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Christchurch Priory, Hampshire

Christchurch Priory, Quay Rd, Christchurch BH23 1BU, United Kingdom (50°43′55″N, 1°46′28″W)
Christchurch Priory
SZ 160 925
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Hampshire
now Bournemouth
  • Ron Baxter
  • Ron Baxter
4-5 April 2006

Please use this link to cite this page - https://www.crsbi.ac.uk/view-item?i=2170.

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Christchurch is a town on the south coast of England, between the New Forest to the E and Bournemouth to the W. Its population in 2013 was 48,368. It is in the historic county of Hampshire, but in the 1974 reorganisation it became a borough withing the county of Dorset. In 2019 it became part of the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Unitary Authority. The town dates to the 7thc and was originally called Twyneham. It stands at the confluence of the rivers Stour and Avon, on a natural harbour that became a one of the most important in Saxon England. The name of Christchurch comes from the priory of Augustinian Canons, founded in 1094.

The Romanesque church was begun by Ranulf Flambard, an administrator and holder of the king’s seal in the reigns of the Conqueror and William Rufus. He was rewarded with the bishopric of Durham in 1099 but in the following year when Henry I came to the throne he was blamed for the financial extortions of Rufus’s reign and imprisoned in the Tower of London. In the early part of Rufus’s reign he was the dean of Christchurch, and was responsible for the demolition of the Saxon church (of which little is known), along with nine other churches that stood in the surrounding churchyard. He is assumed to be responsible for the plan of the church, although it was unfinished in 1100 when his successor Gilbert de Dousgunels took over and completed the building.

His church had an E arm of three bays with an eastern apse and straight-ended aisles. The crossing had a tower and N and S transepts with apsidal chapels on the E, and the nave was of eight bays with aisles. There were crypts under the E bay of the eastern arm and the end bays of the transepts. The latter remain but the first has lost its apse. The transepts were unusual in having an upper storey over the entire area, carried on vaults. This unusual feature is not known elsewhere in England, but there is evidence for it at Jumièges and Bayeux.

Subsequent work has altered the appearance of Flambard’s church. The E arm may have been enlarged in the late-12thc, but all traces of that were lost from the end of the 14thc, when a new Lady Chapel is recorded. The present eastern arm dates from the 15thc and 16thc. The crossing tower is said to have fallen in the 15thc, necessitating rebuilding in the upper levels of the N transept. The upper floors of the transepts were removed in the 13thc, cutting off communication between the nave triforium and the chancel. The nave clerestorey was rebuilt and a stone vault prepared in the same period, but the vault was not completed. At the W end a tower was begun late in the 15thc, and this occupies the W bay of the main vessel and is flanked by vestries. The nave proper is thus reduced to 7 bays. In the following description of the Romanesque work the exterior and interior are considered separately.


The north transept is the showpiece of Christchurch. It has a big NE stair-turret, and alongside this is the start of the curved wall of the east chapel, but most of the east side was replaced with a straight wall in the later 13thc. The 12thc work is in four registers. At ground level is intersecting round-headed blind arcading around the entire 12thc part of the transept. The second level has a tall round-headed blind arcade with double colonnettes around the NE turret and single ones around the E chapel, traces of a pair of large windows on the N wall, and a W window with a blank twin next to it. The third level has, on the turret only, a blind register decorated with bold trellis, and above that another register of round-headed blind arcading with single colonnettes. There are buttresses, in the form of alternating half-columns and angle-wedges, clasping the NW angle, halfway along the N face, and at the S end of the W face. Restoration has left them at various heights, and only parts of the NW angle buttress are original. In fact the entire transept has been heavily restored, so that most of the capitals and other carved features are 19thc, but it seems clear that there were two 12thc phases (a conclusion that gains some support from an examination of the interior). The first phase is represented by all the blind arcading, the W window (and what remains of the N windows) and the surface ornament, notably the trellis register. Original capitals survive in the second level blind arcades around the stair-turret and E chapel and the top-level arcading around the turret. Most are simple volute capitals, while a few are of the more elaborate type with fluted fans of leaves, also found on the interior, and one, in the top-storey arcading, is a simple cushion. The blind-arcade arches have angle rolls and face hollows, the imposts are quirked hollow chamfered, and the shaft bases are tall with bulbous rolls. The stringcourse below the top storey of the stair-turret has a simple zig-zag, and stringcourses elsewhere have single billet or sawtooth ornament. For dating purposes, much of this can be paralleled in the first phases of Ely Cathedral (even the hint of a change from volute to cushion capitals), and the combination of features suggests a date earlier than 1125 and possibly as much as ten years earlier. The overall trellis pattern on the third level of the tower is unusual in its large scale, but is typical of the beginning of the 12thc rather than any later date. The intention may have been to make a fine show towards the Castle, just to the N. Around the middle of the century the roll-and-wedge buttresses were added. That they were an afterthought is first suggested by their unusual placing on top of the stylobate of the ground-level blind arcading, by their chamfered bases, and above all by their profile, which is uncommon but found, for example, in the NW tower of Chester Cathedral, c.1140-60.

