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Parish History Notes 5: The Magnetic North

As early as the fifteenth century, navigators were aware that the compass provided only an approximation of true north. Actually, in the year 1600, the needle was aiming at a spot in the Arctic Ocean a thousand miles away from the North Pole. This magnetic pole has wandered extensively since that time. The first map of compass deviation was published in 1701, so by the eighteenth century it was possible for sailors to set their courses with accuracy. 

Church builders also learned to pay attention to the magnetic deviation. Consistent with Medieval traditions, Episcopal churches, and many other houses of worship, are constructed with the congregation facing an altar placed on the east side.  But how concerned were colonial church builders with the accuracy of this orientation?  We can observe that early Virginia churches, including Jamestown, Ware, Bruton Parish and Merchants Hope, are oriented more simply with reference to magnetic north. On the other hand, by the 1730s builders were more likely to place a foundation with correction for the compass error.

The compass orientation is potentially important for the archaeological study of Fork Church because posthole features found under the building are aligned with magnetic north, while the church itself is constructed to align with true north. The postholes, then, may have secured the fence that we know was installed around the Chapel in the Forks in 1724. This evidence supports the assumption that the chapel occupied space immediately next to the church. Some future research will either prove or challenge the theory.