Glossary of architectural terms 

 For a pretty comprehensive glossary of church architectural terms se the glossary on C P Canfield’s interesting website, English Church Architecture,

See also Joseph G Court’s Wakefield website which also has a glossary as well as a potted history of church architecture -

Also 'How to read a church' on the Leicestershire & Rutland Churches website - and the website of  St Wulfram's, Grantham.



Any type of stone that is smooth-cut and used as facing on a building. It is a common technique to reduce the cost of a stone building especially in an area such as Birmingham where local stone is not readily available.

Four Oaks Methodist Church, built in 1907, is a perpendicular-style building of brick construction which has been faced with ashlar.




This is the part of a church where baptisms take place. It is usually at the west end near the entrance door, thus symbolising entry into the Church. The baptistery may be in a separate chapel, sometimes in an apse; the church of St Mary & St Ambrose on the Pershore Road has an apsidal baptistery; St Alban's in Highgate has an elaborate baptistery just inside the west entrance; the Castle Bromwich font stands at the west end of the central aisle.

The font is a usually a large stone bowl standing on a pillar and holds the water of baptism. From 1236 font covers were compulsory; some were designed to be too heavy to lift without help, others were locked to prevent their use for demonic purposes.

Holy Trinity Church, Sutton Coldfield has a Norman font over 800 years old which was given to the church from Over Whitacre after 1856. Some Baptist churches have immersion fonts in which the baptised are completely submerged: Edward Road Baptist Church in Balsall Heath has a good example at the front of the church before the pulpit.


bells/ bellringing

There are over 5000 churches in England with a peal of bells, the oldest dating from the 13th century. Early towers had one or a small number of bells which hung mouth downwards and were rung (chimed) by pulling the rope, swinging the bell and allowing the clapper to hit the bell. It was difficult to control the bells in sequence one after another, as smaller bells ring faster, heavier bells more slowly. The result was similar to what may be heard in present-day continental towers, each bell ringing irrespective of the others.

Modern English ringing developed in the mid-17th century. The bells are rung full circle from mouth-up and back again. This enables the ringer to hold the bell on balance in an upturned position and so to ring more quickly or slowly in a fully controllable way. The order of the bells can then be changed by the conductor in one of two ways. He may call two consecutive bells to change places to create a new order of bells with each call (call-change ringing); or the order of the bells may be changed in a predetermined pattern with every pull (method-ringing/ change-ringing). A great many methods have been (and continue to be) composed, and tablets (peal boards) in ringing chambers record particular methods rung usually on special occasions with the names of the ringers. The oldest peal boards in Birmingham date from the 18th century.

Before the Reformation there was little distinction in ringing for religious or for secular reasons. In village and urban life the two were inextricably intertwined. Bells were rung equally for the village fair as for church services. At this time bells were not rung full circle but chimed. However, with the advent of change ringing, bell ringing, especially in towns and nearby, became a hobby rather than an expression of religion, and conflict arose regarding the religious and the secular use of bells. Chiming was considered appropriate for religious purposes; but the Rev H T Ellacombe

would quite as soon sanction foot-ball or cricket in the churchyard on a Sunday, as ringing (ie. change ringing) . . as soon give up the belfry to prize-fighting on Sunday, as prize-ringing - at all times indeed most objectionable.

On a Sunday the bells were often change-rung full circle for pleasure well before the service, but then rung down to be chimed for the service, the ringers being paid for the latter. Bells were generally change-rung full circle for secular occasions, which were very varied. Bell ringers were paid to ring for weddings by the bride's family, as they still are; ringers were paid by the church to ring for Guy Fawkes Day. In 1830 the St Martin's ringers were paid to ring by Beardsworth, the owner of Birmingham, the horse that won the Doncaster St Leger and were consequently sacked by the rector. More controversially, when the Great Reform Bill was thrown out by the Lords in 1831, the bells of St Philip's were tolled as for a funeral in defiance of the clergy. The ring-leader, steeple keeper Thomas Bingham was forbidden to enter the tower again and he left the town never to return.

The modern practice is generally that a single bell is chimed for lesser services or for five minutes immediately before a main service. All the bells are rung full circle for half an hour before the main Sunday servic, either in called changes or in a method e (in some towers also afterwards), the ringers performing this as a service with no payment. Bells are also rung on major feast days, Easter, Christmas, Ascension, patronal festivals etc; and also by request for funerals (single bell tolled or the peal half-muffled) or on other occasions related to the life of the parishioners or the church. Bells are also rung on national occasions: almost every ringable peal in England was heard on New Year's Day 2000 and most towers rang to celebrate the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002.

