Churchyard boundaries

17th February 2020

Guest blog post written by Judith Leigh, CfGA Trustee and member of Diocesan Advisory Committees.

The boundary of a churchyard is very significant as it separates off a consecrated space, which is also commonly (though not always) used for burials and is also a place where people historically might claim sanctuary.  Most often this boundary is defined by a wall.  For a modest medieval country church in a stone-rich area it is very likely to be of local stone rubble, sometimes roughly coursed with maybe a regional style coping.  More costly churches built of dressed stone or ashlar may have walls in equivalent style. In regions where flint or brick were the traditional building materials, churchyard walls will probably match the building and as machine made brick began to be more widely used for Victorian churches, churchyard walls followed suit.  A disjunction of materials may well indicate some rebuilding. The construction medium for all traditional walls will be lime mortar.

Boundary wall surrounding the ovoid churchyard at St Stephen’s Church, Llanstephan, Powys
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St Stephen’s Church, Llanstephan, Powys

Churchyards were traditionally cleared from time to time if needed to make room for more burials, with grave markers removed, and any disarticulated bones reburied, and soil sometimes imported to provide greater depths. Over time this often results in the ground level inside the churchyard being substantially higher than that outside, reflecting many generations of burial.  This means that the churchyard wall acts as a retaining wall for the higher ground inside, and this is one reason why walls occasionally collapse outwards due to the pressure of soil, exacerbated by poor drainage.  Rebuilding will need to take this into account, providing more strength and better drainage, but at the same time it is important to re-use the original materials in the original style.  All repairs and re-pointing (under faculty and maybe also under archaeological supervision) should be in lime mortar as cement will inevitably crack and weaken the joints.  During repair early sculpted stone fragments from earlier buildings or monuments may come to light, having been incorporated into the wall at periods of rebuilding.  These are of clear importance and should be recorded and reported to the diocesan archaeologist.

The shape of a churchyard may say something about its origins.  In Wales circular churchyards usually indicate an early Christian, ie pre-Norman, foundation.  The churchyard boundaries may well have been extended, and early maps from county archives can identify this, as also can differences in the wall structure or style.  The area enclosed by the wall may have included other buildings related to the church, such as a priest’s house, the foundations of which may well survive below ground. Country churchyards may well have been grazed by sheep so the wall needed to be stock-proof, also to exclude cattle.  Entrance through the churchyard wall may be through a roofed lych-gate, which had an important symbolic and liturgical role, particularly in funeral rites. At the entrance there may be a lych-stone on which a coffin could be rested.  It is extremely difficult to judge the age of most churchyard walls but many may be as old as or even older than the church they enclose.

Judith Leigh, CfGA Trustee and member of Diocesan Advisory Committees.