Church Orientation, Alignment and Solar Worship

Church Orientation, Alignment and Solar Worship;
with Examples from Cheshire and North Staffordshire

by Charles E. S. Fairey, 2018



There has been much speculation upon the subject of why many ancient and historic churches do not face exactly due east, and why that is so.

This has certainly been a subject of much fascination for about 150 years, obviously due to the collective mind of us modern folk: who have access to accurate maps; modern compasses; surveying instruments; GPS; satellite imagery; topographical computer tools; etc.

Our ever enquiring minds strive to set order to history, and shed light upon the mysteries of the past, so that we may understand them, which in some cases, have been lost or hidden over the many centuries if not millennia, for us to only speculate, hypothesize and theorize, to what the actual truth to these mysteries actually is.

There are many examples of the mysterious past evading our understanding in this modern era, across the board, wherever we live, across the face of the Earth. We all have our theories, and we read, look, listen and watch, those of us, who think they have figured it out, with great enthusiasm, whether it be the Great Pyramid in Egypt, or Stonehenge in Britain, or some other place or aspect, of the mythic past.

Over the centuries, decades, years, the mysteries are slowly revealed, so that we might understand them, however, it is a long process, and many avenues are researched, and sometimes some of those avenues become obsolete, and new avenues appear, until finally, at some point in the past, present or future, we understand it completely, often when a number of avenues, coalesce together, to form a spectacular unveiling of the truth to the requisite mystery.

And yes, one such mystery is: why do ancient and historic churches not all face exactly due east?


Church Orientation and Alignment

From the ancient days of mankind, monuments have been set out and built to receive the Rising or Setting Sun, often upon the Summer Solstice, or the Winter Solstice, Spring or Autumn Equinox, or in alignment with specific stars or constellations, in order to worship the gods, but also often to aid in the mapping of the seasons, helping our ancestors’ agricultural based societies, by using solar based festivals of the year, as a basic calendar.

Ancient monuments were also placed in specific locations, which mirrored that of the celestial heavens, i.e. the stars, upon the terrestrial globe, our Earth.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Egypt, thanks to Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert’s book ‘The Orion Mystery: Unlocking the Secrets of the Pyramids, 1994’, and in South America, where new research is discovering entire lost cities and ceremonial precincts, under the extensive forests, from mapping the known sites to stars, and unrepresented stars, to where sites are missing.

It has long been speculated upon, that churches were also set out along their east-west axis, i.e. from the east window and altar, down through the body of the church, in line with the rising sun, on the church’s patron saint’s day, or another of the holy days of the Christian calendar.

The root of the etymology of the word ‘orientation’ comes from the phrase ‘ad orientem’, and the fundamental and original definition is purely ecclesiastical, and is associated with ‘Ad prientem’, i.e. “the building of a church or temple on an east-west axis with the chancel and main altar to the east.”

They face east as every Christian in prayer is meant to face east. We know that when we attend church, and pray, as did the first Christians, we face east, however again there are many theories to why this is, one possible explanation is when the first Christians in Rome prayed, they faced Jerusalem, to the east, where Christ was crucified facing west, and from where he ascended to the heavens. He was also prophesised to return from the east, from the city of Jerusalem. The Book of Matthew 24:27 states “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

The first Christians may have faced Jerusalem, when praying, much like the Muslims face the direction of qibla, no matter where they are, facing the Kaba, a small cube shaped building in the courtyard of Masjid Al Haram Mosque, in the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

The facing to the east to pray, by the early Christians, gave rise to many Romans, viewing them as a cult who worshipped the rising sun.

The tradition of orientating churches towards the east, developed in the 4th century, and became the rule across much of the Western World, however some churches in Rome, as well as a few other exceptions, were built west-east, with the entrance facing the east, and the sanctuary with the altar, situated in the west, in the same fashion as the Temple of Jerusalem. Rome did not adopt the east-west alignment until the 8th or 9th century.

John Michell in ‘A Little History of Astro-Archaeology: Stages in the Transformation of a Heresy, 1977, Page 43’, harkened back to “the old Masonic practice of laying out the axes of temples towards the sunrise or in relation to the stars so that orientation corresponded to the date of foundation”, to explain the easterly orientation differences to many churches.

In the recent or possibly historic past, Church orientation was associated with the guiding tradition that Christ’s entrance into the world, was with the morning light, entering the chancel end of the church, where the main altar was housed, either symbolically or truly. This is most likely represented in Christ’s story, at His Resurrection, when he was first revealed to the women at dawn, and representing the rising sun, reminds us all of the Resurrection, when the sun is reborn each day.

Churches were also thought to be orientated along the east-west axis, to mark the rising sun on the feast day of the patron saint of each specific church.

Studies into churches in England, and Britain, as well as in the Continent, have come up with many theories to why most churches don’t face true east. However many of the studies don’t agree with each other, and some dispute feast day or foundation day rising sun orientations altogether, whilst others agree that some churches do in fact relate to the day of foundation or patron saint’s feast day, rising sun position, as well as other times of the year when the position of the rising sun was used for the orientation of the east-west axis, to churches.

When we are talking about the east-west axis, as the orientation of the church, what we mean is that the church or the church chancel, where the altar is housed, usually in front of the important east window, runs right down the middle of the church, through the nave, parallel with the north and south walls. The diagram below, illustrates the east-west axis of St Mary’s Church in Nantwich, Cheshire, although many churches have different layouts, they usually always have the main chancel and altar to the east, and the nave to the west, even though most churches are not in fact, aligned truly to the east-west axis, as we are investigating.


The East-West Axis of a Church 
(The Layout Plan of St Mary’s Church, Nantwich, Cheshire) 


The Theories

The varying theories suggest that:-

1. The church’s east wall and window faces the rising sun as it rose on the morning of the laying of the foundation stone,

2. The church’s east wall and window faces the rising sun as it rose on the morning of the feast day of the patron saint the church is or was originally dedicated to,

3. The church’s east wall and window faces the rising sun as it rose on the morning of another major or minor festival day of the patron saint the church is or was originally dedicated to,

4. The church’s east wall and window faces the rising sun as it rose on the morning of one of the major yearly Christian festivals,

5. The church’s east wall and window faces the rising sun as it rose on the morning of Easter Day,

6. The church’s east wall and window faces the rising sun as it rose on the morning of the Summer or Winter Solstice,

7. The church’s east wall and window faces the rising sun as it rose on the morning of the Spring or Autumn Equinox,

so that when the sun rises, the light symbolically streams through the window, onto the altar. We add symbolically, because the rising sun may not be at a higher enough angle, when rising on the horizon to stream through the window, or be visible, through the east window, whether due to topography, trees, buildings, etc, so therefore it is ‘symbolic only’ in nature.


8. The church’s west wall or entrance faces the setting sun as it set on the evening:-
a. of the laying of the foundation stone,
b. of the feast day of the patron saint the church is or was originally dedicated to,
c. of another major or minor festival day of the patron saint the church is or was originally dedicated to,
d. of one of the major yearly Christian festivals,
e. of Easter Day,
f. of the Summer or Winter Solstice,
g. of the Spring or Autumn Equinox,

so that when the sun sets, the light symbolically streams through a western door or window, through the nave, into the chancel and onto the altar. We add symbolically, because the setting sun may not be at a higher enough angle, when setting on the horizon to stream through the door or window, or be visible, through the west door or window, whether due to topography, trees, buildings, etc, so therefore it is ‘symbolic only’ in nature.


