Richard Taylor finds that churches from the Age of Enlightenment reflect the intellectual excitement, vigour and potential for conflict of a turbulent time.
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After the destruction of the Reformation and English Civil War,
the 18th century is often seen as genteel and uneventful.
In this Jane Austen world, churches are quiet, their clergymen dull.
But the real story of the 18th-century church
is far, far more interesting than that.
The century after the Civil War was an exhilarating collision
This brings out the revolutionary in me.
Here, the lion and the unicorn have come to life,
and they're fighting each other.
..and for the first time brought a choice in how to worship.
They would go backwards into the water. It must have been incredibly powerful.
I'm Richard Taylor.
I write books about the messages hidden in Britain's churches.
I believe these buildings can connect us
with our ancestors' deepest beliefs.
The 17th and 18th centuries were an age of reason and enlightenment,
when dogma was challenged and scientific discoveries celebrated.
And Britain's churches reflected that new world too.
It was a period of extraordinary confidence and creativity.
To explore these churches is to understand
what made the 18th century so dynamic.
The impact of the Civil War on English churches didn't end
when Puritans destroyed the last statue and crucifix.
It continued to change things in subtle but significant ways.
It even altered how people wanted to be portrayed after their death.
For centuries, the dead had been depicted lying in prayer
and waiting for the day of resurrection.
Then, abruptly, they began to appear bolt upright,
and looking more like Romans than Britons.
It's a style that would dominate our churches for the next century.
To understand this change, I'm visiting the tombs of the Earls of Rutland
that fill the chancel at St Mary's.
These monuments, stylistically,
must have looked completely knockout
when they first were installed in this church in the 1680s.
They must have looked as amazing as,
you know, Tracey Emin looked a few years ago in England.
RICHARD: They're pretty knockout NOW.
SIMON WATNEY: These represent a society calming down
after an appalling nervous breakdown - this awful Civil War with,
you know, tens of thousands of families torn apart.
It's not surprising that they were looking for a different style
to symbolise this new, safer, calmer world.
You can almost hear them sighing with relief,
"Please, no more Civil War!"
'So where did this new style come from?
'Many aristocratic families who fled the Civil War
'had headed to the continent.
'There they were impressed by the classical statues they found.
'They thought that by adopting the art of Imperial Rome,
'they could reassert their own status.'
SIMON WATNEY: These are the beginning of a new style of monument altogether.
It's their Roman associations that are important here -
the re-establishment of aristocratic authority,
the re-establishment of the monarchy
and persuading people of the stability
of the whole social structure of Great Britain.
This is the aristocracy we're seeing here.
What would more ordinary people have had to remember them?
We see how the symbols on most of these monuments
here at Bottesford migrate out of doors,
as they do throughout the whole of Britain,
onto tombstones for humbler sorts of people,
showing lovely, fluttering cherub heads, skulls, of course.
All the apparatus of 18th-century monuments migrate out of doors
where they have a fabulous afterlife for ordinary people.
'Although divided in life,
'the aristocracy and rank and file of the 18th century
'shared the symbolism of death.
'You can get a fascinating insight into the values of the age
'by looking inside the churches from the time.'
I wonder what St Mary's, a Norman church,
given an 18th-century makeover, has to offer?
There's pew after pew.
You can almost smell the smells in here.
There must have been so many bodies,
and we're in Whitby, so it must have been a slightly fishy smell too.
But what the focus of the whole church is on
is that, the pulpit,
standing there in the middle.
18th-century Christians came to church above all to hear the Bible preached.
So the pulpit was the most important feature of their church.
Whitby's triple-decker version is built so that the minister
could preach on a level with the newly constructed galleries,
but also to emphasise his authority.
Each level has a specific function.
Church of England services followed the Book Of Common Prayer,
with its series of statements by the minister
and responses by the congregation.
And here would sit the clerk of the parish, booming out the responses,
leading the people to stop them mumbling and stumbling over their words.
At the next level up, the minister would have sat,
leading the service and reading the lessons from the Bible.
And the climax of many services was when the minister climbed up here,
to the pulpit, to declaim his sermon to the galleries
and the people down below.
It's got this sounding board to project the voice even further.
If an earthly king were to issue a proclamation,
how eager would his subjects be to hear it?
And shall not we pay the same respect to the King of Kings?
The congregation at Whitby knew their place.
This was an ordered church, with pews for every rank of society.
