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Church orientation

Bob Trubshaw

The observation that churches do not align exactly east-west has prompted suggestions that they align on the direction of sunrise on the saint's day associated with the church's dedication.

The earliest references to this date back to the mid-seventeenth century and were noted again by the poet Wordsworth in 1823. There is a possibility that this idea is part of the Scottish Masonic tradition - it is certainly stated in Masonic texts of the mid-nineteenth century. In recent years the idea was re-explored by C.J.P. Cave in the late 1940s and, in the 1950s, at great length by a man who has become synonymous with the subject, the Rev. Hugh Benson [1].

Between them Cave and Benson measured nearly 1000 churches. Allowing for the height of the horizon, atmospheric refraction and the drift arising from use of the Julian calendar, only a minority align with the current patronal feast day sunrise. It is often difficult to establish whether or not churches have been re-dedicated since their construction, or whether a secondary dedication for, say, a side altar, became adopted as the main patron.

Those churches that do align do so with great accuracy; where chancels and naves have been rebuilt at differing dates, then the realignment may introduce the widespread phenomena of a crooked chancel. Far from being evidence for sloppy laying-out, this shows that great care was taken in aligning the new construction with the required sunrise direction.

Benson aroused considerable controversy with his work, but it was not until 1974 that a well-argued case was presented for an alternative hypothesis. S. Searle used the pages of New Scientist to put forward evidence that anomalous church orientations were a result of the use of a magnetic compass to find north - the substantial 'wanderings' of the magnetic north pole appearing to fit the construction dates for the Sussex and Hampshire churches listed. This hypothesis too, appeared to account fo the phenomena of crooked chancels. But the correspondence pages of subsequent issues quickly produced examples of churches that did not fit the data for magnetic deviations [2].

The subject has remained a contentious one; there is good evidence to suppose that some churches were laid out in accordance with patronal sunrises whilst others fit variations in magnetic north. But the majority of churches do not appear to fit either theory.

Richard Davies has made a survey of most Rutland churches [3]. Even though he attributes some saints, such as St John the Baptist, St John the Evangelist and St Michael, to unusual feast days, and does not take into account the effects of local topography on the sunrise horizon, it is clear that the axis of almost all the churches surveyed bears no correlation with the current dedicatee's day sunrise.

By using more commonly associated feast days for the saints, one church in Rutland appears to align with sunrise on the patronal festival - St Michael's at Whitwell, (141:924088). This is also the only church in Rutland so dedicated and has a famous holy well running beneath its chancel. Davies gives the chancel an orientation of 98 degrees and the nave 102 degrees magnetic; the sunrise on 26th Sept is at 98 degrees magnetic.

To the east of Whitwell the land falls away into the Gwash valley. The sun would probably arise in line with Great Casterton church (141:002087) although at the time of writing, this has not been confirmed. Here the current dedication is to SSPeter and Paul and the site of a pre-Roman temple was excavated nearby. Interesting, following this line the other way, to the west, shows that a third church, St Mary's at Oakham (141:861089), also accurately aligns with Whitwell and Great Casterton.

On the Nottinghamshire/Leicestershire border is Stanford on Soar (128:544220). The church of St John the Baptist stands close to the site of an ancient ford over the river. I was looking around this church one sunny evening close to midsummer last year and suddenly recognised that the north wall was brightly lit by far-from-oblique rays of setting sunlight. Out popped my compass - at 70 degrees magnetic the nave and chancel were, indeed, well out of east-west alignment.

Checking things out back at home confirmed that the feast day of St John the Baptist coincides with midsummer, when the sun rises over a level horizon at 63 degrees magnetic.

This significant discrepancy in direction is easily resolved - less than a mile away in the direction of sunrise is a moderate ridge (part of which is known by the intriguing name of 'Moat Hill' although no moat, or even moot, is recorded). The crest stands about 120 feet higher than the church and would significantly delay the appearance of the rising sun. Unfortunately, because of an intervening building by the church, this cannot be accurately checked.

References

1: Benson, H., 'Church orientations and patronal festivals' in The Antiquaries Journal, No.36, pp205-13, 1956.
2: Searle, S., 'The church points the way' in New Scientist 3rd Jan 1974 and related correspondence in 17, 24, 31 Jan and 7 Feb issues.
3: Davies, R., 'Church orientation in Rutland' in Rutland Record, No.4, pp142-3, 1984.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.5 December 1990.


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