Ringing is still a hobby practised evenings and weekends and generally approved by the churches concerned; some ringers enjoying the challenge of ringing complicated or unusual methods or lengthy peals, others enjoying ringing in a variety of towers.

Early bells were often cast on site by itinerant founders. The Bagleys of Chacombe near Banbury cast the bells of St Alphege Solihull 1683-1686, St Bartholomew Edgbaston 1685, and St Peter Harborne 1691, St Edburgha Yardley 1691, probably on site. Joseph Smith's foundry was at Edgbaston to the rear of the White Swan at the junction of Westbourne Road and Harborne Road. He may have cast bells there and transported them to local towers: St Mary Handsworth 1701, St Mary & St Margaret Castle Bromwich 1717, St Giles Sheldon 1723, St Laurence Northfield 1730.

A great many Birmingham bells were hung during the 18th century and their peals augmented or recast during the 19th. Bells were cast in a traditional bell shape known to produce a particular note and tuneful effect. However, the results were often hit-and-miss. Although the dominant note could be produced by shaving metal off the circumference of the bell, subsidiary notes and harmonics produced within the bell were often out of tune with the dominant note. Some peals were notorious for their dissonance. Thomas Bingham described the bells of St Philip's thus:

The Tenor, a very good bell - The Ninth cracked - The Eighth an odd bell, not of the peal - The Seventh a pot - The Sixth out of tune, too flat - The Fifth a bluster - The Fourth, a very weak bell, and false - The Third a middling good bell - The Second has a false crown - And the Treble makes shift.

The tone and condition of these bells was typical. However, during the 1890s John Taylor of Loughborough perfected the scientific tuning of bells, whereby the various notes and harmonics were in harmony with dominant note, thus giving a melodious chord. The first true harmonic ring in Birmingham was installed at St Barnabas, Erdington by Taylor's in 1904. The bells of St Michael Boldmere are interesting because they are a rare complete ring by Barwell of Birmingham cast in 1906 in the old way. Although reasonably tuneful and well-maintained and rung, their tonal quality is certainly 19th/ 18th century.

Throughout the country there are many old bells, including medieval ones, still in use. In Birmingham, being a strong centre of bellringing, there are hardly any pre-scientific bells remaining. Most were recast during the late-19th and 20th century by Taylor's or by the Whitechapel Foundry in London in accordance with scientific tuning.

Of the remaining pre-scientific bells, St Mary's Moseley has a unique ring of 1874, cast in steel and completely untypical (These are about to be replaced with traditional bells.); Holy Trinity Sutton Coldfield has Taylor bells of 1884, though retuned by Taylor's in 1973. Only St Giles Sheldon has some unrecast old bells: No.4 by Joseph Smith of Edgbaston 1723, No.6 by Thomas Newcombe of Leicester c1580, and No.5, the oldest bell in Birmingham by an unknown founder c1400.

The St Martin's Guild of Church Bellringers for the Diocese of Birmingham was established in 1755.




The chancel is the sacred part of a church and is usually situated at the east end of the building. This is where the altar stands at which the sacrament of Holy Communion is celebrated. A chancel arch usually indicates the divide. Before the Reformation the chancel was often separated from the nave by a chancel screen. The upkeep of the chancel was formerly the responsibility of the owner of the tithes, usually the lord of the manor, while the parishioners were responsible for the nave ie. the rest of the building.

In a traditional gothic church the distinction between the chancel and the nave is quite clear. Externally the chancel is lower and smaller than the rest of the building. The chancel may represent the site of the original Anglo-Saxon or Norman church. Internally, the floor may be raised up and the chancel is likely to be more elaborately finished and more richly decorated than the nave.

By the 18th century, the celebration of the Mass in Anglican churches played a less important role and neo-classical churches had less prominent chancels, sometimes semi-circular 'add-ons' which are known as apses and described as apsidal chancels. The Gothic Revival brought back traditional chancels with a vengeance, though by the end of the 19th architects were experimenting with a more eclectic range of designs.

One of the effects of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church held during the 1960s was to physically place the celebration of the Mass in a central position accessible and visible to all. Its impact carried over into Anglican church architecture.