And they could be bought or leased like property.
But how did they come to be so important?
Pews were in fact quite a recent innovation.
For hundreds of years, people had simply stood on an earth floor
which was covered in straw and herbs.
Then, as sermons became more common in the 14th century,
benches were introduced, often with elaborately carved ends.
But it was in the 18th century that you began to see these -
the box pews, with high backs and fronts.
The most exclusive might even have cushions,
armchairs, a fireplace.
What can seem difficult is the sense of segregation,
of being boxed in to your own personal space.
But they're simply an expression of the highest values of the time -
of property and of family.
St Mary's has one pew that dominates all the others -
that of the Cholmleys, the local lords of the manor,
showing that in the 18th century,
class divisions didn't stop at the church door.
And the choice of location for their pew was significant.
It's placed exactly where, in the Middle Ages,
you would have found the rood, the crucifix, over the chancel,
guarding the entrance to the altar.
I have to say I have a problem with this.
It's one thing looking at these other box pews
to think of family and property, but this, to replace the crucifix
with a sign of the squirearchy,
it brings out the revolutionary in me.
But of even greater importance than the Cholmleys' monstrous pew
was this secular symbol, the Royal Coat of Arms.
Following Charles II's return from exile in 1660,
the Church of England had reinforced the monarchy's restoration
by ensuring that the arms were displayed in every parish church.
By this stage, there's no distinction between Church and State,
they are an exuberant confirmation of Englishness and of faith.
They'd often be painted by the same person who might have done
the local sign for the inn, and they've got that rough and ready feel to them.
You can tell from these that the 18th century wasn't embarrassed
about showing what sex the lion and the unicorn might be.
Indeed, they're often portrayed as being rather prominently virile.
This, in heraldic terms, is known as being "pizzled".
But if your local church's lion and unicorn have lost their "authority",
blame the Victorians.
They were quick to de-pizzle them.
St Mary's is a fine example of a medieval church
altered to fit 18th-century sensibilities.
But what could the brightest minds of the Enlightenment build,
given a clean slate?
Not adapting old churches, but creating new ones.
What a view!
What a climb, but what a view!
It's like the whole of London is laid out before you.
And it's from here that you can see the full...
glory of the English London churches.
St Benet's, St Nicholas, its tower like a little bugle.
St Sepulchre at the end of the Old Bailey.
Christ Church down here, one that was bombed.
Only the tower left now, but what a tower!
And conversations going on all the time between these steeples.
St Mary-le-Bow where the Bow Bells sound,
and just along from it, the simplicity of St Vedast's.
Most of these churches owe their existence
to the long, hot summer of 1666 -
a fire that began at the King's bakers in Pudding Lane,
and a strong easterly wind.
80 churches were lost.
But even before the ashes had cooled,
Londoners realised that the Great Fire had given them a wonderful opportunity
to experiment with religious architecture and interiors.
Sir Christopher Wren,
friend of Charles II, mathematician and High Anglican, was put in charge.
St Paul's Cathedral is the prime example of his singular vision,
but his new churches reveal their own stories.
Tucked away in the City, these churches are easily overlooked.
But they're treasure houses,
revealing not just the attitudes of the time towards religion,
but also its passion for learning,
for disciplines such as archaeology and geometry.
This is a Wren church,
almost exactly as it would have been in Wren's day.
One of the most striking things about this church
is what's been given the greatest prominence of all,
up there at the very top of the ceiling.
It's Hebrew for Jehovah - Yahweh - the Holy name of God.
God has been changed from being represented by a picture
with its dangerous association with Popish idolatry, into a word,
and so safe for both angels and Protestants to worship.
You rarely found Hebrew in a church before this period,
because they're displaying their learning.
This was the Age of the Enlightenment,
and that learning is reflected in a place like this.
The classical forms of the Greeks and Romans,
the pillars, the geometric shapes of the windows,
all brought in to reflect
the reason, the reasonableness of faith.
The greatest scientist of the age, Sir Isaac Newton,
was as comfortable writing about theology as he was writing about science.
These things weren't mutually exclusive,
they were brought together, and they were brought together in this church.
This London church was designed by an assistant of Wren's,
Nicholas Hawksmoor, and it displays a big new idea about church-building
that harked back to an entirely different era.
In the early 18th century, there was a fascination
with the ancient churches of the Near East, places like Syria,
where before the rise of Islam,
there had been a rash of building of churches and monasteries and basilicas.
