Berkswell The suburbs of Coventry are shattered and strange: abandoned tower blocks surrounded by security fences; a casino covered in scaffolding; rows of terraced housing equipped with classical columns and security cameras, as if the owners suddenly got rich (but not rich enough to move, or just loved it here…).
And then they suddenly vanish, and the landscape has the dense network of lanes and scattered hamlets of the not-so-long-ago forest. And here is a large, wealthy (shop, museum, tea) village with an extraordinary well and a remarkable church; they’re gathering for a Sunday service, and the place is packed, friendly, enthusiastic, full of all types and ages. Impressive.
The church and the well are grouped together in a cluster with the rectory; the church on a pronounced rise; the well in a curious grass covered lane, really a back area behinid houses; it has two sections, one large enough in which to rinse a beast of burden, the other small enough in which to dip your baby’s bum. All of this is cut off from the village, almost shielded from it, the houses look the other way, towards a green and a meeting of lanes; its as if house, well and church are in an enlcosure: minster?
There’s nothing very special about this church above ground, though the chancel’s top-notch parish church work of the mid-C12, with a well-preserved corbel table in orange stone, rows of neatly arranged little round-headed windows, and a lower level of windows peaking up from below ground level, each housed in an odd little thickening of the wall rather like a Victorian chimney flue. Hmm, there’s a crypt (of course, I know that: it’s why I’ve come).
Further west, everything is parish church charm: a very late two-storeyed porch, half timbered in its entirety, could be the gate to the house of a wealthy merchant; aisles one late Dec, with instructive ‘we’ve just heard about this straight-lines thing’ going-on-Perp tracery (actually I’ve now got a dated example of this stuff in the 1320s (Cambridge, Michaelhouse): suck on that, Accepted History. But that’s another story); the other probably mature Perp, though also a little Decish; tower, clerestory.
Inside the chancel is as expected, with its big round-headed entrance arch and the floor stepping up gradually to make way for the crypt – except that the stepping-up starts well west, halfway downn the nave; and here immediately too there are signs of some archaeological complexity – for the western half of the north nave arcade is mid-C12, simple Romanesque, and the eastern half is late gothic, as its its (slightly earlier) compadre on the south. Why is there is two-bay C12 gap between the chancel and its aisle?
A clue comes through the easternmost of the two C12 arcade arches. Here a wide staircase leads down into the crypt, and the church’s great suprise: for one walks into a well-made vaulted octagon the width of the nave above, and peers down its long, vaulted eastern extension, the width of the narrower chancel. This crypt is a C12 roundbut the church, the same plan as Ludlow or Temple Bristol, but underground. Which is where sepulchres should be, after all.
It’s also not a simple building. The eastern extension is older than the octagon. They’re not seperated by much, but the caps in the e half of mid-c12 (1130s-1150s?) and those in the w are waterleaf, ie surely after 1160 probably into the 1170s. Yet the two buildings join perfectly; even the masonry used in the vaulting is identical. And before the building break that seperates east from west there is a mid-C12 arch: either the western octagon was anticipated when work ceased on the eastern chancel-crypt, or something preceded it, something the seperation of which from the current chancel-crypt was worth expressing architecturally. One more thing: in the chancel-crypt there is a neat piscina with, interestingly, a triangular headed arch; and the vault here retains late medeival polychromy: an enormous section of battered script, set among stars. The guide says the big black letters read IHS, which suggests a christological dedication: good, for my holy-sepulchral investigations; but I think it’s just a big M, which means a Marian dedication: even better, for my Lady chapel/tomb of Christ ideas (other current candidates are in Kings Lynn and Hereford, with other possibilities ‘burrowing under’).
