The day after my grandmother's funeral, I stood in the ruins of Thetford Priory with a camera in my hands and a bag of clothes on my back. I'd decided to make the most of a long Bank Holiday weekend and the convoluted train journey to and from the crematorium by taking a trip around East Anglia. Reasoning that the area probably had a few churches worth visiting (photographing churches counts as a legitimate hobby, or so I keep telling my wife), I packed my camera and looked for some likely sites to add to my list.
It was there, alone in what's left of Thetford Priory, thinking about the Reformation and Henry VIII and the life of prayer and devotion once carried out in those walls, that the idea for this project first came to me. Probably, anyway. My memories of that hour or two are clouded by the rain that kept threatening to go beyond spitting, and the dog-walker whose two hounds prowled the edges of the former cloister and bounded over the two-feet high ruined walls. But that's what many of Britain's oldest churches, priories, abbeys and so on are reduced to; dog-walkers and the threat of rain. Many were once the beating hearts of their towns and villages, the first building around which the settlement sprang up, often the chief source of employment, education, and what we might now call medical or social care, as well as in some cases local secular as well as religious administration.
Then along came Henry VIII, and the Reformation, and all that was gone. The Dissolution swept away not only organisations that might owe allegiance to someone other than the king of England, but also the customs and material culture that came with them. The Paupers' Bible – the visual representations of Bible stories on church walls – and the ornate decorations were wiped away, the chapels funded and maintained by the locals were dismantled, violently sometimes, and even the rituals and ceremonies that had brought communities together were done away with. The churches' cash, valuables and land generally found their way into Henry's pockets.
Even institutions like Thetford Priory, made up of monks, nuns, friars and so on were dissolved, the building itself either dissolved too, or absorbed into a nearby church more friendly to the secular authority.
Thetford Priory quickly became, in my mind, a useful shorthand to describe the Dissolution of the Monasteries – and even the wider Reformation. Here was a clear visual indication of what happened, of what Henry VIII's commissioners had left behind. In the hints of an archway on a tower that still points crookedly heavenward, Thetford Priory gives a tantalising glimpse of what was once a thriving establishment. You can almost picture it in your head, the two places at once; the Priory's high altar and the enclosed field maintained by English Heritage.
As I pottered around much-reduced columns and under crumbling archways, I realised this wasn't the only place of worship that spoke about England's history, or even the history of the British Isles. There are hundreds of places directly affected by the changes of countless episodes in our history. Some of them still show the signs of that today.
Religion and politics have been woven into the culture of these islands for centuries, and that's the story I decided I wanted to tell. The stories have been told before, but I wanted to use churches, priories, abbeys and so on as a starting-point, a place to step off into the wider reaches of an area's history. This is a history that starts with a building, and spreads outwards.
So, here we are. Gathered in His Name: Churches and History.
There'll be talk of churches, history, pilgrimage and maybe other stuff from time to time.
In his landmark The Buildings of England series, Nikolaus Pevsner helped readers place themselves and the buildings around them within a national historical context. This site may not reach quite the same heights as Pevsner's work, but you've got to have ambitions.
For years now I've enjoyed exploring churches as examples of artistic and cultural heritage, as sacred spaces full of awe and man-made beauty meant to exult God. My aim here is to appreciate a church from a non-religious perspective, but one that's still sensitive to the building's original - and often current - purpose. The focus is on the history of the British Isles, and so that's where the churches will generally be found (Saint Barbara's being the exception that proves the rule).