Note: Churches are generally oriented along the east-west line with the chancel at the east end. This is not compulsory and there are many examples where this is not the case. It is often assumed that this is so that worshippers face the Holy Land. However, it is also argued that it was originally for the practical purpose of gaining maximum daylight in the morning when artificial light was inadequate to illuminate the building. In church descriptions ritual compass points are usually used with the chancel described as the east end whether is actually is or not. 



From the 13th century a chantry was a private chapel, usually within a church, and bequeathed for the celebration of masses for the soul of the founder or his family; some chantry chapels were paid for by trade guilds for their members. Chantries were abolished under the protestant Edward VI and their funds confiscated by the Crown.

In 1344 Edward III agreed to William Paas's request to support a chantry of the Virgin Mary at Kings Norton Church; this may have been supported by a guild.



The word is used in a number of ways. It may indicate an altar other than the high altar, especially in pre-Reformation and Roman Catholic churches. Chapels were sometimes, though not necessarily, separated by a screen from the main part of the church. Castle Bromwich church has two chapels at the east end of the north and south aisles, the Remembrance Chapel dedicated after World War 1 and the Lady Chapel c1970.

A room consecrated for worship within a manor house or country house or built within its grounds was referred to as a chapel: there is a chapel inside Aston Hall; St Bartholomew Edgbaston had been built as the chapel of Edgbaston Hall by 1279.

A chapel, or chapel-of-ease, refers to an additional church in a parish run under the auspices of the mother church; St John the Baptist was built 1380 for the convenience of local people at Deritend because of the distance and difficulty of travel from their parish church at Aston. During the 19th-century house-building boom many chapels-of-ease were set up by parish churches to serve the new suburbs. These later became parish churches in their own right: St Mark's in Washwood Heath, built 1890 as a chapel of St Saviour's Saltley, was assigned its own parish 1907.

Non-conformist churches were often referred to as chapels: The former Christ Church Baptist Chapel at Aston Six Ways is an elaborate example.


Commissioners' church

In the early years of the century awareness grew that large numbers especially of the urban poor and working class were not catered for by the Established Church. At a Birmingham parish meeting in 1818 it was calculated that the churches and chapels of St Martin's parish (St Martin, St Mary, St Paul, St Bartholomew, Christ Church) offered only 7360 seats for a population of over 60 000; if High Town, Deritend and Ashted were included, some 11 000 seats catered for over 80 000 people. Even not counting appropriated sittings (ie. rented pews) of which there qwere very many, this amounts to one seat per eight people.

An Act of 1818 set up a Commission with a million pounds to build churches as a thanksgiving for victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The first Commissioners' church to be built in Birmingham was St George's on Great Hampton Row in 1819; it no longer stands. Later churches include St Thomas's Church Lee Bank 1825, of which only the Ionic colonnade still stands; Holy Trinity Bordesley, a church modelled on King's College Chapel Cambridge; St Barnabas Erdington 1822; and St Matthew's Church Duddeston 1840.

Nationally over 3400 new churches were built from 1801 to 1875, over 50% of them in the third quarter of the century. Some 867 churches were rebuilt, 74% of them during the third quarter of the century. Church-building in Birmingham reflected this: from 1800 to 1850 more than twenty new Anglican churches were built in Birmingham.

As the urban area grew outwards and the density of inner wards increased, church building grew apace; in the second half of the century an average of one church a year was built, and no less than ten from 1865 to 1869.



Before the Reformation hundreds, probably thousands of crosses stood throughout the country. While all of them had a Christian significance, they were erected for a number of different reasons and purposes. Some wayside crosses would have been set up as memorials to loved ones and were intended for the spiritual sustenance of travellers, Some crosses served as boundary markers. Some roadside crosses may have denoted burial places. Public hangings often took place at crossroads with the body of the executed person being buried nearby. It may be that such crosses also acted as a place of burial for those such as suicides and the unbaptised who could not be buried in consecrated ground. Some crosses, usually in churchyards, were set up for preaching and may date from Anglo-Saxon times. Market crosses signified the location of a public market place and were often later replaced by a building. Many crosses were taken down during the Reformation, with most of the remainder being demolished under the Commonwealth.

A number of Birmingham names include the element 'cross' - Allens Cross, Breedon Cross, Tile Cross, for example. However, no evidence of crosses is known to survive.



The cellar under a church usually used for burials; few Birmingham churches have crypts, although before the Reformation burials inside the church underneath the floor were common. Also known as the undercroft. The crypt of St Martin-in-the-Bull Ring excavated by Birmingham Museum 1974 was found to be almost full of disarticulated human bones.

St Philip's Cathedral 1711 has a crypt which was converted into usable space c1980.




