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High Street History: Churches

Updated Tuesday 3rd July 2007

Churches are often older than any of the buildings surrounding them - and they reflect the lives of their congregations.

All Saint's Church, Patcham Creative commons image Icon reverend_timbo under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license
The 12th century parish church of All Saint's, Patcham, which now finds itself caught between Brighton and Hove, and the South Downs national park.


One thing that Britain is not short of is churches. Their huge number stands testament to a time when people observed religion far more regularly than now. The church was at the heart of most communities at least until the early 1800s. In fact, the parish was the most important administrative unit in the country: doling out, for instance, poor relief to its parishioners in a time long before state benefits.

Churches are particularly rich sources for urban history – potentially showing the results of angry struggles over worship and faith such as those seen in the seventeenth century wars in the British Isles, or the Reformations of the previous century. These buildings were, of course, built to the glory of God, and so they were intended to inspire a certain awe in their worshippers.

At the time of their creation, many churches were simply the largest and most striking buildings in their locality. Their ornamentation and carvings can tell us about their former congregations; whilst even the gravestones that usually surround them can say something about how their parishioners perceived life and death.

St Mary and St Giles Church Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Rebuilt church

This is an eighteenth century church with a fifteenth century tower. The church’s greater part was destroyed and rebuilt. Churches should not be thought of as unblemished structures: it is rare to find a church that has not been rebuilt in part or added to. Sometimes damage was caused deliberately in the course of conflict, but the culprits in most cases were fire or storms. If you are interested, the best place to start delving is the church itself. Many display plaques or offer leaflets that explain their history.

Tombstone Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Stuart Mitchell


Gravestones have great potential as social and family history sources. On older stones, you may see carvings representing the deceased’s trade, for instance. Here, this tombstone served for at least three generations of a family. It displays some of the imagery typical of the Victorians’ rich symbolic language of death. The urn, especially when draped like this, represented mourning and hinted that the body was supposed to be merely the soul’s vessel.

Mary Magdalene church tower Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Lone church tower

This fifteenth century church tower stands alone because the body of the church was destroyed in fire. Services were transferred to another local church and so it was never rebuilt. You may come across similar oddities, which, though uncommon, are by no means limited to this one example.

eighteenthgrave Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Controlled

Eighteenth century gravestone

In an age of limited literacy, gravestones frequently carried messages in allegorical images. Often these were reminders of human mortality (memento mori). Skulls were popular, as were gravediggers’ tools. Here we see a winged hourglass (tempus fugit). Above it is the face of the Green Man: a symbol of spring, and perhaps indicative of re-birth in an afterlife? The symbol pre-dates Christianity - showing how readily the Church absorbed useful characteristics from prior belief systems. Surviving eighteenth century gravestones are often decorated on both sides. Was wastage frowned upon, or was such decoration simply a conspicuous signal of wealth? Either way, that habit, and this particular type of decorative imagery, had largely vanished by the third decade of the nineteenth century.

Taking it further

Church history is covered very extensively in the OU’s Exploring history: medieval to modern 1400-1900 (A200) and Religion in history: conflict, conversion and co-existence (AA307). Or if you fancy learning more about the seventeenth century civil wars, try our freely available online unit The origins of the wars of the three kingdoms.


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