The Saxon Tower in the centre of Earls Barton is the most complete example of a late Saxon church tower in the country. It stands 19m tall, up to the later battlements, supported on foundations of rubble only 20-30 cm thick.
There may originally have been a small chancel or sanctuary on the east side of the tower; this is suggested by the marks of an earlier roof line which is visible from the church gate. The ground floor of the tower was the body of the church, where the congregation stood. The purpose of the upper floors is uncertain, but the tower is unique in having belfry openings on all four sides, suggesting that it must always have contained bells.
The only entrance to the original Saxon church was the ground level door to the tower. The door arch is formed of single slabs, running through the thickness of the wall. These are decorated with carved miniature arcading, which is also a unique feature.
When the Normans came to this country they removed the small chancel and built a Nave and Chancel. The impressive south doorway is late Norman (c. 1150) and was moved to its current position, when the south aisle was built.
Over the centuries the people of Earls Barton have added to the Saxon Tower, to adapt the building to their needs, creating the Church of All Saints which we see today. That work continues. The last major repairs to the Tower were carried out in 1990 and the soft ironstone of the later building requires regular inspection and costly repair.
As with so many places in England, the first documentary record of the village is in the Domesday Book, where it appears as Bartone and Buartone, with a population figure of 28. This figure, however, is purely nominal, for taxation purposes, and the true population was probably some 110 - 140 souls. It was already a well-established community whose history went back much further. Numerous prehistoric and Roman sites have been recorded in this stretch of the Nene valley, though at what stage a group of them became a recognisable village here we do not know; a religious centre would provide a focus for such a community. The name Barton is assumed to derive from Saxon ber (barley) and tun (farm); the prefix Earls is a later addition, alluding to the Earls of Huntingdon.
During excavations to underpin the S.E. corner of the tower in the dry summer of 1979, workers uncovered burials, two of them in body-shaped graves, a type associated with important or monastic people of the Saxon period. They did not necessarily, however, predate the tower and, to date, no evidence has been found to suggest an earlier structure on the site. The mound, Berry Mount, behind the church, may be related to the building. One possible explanation is that it was a pagan burial site - indeed, a local legend has it that there is an army buried beneath it! Another, favoured by some authorities, is that, together with the ditch, it was part of a defence work. Given its limited extent, however, it is difficult to see it as other than a symbolic boundary marker. The present author discounts the oft-quoted statement that the mound is the remains of a Norman motte-and-bailey, because of its relationship to the pre-Conquest tower. The very small amount of excavation done has produced no finds whatever which might give a clue to its date and purpose. The mound may be no more than the pile of earth created by digging the ditch. A proper archaeological dig might resolve some of these puzzles. The name Berry Mount may indicate the status of the locality as a Saxon burh - a defensible centre of population.
Was the tower built for purely ecclesiastical purposes, or did it also serve secular functions? The degree of decoration has been taken to indicate that it belonged to someone of high status. By the Promotion Law of the late Anglo- Saxon period, a Ceorl wishing to elevate himself to Thegn must possess, in addition to five hides of land, a Burgheat (thought to be a fortified gate tower), a chapel and a bell-tower. Earls Barton "can be seen as a multi-purpose building fulfilling several of these criteria simultaneously" (Audouy. Dix and Parsons). The ground floor may have been used for worship, the upper floors, with a separate access door on the south wall, for dwelling, storage or observation purposes. In the Anglo-Saxon period. Earls Barton was the centre of the Hamfordshoe hundred, and all indications are that it was a place of some consequence. This leads to the further speculation that the church of Earls Barton became a minster -that is, a church from which a community of clergy served a wide area. A modern parallel is the team-ministry. Baker postulates that the area served included Mears Ashby, Wilby, Great Doddington, Yardley Hastings and Castle Ashby. It has been suggested that the Norman sedilia in the chancel of the present church imply the survival into post-Conquest times of a body of clergy from the earlier minster.
We have not yet addressed the dating of the tower. Successive students have proposed dates ranging from 930 AD to 1066 or even slightly later. Those supporting a late dating claim that the elaborate decoration shows that it is the last of a series. The most widely canvassed date is 970, during the reign of King Edgar the Peaceful (959-975), a period of relative calm when a great deal of church building took place. A local story tells that workmen moving on after rebuilding the Abbey of St. Peter, Medeshamstede(Peterborough) in 959 also built the tower at Barton. There may be no truth in this, but, until further evidence can be produced, we may comfortably accept a dating in the mid tenth century.