A unit of ecclesiastical administration centred on a cathedral and under a bishop's jurisdiction. Canterbury was the earliest English diocese founded 597 AD. Of the dioceses which covered the Birmingham area Lichfield was created 669, Worcester c680, and Chester after 1540. Birmingham was created 1905. A diocese is subdivided into parishes.

Until the creation of the Diocese of Birmingham in 1905,

  • Aston, Birmingham, Edgbaston, Sheldon and Sutton Coldfield were in the archdeaconry of Coventry, which was transferred from the diocese of Lichfield & Coventry to that of Worcester in 1837;
  • Handsworth and Harborne were in the diocese of Lichfield (earlier Lichfield & Coventry) and in the archdeaconry of Stafford;
  • Kings Norton, Northfield and Yardley were in the diocese and archdeaconry of Worcester.



The word derives from Latin, glaeba, meaning soil, earth or land. In the later Middle Ages it took on the specialist meaning of land owned by and farmed or rented out by the parish priest; this may have consisted of strips in the open fields or, after enclosure, may have been consolidated as a farm.

Glebe Farm is so-named because it was once the property of the priest of Yardley.



gothic architecture

In churches gothic architecture is typified by pointed arches. It derives from the Middle Ages. Early English gothic replaced the round-arched Norman or romanesque style from the late 12th century, through the more elaborate decorated gothic of the 14th century to the very elaborate and less pointed perpendicular style of Tudor times. St Edburgha, Yardley Parish Church is a good example of a medieval church in decorated gothic style.

By the 18th century gothic was replaced by architecture based on classical models. However, it was revived in the mid-19th century, partly as a result of the High Church movement. St Agnes Moseley is a church in revived early decorated gothic style.

The gothic revival also had an impact on domestic architecture where asymmetry, gables and pointed windows replaced the symmetrical neo-classical design of Georgian buildings. Many 19th-century public and commercial buildings in the city centre have strong gothic influences.

The Victoria Law Courts are a fine example of late Victorian gothic. School boards were set up after the 1870 Education Act, and the new school buildings were designed to high standards usually in gothic style. Built in 1879 the appearance of Nechells Primary School in Eliot Street has an ecclesiastical feel to it.



Brasses, effigies and monuments commemorating the burial places of the wealthy were placed inside churches from the Middle Ages; from the 16th century stone tablets laid into the floor became fashionable. By the 17th century the yeoman class began to have gravestones outside the church; the earliest of which are likely to be on the south side near the church entrance. However, most people well into the 20th century were laid in unmarked graves.

During the 20th century many ordinary people were laid in graves with headstones. From the third quarter of the 20th century increasing land prices meant that cremations became increasing popular; the burial or scattering of ashes may be marked by a small stone tablet. Increasing problems of maintenance of burial grounds and churchyards has often meant the removal of upright stones or their being laid flat to allow easier mowing of surrounding grass.

Park Street public gardens were made by the town council from the closed burial grounds of St Martin's-in-the-Bull Ring after Witton Cemetery opened 1863; here the stones have been laid flat or moved back to the wall to make an area of lawn.


guild or gild

In the Middle Ages a religious or craft association, usually urban, which acted as a mutual society for its members. Guilds would help their members in sickness and poverty; they sometimes made themselves responsible for the repair of parish highways and bridges, as did the Guild of the Holy Cross associated with St Martin's-in-the-Bull Ring. Processions and feasts were held on religious occasions and the guilds often paid for chantry chapels and priests to pray for the souls of departed members.

Kings Norton Old Grammar School may have originated as a guild hall whose members supported the chantry of the Virgin Mary at Kings Norton Church.



High Church

The Oxford Movement from the second quarter of the 19th century was pioneered by such as John Henry Newman to restore medieval ritual to the Church of England. The high-church movement went hand in hand with the revival in gothic architecture.

St Alban's Church Highgate was built in a High Church style and internally is fitted out accordingly. It maintains its Anglo-Catholic credentials to the present day.






The word has the same origin as 'monastery' and was a church of the early Christian Anglo-Saxon period, a centre of missionary activity during conversion to Christianity. It then became an important church within a very large diocese often with subsidiary local parishes or chapels over which it had jurisdiction. A minster often acted as a proxy cathedral. It is thought that Aston church may have been one such.



National school

National Schools were set up by the National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church throughout England and Wales, later the National Society (Church of England) for Promoting Religious Education which had been founded in 1811 by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge SPCK initially to provide education for the poorest children. Its schools were known as National Schools and supported from 1833 by national government grants.

