Tilton-on-the-Hill is for me the embodiment of the joys of the English parish church. With it’s gorgeous ironstone exterior it positively glows in the sunlight. It has evolved, of course, over the centuries but you feel that not one change has been made that was unnecessary or done in doubtful taste. Even the Victorians seem to have contained their “modernising” zeal. It is every inch the village church.
Domesday recorded a priest here in AD 1086 so we can be sure there was a pre-Conquest church here but of that nothing remains except, curiously, the font. The church was rebuilt in around 1180. It was a three-celled affair with nave, chancel and the lowest stage of the present west tower. In 1180 you might have foreseen a late Norman or Transitional style but in fact what little remains of this church is in the Early English style and this is especially conspicuous on the tower arch and in the lancet west window. There’s not a round arch to be seen. Unusually, the floor plan of the chancel does not seem to have changed from that day to this, despite the many phases of redevelopment since that time.
A south aisle was added in about 1260.and the windows we see today are original. They are in early Decorated style so, once again, Tilton was bang in line with architectural fashion. The Church Guide (the one I have, remarkably, is dated 1996!) speculates that the south aisle was commissioned by Sir Jehan de Diggebye whose effigy - and that of his wife - are located between aisle and nave and have been dated to 1269. If Sir Jehan (John?) was the founder then it is a fairly safe bet that he also endowed a chantry chapel for himself and his family at the east end of the aisle. At some time, the tower also was raised by two more stages in Decorated style.
The north aisle followed later in the thirteenth century. The arcade has some carved capitals of beasts and this reflects the revival of church sculpture during the Decorated period, having become almost moribund in the Early English. For reasons we can’t understand, the arcade was aligned at right angles to the north side of the tower arch. This gives the church a curiously asymmetric look from the inside. Just to really confuse things the masons seem to have taken down the chancel arch and relocated it a couple of feet to the south as if to avoid a similar aesthetic issue. I don’t know whether this was done at the time or later. Either way, it seems that the ground plan was seen as sub-optimal but presumably alterations to the tower or the aisle to “improve” the west end were just too complex. The north aisle windows we see today were replaced in the latter part of the fourteenth or early part of the fifteenth century.
As we will see, almost every roofline of this church has a sub-parapet cornice friezes with masses of carvings. None of these, however, were contemporary with the structures they adorn. They surely were added during an early fifteenth century rebuilding phase when the nave walls were raised in order to create a clerestory. I believe that the aisles acquired their embattled parapets at that time, and that their rooflines were altered, probably to lower the pitch of the roofs to facilitate the installation of lead which would “creep” down from a steeply-pitched roof. The clerestory itself is similarly adorned and it is almost inconceivable that the decoration was not all added at the same time. Similarly, gargoyles were now needed to take water away from the freshly-parapeted roofs. This is a pattern that has emerged amongst all of the churches I include in my book, “Demon Carvers and Mooning Men”. The Church Guide supports my view that this was a single program of work but dates it as late as 1490. This is much too late for carving in this style and, as we will see, the very same masons carved at other East Midlands churches. What we can say is that the clerestory is an unusually lofty and fine one and it is very much in the Perpendicular style.
After that the church, like most others, was tweaked here and there with new windows but the structure was substantially unchanged thereafter. There was refurbishment in 1850 but this left the structure pretty well as it has been since the fifteenth century.