On 1 September 1973 the charity now called the Round Tower Churches Society was formally launched. Its mission: to preserve and maintain the heritage of these important buildings. This year, it celebrates its golden jubilee.
Watching over East Anglia?
There are 184 round tower churches in England and the overwhelming majority are found in East Anglia: 124 in Norfolk, 38 in Suffolk and 7 in Essex. The majority are of medieval origin, dating from the 11th to the 14th centuries.
Some pre-date the Norman Conquest, and almost all are built of the locally found material, flint, because of a shortage of natural stone. In west Norfolk, dark brown carstone or similar-looking puddingstone was used.
There has long been controversy about the original purpose of these round towers. Until the late 19th century, some authors maintained they were built as defence or as a place of refuge from invaders. A handful have since been entirely re-built in the 19th and 20th centuries – Ashmanhaugh, Belton, Brandiston, Spexhall and Weeting. On the north Norfolk coast, Sidestrand was rebuilt inland after the original church was lost to the sea.
Built for bells
But over recent decades, a series of studies and excavations have conclusively confirmed that no round tower pre-dates its church. They were either contemporary or built later. As always, there’s an exception in Suffolk: Bramfield was built independently from its church.
Stephen Hart, a highly respected architect who died in July 2014, said that it was widely accepted that round towers were built as bell towers. On Sunday 18 June, BBC Radio 3’s breakfast programme broadcast a recording of the bells of St Andrew, Great Ryburgh, near Fakenham.
There are about 40 round towers, which may be Saxon or Saxo-Norman; 44 have been identified as Norman (built after 1066), and it is thought that a further 80 are post-Norman medieval. It was not until after the Conquest that Caen stone was available and shipped from Normandy (and used extensively in Norwich Cathedral from 1096).
It is also possible that the region was influenced by the continental fashion for round tower churches. There are some 30 round tower churches in northern Germany, Poland and south Sweden, and Norfolk, essentially through the port of King’s Lynn, had strong trading links with the Hanseatic League.
A challenging start
Starting the society was to prove challenging. According to founder Bill Goode, a first attempt in 1971 failed due to a lack of typists to duplicate a magazine. Another attempt in Lowestoft in February 1973 also failed, when due to seasonal infections only three people attended. Goode, a retired television engineer, convened another meeting on March 2, when six potential members attended and four gave apologies. The Friends of Round Tower Churches was formed.
The name of the society was agreed: Friends of the Round Tower Churches Society. The annual subscription was £1, vice-presidents paid £5. The society’s name was abbreviated to its current form in the early 1990s. Membership now stands at 500, and the society has published a special golden jubilee edition guide to the country’s round tower churches.
In the past half century, the Round Tower Churches Society has awarded grants to round tower churches in England (and one in Scotland) of almost £400,000. In the latest report to members to the society’s annual meeting in May this year, the chairman Stuart Bowell thanked members for the tremendous support over the years. Several large and generous legacies had made it possible for the society to help dozens of churches. He said that the support of members remains vital. Many, in fact, a majority topped up their subscriptions above the £20 minimum (or £30 for couples).
Grants across East Anglia
He recalled that the society’s first grant in 1974 from the repair fund was £20 to Cranwich, near Thetford, to help defray the cost of re-thatching. More recently, the Society has helped with churches across the region. The rebuilding at Beachamwell (a fine example of Anglo-Saxon workmanship) proceeds after the devastating fire a year ago, and St Peter’s, Forncett, has received a key development phase grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
The 28-page booklet East Anglian Round Tower Churches by Stephen Hart lists all England’s round towers and is available from Norwich’s City Bookshop. It can also be ordered via the society’s website, where one can also join the society.