9. Churches do face the rising sun on a specific day, but for all the reasons above.

10. Churches do face the rising sun on a specific day, but for all the reasons above, but sometimes they are slightly deviated from where the sun rose or set, on that specific day, due to:
a. human error,
b. local topographical constraints, like the site itself, i.e. it slopes uphill or downhill, is in a valley, on a small island, against a cliff, on the edge of water, etc,
c. the horizon wasn’t visible, due to trees, buildings, weather,
d. a clear day was used eitherside of the chosen day,
e. the horizon is different at each locale,
f. a difference in calendars used has caused the deviation, i.e. the Julian Calendar, was used, unlike later use of the Gregorian Calendar, as well as the use of a leap year,
g. it was estimated, because of all the above.


11. Churches do face the rising sun on a specific day, for all the reasons above, but there are more reasons which haven’t been suggested or tested yet.

12. Churches do not face the rising sun on a specific day, where they have been built where older physical constraints, such as other buildings, town walls, inside castles, exist.

13. The church was built using the orientation and alignment of a previous older church on the site.

14. The church was partly rebuilt, and the orientation and alignment of the new building, is different to the earlier portions, and thus reflects a different saintly patronage (this realignment is known as ‘a crooked chancel’),

15. The original patron saint of the church has been lost, and the church reflects that saint in its orientation and alignment, but we have no idea which saint.

16. The patron saint venerated in the side chapel / altar / aisle, or one of the side chapels / altars / aisles, became adopted as the main patron, or a number of saints, and thus, the church reflects that saint(s) in its orientation and alignment,

17. Churches face a prominent human-made archaeological feature,

18. Churches face a prominent natural feature, in the surrounding landscape, with local significance,

19. The church’s east wall and window point to true east, as it existed on the day the church was founded, and was orientated by the use of a magnetic compass.

20. Churches face, where built upon pre-Christian sites, some lost archaeological feature, which faced a specific easterly or westerly point,

21. Churches do not face the rising sun on any specific day; they just face towards the east, generically, with no specific degree of accuracy.

22. We still haven’t found the true reason why churches don’t face exactly true east.


Below is a selection of the conclusions of varying studies into Church Orientations and Alignment, which clearly shows many theories, their constraints, and possible reasons for difference, as well as the contradictory nature of the different studies and their scholar’s views.

Although, by including these points and their requisite differences, we can show that this subject is fraught with difficulty, and no one method can be used to accurately equate each ancient and historic church sample survey, to any one theory, fully, although some studies do show correlations to some of the theories above, whilst others contradict each other.

We will discuss their content, and their resulting possible conclusions afterwards.


Abstracted Theories of Church Orientations and Alignments

N. Abrahamsen in ‘Evidence for Church Orientation by Magnetic Compass in Twelfth-Century Denmark, Archaeometry, Volume 34, Issue 2, August 1992’, summarised that “the orientations of some 570 Romanesque churches (one‐third of the total) from four regions in Denmark show significant differences in the claimed east‐west orientation, being typically rotated 5‐15 degrees clockwise from true east‐west. Magnetic declination was predominantly easterly between AD 1000 and 1600; the church deviations probably originate from sometimes using a magnetic compass, other simple and plausible causes for this ‘skewness’, for example orientation by the sun at specific periods of the year or astronomical alignment, being hard to design. Hence, some 25% of the churches were probably oriented by means of a magnetic compass. As a tool for dating, the orientations have not yet been successful due to statistical scatter.”

He added that “church building in Denmark boomed in the twelfth century. The early history of the compass is somewhat uncertain. The first European reference known is from about 1190‐1200, while the oldest Norse source is from about 1225 (Landnámabók), saying that the lodestone was not known before. Danish churches thus bring new information about the early use of the magnetic compass in Europe.”

R.W.E. Farrah in ‘Further Thoughts on the Symbolic Orientation of St Helena’s Church, Lundy Field Society Annual Report, Volume 45, 1994, Part 15, Pages 43-56’, concludes that the church does in fact conform to the setting sun on both the feast day of St Helena, namely the 21st May (although the actual view of the horizon was obscured by a nearby rise in the ground, see later how any obscured horizon does not mean it is difficult to set out a church to the rising or setting sun), as well as the date on the foundation stone, namely the 5th June 1896. Both dates oddly allow the setting sun to light the altar at the eastern end, because there are two lancet windows to the NW and SE sides of the western wall. However this church is comparatively modern, although it does conform to the same principals.

Peter G Hoare and Caroline S Sweet in ‘The Orientation of Early Medieval Churches in England, Journal of Historical Geography, Volume 26, Issue 2, April 2000, Pages 162-173’, found that 7th to early 12th century churches in central and southern England, displayed an average alignment close to true east, and that this alignment could have only been achieved by astronomical means. They went on to say that the deviation from true east, may have been due to setting out errors, or that the greatest proportion of churches which deviated significantly, were probably established on sites where older structures in towns, or natural topography in rural areas, made it difficult to align the churches to true east.

Peter G Hoare and Caroline S Sweet, also reveal that: in very few cases can early medieval saintly dedications be verified, and that certain saints have several feast days, of usually one major and a few minor; that many churches suffer from topographical constraints, meaning that any sunrise position on the horizon is obstructed (see later for how this was most likely overcome); as well as the complicated effect that local horizons have on the position of the sunrise, both the delay in low lying sites, and the early position in high places; the minor differences of positioning the sunrise, depending on whether the beginning, half of the sun, or whole orb, were used.

They also demonstrate that in examination of the orientation of 181 churches in central and southern England, that the churches in their study were centred on true east, not magnetic east, demonstrating that there is no evidence for the use of a magnetic compasses.

They conclude that despite the problems outlined above, that a general test of the sunrise on certain festival dates known to have been favoured by early medieval dedications, may still be undertaken, as these dates are distributed throughout the year, and more significantly, several of these dates occur when sunrise is close to the limits of the solar arc through the sky, thus, they would have recorded a much more widely dispersed set of data, if the measured churches had been aligned with the sunrise on the patronal festival day. They also rejected that churches in their survey were orientated to the summer and winter solstices, or the 1st of May. They finalise with “We therefore contend that the widespread and time-honoured support for the various sunrise models is misplaced (although an occasional building may have been so aligned).”

Jason R. Ali and Peter Cunich in ‘The Orientation of Churches: Some New Evidence, The Antiquaries Journal, December 2001, Pages 155-193’, concluded that out of a sample of 143 large early medieval churches in England and Wales, that a hypothesis that they were aligned using a magnetic compass was not supported by the data evidence. When the data they collected regarding the east-west alignment of the 143 churches, “it became evident that many of the sites were possibly orientated using sightings of the sun at sunrise and sunset, either on patronal feast days, Easter Day, or at the time of the spring and autumn equinoxes.” Their data proved that out of “the 141 churches where a saintly dedication was known, 33, (23%) were orientated to the sunrise on the patronal feast day, and 23 (20%) were orientated with the sunset on the patronal feast day. A further 37 (26%) were possibly aligned at sunrise on Easter Day, and 56 (39%) exhibited true east or Julian calendar equinoctial sunrise / sunset orientations.” This therefore meant that “up to 111 churches (78%) exhibited orientations according to one or more of the four categories of sun-dependent alignments.” They went on to say that feast-day orientations as described by William Wordsworth and Hugh Benson, do have some basis in fact (see later).