Hawksmoor was trying to replicate those ancient buildings
and capture the massive weight and grandeur of the temples.
Keystones outside the lower windows suggesting a far bigger window
pressed deep down into the earth, as if the ancient pagan temples
are being pressed in under the glory of this great new church.
What they were trying to build was, in Hawksmoor's words,
"A church as it was in the purest times of Christianity."
And by doing so, they'd leap over the fighting of the past,
and they'd also leap over the taint of Rome.
This church may be influenced by foreign architecture,
but it is still loyally English.
On top of the steeple, King George I stands proudly above the Royal Arms.
But here, the lion and the unicorn have come to life,
and they're fighting each other for possession of the Royal Crown.
It shows amazing confidence, even playfulness,
with this most ancient symbol of Englishness.
This and other Hawksmoor churches
were built out of a tax on coal coming into the Port of London.
I love the idea that a church as airy and glorious as this one
was built on something so earthly and dark and basic.
St Mary Woolnoth, also designed by Hawksmoor,
shows that although the new churches were influenced by the Enlightenment,
if you look hard enough, you'll still find imagery
that would have been at home in the Middle Ages.
The four Evangelists on the font.
The Holy Spirit as a dove.
And now, placed above an altar and gilded,
the pelican feeding her young with her blood, representing Jesus's sacrifice.
But most of all, you can find angels.
These cherubs convey holiness,
but in such an ordered way that they seem decorative as much as symbolic.
They've come a long way
since angels first appeared in our churches in the 9th century.
For the Anglo-Saxons, angels were terrifying symbols of victory.
For medieval people, they were guardians.
The Puritans hated angels so much
that they hunted them down, destroying them, burning them.
And then, in the 18th century, in a twist of the wheel of fashion,
this happens to them.
You can almost feel the real angels, those powerful creatures up on high,
holding their heads in their hands with the ignominy of it all.
You don't need a devastating fire
to start designing a church from scratch.
The Reformation in Scotland was just as fierce,
and it meant that they could experiment across the whole country
with the shape of their churches.
But they chose a style of building and worship that was more austere
than their English neighbours.
Let's come in now and I'll show you,
this is a very different form of church
- from anything you've been used to. - Gosh, it is, isn't it?
It's a completely different shape and layout.
Yes. Well, after the Reformation, for a long time they didn't build
new churches and they made use of the older buildings.
But when they did start to build, they tended to build in this T-shape
that you've got here with a...
- One bar there and wings. - Wings on either side.
The main point was the minister and his pulpit on the middle of the south wall,
where he could see everybody and everybody could see him.
Why the south wall?
Well, I think because it was a long wall,
and, bearing in mind that the early churches were east and west,
rectangular, and this gave you space to put the pulpit in
and have a window on either side of it.
RICHARD: So he would have had the light behind him.
The light behind him.
And if you go to a church where there is no glass in the windows,
you really are blinded by the light coming in,
especially at 11 o'clock on a Sunday morning.
- How intimidating. - It is a bit.
You've got the light full in your face,
- nowhere to hide. - And nowhere to hide, indeed.
All you would have had would have been the pulpit there,
with the Communion table in front of it.
There were no pews,
and therefore there was plenty of space.
So they laid out trestle tables,
which I imagine would have been set against the Communion table.
The T-shaped church may have been revolutionary, but within it,
there was an almost medieval emphasis on sin and repentance.
The aim was to repress vice and nourish virtue.
If you transgressed, you had to come before the church
and confess what you'd done, and repent, obviously.
And you had to be seen by the rest of the community
to have done your repentance.
And occasionally they had something really quite horrible called the "jougs",
which was a neck collar, and they had to stand outside the church,
and they couldn't move very far
because this thing was constraining them round their necks.
They had to stand in it for about an hour,
or you had to sit on a repentance stool.
RICHARD: What crimes might they have committed?
The one you read of most is fornication.
That seemed to cause a great deal of trouble.
Doesn't it always!
Yes. Theft doesn't come into it as often, but this other matter is regular.
Sometimes they developed double stools, and both parents -
the new baby was usually the outcome of all of this -
had to sit on the stool and repent.
And at the end of the process of repentance, what happened then?
The person had to be rehabilitated, of course.
At any rate, there was a kind of warm welcome back to the community.
So there was a powerful use of space, because you would be separated off
by an invisible barrier, as it were, here at the front.
