The problem of the Suffolk and Norfolk round towers

The problem of the Suffolk and Norfolk round towers

Another problem of East Anglia’s missing history are its puzzling and ancient round towered flint churches. Initially this appears to be a specifically Suffolk and Norfolk Norman architectural mystery, but other countries including Ireland have doubts about their variations of round towers. Who built them, exactly when and why? How can there be doubt with such unique buildings?

If this enigma is baffling enough for architect historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner to write about it in his 1960’s Architectural Guides, then there was official lack of evidence or accepted theories.

Norfolk and Suffolk round tower churches map

Round towers have been commented on in connexion with Anglo-Saxon architecture. Cautley counts forty-two in Suffolk. They occur mostly in the NE of the country, nearly half the total. In the gazetteer the towers will be called Norman, where there is no actual evidence of Saxon origin.

Finally, concerning Anglo-Saxon church architecture, there are really only two facts in need of recording here: the only survival in England of a Saxon cathedral, and the problem of the Norfolk round towers.
Suffolk – Buildings of England | Nikolaus Pevsner

If the East Angles and East Anglian Saxons did build some of these religious structures, then they appear to be the only large or permanent buildings they constructed.

St Andrew’s Church in Wissett Suffolk England with round tower

In elevation much of Norman work is visible, but again little of it is of more than local interest. Cautley refers to at least 390 Suffolk churches mentioned in the Domesday survey and has counted 174 churches with some Norman features.

Yet Suffolk is not a Norman county. That means that either prosperity in the Middle Ages has swept away what there was before, or that in less prosperous areas nothing Norman and grand ever existed. The bulk of what survives is purely masonry… There are more Norman doorways by far than can here be listed.
Suffolk – Buildings of England | Nikolaus Pevsner

Nothing for themselves to live in, no sturdy flint and lime mortar comfortable dwelling, or for any other purpose you might think for people living off the land or farmers.

St Andrew’s Church, Wissett, Suffolk: The tower is one of a number of round towers to be found in the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. It has been described as a fine example of Norman craftmanship being constructed in the mid 12th century. The section from the midpoint of the belfry windows upward was added in the late 14th or 15th century.

Earlier descriptions of the tower had put forward the idea that parts of the tower were Saxon, but the 2010 survey disputes this. In the Doomsday Book, the presence of a church in the village of Wissett is mentioned, but the assumption is that it does not refer to the present building.
The Tower – St Andrew’s Church, Wissett | Only a Sassenach could doubt this fine example of Norman craftsmanship?

The ancient round towers of Ireland and East Anglia

A few of these oldest churches have a strange arch or perhaps a doorway, higher up in the East facing tower walls, similar to the Irish round towers.

round towers, churches Ireland

For the round towers of Ireland experts again tend to discount an origin before the c9, and as regards East Anglia Cautley wishes to take their introduction back to the C9 and C10 and pleads for their being at first detached structures for defence. Of all the round towers of England – a total of just under 180 – Norfolk possesses 119, Suffolk 41, and Essex 8.

In Norfolk there are distinctly more in the E than the W half. Of these round towers the majority is no doubt Norman, but there are good arguments in favour of an Anglo-Saxon dating in about twenty cases.
Norfolk – Buildings of England | Nikolaus Pevsner

The round towers of The Continent

round towers, churches and Monastery of St Gall

For the round towers also one ought to look to the Continent for precedent or parallels. They have been explained – on the material plane – as the natural result of having to build in flint rather than stone, and hence being at a loss what to do to produce firm corners. But it should also not be forgotten that the round towers seem to have been a motif of Italy as well as the Empire in the C9 and C10. The earliest datable example exists on parchment only; the two detached round towers on the famous plan of c.835 for the monastery of St Gall.

