The Defensive Role of Church Round Towers: A Re-Assessment
By Richard Harbord
The Round Tower, Vol.34:2 (2011)
Introduction: This subject was well aired by Bill Goode when he surveyed what earlier writers had said on the subject. That was nearly thirty years ago so the criteria he judged the subject against, deserves re -examination. It is clear that part of the allure and charm of church round -towers is their association with our unsettled history, especially in the Anglo -Saxon era. This can and does lead to a romantic view that generates extravagant claims for the antiquity of round towers. We know that the landscape and everything in it including churches, historically had to play their part in civil defence. This was especially the case near the north coast of East Anglia which was isolated from the rest of England and vulnerable to invasion.
Towers were erected essentially to house church bells so was the defensive roll of the tower incidental to that roll or integral to its purpose?
1. A strategic position in the landscape – burial mounds in the Saxon period and earlier were often placed on the sky -line. Some of these sites evolved into multiple Christian burial sites. It was natural to build parish churches in a visually prominent position such as high ground dominating the adjacent village so the same sites became the natural place to locate a parish church
2. They were built as part of the defence against Viking raids where a threat persisted up to the end of the 11th century. Goode claims that archaeology supported the possibility of towers being erected at the beginning of the 11th century when the raids were still occurring. I have found no archaeological reports that gives evidence applicable to Norfolk Churches and which supports that assertion.
3. Early church towers were built for bells. In the 11th century most parish churches were very small and served as the semi -private chapels of their patrons. This suggests that church bells were still a rare thing. In any case their construction was still very simple, unlike the sophisticated form of bells used in the Middle Ages. Most parish bells of the 11th century and earlier were probably placed in free -standing frames erected in the churchyard or, on the roof of the nave, say in a ridge turret. This left them exposed to theft which is what happened to the turret bell on Bishop Solomon’s Chapel next to Norwich Cathedral in the 17th century. Bells were easily the most expensive moveable possession of local churches. A bell tower gave the bells much more security which probably is what motivated their widespread construction in the Middle Ages.