Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Imitations of the Holy Sepulchre: The Round Churches of Medieval England

By Mark Patton.

In an earlier blog-post, I explored the place of Jerusalem in the Early Medieval Scottish and English imagination. Pilgrimages to Jerusalem in the 8th, 9th and 10th Centuries were both expensive and dangerous, and so everything that was known about the holy places of Christendom was based on a handful of accounts from pilgrims who had successfully made the journey and returned to tell of it. Prominent among these was the account of the Frankish Bishop Arculf, who recounted his story to Saint Adomnan on the island of Iona.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre that Arculf had visited was subsequently damaged by earthquakes in 746 and 800 AD, and by the Muslim forces of the Fatimid Caliph, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah in 1009. His son, Caliph Ali az-Zahir, however, permitted its reconstruction, and the rotunda that pilgrims and tourists visit today is, essentially, this 11th Century building, funded by the Byzantine Emperor, Constantine IX Monomachus.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
as restored by Constantine IX.
L. Hugues-Vincent 1912

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, as it is today.
The circular, domed sanctuary is the 
Catholicon, built by Constantine IX,
and the structure at its centre is the 
Aedicule, believed to
enclose the tomb in which the body of Christ was placed.
Photo: Jlascar (licensed under CCA).

During the epoch of the Crusades (1096-1204), many more Europeans, including Britons, travelled to the Holy Land than had done so in the preceding centuries, but for most people living north of the Alps, such a journey remained unthinkable. In church each Sunday, and on the many Holy Days of Obligation, people would hear their parish priests telling, in their sermons (the only part of the Mass that was delivered in the language of everyday speech) of things that had happened in lands that most of them could never hope to visit in life.

Some of those who had made the journey, and returned to England enriched by plunder, had the idea to build churches in imitation of the Holy Sepulchre, so that those unable to visit for themselves might, nonetheless, have an idea of what was to be found at the holy sites. One such was Simon de Senlis, the second Earl of Huntingdon and first of Northampton, who fought in the First Crusade, and returned to build the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Northampton.

The baptistery of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,
Northampton in 1897.
The pillars belong to de Senlis's original church,
but the arches visible today belong to a later Medieval phase of restoration 

Around half the size of the Jerusalem Catholicon, the circular structure built by de Senlis had a rotunda supported on eight round pillars. In the centuries following his death in 1111, as the town of Northampton grew, it was incorporated into a much larger parish church, in which it functioned as a baptistery.

The Round Church in Cambridge was built around 1130, by the Fraternity of the Holy Sepulchre, probably a group of Austin Canons. The Austin Canons were particularly concerned with the provision of hospitality to pilgrims, so it seems likely that Cambridge was a stopping off point for pilgrims travelling to holy places within England (Walsingham in Norfolk, for example, sacred to the Virgin Mary, and itself in the care of the Austin canons).

The Round Church, Cambridge.
Photo: Noles1984 (licensed under GNU).

The interior of the Round Church, Cambridge.
Although extensively restored following damage in the English Civil War,
this probably gives a clearer idea of the original architecture
than does Northampton's round church.
Photo: Sailko (licensed under GNU).

The Temple Church in London's Holborn is a larger and grander construction with direct royal connections. It was consecrated in 1185, probably in the presence of Henry II, as part of a large monastic complex that served as the London headquarters of the Knights Templar. Templar knights were monks as well as fighting men, and, when not on campaign, lived an enclosed life. The Temple Church served as a royal treasury during the reign of King John, and some of the most important negotiations leading to the adoption of Magna Carta took place there. It was seized by Edward II in 1307, as part of the Papal suppression of the Knights Templar.

Temple Church, Holborn,
in the early 19th Century. 

The Church of Saint John the Baptist
at Little Maplestead, Essex, was built in around 1335
by another military-religious order,
the Knights of Saint John (Knights Hospitaller).
Photo: John Webber (licensed under CCA).

Round churches, more or less directly styled on the Catholicon of Jerusalem, can be found in Scandinavia, Germany, the Balkans and Italy, many of them on pilgrimage routes, and most of them under the protection of the Knights Templar, who protected these routes, the Austin Canons & Augustinian Friars, who provided hospitality for pilgrims, or the Knights of Saint John, who served both of these functions. Whilst Jerusalem itself remained the ultimate pilgrimage destination throughout the Middle Ages, these representations provided a glimpse of the Holy City's glories for the overwhelming majority of pilgrims who had to content themselves with shorter devotional journeys, whether to Canterbury, Saint Andrews or Santiago de Compostela.


Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at His novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. Mark,
    An excellent reminder of how important the Holy Land was to medieval men and women. Thanks!

    1. Wow, what a wonderful surprise! I have just come home from visiting my local church, The Church of The Holy Sepulchre in Northampton. I decided to take a closer look after becoming interested in this period of history after recently discovering ancestors with the surname Templar & because I have in the last couple of months been addicted to all things Real Crusades History. So to happen upon this blogsite & then spot none other than Dr.Helena.P.Scrader!!. Topped off a great evening. I enjoy greatly listening to you & J.Steven Roberts & the other guys no end. Thank you for teaching me so much.
      This blog was a great read too. This has made my day!

  2. Here's an example of the remains of a round church in Germany. Complete with a castle to protect it. :-)


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