The English village churchyard as we know it today bears little resemblance to the churchyards of the 16th and 17th centuries. Around that time, on the south-side, fairs and festivals were held, holy or ‘holiday’ processions took place, plays and colourful pageants were acted out, games were played and gambling was rife; even alcohol was brewed and consumed by both priest and the congregation.
Known as ‘Church Ales’, the sale of this strong, home-brewed beer, helped to offset the maintenance and repair costs of the church fabric itself, and at one time many had brew-houses attached to the church itself!
In total contrast, the north-side of the church was at the time un-consecrated ground. It was widely believed, and reinforced by the clergy, that because the sun never shone thereby making it damp and dismal and cast in perpetual shadow, it was inhabited by the devil himself. For this reason it was used solely for the burial of suicides and un-baptised children – therefore being damned for eternity. Those who were executed for committing murder were cast out completely and often buried at a local crossroads at midnight.
Entry to the churchyard itself is often accomplished, though not in every instance, by passing through a substantial wooden archway structure known as a lych or lich gate, the name originates from the old English word for corpse, which gives some clue as to its purpose. Although these structures may appear to be quite ancient, the majority are in fact only two or three centuries old; though there are a few fine examples that have survived since medieval times, such as those at Anstey in Hertfordshire and Boughton Monchelsea in Kent.
On the day of a funeral the body, often not placed in a coffin but wrapped merely in a shroud, would have been carried shoulder-high on a wooden board as far as the lych-gate, whereupon the cortege would rest while waiting for the priest.
Arriving at the lych-gate from the church, the priest would bring with him the parish bier which looked similar to a wooden, four-wheeled hand cart. The body was placed upon the bier and wheeled into the church whereupon the funeral service began. Following the church service the body was wheeled outside to the graveside where the service was completed.
One facet of the churchyard that has remained virtually unchanged throughout the centuries is the presence of the evergreen yew tree - a symbol of everlasting life. But, strangely, the actual reason for its planting has never really been adequately proven.
However, there are roughly three schools of thought as to why these trees were originally planted in most English churchyards.
The first of these suggests that because the leaves of the yew are poisonous to cattle, their planting would produce an effective deterrent for keeping stray and destructive livestock out of the churchyard.
The second opinion is that the trees provided an endless supply of wood for making bows and arrows in preparation for any forthcoming invasion. This is extremely doubtful, as the majority of the wood for this purpose is claimed to have been imported from Spain.
Thirdly, it is argued, they were planted on the express order of King Edward 1, in order to protect the church building from the effects of weather.
Although the first two suggestions have a more exciting and romantic ring to them, it is more probable that the latter may be the most accurate.
The inhabitants of Painswick village in Gloucestershire, proudly boast that their churchyard contains one hundred yew trees, although there are some who are of the opinion that in fact there are only ninety-nine. No doubt the debate regarding the true number of trees will rumble on quietly for decades to come.
Gazing around the churchyard, across the tangled and varied array of lichen-encrusted headstones, it is logical to assume that down through the centuries it would have always looked that way – but that would be a mistake!
Headstones were not in common use until around the 17th century, and then only for the affluent, wealthy members of society. For the majority, the poor farm labourers of the district, a rough wooden cross would have been all they had access to, or more commonly they would be placed in an unmarked grave.
In many churchyards it can be clearly seen how the level of the surrounding ground has risen substantially over the centuries. One can only speculate as to how many people lie at rest, in unmarked graves and long forgotten, beneath the lumps and bumps of so many English churchyards.
While exploring a churchyard it is quite possible to discover an ancient Churchyard Cross, (not to be confused with the war memorial crosses). Although many fine and ancient examples still survive, some with Celtic or Viking origins, it is more likely that only the weather-worn base will have survived and the square stone socket into which the cross was inserted.
The ‘cross’, in the majority of cases, will be much older than its adjacent church and the churchyard within which it stands, being the first permanent structure to be erected after Christianity reached the shores of Britain in the 4th century AD.
Before a church was built a travelling preacher would meet his ‘flock’ at a specific and regular location to hold a service, and on that spot a cross would eventually be erected. Following the erection of a cross, the present-day church would have been built in stages, starting with the tower.
Wildlife is also much in abundance throughout the average churchyard.
During the day it is a hive of activity. Bees and butterflies visit each day, attracted by the diversity of flowers, both wild and cultivated, that grow profusely in the immediate area. And you can always guarantee to see the little red-breasted robin.
While at night, as the bats wheel around the silent bell tower, a Barn Owl may often be seen swooping low over the gravestones, waiting for an unsuspecting field-mouse to break cover from the shadows of a tomb, while a local fox on the prowl may have his eyes on a similar prize.
The broad green canopy overhead that provides a welcome shade on the hottest of summer days is provided by the sycamore, beech and the sturdy oak which has witnessed the comings and goings of the average churchyard for centuries, and hopefully for centuries to come.
Although most English churchyards may look very similar in style and design, they are all in fact totally unique, so one thing is absolutely certain…there is always something new to discover when exploring ‘God’s Little Acre’!
Picture tour of English Churches >
Picture tour of Cemetries >
Image credits (Top to bottom): Charles Moorhen (church), Hilary Hoad (lichgate), Ray1959 (Yew tree), Tony Tooth (Robin).