Floor levels – the case of Dorchester Abbey

Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire, originally uploaded by Vitrearum.

The question of original floor levels in medieval church buildings came up in discussion on another post. Generally speaking the great ranks of steps you see in many of our medieval churches were introduced during the Gothic Revival. In the Middle Ages only a modest rise in floor level was usual from east to west, the high altar being perhaps two, at the most three steps above the level of the nave. Side altars were often only placed on a single step above the level of the aisles they were set in.

There are of course exceptions, one is the altar placed at the east end of the south nave aisle at Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire. This chapel was the parish church of Dorchester in the Middle Ages and was known as the ‘people’s chapel’. The original liturgical arrangements of this chapel survive, including an early fourteenth century painted reredos, piscina and sedilia. The altar was raised above the level of the aisle on four steps. In this case the steps served a practical purpose, as they covered a vaulted charnel house containing the bodies of those disturbed during the construction of the aisle.

Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire

Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire
Details of the wallpaintings that formed the chapel reredos.

4 thoughts on “Floor levels – the case of Dorchester Abbey

Add yours

  1. Nice reredos. The faces seem to have a Victorian cast to them. Imagination or restoration?Is the eccentric position of the reredos and altar determined by a doorway to the north of them, or could there be some other reason determined by now-vanished fittings?


  2. Yes there was some restoration of the paintings, I believe Clayton and Bell were responsible. As for the positioning of the altar. The architectural history of this part of the building is a little confused. I think the door is the determining factor of the off-centre positioning of the altar. The door was the main pilgrim entrance into the area of the church containing the shrine of St Birinus. Some people also argue that there was a gallery above this altar containing a second altar and that the niche in the wall formed the reredos of this.


  3. It bears the hallmarks of Clayton & Bell, whose work – on the whole – is admirable. Today, of course, we wouldn't in-paint but can't judge what previous generations did in every case.


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