There’s an article somewhere – and I’ve never been able to find it again – about Weeping Chancels in British churches. This is where the nave and chancel are built at a slight dog-leg to each other
Traditionally, this angle is so that the church in plan imitates Christ’s head lolling on the Cross, with thanks to this image from Photographers’ Resource.
I had wondered about this, because in other churches the angle is less dramatic, and not so easily noticeable. At St Nicholas’s Portslade, by my round at work, the chancel is just slightly off-centre.
I had wondered with a pagan’s mind whether it was linked to the sunrise, and googling as I had breakfast leaning on a tomb in the churchyard, I was delighted to read that it did. This brilliant article, still unfound, took measurements of chapels built at Canterbury Cathedral, and knowing the dates on which they were consecrated, calculated that each had been aligned to the sunrise on Easter Sunday in the year they were begun.
The Nave and North Aisle of Holy Trinity were in building by the late Thirteenth Century. The Chancel was in use from 1420, and rebuilt later that century. So two distinct phases of building are aligned on two different sunrises. And at St Nicholas’s, the main church with its cavelike Norman pillars was built in 1170, and the Chancel was added 1250.
I loved this image of medieval masons sighting their work on the first sunrise of the fruitful year, like their stone-age forebears. Thus I was disappointed just now to read two superb articles by Dr Ian Hinton of the University of East Anglia. Do Chancels Weep? 2004 and Church Alignment and Patronal Saints Days (Antiquaries Journal 2006) are breathtakingly through scholarship. Dr Hinton surveyed over a thousand churches throughout England, and examined whether chancels wept more to the left or the right, and whether they were aligned to sunrise on their patron saint’s day, or to Easter, and if they just happened to be slightly crooked because they were built on a slope. Where possible Dr Hinton even explores the weather, the geography and the likely conditions for building and materials in each year, but he concludes that chancels weep for none of the above reasons. We still don’t know why, though he notes that in each instance the realignment appears to be a conscious decision, and in many cases the later building is aligned more closely than the original with true East.
This is fact, implacable, and inscrutable. But it leaves open a lepers’ squint for my romanticism. Does that suggest the earlier phase is sighted on the sunrise then? As it’s lunchtime I’ll leave it there, but I hope so. Our forebears lived outside, and the Seasons were immediate to them. The first sun of Spring was as potent to the early medieval builders as it was to their ancestors, and for me these East windows are a numinous link with the sun-aligned stones and barrows of three thousand years ago.
Happy Easter one and all.