Italian examples of brick may be earlier, but current scholarship does not accept the detached campanili of Ravenna as of the same times as the churches to which they below. They are supposed to date only from the C9. The type, however, is likely to be older, and St Gall the result of Italian influence rather than the other way round. Around the year 1000, cathedrals in the Empire liked round towers, but they were in pairs, not detached (Gernrode, Augsburg, Mainz, etc.).
Norfolk – Buildings of England | Nikolaus Pevsner

The problems of Norfolk’s and Suffolk’s flint round towers and churches

Are the oldest structures early or late Anglo-Saxon or Norman?

Nikolaus Pevsner and the problem of the Norfolk round tower churches - St Mary Haddiscoe

St Mary Haddiscoe. An interesting and puzzling church. It has a round tower divided by three bands and with handsome later battlements with flushwork chequer The twin bell-openings are clearly Saxon and as clearly Norman, i.e. must belong to the so-called C.11 overlap. Triangular heads to the two lights, but a course billet surround. The shafts are too restored to be taken as evidence.
St Mary Haddiscoe, Norfolk – Buildings of England | Nikolaus Pevsner

Why would those Angles-Saxons build only these strange cylindrical structures that take years to finish?

round towers, churches England

Most of the round towers are completely plain, but Thorpe-Next-Haddiscoe, Kirby Cane, and Tasburgh have flat blank arcading of different kinds… In addition there are circular windows, in naves as well as towers, an Anglo-Saxon feature not universally English. They may, like so many Saxon motifs and customs, have been carried on after the Norman Conquest, as workmen do not change when rulers change.
Norfolk – Buildings of England | Nikolaus Pevsner

Gissing Norman church Saxon windows

Gissing certainly seems Norman, in spite of its round windows, and there is one wholly mysterious round window in the E wall of the W range of the cloister of Norwich Cathedral. Normal oblong round-headed windows of before (and perhaps after) the Conquest are characterized by double splays as against the single splays of the Norman style. Long-and-short work also can serve as a recognition mark. Herringbone laying of stone or flint on the other hand, and also the use of carstone in square blocks, seem to be common features of the C11, before and after 1066. Apart from round towers central towers occur…
Norfolk – Buildings of England | Nikolaus Pevsner

When were they constructed or the chancels, naves, apses added to them?

Pevsner Norman or Saxon churches East Anglia Mautby Norfolk

Now, here’s a curiosity for you. This round tower has carstone banding, and this is usually taken as a sign of very early construction, probably before the Norman Conquest. The church was probably contemporary, but the wall that separates the church from the tower seems to be that of a bigger church than we see today.

And something unusual here happened in the 14th century, at the time the chancel and an aisle were built, because inside there is an extraordinarily tall chancel arch, and within you can see that the inside of the tower is not round, but square. Presuming that the tower was originally round, why was it squared off inside? Or is that not a safe presumption to make?
St Peter and St Paul Church, Mautby | Norfolk Churches

Why were ancient round towers built around the world?

There are explanations for why tubular stone towers were constructed, these reasons and theories have certainly changed over the last couple hundreds of years.

The problem with Norfolk’s and Suffolk’s rounded towers is the actually purpose of them. The walls have to be so thick, a minimum of one metre, that there is really no room inside them for more than a few people, unless you had multiple levels of floors.

Round towered buildings: Information and links

Ireland’s round tower links:
# The ecclesiastical architecture of Ireland, anterior to the Anglo-Norman invasion; comprising an essay on the origin and uses of the round towers of Ireland By George Petrie (Published 1845)
# The Round Towers Of Ireland Or The History Of The Tuath-De-Danaans By Henry O’Brien (Published 1898)
# The Round Towers of Ireland Essay by John Healy (Published 1908)
# The Round Towers of Ireland: Date, Origins, Functions and Symbolism By Andrea Watters and Niamh Ní Riain (Published 2010)

# Irish Round Towers |
# Irish round tower | Wikipedia
# Ireland’s round towers |

The Round Belfries of Ireland | MalagaBay
William Betham – Round Towers Resolved: Origins | MalagaBay
Philip Callahan and The Round Towers | MalagaBay