They go on to say that their “results, indicate that orientation of churches using sun sightings was not confined to the patronal feast day of the church, but equinoctial and Easter Day sunrise orientations were just as important, if not more significant.” And that “the Sun certainly exercised a primary influence over church orientation in medieval England, but that influence must be recognised as many-faceted.”

They also reminded us that “the sunrise / sunset azimuth (the direction of a celestial object from the observer, expressed as the angular distance from the north or south point of the horizon to the point at which a vertical circle passing through the object intersects the horizon), is a function of its latitude (a geographic co-ordinate that specifies the north-south position of a point on the Earth’s surface).” Therefore sites in England, when compared to countries further north or south, with churches of the same feast day, or Easter Sunday, should have quite different orientations.

Ian Hinton in ‘Church Alignment and Patronal Saint’s Days, The Antiquaries Journal, September 2006, Pages 206-26’, concluded after a survey of almost 1,500 rural churches, that “churches were not all aligned with their patronal saint’s feast-day sunrises, nor with any other specific sunrises. This conclusion is confirmed by all the analyses here, ranging from the summary statistics of winter and summer saints, which indicate virtually identical alignments compared with sunrise differences of up to one-fifth of the horizon, to a specific analysis of the actual sunrise point of the 550 churches in Norfolk showing no correlation at all. No amount of tinkering with the results to take horizon and calendar change into account can alter the fact that more than half of all churches are aligned more than 30 degrees from east.”

Ian Hinton goes on to say, that: “the results of this survey confirm that there was an intention on the part of church builders to align their churches roughly with east. Accuracy was not apparently paramount – an approximate direction appears to have been sufficient.” His results also showed “that twice as many churches are aligned to the north of east in the west of the country than in the east, resulting in a difference of 12 degrees between the mean alignment of the churches in Cornwall and of those in Kent.” However significant a pattern this is, between east and west, the factors measured and analysed cannot explain it.

He goes on to say, that it is “equally certain that churches built on sloping sites have been located there to use the extended horizon. The fact that two-and-a-half times as many churches face downhill rather than uphill firmly indicates purpose in the selection of the specific site. To discover whether this reflects Christian substitution or the siting of a church on a site whose earlier use required an eastern view will require considerable further work, as does the question of whether the siting and alignment of the church had any influence on the location of the settlements of which they formed a part.”

One important factor has to be included about the method chosen to collect data for the survey of almost 1,500 rural churches in this study, and that is Ian Hinton used a magnetic compass, where he took readings, on both the north side and south side of the outside of the nave and the chancel, although if there were differences of more than one degree, they were retaken at different places. An average was taken of the results, to provide single readings for the nave and for the chancel. The average or mean readings were then adjusted by deducting the contemporary magnetic declination in the area. The angular elevation of horizons of the churches, in two of the counties in the survey, Cumbria and Norfolk, were taken with the same compass.

This method doesn’t take account of: the actual position of the rising or setting sun to the local horizon, on a patronal saint or similar feast day; the local topography, which may affect the timing of the early or delayed, rising or setting sun; and the affect of the Julian verses the Gregorian Calendars, if the year of foundation may be discovered; plus other problematic deviations.

Ortwin Feustel in ‘The Holy Alignment: Geodesic and Astronomical Fundamentals for Calculating the Adjustment of Medieval Naves, Nexus Network Journal, Volume 11, No. 1, 2009, Pages 7-21’, suggests at the beginning, before moving onto complex formulae, suggest that findings so far, are partly contradictory and partly based upon presumptions, especially due to the ‘Holy Alignment’, the angular deviation between the church axis and true east, deviating of up to 25 degrees, to both the southern and northern sides of true east. He says that it is essential to know the history of the patronage of the church, the co-ordinates of the ground plan, and characteristic astronomical quantities at the time the church was built. He goes on to say that supported by multiple and thorough examinations by Eckstein, Büll and Hörnig, that an unambiguous correlation between the saint or the saints of a church and the alignment of the nave can exist. Geographic east, the point the sun crosses the horizon on the days of the equinoxes, symbolizes Christ as the light of the world. Other sun-rising points symbolize the feast days of apostles, martyrs or other saints. He says that the angular distance of such a point from true east is called its eastern amplitude, and that deviations from the exact east-west direction, are documented for numerous churches in the centuries before the first turn of the millennium, and until 1125. He goes on to say that the choice of patronal saint for a church was up to the individual Christian communities, and the feast days were recorded in local saint calendars, but many of these have been lost over the centuries, so that choice of saint, and their feast days, are not always known.

Patrick Arneitz, Andrea Draxler, Roman Rauch, and Roman Leonhardt in ‘Orientation of Churches by Magnetic Compasses? Geophysical Journal International, April 2014’, concluded that their “statistic evaluation confirms the preferred alignment of naves towards geographic East in Lower Austria and northern Germany. Alignment deviations are most likely caused by town or landscape and not by geomagnetic field variations.” They also concluded that “in epochs, after 1500 AD orientation towards geographic East lost importance. Even though a few churches indicate orientation according to patron’s day, a general trend cannot be observed for the available data. Of course, investigations of a larger data set and in-depth historic analysis are necessary for more precise conclusions. Nevertheless, the results of this study show a trend of alignment of churches toward geographic East and do not support the hypothesis that church orientations provide a statistically significant record of magnetic declination information. Clearer statements cannot be made due to the complexity of the topic and the associated uncertainties.”

Anne Sassin Allen in ‘Church Orientation in the Landscape: a Perspective from Medieval Wales, Archaeological Journal, Volume 173, 2016, Issue 1, Pages 154-187’, suggests that many “studies have proposed diverse explanations in attempting to find meaning behind the varied range in the orientation of church buildings. From patronal feast days, to the seasonality of their foundation, from magnetic east, to the Easter Calendar, and most recently to harvest festival celebrations, no one assessment has resulted in a definite answer.” In her survey of 630 medieval churches in Wales, “a large number were aligned far from the traditional 90 degrees, indicating other factors were at play. Her study argues that, more than elsewhere in Britain, orientation was set in relation to prominent human-made and natural features in the surrounding landscape, many of which had acquired a strong significance in local collective memory.”