- Then, when you'd paid the price... - You'd melt back into the community.
- You'd come back in. - Yes.
I'm cringing at the idea of it, but it's quite powerful, cathartic stuff.
Oh, yes, and it must have bound society together very strongly.
For almost 1,000 years,
the parish churches of England and Wales had been without rival.
But in the 18th century, increasingly,
they faced competition from other places of worship.
These weren't illegal, they were sanctioned by Parliament.
The Toleration Act of 1689
had acknowledged the right of religious groups,
such as Baptists and Quakers, to build their own meeting houses and chapels.
Their members, mostly working class,
disliked the liturgy, decoration and establishment ties
of the Church of England, and had kept the Puritan dream alive.
The monopoly of the parish church was over.
Now, Christians had a choice.
This is the old Baptist chapel in Tewkesbury,
and you can see,
just from the layout, there is no preference given,
everybody is the same distance from the preacher.
When they needed to get a bit more space,
they didn't push it out so that people were further away,
you just built upwards into these galleries around us.
You can imagine the people hanging over
while the preacher was doing his thing here.
Baptists, as the name suggests, emphasised the importance of baptism
as a public declaration of belief in Jesus Christ.
Fonts for infants had been a feature in churches for centuries,
but Baptists believe it should be an adult decision,
and that the ceremony should mean total immersion.
As a result, many of their chapels
have something quite remarkable under the congregation's feet -
a baptismal pool.
I'm going to go down into it,
but I know that people were baptised here for hundreds of years
and somehow I feel that I want to take my shoes off before I do this.
When a new member of the congregation was being baptised,
the minister would have led them into the baptismal pool....
..turned them around
and then they would go backwards into the water,
complete submersion under the water.
But it's not just into water, this was a kind of burial
before they would be brought back up out of the water
and out of the ground, in a kind of resurrection.
It must have been incredibly powerful for the person
who was undergoing this experience, especially in an age of modesty.
You can almost hear them giving a round of applause.
In the 18th century, by far the most chapels were built by Methodists.
They were founded by an Anglican clergyman, John Wesley.
His meetings were originally in the open air or in homes,
but as congregations grew, especially in industrial towns and cities,
it was clear that purpose-built chapels were needed.
Oh, this is lovely.
It's so warm.
Friendship seems to radiate at you from all around.
It's the oldest Methodist chapel in continuous use in the world.
It's in the shape of an octagon.
Some said at the time, "So that the devil would have no corner to hide in."
But actually, it's a shape that was preferred by John Wesley
and shows the methodical approach to faith that gave Methodism its name.
And this isn't a church, it's a chapel.
John Wesley himself was a lifelong Anglican, who encouraged his members
to go to the local parish church to take their Communion.
This was here to complement parish worship, not to compete with it.
And so, services might be arranged around services held at the parish church,
and held at odd times of day, five in the morning sometimes.
The chapel has only subtle decoration,
these little wreaths at the top of the columns.
But they're here to beautify the place.
They don't have a message in themselves,
they're simply wanting to make this into a fitting place to worship God.
It's yet another example of the religious creativity of the 18th century.
I've been so surprised by what I've found in visiting these churches -
by the riot of pews at St Mary's, by all those monuments at Bottesford
with their subtle piety,
by the London churches and their elegance and their learning.
It's as if the 18th century is refusing to let the likes of me
pigeonhole them, or put them in a box.
It's like saying, "don't confuse calm with dull,
"don't mistake British reserve for a lack of passion".
If you want to find out what the 18th century was really like,
don't just read a book, come and visit somewhere like this.
In the final episode, a challenge from the past shakes the Established Church,
as a Catholic revival brings a riot of symbolism back
into the heart of sacred spaces.
Church life in the 18th century is often thought to have been genteel and rather dull, but Richard Taylor finds that churches in this Age of Enlightenment reflect the intellectual excitement, the vigour and the potential for conflict of a turbulent time.
Richard shows how the symbols in even the most everyday parish church reveal the ever-closer identification between church and state and he tries out the extraordinary triple-decker pulpit at St Mary's in Whitby. In a lightning tour of the London churches of Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, he discovers how they reflect the latest scientific insights and archaeological discoveries of the age. And in the startling simplicity of Baptist and Methodist chapels and meeting houses, he taps into the burgeoning spirit of dissent that brought the monopoly of the parish church to an end.