South transept

The W wall has one well-preserved 12thc window with an angle roll and face hollow in the arch, a billet label, and cushion nook-shaft capitals; the S wall two (blocked) windows also of the 12thc. On the E side, not usually accessible to visitors in close-up, the two-storeyed apsed E chapel of the Norman transept still makes its statement (cf. the chapel at Tewkesbury S transept, also early 12thc). The buttresses are instructive; plain and flat below window sill level but transposing into paired half-columns separated by an angle-wedge above. The E chapel window is stylistically the earliest of the above-ground work, with no label and a heavy nook-roll in the arch instead of the usual angle roll and face hollow. The volute capitals are badly worn, and the impost blocks have been replaced. Like the N transept, then, there are two 12th-century phases here; an observation confirmed by the interior ornament.


The transepts confirm the suspicion of a second 12thc phase noted in the discussion of the exterior. Early (c.1115-25) work in the north transept includes the plain arches to nave and chancel aisles, and the blind arcading on the W wall along with the window above it, both with volute capitals, and the sawtooth and billet ornament in the stringcourse and labels. About the middle of the century a gallery was added, and to support it a respond of paired columns was added to the flat buttress alongside the arch to the nave aisle, and the nave and chancel aisle arches were remodelled. The original, very plain form is seen in the arch to the chancel aisle, and alongside it the paired shafts (one lost) with capitals and new imposts belong to the remodelling. The change was more dramatic in the nave aisle arch, where paired half-columns separated by angle wedges were added to the jambs, and the capitals and imposts were replaced. These second-phase capitals are deeply and richly carved with symmetrical designs of furled leaves and palmettes; some have barley-sugar twist neckings, and the imposts are of a new type with a low face roll above the hollow chamfer.

The south transept also has its W and (blocked) S windows and its W blind arcade below, but their state of repair is very poor. Both windows have nook-shafts and cushion capitals, and the blind arcade had a mixture of volute and cushion capitals. Most of the blind arcade and the W window have completely plain arches. The E chapel survives, with blind arcading on two levels, an E window and a rib vault. Of this, the lower level blind arcade and the sawtooth stringcourse above it, and the interior ornament of the E window are all modern replacements. One capital of the upper arcading and one of the vault-rib capitals are primitive Corinthianesque, of a form rare on this country. The rest are the usual mixture of cushions and volutes with an elaborate Winchester acanthus capital on the central rib respond that is deeply carved and decorated with beading. The chapel arch capitals and imposts appear to belong to the mid-century remodelling noted in the description of the north transept.

The crossing has plain round-headed arches with zigzag labels and cushion capitals carried on paired half-columns. The W arch is unusual in that its responds have the paired half-columns separated by wedges noted elsewhere as typical of the 1140s or ‘50s. In this case the wedges support their own wedge-shaped capitals, and the responds of this arch has surely been rebuilt.