Visible evidence, and comparison with other Saxon churches, supports the theory that Earls Barton church was turriform; that is, a tower church with, probably, a short eastern extension. The coherent stripwork and elaborate doorway indicate that there was never a western extension. Possible, but purely conjectural, is a longer Saxon nave or chancel, which would fit with the idea of a minster church. This could even have been an intermediate stage between the Saxon turriform and Norman churches.
Two other Saxon churches may be of particular help in understanding Earls Barton tower: Barnack, near Peterborough, and St. Peter's, Barton-on-Humber. Both towers display similar structural and visual characteristics with long-and- short work and pilaster strips. Barton-on-Humber has a Saxon western extension, still standing, and foundations of an eastern extension, similar to that thought to have existed at Earls Barton, were revealed by excavations under the present nave.
On the east wall of both towers are the traces of an earlier, steeply-pitched roof. Their appearance on two other Saxon towers reinforces the thesis that these are the marks of contemporary roofs.
The lands of Barnack, in particular, are recorded in the Doomsday Book as having been held, before the Conquest, by Bondi, a "staller" or court official to Edward the Confessor, who continued to serve William. As Bondi was also the holder of Earls Barton, it is perhaps not too fanciful to see a very close link between Earls Barton and Barnack, which was also a source of stone for Earls Barton. We must not, however, exclude other possibilities.
Undoubtedly many Saxon towers have been lost, and these three may only be survivors of a style which was once the standard!
A longer nave and a chancel were built in the first quarter of the 12th. Century. It is claimed that the work was done for Simon de St. Liz (II), Earl of Northampton and also founder of Delapre Abbey, Northampton (Delapre retained the patronage of Earls Barton until the Reformation). The corners of this aisleless nave can still be seen on the outside end walls of the present aisles. Inside the Church, the nave arcading stands on the line of the Norman walls and the bases of the columns probably incorporate stones from them.
The original 12th.-century chancel extended eastwards to the point where the walls become thinner, and where the exterior string course changes in level. Close inspection reveals a substantial section of Norman masonry on each side of the existing chancel. Norman stones are seen re-used in the tower arch. The most notable survival from the Norman Nave is the south doorway, dated to about 1180. It has been argued from the date of this doorway that the chancel was built before the nave, but it seems more probable that the doorway was a late embellishment to a building already in use.
During the Early English period, the chancel was extended eastwards, culminating in a typical triple-lancet window. The priest's door, under one of the Norman arches, appears to have been inserted at this time. Aisles were added to the Nave: the south c.1230-1250, the north some 20 years later, the Norman doorway being moved from its original position into the wall of the new south aisle. As well as accommodating a larger congregation, these extensions allowed the addition of two side chapels at the east end of the Nave. It may be assumed that the tower and chancel arches were rebuilt at this time. We have noted the Norman stones in the tower arch; the chancel arch springs from the already existing columns.
Almost a century later, the chancel and tower arches were being pushed outwards and threatened collapse. The north aisle was pulled down and rebuilt, with Decorated windows and new pillars for the arcading. Some 20 years afterwards, the chancel and tower arches were corrected. Larger windows were then installed in the south aisle, these having external ogee heads. The chancel, too, gained more light: two of the windows in the south side are from this period.
The easternmost window in the south side of the chancel, one in the north side, and the larger one now in the north wall of the organ chamber are in the Perpendicular style, dating from the late 14th. or the 15th. century. The principal addition in the 15th. century was the clerestory of the Nave, yet more illumination being required. The new roof then added was said still to be in place at the time of the 19th. century restoration. The choir screen is a fine example of late 15th.-century woodwork, albeit much restored since. Legend has it that it was not originally at Earls Barton, but was removed from another church to escape destruction by the Parliamentarians in the 17th. century, and never returned. In the interim, however, it was left out in the open, and the effects of weathering are still visible. The battlements were added to the tower around 1450.