The aim of the National Society was for there to be a Church school in every parish. The Society offered grants to the founders of schools and funded the building or enlarging and fitting-out of schoolrooms. The purpose of the National Society's involvement in education was 'that the National Religion should be made the foundation of National Education, and should be the first and chief thing taught to the poor, according to the excellent Liturgy and Catechism provided by our Church.' Schools which already founded by parish churches or were founded by private sponsors and run along Anglican lines could be run in union with the National Society who then furnished grants especially for building work and school materials. The National schools thus set up were the predecessors of the Voluntary Controlled and Voluntary Aided Church of England Schools that exist at the present time.



The main body of a church, almost always at the west end, built for the congregation's use and maintained by the parishioners. Until the later Middle Ages worshippers stood for services, all but the weakest who went to the wall where there were some seats. Before the Reformation the nave was separated by a wooden screen from the chancel which was the priest's part of the church.

As the only public space in the parish the nave was often used for public meetings, wedding celebrations, harvest festivals, etc. Some clergy were uneasy out the unchurchly behaviour sometimes practised on these occasions, but had little jurisdiction over what was, in effect, the village hall. This may, in part, explain the development of the chancel screen to separate the holy from the secular.


neo-classical architecture

Influenced by the Italian renaissance, 18th-century architects drew inspiration from the classical models of Ancient Greece and Rome. Older churches were restyled with round-arched windows and doors and new churches were built on an auditorium plan and sometimes with cupolas rather than towers. Few now survive in Birmingham but St Paul's, the Jewellery Quarter church, is a good example, as are the Church of the Ascension in Hall Green and St Mary & St Margaret's, Castle Bromwich.

Many houses of all sizes were built in neo-classical Georgian style from the 18th century and throughout the 19th: a large Georgian country house known as Farm was built by Sampson Lloyd II in Sampson Road, Sparkbrook. Many public and commercial buildings were built in the neo-classical style: Birmingham Town Hall is modelled on the Temple of Castor & Pollux in the Forum in Rome. The neo-classical style fell out of favour for ecclesiastical architecture during the 19th century, although its influence continued in commercial and public architecture.





A term used from Roman Christian times by Christians to refer to non-Christians and non-Jews; the term heathen is also used. The Celts in Britain were Christian long before the invasion of the pagan Anglo-Saxons who were worshippers of the pantheon of Teutonic gods. A few of these Anglo-Saxon deities are remembered in placenames which may indicate late survivals of paganism: Wednesbury includes the name of Woden, chief of the Anglo-Saxon gods; Tyseley may mean Tiw's clearing - Tiw was an Anglo-Saxon war god; and Weoley may mean heathen temple clearing. Pagan burials have been excavated at Baginton near Coventry dating from c500.

In 653 Christianity came to the Midlands when Paeda son of King Penda (r.632-654) married the Christian daughter of King Oswiu (Oswy) of Northumbria. Saint Augustine who landed in Kent 597 to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity was told by Pope Gregory not to destroy pagan holy places but to build Christian churches on them. There is no known evidence that this happened anywhere in the Birmingham area and perhaps it is unlikely in that the Anglo-Saxons may have arrived here after conversion to Christianity. However, it is possible that some of our ancient parish churches are built on pagan sites; a case has been conjectured, for instance, for Castle Bromwich which stands on a prominent hill above the Tame ford on a well-used and ancient route.



An excellent article on the development of pews can be found on the UK Architectural Antiques website -


In pre-Reformation and Roman Catholic churches a piscina is a stone basin built into the wall of the chancel usually on the south side of the altar to dispose of the water used to clean the vessels used during the Mass.

A 14th-century piscina survives at St Mary's Church in Handsworth. During 19th-century restorations great efforts were made to find and reinstall medieval church objects such as this.





A parish priest who was formerly entitled to the tithes. A vicar was originally a priest deputising for the rector and therefore not entitled to the tithes. Later a parish priest was known as a vicar if the tithes belonged to a rector or if he acted as the representative of a religious community to whom the tithes were paid, or if this was formerly the case. In general, older parishes, especially former rural ones, have rectors; later parishes especially urban ones have vicars.

The ancient church of Yardley has a rector, while St Clements Castle Bromwich which was built in the second half of the 20th century with a parish taken from that of St Mary & St Margaret's, has a vicar. Their residences are known respectively as a rectory and a vicarage.