Eva Spinazzè in ‘The Alignment of Medieval Churches in Northern-Central Italy and in the Alps and the Path of Light Inside the Church on the Patron Saint’s Day, Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, Volume 16, No. 4, 2016, Pages 455-463’, took a GPS survey of 181 medieval churches, and found that in most cases, the church’s east-west axis coincided with the sunrise or sunset position on the Patron Saint’s day, and especially on the saint’s day of translation (the removal of a saints remains from one locality, to another, usually to a higher status location), or on one of the four of The Virgin Mary’s medieval feast days (the Annunciation (25th March); the Purification (2nd February); the Assumption (18th January, 15th August); and the Nativity (8th September). She found that interestingly, alignments on the Annunciation, Nativity or Assumption (15th August), were mainly aligned with the setting sun, whilst alignments on the Purification or Assumption (18th January), were aligned with the rising sun. She found that 34 of the 181 churches surveyed, aligned with the sun on the day of Annunciation (25th March), which has a deeply religious significance.

She also found that although ecclesiastic directives recommended that church axes be aligned with the equinox’s sunrise, only a few are. As well as that where rose windows exist to the western wall, the summer solstice sunset, enters the window, and the light flows towards the altar, which is a moment called the “highest light”, and represents the magnificence of Christ.

Andy Gaunt in ‘Archaeoastronomical and Topographic Survey at St Mary’s Church, Edwinstowe in Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire, 2017’, concludes that the church was in fact originally dedicated to King Edwin of Northumbria, who was later canonised, and who the settlement is named after, and that the church does in fact face the sunrise on the saint’s feast day of 12th October, in the year of the rebuilding of the church in 1175, and that the feast day, is also the date of Edwin’s death, at the Battle of Hatfield in 633AD.

Andy Gaunt also uses the local horizon to Edwinstowe as the source of the angle of the sunrise for the saint’s feast day, suggesting that any church which is facing the sunrise on a specific day is facing the sunrise as it appears in the church’s specific location. This means that there will be variation for churches with the same patron saint, in different locations, across Britain, but also in the Continent, and this of course allows for the degrees of deviation, found in other studies of large areas. He also outlines the deviations of angle when a church’s orientation was fixed to the rising or setting sun, on a particular date, in the historic past, due to the Julian calendar’s inaccuracy of the passage of time not equating to actual astronomical time, meaning that the date the angle was fixed, was incorrect, by a number of days. This meant that the east-west axis angle of orientation of a church could be out by a varying amount of degrees, depending upon when the church was built, the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, and the dates when the error was corrected.


Discussion

When we look at the varying theories above, and then the scholar’s studies which have credited or discredited each, one or two, in part, some, or wholly, we find that there is definitely some sort of truth, but not an all encompassing truth or proven theory, to all the data collected.

Not one set of data, where it has been collected, reveals just one clear and precise answer.

Some have suggested that some of the churches do in fact face east, from the use of a magnetic compass, with the substantial deviations in angle, caused by the changes to magnetic north over time; however most of the articles above rebuke this theory. A magnetic compass would not have been available back in the Middle Ages; however a ‘lodestone’ was. The etymology of the word means “way stone”, much like the word ‘lodestar’, meaning “way star”, which helped guide sea-farers during sea voyages. This was a naturally occurring magnetic ore, which could be used to magnetize an iron needle (much like you can with a magnet today, by stroking the needle or other iron object, to the magnet), and then this needle could be placed upon a buoyant material, such as straw or wood, as the first documentary evidence supports, inside a bowl of water. This floating magnetic needle compass could then indicate the direction of north / south. It is thought that these primitive compasses were used in the Dark Ages, but documentary evidence, records their use around the 13th century.

In some of the studies above, regarding the correlation between some of the theories above, regarding the rising or setting sun on specific days; albeit as a proportion of truth, which is not fully provable for every ancient or historic church, and of which reasons for the deviation in the point of the rising or setting sun on those specific days, have been suggested, which may affect the actual easterly angle, or Holy Alignment; make some of the claims more plausible; as well as some of the other theories, which may too, hold weight.

As one of the studies above, surmised, church orientation in the medieval period, must have been multi faceted, so why not many of the theories above, ringing true in some cases, and not others, whilst, as from the general discourse of the studies selected above, a lot of the theories, are rather plausible, or a mixture thereof. Especially with the complex nature to prove each church, and then apply each method, to a large enough sample to prove the theories beyond any shadow of doubt. And, that is if the method is suitable, and proven to be the most accurate way to proceed.

However, looking at the claims that churches are orientated to the rising or setting sun on specific days within the year the churches were first or later laid out: some scholars have completely rubbished the whole idea, but they are becoming the minority; others are tending towards that, as one answer, but not the full story; and others believe it to be the whole story. As more and more data is pointing towards it being used for a number of centuries, but not for the whole of the period of Christian church construction, and maybe not by every medieval Christian denomination, never mind region, or European country, it remains to be fully and satisfactorily proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, and if proven, where, when, by who, and why it was applied.

The problems with proving church orientation and alignment to the setting sun on a specific day in the past consist of:-

· Trying to equate a year of original foundation for an ancient or historic church which has most likely undergone, rebuilds, extensions, alterations, etc, over time, is fraught with difficulty. Even if rebuilds have built over the original church, using the exact same orientation, can this be fully proven with most churches?

· Trying to equate the specific patronal saint’s day, major or minor, or Christian holy day, or solar festival, to the angle of the sun which rose over the local horizon, if we know beyond a doubt which holy day was selected by the local Christian community; Church authority; patron, of an ecclesiastical or lay background; or a day selected by the master builder/mason?

· Trying to prove that the dedication was to only one patronal saint, or was it to two or three, etc? Or coupled with a solar festival, i.e. a solstice or equinox, too?

· Trying to surmise the rather difficult or sometimes impossible time correction caused by the Julian calendar, and when it was superseded by the Gregorian, and the corrections of deleting days, to correct the actual passage of time, to astronomical time.

· We then have to remember, if the church was orientated to a specific day, we have to take the point upon the local horizon where the sun rose or set, as well as remembering that the horizon may be obscured, and a local nearby topographical high point had to be utilised, to then set-out the axis of the rising or setting, taking into account, whether the sun was beginning its rising, ending its setting, half way there, in-between, or whether it appeared on the horizon, as a full orb, never mind the possibilities of human error, and the fact that if it was taken at a nearby high point, and then transposed later onto the site for the church, any discrepancy in repeating the angle, such as accuracy of the decimal places in between each 360 degree full circle (see later, ‘Method 2: Step 1: Setting Out the East-West Axis of the Rising Sun when the Horizon is Obscured at a Nearby Location’).

· Another factor may have caused deviation from the exact point on the specific day, and that is inclement weather, although it is possible that they could have used a ‘sunstone’, which was a navigational tool first used by the Vikings. It consisted of a crystal of Iceland spar or andulacite, which naturally polarises light, enabling the holder, to locate the position of the sun, even when obscured by clouds.


The Origin of the Myth

The origin of the myth of the rising or setting sun upon the local horizon at specific holy days, whether: patronal; major or minor; part of the Christian Calendar; or upon Solar solstices or equinoxes; to form the east-west alignment of individual churches, began in the antiquarian 18th and 19th century minds, according to some of the studies above, with two sources quoted.

One of these sources was the poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), who in December 1822 wrote a poem dedicating it to Lady Le Fleming (1784-1861) of Rydal Hall near Ambleside, in Westmorland (now Cumbria), who in July of the following year, laid the first stone for the Chapel of St Mary’s at Rydal. It is recorded that Wordsworth chose the site where this church was to be erected.

