book Lancashire Country goer, 1964, authoress Jessica Lofthouse says of Stydd (St Saviour’s) Chapel: “Six centuries ago the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem owned an estate at The Stede (Stydd), a small “monastery” complete with chapel, dormitory, refectory and cloisters. They were crusading monks, rarely at home until the last fighting men had returned from the Holy Places. In 1338 — when it was considered it no longer served any useful purpose — it was dissolved.”

St Saviour’s has an early Anglo Norman core with characteristic round windows and thick walls. It is constructed of sandstone rubble with a flagged floor. From the outside, it has been likened to a barn. The walls are plastered and white washed. It originated as a leper hospital under the patronage of The Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. This was a monastic order founded in 1023 and dedicated to the care of sick pilgrims in the Holy Land. There was a holy well on the site and it is close to the Roman road going North.

The journal of antiquities states “It was either in 1136 or 1150 when the Knights Hospitallers arrived at Ribchester to establish their chapel and monastic hospice for pilgrims, though it seems there had already been some kind of religious building on the site at the back where Stydd Manor farm now stands, perhaps an early Christian church or, more likely a Roman temple dedicated to the god Mithras.” (sunbright57, 2013)

The North wall has two narrow round headed windows and the now blocked original doorway.

St Saviours with rounded Norman windows

The earliest official record of a church on this site dates from 1136 in the reign of King John.

The font is typically Norman in style although it dates from the sixteenth century. It is made of gritstone in an octagonal form with carvings of shields and scared heraldic symbols on all sides.

St Saviours stone font

The church is essentially one room, although divided in typical Norman fashion, into a nave, choir and sanctuary. The screen and pulpit are seventeenth century

St Saviour's, the East window and altar

The attractive East window dates from the thirteenth century and the design of intersecting “Y” tracery is mimicked in the unique oak chairs. The crucifix and candle sticks were made locally from an ancient yew tree which once grew on Stydd lane.

Under the altar table can be seen the tomb of Sir Adam De Clitheroe of Salesbury hall. It dates from the fourteenth century.

The roof is of stone slate with tie beam trusses.

St Savoiur's roof

St Wilfrids

St Wilfrid’s stands on the site of the Roman Headquarters building inside the fort in Ribchester. Written records go back to 1193 however there was probably a church here before that date. St Wilfrid was Bishop of Ripon in the 7th century and was said to have founded the church.

The nave

The nave is thirteenth century. This period represents the first use of the Gothic architectural style. Early Gothic had an emphasis on the vertical with pointed and slender arcades or arches. The piers are made of clustered shafts.

The East window and sanctuary

The roof

The roofs were high pitched. The original high pitched roof was replaced in 1527, the lines of the sharp pitching can be seen on the outside of the tower and the end of the nave.The sixteenth century roof shown here has a boss with the symbol of a rose and the monogram IHC, the Greek word for Jesus. The gallery under the organ was added in 1736, for the choir and musicians. The organ was purchased in 1865.

The fifteenth century roof shown here has a boss with the symbol of a rose and the monogram IHC, the Greek word for Jesus. The gallery under the organ was added in 1736, for the choir and musicians. The organ was purchased in 1865.

St Wilfrid's roof structure

The Dutton choir

The Dutton choir dates from the fourteenth century and was originally one of the lady chapels. To the right of the stained-glass window can be seen a medieval wall painting of St Christopher carrying Christ.

The stained glass is modern being added in 1996. The window on the right is made of curvilinear tracery of the perpendicular, early fifteenth century, style. It also has fragments of medieval glass. The perpendicular styled windows help to date this feature

The Dutton quire

The pulpit

The pulpit dates from 1636 and bears the initials of Christopher Hindle who was rector at the time.

Thank you for reading this sample. To read the full text, the book is avaliable on Kindle - https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ribchester-churches-history-observation-building-ebook/dp/B06XRTBPG7/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490259287&sr=8-1&keywords=ribchester+churches


Words and pictures by Geoffrey Whittaker

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