But the stuff that really gets the archaeological braincells going is above ground, as one tries to work out how all this relates to the church above it. For the eastern half of this is straightforward: chancel and chancel-crypt are a single structure. But the octagon, isn’t. The two-bay C12 arcade is plainly of the same date as the chancel: it’s plain, standard Norman, with none of the up to date late-C12ness of the caps in the octagon. So it predates the current western/octagon crypt, so there must have been crypt of some type there when it was built. Was the chancel crypt built on to an existing structure, which was only rebuilt later? In which case what form did that structure take? As for this western aisle, access to said crypt seems to be its raison detre. For the octagon is lit by two little windows, each of which was originally in the external wall of an aisleless chancel. On the S side this has been entirely replaced by the Dec aisle and arcade, and the window widened slightly and given a pointed arch (guide says this was to allow coffins into what by the C18/C19 was being used as a family burial vault). On the N side the original window remains, in the C14 bay east of the C12 one which provides access to the octagon crypt; and the junction between the C12 and C14 bays is clearly an interrupted stretch of C12 wall. So this was a church with an aisleless chancel and crypt, and an aisless nave and crypt – with a special two-bay north-western aisle the sole purpose of which seems to be to permit spacious access (the staircase is wide, too) to the space beneath it. Something significant preceded this space, something which a lot of people wanted to get at; something the form of which is unknown. On the one hand, the excavation of something radically different to the current octagon beneath an existing nave would take some doing; on the other the addition of a centralised and cult-oriented structure in the 1170s has some form: on the other, the idea had current form not present 20-30 years earlier: is this a response to grander works of the previous decades at (in order) York and Canterbury, with Lincoln on the stocks; and to the rash of circular Holy Sepulchre churches built by interesting patrons (obscure fraternities, crusading orders, proud and pious lords fresh from a trip to Palestine), all of them around this time or earlier? If so, only Canterbury (and York?) among the eastern cult-circular churches had crypts; but among the Holy Sepulchres, Clerkenwell had a crypt, and two in Lincs did, too, and of these only one, that at Temple Bruer extended the crypt under the circular nave. This is not so far from eastern Warwickshire; both belonged to the Templars; Temple Bruer appears to have been a C12 structure, though Aslackby, where a central boss with four sheilds on it was found, may have been rather later: we wouldn’t find this before the C14. All this is powerfully relevant, but Berkswell is different from any of them for not continuing the form above ground. The straight surviving stretch of C12 wall above proves that. This sounds like a good case for suggesting the previous structure was square too, indeed this could be proved archaeologically as the most likely corollary would be that it was of the same dimensions as the nave above and they simply filled in the corners, much easier than carving out a large centralised form from a small pre-existing crypt. One corner of the crypt has an opening in it through which one can view a little of the ashlar facing of the chancel-crypts ‘outside’ wall… And there are A-S precadents, too, though not so strong because they are more distant, both geographically and, where we know anyhing, morphologically: the several circular structures (eg York, Abingdon, Bury, Worcester?) known to have been built with Marian associations in that era, of which St Augustine’s Canterbury had a crypt.
To add to the conundrum, there is seperate access, intriguingly, to the chancel crypt, which has the usual narrow openings running from each side of the chancel arch down a thickness in the wall: an arrangement particularly common in pre-Conquest churches (Repton, Hexham, Ripon) and replicated in several later examples (including Temple Bruer, but from within the circular part of the crypt; also Madley). Now double accoess suggests circulation rather than priestly in-and-out, raising the possibility that the chancel crypt was seperate from the western crypt, perhaps before it acquired its octagonal form, and in spite of the fact that it was built with an arch to whatever was to the west. Perhaps this is a pilgrimage route, in to octagon and out, into eastern crypt and out, screens between them. That would suit the Canterbury analogy rather neatly.
Beyond this we can’t go, exccept that the guide mentions various female Anglo-Saxon names that someone must have dug up to find a cult here: who they are, or why these names come up is unclear. But the whole place is archaeologically fascinating (can we abandon style and date the western aisle-thing with the crypt?), and a prime example of the ever-fascinating adventures of the C12, and the way they can be found in to-us obscure places. I want to know more about Berkswell.
Every churchyard has a little surprise: here, it’s the chapel-like WWI memorial, open on four sides, with little ledges inside for people to sit and remember their loved ones, and weep at the thought of popppies and French mud: a remarkable evocation of the wave of national mourning and monument-making of that era.