The greater part of Worcestershire consists of a broad, low plain, bisected from north to south by the vale of the River Severn. At its heart lies the city of Worcester, whose Norman cathedral must have been one of the county's earliest masonry buildings. Thanks to the abundance of Liassic clays and Triassic Keuper marls in the centre and south of the county, Worcestershire's principal building material has, for some three centuries, been brick. Before that, it was undoubtedly timber, rather than stone; to the north of Worcester, the county was particularly well wooded, right up to the 17th century. The county has little in the way of high-quality freestone, despite being circumscribed by ranges of hills. These constitute Worcestershire's natural boundaries, giving rise to its distinctive rectangular shape. Along its western edge are the highest of these framing uplands, the Malverns, whose ancient metamorphic rocks were rarely employed as a building material in the Middle Ages. The Devonian Old Red Sandstone overlying them was, however, used in the area, as can be seen in the churches at Buckton and Eastham. Also in this westerly region is a small quantity of tufa, a spongiform limestone rarely occurring in England, used in the church at Shelsley Walsh. North of the Malverns are the Abberly Hills. To the north-west are the Coal Measures of South Staffordshire, yielding Carboniferous sandstones of the kind found locally in the churches at Pedmore and Romsley. To the north-east, the Clent and Lickey hills form a boundary with the conurbation of Birmingham and with Warwickshire. The southern border of Worcestershire skirts the Cotswold Hills, the main body of which lies within Gloucestershire. A detached outlier of the Cotswolds, Bredon Hill, is one source of the best building stone available within Worcestershire, namely the yellow-grey limestone of the Lower Oolite. This was used early in the post-conquest period in the crypt of the Cathedral, in the second half of the 12th century at Beckford and at Overbury, and toward the end of the century at Bredon. By far the most widely used building stone in the county, however, is the red and yellow Triassic sandstone of its gently undulating central plain. This was the stone quarried at Ombersley, Hadley and other places in this central region to the north of Worcester and used for the naves at Astley, Holt and Martley. In terms of transport and communications within the county and beyond, the Severn has always been a major artery, together with its main tributaries, the Teme, the Stour and the Warwickshire Avon. The development of the Droitwich brine pits led to the creation of numerous ‘saltways' radiating out from the town, along which salt was transported by packhorse or oxcart. The Upper Saltway ran north from Droitwich through Bromsgrove and southward through Worcester.
There was no Roman town of great importance in Worcestershire. The region served as a military buffer zone in relation to the Welsh and this probably impeded the development within it of major urban centres. By the first century, there was a fort at Droitwich and perhaps as early as that at Worcester as well. Droitwich and Worcester benefited from the period of relative peace in the third and fourth centuries, becoming sizeable settlements with well maintained roads and industrial activity. Worcester became a centre for iron-smelting, while at Droitwich early exploitation of the local brine pits for salt production led to the emergence of one of the county's most successful industries. The area represented by modern Worcestershire lay within the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. By AD 680, Worcester, once a fortified industrial settlement of minor significance, had become the centre of a newly created diocese, coterminous with the territory within Mercia controlled by the Saxon Hwicce tribe. This was extensive, encompassing Gloucestershire and part of Warwickshire, as well as present-day Worcestershire. The first cathedral was dedicated to St Peter and its earliest bishops received their training at Whitby. By the tenth century, Worcester bore all the hallmarks of a town, including a grid layout of streets. Bishop Oswald (961–992) established a monastery close to the cathedral in an existing church dedicated to St Mary which he then rebuilt and which subsequently took on the role of the cathedral. Oswald, the first of several medieval bishops of Worcester to be simultaneously also archbishop of York, was a key figure in the major religious reform movement of his age. The county was subjected to riverborn raids by the Irish and attacks by the Welsh and the Danes. During King Alfred's reign, a defensive ‘burh' was built at Worcester. The city was razed by King Harthacnut in 1041 and consumed by fire several times during the Middle Ages, an indication, perhaps, of the vulnerability of its predominantly timber buildings. The impact of the Conquest on the diocese was mitigated by the decision on the part of the Norman hierarchy to allow the presiding Saxon bishop, Wulfstan (1062–1095), to remain in post at Worcester, while the majority of the English elite throughout the kingdom was systematically replaced by Norman appointees. It was under Wulfstan that the Romanesque cathedral was begun in 1084. The documentary record for the county in the early post-Conquest period is unusually comprehensive. The Domesday Survey of 1086 reveals that the Church in Worcestershire was particularly strong, for it controlled more than half of the county's administrative districts. The Domesday map of Worcestershire notionally divides the county horizontally at Worcester. North of this imaginary line, in the sparsely populated, densely wooded part of the county, including part of the Forest of Wyre, the Forest of Feckenham around Bromsgrove and other royal hunting grounds, most of the land was held by the king and a few noblemen. To the south, the holdings were mainly in the hands of the Church, principally in the vast administrative district known as Oswaldslawe. This great tract of property, three times the size of the other administrative divisions, had been under the control of the bishops of Worcester since the tenth century. It was quite outside the jurisdiction of the king's sheriff. Because of the extent and nature of the Church's possessions in the county, the power of the aristocracy there was relatively restricted throughout the Middle Ages. One of relatively few prominent noblemen of early post-Conquest Worcestershire was Urse d'Abitot, first Norman sheriff of the county. Soon after the Conquest, he began the castle at Worcester, incurring the wrath of the Church by locating it provocatively close to the monastic cathedral precinct. The other major landholders in the south of the county, in addition to the bishops of Worcester, were the abbeys of Pershore and Evesham. All three were frequently at odds with each other over territory. Many of Pershore's possessions were given by Edward the Confessor to his new abbey at Westminster, founded c.1050. The outline of the shire has fluctuated over the centuries, only achieving something like its present shape after the 1830s. In the middle ages Worcestershire had a distinctly ragged border, with deep inlets and tentacular projections reaching far into neighbouring counties. Most remarkably, it also had nine detached satellite territories, several miles from its borders, as well as several islands within it whose original owners were located in adjacent counties. In most cases, these phenomena arose from the acquisition of property by the Church. The monasteries of Worcester, Pershore and Evesham received sizeable gifts of land in Gloucestershire and Warwickshire which, for a time, were incorporated within Worcestershire. By the same token, land in Worcestershire held by monastic houses in Gloucester actually became part of Gloucestershire. The situation began to be rationalised in the early 19th century. Worcestershire was amalgamated with neighbouring Herefordshire in 1974 but became a separate county again in 1998.
