The Foxearth and District Local History Society

The Hysterical Hystorian

For occasional articles, snippets and announcements by the Resident Historians.These articles are presented in date order, but if you explore the back-catalogue, you may find much of interest. Historical information doesn't really go out of date! Any member of the F&DLHS may add an entry or make a comment to an existing entry once they have got their userID and password from the Webmaster.

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Monday, December 22, 2014

The Origin of the Round Tower of Pentlow Church

Claude Morley, who published an interesting account of East Anglian Round Towers in the Journal of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History Volume XVIII Part 2 (1923) added a footnote that illustrates the fact that the locals in the 1860s had a sense of humour. He quotes an account from East Anglian Notes and Queries 1868, p. 310. When asked about the origin of Pentlow's round tower by an antiquarian, this 'local' "explained to us that, before the flood, it had been used as a well ; and, when the inhabitants of the new generation who resided on that spot were looking for a place to build a church, .they selected this site because the old well would do for a steeple ; and therefore they built the church to it " The joke was repeated deadpan in the resulting article.

The round towers of East Anglia and of Ireland were probably originally bell towers, and mostly date back to Saxon times. There is evidence that some were enlarged in stages from an elaborate west porch. Bells were used for passing lay messages as well as summoning the faithful and punctuating the Liturgy. The original bells were much smaller than the current enormous castings seen in churches. Pentlow Church Tower is typical of the East Anglian type, but built in one stage. It dates from the restoration work of the 14th century. It is very archaic for its date and so may represent a rebuild of an original. This, however cannot be in the same location because the present tower covers and conceals a very splendid early-Norman West Door. When built, the bell floor was reached by a doorway, placed high up and accessed from the nave.  One can only guess at the form of the ladder that would be required to access the bell-floor, but there is evidence that ladders were there to access these doors, and that these were even used  in the more dramatic ceremonies to represent the ascent to heaven.

Bell towers were generally sited near to the hall of the local 'Lord' (Thegn) so that they could be easily manned, and defended,  when necessary to ring the bells. (The Celts used a yodeling call to transmit messages but we just don't know if this was ever used in post-roman Britain). They were certainly important for messages.  Among the laws passed by King Aethelstan in the year 937 was one which necessitated the building of a bell-tower on the estate of a thegn. At times of unrest, they would have provided very useful civil warnings, much like the sirens of WW2. As a defense, a tower is, by itself, pretty useless. There are accounts where the Irish tried to use them as a refuge against the Viking invasions, and the Vikings, it is recorded,  set fire to them (they had wooden doors and stairways) and being uncannily like industrial chimneys, the burned very well.)