Of the 16th. century the most evident survival is the brass memorial to the Muscote family, now displayed near the tower arch. The 17th. century gave us the Jacobean pulpit, in carved black oak, the first clock (1650) and an endowment for its upkeep. In 1655 a piece of land known as Clock Close, on Wellingborough Road, was allotted to the villagers in plots of 9 or 18 poles to grow their own food. The yearly income from these allotments still pays for clock repairs, although part of the land was sold to form the present industrial estate.
During the 18th. century, a number of benefactors contributed to the ring of bells: John Bridges in his History (researched in the 1720s but not published until 1791) recorded that there were then five bells.
Victorian revival of interest in "Gothic" architecture, and a renewal of church life, promoted restoration work in many churches, and Earls Barton was no exception. Reading between the lines, we find evidence of considerable neglect of the fabric over preceding centuries. An important campaign of renovation and modernisation took place. The musicians' gallery at the west end was removed, and an organ installed, to be formally inaugurated on 23rd. September 1848 "in the presence of a numerous and highly respectable congregation". The organ was not in its present position, for a report of 1868 states that "The chancel is now most inconveniently blocked by a large organ".
The major refurbishment came around 1870: the Nave arcading was re-built using the existing stonework; the roofs were renewed, new seating installed, the canopy of the rood screen replaced, a new font provided and the porch rebuilt. The organ was removed to a newlybuilt outshot on the north wall of the chancel. During these operations, medaeval wall paintings were discovered, but plastered over again. Attention then turned to restoration of external stonework, including that of the tower. There were public appeals for funds, but much of the cost of this work was provided by the Patron, Edward Thornton, who is commemorated by a tablet and window in the north wall of the chancel.
At the unveiling of the window in February 1902, tribute was paid to his benevolence: he contributed £3,000 towards the restoration and £4,000 to build a new vicarage (now 'Saxon Lodge'). The architects were Slater and Carpenter; Slater - among whose other work was the completion of the chapel at Lancing College, Sussex - was Diocesan architect. The builder was a Mr. Allen of Irthlingborough. The period saw the beginning of the series of stained glass windows, commencing, appropriately, with the east window and continuing to the present. The panelling of the walls dates from 1904-7.
Over the period of these alterations, there were long deliberations about the state of the tower. In 1882/3 Taylors, the bell-founders of Loughborough, said that the condition of the framing made ringing unsafe. Suggested remedies included the addition of a large external buttress to the south face or even construction of a new, free-standing belfry (I). By 1884, however, less radical counsels prevailed, and local structural repairs were considered sufficient. As to the bells, the Parish Register for 1885 records: "December 28th. Special service in commemoration of the Completion of the Restoration of the tower & the rehanging of the bells. Sermon by the Rev. S.J.W. Sanders LLD, Head Master of the Northampton Grammar school." Dr. Sanders was also a respected local preacher, particularly associated with St. Peter's Church Northampton. He was made an honorary canon of Peterborough Cathedral in 1890.
There was much activity in the time of Canon Louis Ewart (Vicar. 1930-59). The Chapel in the south aisle was re-dedicated in memory of the dead of the Great War, with a memorial window, and at the same time new Calvary figures (a "stock" pattern, not specifically produced for this church) were mounted on the screen. At Ewart's request. Henry Bird painted the screen. This early commission for a local artist, later to become well known, raised strong objections at Diocesan level and controversy in the local and national press.
The bells were again re-hung, one re-cast and two new bells added to mark the Silver Jubilee of King George V (1935) and complete the peal of eight. The organ was modernised with an electric blower; today, it is remotely operated from a console just behind the chancel screen. To mark the coming of peace at the end of the Second World War, the inner porch was erected and a new screen placed in the tower arch, closing off what is now the choir vestry and the access to the upper floors of the tower. More recent years have seen improvements in the furnishings and especially additions to the stained glass.
As a result of the uncertainty over the dating of the tower, its millennium has been celebrated on two occasions: 1936 and 1970. Some of the organisations born of events on the latter occasion have continued to serve the community. In 1990, the battlements were found to be in a dangerous state, and their replacement prompted also a full survey of the tower, involving stripping and replacing the rendering.
To date in this century no changes have been made to the structure or the contents of the church. In 2010 over £30,000 was spent on repairs to parts of the stonework which were beginning to crumble.
The structure of the Tower and the Church are currently in good condition but, over time, more money will need to be spent on the building to ensure that it will be standing for many generations to come.