The absence of pre-Conquest masonry in the county's churches is a striking reminder that, in this heavily wooded region, timber architecture predominated until the Norman period. Romanesque architectural sculpture in Worcestershire survives only in the context of churches. Dudley Castle is the one remaining secular building of the period in medieval Worcestershire and it retains no Romanesque carved decoration. Worcestershire is lacking in any major ensembles of Romanesque sculpture, but the beautifully carved capitals surviving in the south transept of the cathedral are as fine as any in England. Presumably in place by 1089, when the eastern arm of the new church was ready for use, they provide a useful chronological benchmark for the county's Romanesque sculpture. Of the Norman cathedral and its complex, only the crypt and the chapter house remain, together with small but significant portions of the cathedral church, incorporated within the later medieval building. Worcestershire's other major monasteries were the Benedictine abbeys of Pershore and Evesham, both founded at the turn of the seventh century and rebuilt from the end of the eleventh. Apart from the cemetery gateway at Evesham and the stump of the nave, crossing and transepts at Pershore, little Romanesque work survives at either. Two post-Conquest Benedictine priories retain portions of Norman fabric. Great Malvern has a Romanesque nave and other details. At Little Malvern, a small Norman doorway is preserved in the nave. The Benedictine nunnery of Westwood, founded in the twelfth century, has left no trace. Of the only twelfth-century Cistercian house in the county at Bordesley, near Redditch, there are no standing remains. Dudley had a Cluniac priory, founded c.1160, but nothing of a twelfth-century date has survived. The Augustinian canons, well represented throughout the country at this period, had no foundations in twelfth-century Worcestershire, presumably because Benedictine monasticism was already so widespread and firmly established there.
Parish churches are more numerous in the southern half of Worcestershire than in the north, in the villages which evolved from the many tenancies leased from the county's three great monastic houses. Some of the most interesting architectural decoration, however, occurs on churches in the northern half. A number have quite elaborate programmes of architectural ornament as, for example, at Holt and Rock, this last also the county's largest parish church. At Astley, the nave has unusual buttresses and eaves corbel heads. There is a series of elegant doorways, each set in a slightly projecting bay and surmounted by blank arcading, as if by a fictive loggia or gallery, located mainly in churches in the north-west of the county, at Stoulton, Knighton, Eastham and Bockleton. Doorways set in a projecting bay, without the arcading, occur again in the north-west at Abberley, Astley, Grimley, Martley, Rochford, Rock, Hampton Lovett and Holt and further south at Beckford and Pirton. Decorated tympana can be seen at Ribbesford , Romsley, Chaddesley Corbett (ex situ), Pedmore, Beckford, Netherton, Castlemorton, Little Comberton and Rochford. The work of a group of masons in the Teme valley region has been identified in the distinctive decoration of doorways at Knighton, Martley, Eastham, Bockleton and Rochford and on relief panels at Eastham, Hanley William and Stockton. There is no evidence of a significant workshop of sculptors, as opposed to stonemasons, in the county, although connections with the well-known group of carvers active in neighbouring Herefordshire can be seen at Rock and on the font at Chaddesley Corbett. The seated figure of Christ within a niche at Rous Lench and the carved limestone lecterns at Crowle and Norton represent the only Romanesque figure sculpture of high quality to be found in Worcestershire's parish churches. One distinctive sculptural motif associated particularly with the county, the trumpet scallop capital, occurs in an incipient form in the crypt of Worcester Cathedral at the end of the eleventh century and, fully-fledged, on the font at Pershore nearly one hundred years later.
Jill A. Franklin, 2003.