In the introduction to his Miscellaneous Poem XIII, he stated that: “Our churches, invariably perhaps, stand east and west, but why is by few persons exactly known; nor that the degree of deviation from due east often noticeable in the ancient ones was determined, in each particular case, by the point in the horizon, at which the sun rose upon the day of the saint to whom the church was dedicated.”

This theory formed the basis of the text of the poem:-

“When in the antique age of bow and spear
And feudal rapine clothed with iron mail,
Came ministers of peace, intent to rear
The Mother Church in yon sequestered vale;

Then, to her Patron Saint a previous rite
Resounded with deep swell and solemn close,
Through unremitting vigils of the night,
Till from his couch the wished-for Sun uprose.

He rose, and straight – as by divine command,
They, who had waited for that sign to trace
Their work’s foundation, gave with careful hand
To the high altar its determined place;

Mindful of Him who in the Orient born
There lived, and on the cross his life resigned,
And who, from out the regions of the morn,
Issuing in pomp, shall come to judge mankind.

So taught their creed; - nor failed the eastern sky,
The sweet and natural hopes that shall not die,
Long as the sun his gladsome course renews.
For us hath such prelusive vigil ceased;

Yet still we plant, like men of elder days,
Our Christian altar faithful to the east,
Whence the tall window drinks the morning rays;

That obvious emblem giving to the eye
Of meek devotion, which erewhile it gave,
That symbol of the dayspring from on high,
Triumphant o’er the darkness of the grave.”


Wordsworth includes that “to her [the church’s] Patron Saint a previous rite” and that “Through unremitting vigils of the night, [un]Till the wished-for Sun uprose” and then “They, who had waited for that sign to trace, Their work’s foundation, gave with careful hand, To the high altar its determined place” and that “Whence the tall window drinks the morning rays.”

This certainly suggests that the Patron Saint had been previously selected, and then that relentless watching out for the rising of the sun, was performed, in order to mark its position of rising upon the local horizon, on the church’s selected Patron Saint’s feast day. It also implies they traced with careful hand the foundation of this new ‘Work’ [the Church], so that they could determine the high altar’s place, upon the selected site for the Church, and so that once the tall window above the altar was built and in position, it could receive the morning rays, from the rising sun, every year, upon the patronal saint’s selected feast day.

The use of the word ‘trace’ and ‘with careful hand’, suggests that they used a parchment or paper, to record the angle of the rising sun, whilst positioning the sun with rods, upon the local horizon, possibly to that of a uniform point, if the horizon was not visible at the exact site for the church, or possibly by using a magnetic compass, which by this time, were readily available, to then duplicate the important angle, or as we saw above, ‘The Holy Alignment’, from the ‘careful hand tracing’ at the actual site of the church. However, in the Middle Ages, another uniform point would have been utilised, for this method, if the site of the church’s horizon was obscured, by say buildings, trees, or topographical constraints, see later.

Later scrutiny of the patronal saint’s feast day, and its inherent solar rising, and the east-west axis of the church, was found to equate to 2nd July 1823, and an important feast day, namely that of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Together with this, documentary evidence records that Rydal Chapel’s foundation stone was in fact laid on Wednesday 2nd July 1823, adding weight to the tradition of aligning churches to the rising sun on their patron saint’s feast days.

According to Hugh Benson in ‘Church Orientations and Patronal Festivals, The Antiquaries Journal, Volume 36, Issue 3-4, October 1956, Pages 205-213’, “Wordsworth does not tell us how he came to know this. It is reported to be a Scottish Masonic tradition.” He also tells us that “a very much earlier mention is to be found, by Silas Taylor (or Domville). Domville was a captain in the Parliamentary army, who later devoted himself to antiquarian pursuits. He died in 1678. One of his manuscripts contains this passage: “In the days of yore, when a church was to be built, they watched and prayed on the vigil of the dedication, and took that point of the horizon where the sun rose from the East, which makes that variation, so that few stand true, except those built [at] the equinoxes. I have experimented some churches and have found the line to point to that part of the horizon where the sun arises on the day of the saint to whom the church is dedicated.” During the Commonwealth Domville ransacked the cathedral libraries of Hereford and Worcester with great zeal. Hence he may have got his information from early sources.” And that “on the other hand, at his date, Domville might have had contact with the living tradition as a Masonic secret.”

Nigel Pennick in ‘Secrets of King’s College Chapel, 2011, Page 105’, also mentions this source: “Silas Taylor, a.k.a. Domville. As a captain in Cromwell’s Parliamentary army, Taylor/Domville built up a fine collection of ancient manuscripts. During the Civil War, his detachment looted the cathedral libraries at Hereford and Worcester, and his knowledge of orientation probably came from some of these illicitly acquired ancient ecclesiastical writings. One manuscript, sold at his death in 1678, had the passage [nearly the same as Hugh Benson’s transcript], “In the days of yore, when a church was to be built, they watched and prayed on the vigil of the dedication, and took that point of the horizon where the sun arose from the East, which makes that variation so that few stand true, except those built between the two equinoxes. I have experimented some churches, and have found the line to point to that part of the horizon where the sun arses on the day of that Saint to whom the church is dedicated.””

Both Hugh Benson and Nigel Pennick include that the rite of setting out a church to the rising sun on the feast day of its patronal saint, is a Scottish Masonic tradition, recorded by W.A. Laurie in ‘The History of Free Masonry and the Grand Lodge of Scotland, 1859, Page 414’, and Nigel Pennick goes on to quote from Laurie: “On the evening previous, the Patrons, Ecclesiastics and Masons assembled and spent the night in devotional exercises: one being placed to watch the rising sun, gave notice when his rays appeared above the horizon. When fully in view, the Master Mason sent out a man with a rod, which he ranged in line between the altar and the sun, and thus fixed a line or orientation.”

* * * * * * * 

The following illustration shows the Three Builders: the Master Mason to the centre, holding his compasses, or dividers (the actual Builder and Designer); the Patron to the right, in this case a man of aristocracy and a Knight (the Investor / the Money / the Church’s Client); and the Church or Ecclesiastic, the Bishop, Priest or Monk, holding a list of some kind (the actual Client, the future person in charge of the building).


‘The Three Builders’ ('Frontispiece to Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s 
‘Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française, 1854’


‘The Secret Art of Setting Out’

The role of the ‘Setting Out’ of a castle, cathedral, minster, or parish church was usually conspicuous with a master craftsman, sometimes a master mason, who specialised in the ‘Art’, or a master carpenter, who too knew of the ‘Art’. As we know abbeys, monasteries, cathedrals, minsters, etc, were the greatest of buildings, constructed of stone, but also with timber elements, such as their roofs, or spires, with complicated layouts, design features, and intricately carved and decorated embellishments, and most parish churches in the Middle Ages, were also constructed of stone, again with elements of timber, and often had similar but scaled down layouts, features, and embellishments, but some were also constructed of timber and wattle and daub, or a mixture of both, to varying degrees. We must also point out that some remote, rural and small churches, may have been constructed by local crafts people, but even then someone would have had to ‘set out’ the layout of the foundations, to receive the building, and to last until today, they must have been ‘set out’ by a craftsman, and built by their guiding eye, for them to be square and true, and remain today.

