07 February 2023
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre,
Northampton: one of England’s
four surviving Round Churches
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Northampton is the best preserved of only four remaining round churches in England. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been home to a worshipping and witnessing Christian presence in Northampton since 1100, and today is a living, active, worshipping community.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a Norman round church in Sheep Street, is a Grade I listed building. It was built by returning Crusaders on the model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. There other mediaeval round churches are still in use in England: the Round Church or Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Cambridge; Temple Church, London; and Saint John the Baptist, Little Maplestead, Essex.
The church was begun in 1100 by Simon de St Liz or Simon de Senlis, the first Norman Earl of Northampton, probably in thanks for his safe return from the first Crusade.
Simon de Senlis was responsible for making Northampton a Norman stronghold by building Northampton Castle (now destroyed) and a town wall. It is also probable that he was responsible for building All Hallows Church by the market place in the centre of Northampton and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the north.
Simon de Senlis joined the First Crusade ca 1096, when he would have seen the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. He would have seen it as a round church supported on 18 columns or piers with an ambulatory around the perimeter on the west of the church, and the site of Christ’s tomb at the centre.
The church had four apses at each of the cardinal points, with a façade on the east side so that the east apse was accessible directly from the rotunda. After its restoration, this church is what would have remained of a fourth-century church built by Constantine I.
When he returned to Northampton, Simon de Senlis may have built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Northampton, ca 1100. It is about half the size of the church in Jerusalem.
The original church of about 1100 had a round nave of eight columns, supporting a triforium. An ambulatory ran round the perimeter. The remains of a Norman window in the present nave suggest that the original round church had a chancel at the east, probably apse-ended.
A north aisle was added ca 1180, and second north aisle was added ca 1275. A south aisle was built in the early 15th century, the triforium of the round nave was replaced by a clerestory, and a west tower was added.
A similar Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built in Cambridge and, although it is smaller than its counterpart in Northampton, it may be indicative of the original church.
The porch leads into an eight-sided building that reflects the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and two famous reinterpretations: Charlemagne’s chapel in Aachen, and San Vitale in Ravenna.
Three original Norman windows survive in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Northampton – one to the left of the south porch at low level and two on the north at high level. The fact that the windows are positioned at two different levels indicates there would have been a gallery.
Evidence of a corbel running round the perimeter supports the argument. Butm unlike Cambridge, there are no springers to suggest the form of vaulting. There are no gallery openings in the rotunda at high level, and the piers support pointed arches characteristic of a more later architecture than the Norman round arches.
The church in Cambridge has a conical stone-slated roof that was restored in the 19th century. The Holy Sepulchre in Northampton has a slightly flatter lead roof, but it is likely that the roof was originally similar to the roof at Cambridge.
Throughout the ages, a nave, chancel and aisles were added to the east of the round church at Northampton.
The building was further enlarged to its present form in the 1860s, when Sir George Gilbert Scott was involved in extensive restoration to bring the church to its present state. The chancel screen is by John Oldrid Scott (1880).
The church has a strong connection with the military life of the county. Note the highly unusual stained glass window of Richard the Lionheart at the battle of Jaffa in the north aisle to two late Morris and Co windows. The Soldiers’ Chapel commemorates where over 6000 soldiers from the Northamptonshire regiments from two World Wars. This chapel has recently been completely refurbished.
Over the years, the church has suffered from erosion. The Restoration Trust raised £1.3 million over the last 30 years, leaving the church in good order.
As a registered Inclusive Church, the church welcomes all people regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality, mental or physical abilities, or financial or social status. The parish fully supports the ministry of women as deacons, priests, and bishops. The parish is currently looking at how the building may be used in the future to better serve the needs of the local community.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is in the Diocese of Peterborough. The main Sunday service is the Sung Eucharist at 11 am in modern Catholic style, usually followed by tea, coffee and biscuits in the adjacent Church Rooms.
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