The seven-bay nave is all of a piece with two-order round-headed arches with half-columns in the jambs of each order and fat soffit rolls in the arches. The arches have zigzag labels and sawtooth diapering in the spandrels. Several of the capitals have been replaced, but those that survive are either volutes with Winchester acanthus or plain cushions, i.e. they follow on immediately from the first stage of the transepts, and those at the W end of the arcade do not look significantly later than those at the E end. The 1130s are probably the latest possible decade for the completion of the ground stage. The gallery has twin round-headed openings with a central shaft and outer enclosing arch. The tympani are plain except for the E bay on the south side which is diapered with fishscale ornament. This bay also has billet in the inner arches and a spiral-decorated central shaft, where all the others on the N side are plain, and it seems clear that the liturgical choir extended across the crossing into this bay. On the south the inner arches have been removed for the organ, and the central shafts of bays 3 and 5 are decorated, the latter with trellis reminiscent of the work on the exterior of the N transept. The gallery capitals are largely of the volute type with some cushions and scallops and the occasional figural or animal subject (e.g. S gallery, bay 3).

Norman blind arcading survives in the south nave aisle in bays 2 to 6; four arches per bay, with round arches with angle rolls and face hollows and billet labels. The capitals are a mixture of volute and Corinthianesque types. Many have been replaced, but some of the original ones have cable neckings.

The overall appearance of the Romanesque work above ground suggests a start around 1110 in the south transept, the north following on within the next decade, and the nave after that, all in a continuous campaign taking us up to c.1130. There was then a return to the transepts and the crossing for the remodelling of the W crossing arch, and the addition of transept galleries and some external buttressing.


In 1086 the manor belonged to the crown, but the woodland had been absorbed into the King’s Forest, before and after the Conquest. It was described as a borough with 31 messuages. At this time the canons of Holy Trinity, Twynham held 5 hides and 1 virgate in the vill itself and a further hide on the Isle of Wight. The entire tithe if Twynham and a third of the tithe of Holdenhurst belonged to the canons. The establishment consisted of 24 canons who also served the churches of Herne, Burton and Preston. Ranulf Flambard obtained a grant of the church and town from Rufus, and he appropriated the incomes of the canons (as they died) for his project of building a greater church. After his downfall the church was granted to Gilbert de Dousgunels who continued the building work, and went to Rome to obtain papal licence for the refounding of the house, but died on the way back. The manor, town and church were next given by Henry I to his cousin Richard de Redvers, who appointed Peter de Oglander dean over the canons. Under Peter and his successors the priory prospered, and in 1150 Dean Hilary petitioned Richard de Redvers to turn the house into a priory of canons regular of St Austin. Reginald was placed at its head as first prior, and the name was changed from Twynham to Christchurch. Prior Reginald died in 1186 and was succeeded by Ralph, who died in 1195 and was buried in the chapter house. In the same year the high altar and the altar of St Stephen were consecrated, and this is thought to mark the completion of the enlarged Romanesque choir. Another dedication in 1234 may commemorate the completion of the 13thc work in the nave.


Exterior Features



Exterior Decoration

String courses

Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches



Wall passages/Gallery arcades


Vaulting/Roof Supports

Interior Decoration

Blind arcades
String courses





In 1899 the font was in pieces among other fragments, described by Perkins (1899, 100, 118, 126)) as, 'the fragments of a Norman font with carvings representing various incidents in the life of Christ, may be seen, preserved in the N choir aisle'. The best description is in VCH (1912, 101-10) but there are problems. The text describes 'a square Purbeck marble font of late-13th century date', and further on records that 'part of a 12th-century font which had a bowl with four angle shafts is also preserved here' (i.e. in the N aisle of the eastern arm). The alleged 13thc font is described in some detail as follows,

'On one face are three Old Testament subjects—Noah and the Ark, Samson and the lion, and Moses striking the rock; on the opposite face to this are the coronation of the Virgin, her burial, and the gift of tongues at Pentecost. Of the two other faces, one has three single figures in quatrefoils, probably Christ between the Virgin and St. John, and the other has Christ's baptism, resurrection, and ascension.' This would seem to correspond, more or less, to the iconiography of our font, and indeed Pevsner (1967, 174) repeats some of the identifications, applying them to a 'Purbeck marble [font] of the table type, C12'.


T. Perkins, Wimborne Minster and Christchurch Priory: A short history of their foundation and description of their buildings, London 1899, 2nd ed. 1902.

N. Pevsner and D. Lloyd, The Buildings of England. Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Harmondsworth 1967, 167-77.

Victoria County History: Hampshire. II (1903), 152-60.

Victoria County History: Hampshire. V (1912), 101-10