This ‘Art’ we know as surveying today, but since ancient times, people with the skill of transposing the heavens upon the earth, or aligning a structure to the constellations or stars, sun, and its major transitions through the year, i.e. solstices and equinoxes, as well as the moon, and possibly the planets at certain points too, as well as aligning structures with each other, fell to someone who had these skills and could in essence ‘survey’.


Engraved Title-Page to Aaron Rathborne, 'The Surveyor' (London, W. Stansby 
for W. Burre, 1616) (Image reproduced under a Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) © Trustees of the British Museum; Museum number: 1870,0709.45.


Architects were unheard of in the medieval world; the term was only used to refer to the “Great Architect of the Universe”, i.e. Almighty God. Master Masons were the Master Craftsman, Designer and Building Contractor, as well as other stations, as the leading Builder to any serious project.

It wasn’t until the Renaissance in Italy, and the rediscovery of Vitruvius, that the profession of the Architect, started to merge, with Vitruvius’ description of the perfect architect, who must be skilled in all the arts and sciences. The rebirth of this idea radically altered the nature of building design, often with classical styles of architecture, just think of Sir Christopher Wren, and St Paul’s. Architecture became worthy of the study of the aristocracy, often utilising the artistic skill and mind, rather than them having the knowledge of building and structural technology, that a master craftsman had, with them now relying upon the master craftsmen, to decide how to construct their complicated designs. This led to increased problem solving, to enable these complicated designs, to work, which in turn led to massive leaps in the understanding of engineering, which we are still advancing by leaps and bounds, in the present day.

Back in the Middle Ages, the Master Mason to a project, would have either ‘set out’ the building, or given it over to one of his master craftsmen, who specialised in sacred geometry, to survey its position in the landscape, and its bearing to whatever feature, heavenly, or earthly, or neither, to which it was to be aligned.

In the Middle Ages, there were no written texts on building, craftsmen handed down their closely guarded knowledge, through their guilds, or lodges, from master to apprentice, or from father to son. Their trade, and often skills they had learnt, were kept secret, as those skills were how they contracted work, either from Masters who had seen their work, and therefore knew they could rely upon them and their skill, or from their own guild or lodge, and its hierarchy, as well as working on projects with other lodges, and therefore other craftsmen. Why share a better way of doing things, or show others, who you cannot trust, how to get great results, by employing certain techniques, if they are not your son, or apprentice, or lay brother, and may then compete against you, in the wider world, taking essentially your hard working livelihood?

* * * * * * * 

As we saw above in ‘The Origin of the Myth’, there was a traditional rite, which was alluded to by Wordsworth in 1822, but also mentioned before this, in a 17th century manuscript, with similar allusion, to a possible secretive ecclesiastical rite, or that the writer of this may also have found the information from a secret Masonic living tradition. However, we are also told that it may also be a Scottish Freemasonry tradition, and it is recorded in the ‘The History of Free Masonry and the Grand Lodge of Scotland, 1859, Page 414’, that on setting solar sunrise orientation, “On the evening previous, the Patrons, Ecclesiastics and Masons assembled and spent the night in devotional exercises: one being placed to watch the rising sun, gave notice when his rays appeared above the horizon. When fully in view, the Master Mason sent out a man with a rod, which he ranged in line between the altar and the sun, and thus fixed a line or orientation.”

Again, Nigel Pennick in ‘Secrets of King’s College Chapel, 2011’, also suggests an ancient secretive tradition, in the formation of Church orientation, in the medieval period. He says that “in England in 1443, sacred geometry was a fine art. This ancient knowledge was taught by the monastic schools, the universities and to the apprentices of the free masons and carpenter’s guilds by their masters.” He goes on to outline the fact that churches should face due east, according to Continental medieval writers, one such writer complaining that some faced solstice sunrises, but not equinoctial east-west. He then includes that “many medieval churches, especially in northern Europe, are orientated roughly eastwards, but certainly not on the equinoctial line” and that rarely they are aligned to the equinoctial sunrise, “but the reason for the variation in church orientations is recorded nowhere in the canonical writings of the church.” He then goes on to outline some of the theories we have included above.

* * * * * * * 

Also now we have to remember that I revealed above, concerning Wordsworth’s inclusions into his poem, about the ‘setting out’ of the foundation and altar, to the rising sun on the selected patronal saint’s feast day for the church at Rydal, that:-

Wordsworth includes that “to her [the church’s] Patron Saint a previous rite” and that “Through unremitting vigils of the night, [un]Till the wished-for Sun uprose” and then “They, who had waited for that sign to trace, Their work’s foundation, gave with careful hand, To the high altar its determined place” and that “Whence the tall window drinks the morning rays.”

This certainly suggests that the Patron Saint had been previously selected, and then that relentless watching out for the rising of the sun, was performed, in order to mark its position of rising upon the local horizon, on the church’s selected Patron Saint’s feast day. It also implies they traced with careful hand the foundation of this new ‘Work’ [the Church], so that they could determine the high altar’s place, upon the selected site for the Church, and so that once the tall window above the altar was built and in position, it could receive the morning rays, from the rising sun, every year, upon the patronal saint’s selected feast day.

The use of the word ‘trace’ and ‘with careful hand’, suggests that they used a parchment or paper, to record the angle of the rising sun, whilst positioning the sun with rods, upon the local horizon, possibly to that of a uniform point, if the horizon was not visible at the exact site for the church, or possibly by using a magnetic compass, which by this time, were readily available, to then duplicate the important angle, or as we saw above, ‘The Holy Alignment’, from the ‘careful hand tracing’ at the actual site of the church. However, in the Middle Ages, another uniform point would have been utilised, for this method, if the site of the church’s horizon was obscured, by say buildings, trees, or topographical constraints, see later.

Now, the last line of that discourse, says “However, in the Middle Ages, another uniform point would have been utilised, for this method, if the site of the church’s horizon might be obscured, by say buildings, trees, or topographical constraints.”

Now that uniform point, that could be used to reference an angle or an arc of one alignment from, to a repeatable procedure, to transpose it to say, another site, i.e. if a church is obscured, then a nearby vigil is held at a local high point, where the rising sun may be easily observed, transecting the horizon, then what you may ask is that uniform reference point?

The answer is the North Star, Pole or Polar Star, Guiding Star, or Lodestar, remember we gave the latter’s meaning above, as ‘way star’. It has been known since ancient times as a point of reference for the North, as it remains in a visibly fixed position throughout the course of the night and hence was used by astronomers, travellers and famously sea farers, for navigation, although it is slightly inexact of the geographic north pole.

