The Isle of Wight Society

June 2023

The Island has many wonderful examples of church and chapel architecture, all well worth visiting, ranging from the Norman style to the present century.  Many have undergone changes – repair, restoration and even transformation to new uses.  

The Island became Christian in the late 7th century, when Caedwalla, King of Wessex invaded and said he would only rule over Christians.  So anybody who wanted to continue to live here became Christian.

Several Saxon Churches were built and seven parishes were established.  These ran from north to south, from the Solent to the south coast of the Island.  This ensured that each parish had clay lands for timber, down land for pasture and some good soils for agriculture.  It also meant that burials had to take place at the mother church, often many miles away.  So eventually various “daughter” churches were built, and the owners of several manors were allowed to build their own private family chapels.

The names of Saxon Saints occur on the Island, as early Saxon churches retained their dedication saint.  St Edmund, St Mildred and St Boniface are examples.  Arreton still has a simple Saxon doorway.

An internal Saxon doorway at Arreton Church

The Normans arrived with a period of stability.  Many sturdy stone churches were constructed.  Some became buildings offering safety in the case of further invasion, such as at Shalfleet.

The tower at Shalfleet church was built in 1070, with walls five feet thick – almost 2 metres.  Originally there was no door into the tower, so a ladder was used.  If invaders were seen arriving in Shalfleet creek, the local people would rush to shelter in the tower, taking food and water, climb over the parapet and draw the ladder up behind them.  French raiding parties frequently visited the Shalfleet area.

Shalfleet tower had poor foundations, so strong buttresses had to be built to reinforce the tower. This was after parishioners tried making an opening in later years from the church itself, almost causing the tower to collapse.

Shalfleet  Church Tower

Typical delightful Norman chevron pattern doorway arches can be seen at St Edmund’s at Wootton and at Yaverland Church.  The Normans used strong round headed arches over their doors and windows.   Also at Yaverland is a fine large example of a Norman archway between the nave and chancel.  Because this is not open to the weather, the elaborate carving remains in perfect condition.  The nave is where the people sat, or stood, and the chancel is where the altar is at the east end of the church.

St Edmund’s, Wootton, has a Norman doorway

 Strong Norman stone pillars to support the roof beams can be seen in several churches.  Brighstone is one of these, where the pillars support arches between the nave and side chapels.  Some of the pillars have tilted under the weight of the roof.

Brighstone Norman arches

Just a few Norman fonts still exist in Island churches, such as at Northwood and Niton.  Sited by the entrance to the church, babies would be baptised here.  Often more modern fonts would be gifted to the churches, and the old font would end up as a horse trough!

Make exploring Island Churches one of your summer activities!

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Isle of Wight Society
East Cowes Heritage Centre, 8 Clarence Road
East Cowes, PO32 6EP

Tel: +44 (0) 1983 280310

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