After using this uniform reference point, by placing two rods which directly orientate with the North Star, either on the night preceding the rising sun, or the night following; and then placing another rod to orientate the rising sun, to the line of the North Star, either after or before, an angle or arc maybe calculated, by dividing a pair of large compasses between the two angles, and recording the angle upon a measuring arc, like shown above on the depiction of the Master Mason on the drawing of ‘The Three Builders’ (from ‘Frontispiece to Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s ‘Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française, 1854’). Or by creating an angle or arc from two rods, which are placed from the first orientation rod, along the orientation of the sunrise to the rod, in-between, and along the orientation of the North Star to the rod, again in-between, and then fixing a third rod to keep the angle or arc rigid, so that it may be used when transposing that angle from re orientating the North Star, onto the actual site of the church, where the sunrise horizon was obscured, where it is rather unlikely that the North Star would also be obscured, when it should tower over any obstruction, and this procedure, may be carried out, when a clear night is apparent, because now we have the angle or arc, from the point of the North Star, and knowing the North Star is for all intents and purposes, virtually immovable, we may map out the angle from the North Star of the Sunrise we wish to use as the exact east-axis of the church’s alignment. See diagrams below: ‘Method 2: Step 1: Setting Out the East-West Axis of the Rising Sun when the Horizon is Obscured at a Nearby Location’ and ‘Method 2: Step 2: Setting Out the East-West Axis of the Rising Sun by Duplicating the Angle from a Nearby Location when the Horizon is Obscured’.

To take all the above into focus, we now have to understand some of the symbolism and philosophy of the Freemasons, themselves, who in fact claim direct lineage from the Masonic Guilds of the Medieval Masons, and also allude that The Craft, has its roots in the earliest Ancients, especially of those ancient cultures mentioned in the Holy Bible, namely Egypt and Israel, as well as other ancient Middle Eastern cultures.

The North Star has long been venerated by Freemasonry, because it is descended from the ancient craft of builders, and has long been an important point of orientation, especially in times before the invention of the compass. Another particularly useful importance of the North Star is if a building required for a perfect north-south axis, then it allowed for this perfect alignment, again by using two rods, to mark out its orientation in respect of the site on the ground, in line with the virtually immovable star.

The use of the North Star to orientate a building, would also allow for the building to be aligned to the east-west axis, and this may be the reason some churches align to true east, because this was the method utilised, without giving grace to the rising or setting sun on a specific day, but instead to the immovable North Star and its bearing for the East.

In Freemasonry, the North Star, was the eye of the northern hemisphere, and symbolised eternity, because it never apparently changed with time, attracting the attributes of ‘just and true’, and therefore the Great Judge, or Just One, which is God, Most High, Lord of the All-seeing Eye, who sees the heavenly stars beneath him, rotate around him, as in early history, everything revolved around the Earth: the stars; the sun; the moon; the planets; and the comets; the only exception to this was the North Star, who remained constant, and had his everlasting eye upon creation. And therefore was known to the Freemasons, as a uniform reference and guide of everything that should be ‘just and true’, like buildings, which rise from the ground ‘square and upright’, so does the North Star, high above the Earth, immovable, omnipotent and godly.

In life we are supposed to measure or govern our buildings and our lives, according to the principals God laid down for mankind. In masonry this may be represented by the verses contained within the Bible, or parts of the ritual content, used to instruct the brethren of Freemasonry, but just think of what the import of the above is, “God, Most High”, who keeps his eye upon creation. An artwork by freemason, artist and poet, William Blake, used for the frontispiece to his work ‘Europe a Prophecy, 1794’, titled ‘The Ancient of Days setting a Compass to Earth’, then you may certainly draw parallels, that the rite of setting out a church to the rising sun, especially if the horizon is obscured, or if it is to be kept, until a time when the actual east-west axis of the church is to be set out, then, you may easily imagine from this artwork, below, the Master Mason instructed by God, to follow suit, and measure out the earthly design for one of God’s Houses, exactly as God would have shown, from His Heavenly abode, symbolically if you will.


‘The Ancient of Days setting a Compass to Earth’ by William Blake, circa 1794 


A portion of the Symbols of Freemasonry (reproduced from ‘Masonic Orations, L.P. Metham, George Kenning, 16 Great Queen Street, W. C. 1889.’) 


The diagram above shows some of the most important symbols in Freemasonry, obviously you know from the above, that the symbol of the eye to the centre, and above all, is God, Most High, symbolic and alluding in one import to the North Star, as well as to the left the symbol of the Sun, and to the right the symbol of the moon, surrounded by a circle of the seven eyes or circles or pole stars, marking the cycle of procession or the seven stars of Revelation, which mark the Second Advent, along with atop the pillars, the celestial and terrestrial globes. It also shows the most famous of Freemasonic imagery, the letter ‘G’ in the centre of the square and compasses, which are sat upon the level, upon which stand the pillars, obviously alluding to the setting out of buildings, for the purpose of this research, although there are far greater allegorical meanings than just that.

Again, as above in the ‘The History of Free Masonry and the Grand Lodge of Scotland, 1859, Page 414’, that on setting solar sunrise orientation, “On the evening previous, the Patrons, Ecclesiastics and Masons assembled and spent the night in devotional exercises: one being placed to watch the rising sun, gave notice when his rays appeared above the horizon. When fully in view, the Master Mason sent out a man with a rod, which he ranged in line between the altar and the sun, and thus fixed a line or orientation.”

So if the horizon was visible from where the church was to be sited, and not obscured by trees, buildings or topography, then when it appeared, “the Master Mason sent out a man with a rod, which he ranged in line between the alter and the sun”, and therefore, the fixed line or orientation could be produced. See diagram below: ‘Method 1: Setting Out the East-West Axis of the Rising Sun when the Horizon is Visible’.

Again, if this east-west axis is to be set to the altar stone, at a later date, two rods could be used to range, or mark out, and map the exact orientation of the sunrise, on the specifically chosen day, for the church in question, for the altar stone, and foundations to be organised afterwards.

If the church is to face the setting sun on a specifically chosen day, then Method 1 above is reversed, and the two steps in Method 2 utilising the North Star, when the horizon is obscured, just need to be reversed, and instead of the angle or arc being clockwise from the North Star, it is anti-clockwise.


Method 1: Setting Out the East-West Axis of the Rising Sun 
when the Horizon is Visible 


Method 2: Step 1: Setting Out the East-West Axis of the Rising Sun 
when the Horizon is Obscured at a Nearby Location 


Method 2: Step 2: Setting Out the East-West Axis of the Rising Sun by 
Duplicating the Angle from a Nearby Location when the Horizon is Obscured 


* * * * * * * 

Why A Myth? 

Obviously anything connected with the medieval Church, would have been hidden from those not ordained into its ranks, just like the bible was hidden from the majority of people, other than those taught in the Holy Order, or those who could read Latin. This of course changed when the Bible was written into English and other languages in the 16th century.

The 16th century in England, also saw the act of Reformation, which caused much knowledge to be lost. Never mind the ensuing Puritanical pursuit of destroying anything deemed to be connected with Catholicism, right up to and after the Civil War. It saw the destruction of many written books, accounts, traditions, calendars, traditions, customs, etc, of the monastic denominations, which must have destroyed most if not all of the instances, if any such existed, of the practice of church orientation, and of course local feast day observances of patron saints of regions, under the control at some point, of one of the monastic houses, and also the historic timeline of any original or changes to the dedication of the churches under their rule, patron saints, never mind, any dates of construction or foundation of religious buildings.

However, even in Europe, there is little documentary evidence of how or why churches, east-west axis was set upon the rising or setting sun on a specific day. This again might be due to the secret nature of using what is essentially Solar Worship, maybe because the Church did not want people, even if they were literate, knowing that a more Pagan aspect of Christianity was utilised in the most important aspects of the faith, the building of the Houses of God.

For the learned of the time, some Christian festivals were known to have been set upon the dates of Pagan festivals, and even churches built upon sacred sites.

However, this in no secret, Christianity spread and was adopted easier, when the earlier beliefs and traditions of the population were taken on, and added to the new faith, and with the adoption of these sites and festivals, it gave the new faith, a strong and ancient foundation, showing the new converts, that the new Christian religion was both new as well as ancient. Much like the New Testament was preceded by the Old Testament.

The biggest reason, therefore, must be what we touched upon above, that anything connected with the Holy Orders was secret to all but those within the orders, or those trusted with such information. The mysteries of the Church were her own, and exclusive to those entrusted with her mysteries, much like the secrets of the rites of communion, again, before the Reformation, performed in Latin, were beyond the reach of the majority.

Nigel Pennick alluded to this secretive practice in ‘Secrets of King’s College Chapel, 2011’, where he said church orientation in the medieval period, was "an ancient secretive tradition”, and that: “the reason for the variation in church orientations is recorded nowhere in the canonical writings of the church.”

We only have to look at the Church in Europe and the Inquisition, both Nostradamus and Galileo, fell fowl of the Church, and were investigated as heretics. If the general populous knew the Church was also involved in the astrological or astronomical arts, they may have questioned its authority, and hypocrisy. The most important Christian festival, namely Easter, was set upon its date by the command of the heavens, i.e. it was set each year according to the cycles of the moon and the spring equinox, i.e. the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox. Again this practice was never specified in detail, and sometimes it followed different processes in its computation, and not every country or order followed the same process for the selection of the date. The setting of the date of Easter, caused many disagreements, and even led the Church to excommunicate, or even execute people for heresy.

Due to the Church wanting the rites of Christian tradition to be exclusive and mysterious, this meant that only those trusted with such information, would have known the practice of setting the east-west axis to a specific day in the year. Obviously those who built these magnificent structures for the worship of God on behalf of the Church, needed to know this practice, and therefore were entrusted with this knowledge. Therefore as Wordsworth and Domville, who wrote about this secret rite in antiquity, revealed that freemasons knew about this rite, and this means that the medieval guilds of stonemasons, from which freemasonry is said to have traditionally grown from, then like the Church, this rite was kept secret from all those outside of the building crafts, and the Masonic guilds themselves.

Just like the drawing of ‘The Three Builders’ which appeared in ‘Frontispiece to Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s ‘Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française, 1854’, we can see that the patron is looking on, whilst the Master Mason is conversing with the Churchman, which alludes to the trust between the Church and the Builder / Master Mason. Over the centuries of church building, secret knowledge pertaining to the mysteries of God would have been entrusted to these builders and their craftsmen. We only have to look at the magnificent cathedrals across Europe, which still incite expressions of awe to those exploring their intricate architecture, detail and magnitude. We know now about the sacred geometry used in these magnificent buildings, and some of their decorative features and what they reveal about the mysteries of the Church, but even now some meanings of their iconography, are still a mystery, with examples being ‘green men’ and ‘sheela na gigs’, which I have wrote about before, but even in our modern times, there are still many mysteries of the early and medieval Church still remaining, and church orientation or alignment is just one of those. We only have to look at the blockbuster films or books which have been written about aspects of Christianity’s formation, history, whether lost or secret, and its rites, customs and traditions, or its Holy Orders, and the Freemasons themselves, to realise how much the mystery of that which is hidden or has been lost, excites those not in the know, or the possibility of uncovering the real truth, from something lost to the mists of time.

* * * * * * * 

Only with further research of an extensive sample of churches, and continued study, across Europe, may we finally resolve the mystery of church orientation and alignment, much like other mysteries still perplexing us today, and finally come up with indisputable evidence, which can no longer be left to the realm of speculation.

I find Eva Spinazzè’s conclusion to her study of church orientation to be the most enduring comment to end this part of the article upon: “a forgotten tradition of the Church has been rediscovered.”

And therefore, who knows what other forgotten traditions and rites are still out there to be rediscovered?


Examples from Cheshire and North Staffordshire

The following Google Maps Satellite Imagery depicts the orientation of different historic churches with different patron saints, along with a superimposed east-west axis in red, and a superimposed protractor, depicting the angle of orientation from North; from Cheshire and North Staffordshire.

This should illustrate the differences, and also the similarities in orientation. If on-site measurements were taken, they could be much more accurate than what appears below, however these are really just for illustration purposes only, to show how much different churches deviate from true East.

You will see from some of the examples below, that they face exactly due east, this may have been orientated using the North Star, to find the bearing directly due east.

However, you will also realise just how hard it is to attribute a specific way in which they were orientated too, when comparing similar saints, although the saints’ patronage, has for ease of reference taken who they are dedicated to today. If they were always these saints’ patronages, then the differences in some examples may mean a different construction year, century, etc, or that the rising or setting sun was taken. But overall you’ll realise why it is such a difficult process to apply just one theory to their orientation.



All the Google Maps Satellite Imagery has been reproduced under their fair usage policy. 
“Imagery © 2018 Bluesky, DigitalGlobe, Getmapping plc, Infotera Ltd & Bluesky, Map data 
©2018 Google (https://www.google.co.uk/maps)” 


St Mary’s on the Hill Church, Chester 


St Mary’s Church, Acton 


St Mary’s Church, Nantwich 


St Mary’s Church, Sandbach 


St Mary’s Church, Astbury 


St Mary’s Church, Weaverham 


St Mary’s Church, Nether Alderley 


St Mary & All Saints’ Church, Great Budworth 


St Mary’s Church, Halton 


St Mary’s Church, Thornton Le Moors 


St Peter’s Church, Plemstall 


St Michael & All Angels’ Church, Middlewich 


St Michael’s Church, Baddiley 


St John the Baptist’s Church, Chester 


St John the Baptist’s Church, Keele 


St Luke’s Church, Goostrey 


St Luke’s Church, Holmes Chapel 


St James the Great’s Church, Audlem 


St James the Great’s Church, Audley 


St James’ Church, Gawsworth 


St James & St Paul’s Church, Marton 


St Andrew’s Church, Tarvin 


St Helen’s Church, Tarporley 


St Margaret’s Church, Wrenbury 


St Margaret’s Church, Betley 


St Werburgh’s Cathedral, Chester 


St Chad’s Tower, Wybunbury 


St Chad’s Church, Farndon 


St Chad’s Church, Holt 


St Chad’s Church, Over 


St Boniface’s Church, Bunbury 


St Oswald’s Church, Malpas 


St Oswald’s Church, Lower Peover 


St Bertelin & St Mary’s Priory, Norton 


St Bertoline’s Church, Barthomley 


St Wilfrid’s Church, Davenham 


St Bartholomew’s Church, Church Minshull 


St Edith’s Church, Shocklach 


All Saints’ Church, Madeley 


All Saints’ Church, Siddington


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