More Surviving Churches


In a previous chapter there was a description of several churches of Anglo-Saxon date still surviving in various parts of the country; and in the persent chapter there will be a brief account of some others of this period which are worth a visit. Of course there are hundreds of churches in which Anglo-Saxon work are to be seen, here there will be only churches which show a large part of the original structure still intact.

The first church to be talked about is St. Nicholas at Leicester, which appears to date from the Seventh Century, and which stands close beside the “Jewry Wall,” a ruined structure of Roman times said by tradition to be part of a temple of Janus, built in the days when Leicester was called Ratae.

The original church now forms only the nave of the present building, for the side walls were pierced by arches in early Norman times, and aisles were added to the north and south, while the chancel at the east end, where now the choir sits, was reconstructed anda tower built above it, and still later the present chancel was added aas a further addition at the east end.

Thus today the visitor wishing to see the church as it was in Anglo-Saxon times has to pass straight into this nave, and to forget these additional aisles and chancels and the arches leading into them; and even when the visitor is in the nave they need to shut from their mind`s eye the modern pews and the pulpit.

Having done so, however, they will at once realize that they stand where their forebears stood 1,200 plus years ago, for the stark masonry of the walls has no plaster to hide it, and its age is clearly revealed; while high up in the north wall the two little windows of the original structure are still to be seen, the arches above them being constructed of Roman tiles taken from the ruined temple over the way.

It must have been a small, high-roofed little building, dimly lit and mysterious; and here, as in nearly all the surviving churches of this remote period, the visitor will be impressed first of all by the gloom and the mystery of the place, as also by its smallness. The clergy of the Seventh Century seem to have desired to foster all that was occult and magical in their religion, and consciously to have erected their churches not altogether as public places of worship but rather as mystic shrines – dark little fanes where the awful sacraments are administered in the ghostly half-light, and the flickering lamps indistinctly illuminated the altar and the awe inspiring holy relics upon it, throwing up great shadows upon the bare walls, and making unearthly and supernatural the stealthy figures of the priests. We need to remember that at this time the church was Orthodox, the Church of Rome was slowly taking over the Church to eventually become the Roman Catholic Church in 1054 A.D. when it brokeaway from the Mother Church of Orthodoxy.

Another interesting church is that of St. Lawrence at Pittington, some five miles/8km north-east of Durham. Pittington was a mining village, but the church stands about a mile/1.6km to the south, which today with all the colleries now closed to give open countryside, with only a few cottages by it. The name is dervived either from the Anglo-Saxon word `pynding`, meaning a mill dam, or else from a family called `Pitting,` or some similar name; and the termination –ton is either the usual tun, spoken as tuun, “enclosure” or dun, spoken as duun, meaning “hill,” and having reference to the hill which here rises abruptly from the plain.

The nave of this church is of early Anglo-Saxon date, and the original windows are to be seen; but in Norman times the north wall was pierced by four beautifully decorated, and indeed unique, arches opening into a new aisle, and afterwards other additions were made to the structure.

In the splay of oneof the above mentioned windows there still remain two fragments of paintings which oncecovered the walls of the church, and which date from the early years of the Norman Conquest. One of these fragments shows St. Cuthbert being consecrated Bishop of Lindisfarne or Holy Island by Theodore, Archbihop of Canterbury, behind whom stands King Ecgfrith of Northumbria (671-685). The other fragment represents an incident in Cuthbert`s life, when, while sitting at meat with the Abbess Aelfleda at the monastery of “Osingadun” near Whitby, he suddenly turned pale, and dropped the knife he was holding, while his eyes became fixed in a vacant stare. Having regained his senses, he explained that he had had a premonition that a certain shepherd at the monastery had fallen from a tree and had been killed, this vision being followed shartly afterwards by the arrival of a messenger who conveyed the identical news to the Abbess, as we see in the picture.

Although these paintings are slightly later than the epoch with which this book is dealing, they represent incidents which took place in the Seventh Century, and are thus of great interest to the student of this period. There is also an Anglo-Saxon or Danish sundial to be seen here, built into the south wall, outside the church.

In the country of Durham there are several other churches – at Billingham, Hart, Norton, Sockburn, and elsewhere – which are of Anglo-Saxon date, beside that at Escombe, described earlier. In the porch of the church of Sockburn there are some twenty five fragments of stonework of this period to be seen: quite a little museum.

In the church of St. Wystan at Repton, Derbyshire, there is a remarkable crypt beneath the chancel, once part of the abbey built in the Seventh Century. The orginal outer walls of this crypt still stand, and the vaulting belongs to the reign of Eadgar (959-975) as also do the rough pillars with their spiral decoration. Many of the Mercian royal family were buried in this abbey, including King Wiglaf (827-839), and his grandson Wystan, who was murdered in 850 A.D., and afterwards, being canonized, became the patron saint of the church.

Heysham, the little Lancashire port, a few miles/km from Lancaster, possesses some important relics of this period. On the grassy top of thecliffs overlooking the bay stand the wind-swept ruins of the small chapel of St. Patrick, traditionally marking the pace where the great Irish saint came ashore after being shipwrecked in Morecombe Bay. The building probably dates from the Ninth Century, and was perhaps erected by Irish missionaries, who may have named it after St. Patrick in memory of this adventure. It was a single room not quite thirty foot/9.1m and less than 10 foot/3.1m broad, without a chancel or porch; but now only parts of the bre walls remain standing. In the wall there is a well-preserved doorway, and this is so distinctly of Anglo-Saxon, not Celtic, workmanship that one would have to regard the church as English rather than Irish, were it not for its name, and for the fact that every Anglo-Saxon church had a chancel or some such addition to the main building, whereas this has none. Just to the west of these ruins there are six empty graves cut in the rock, each shaped to receive a human form, and each having a socket at the head in which a stone cross was probably fixed; but it is an open question whether these tombs belong to the period before or after the Norman Conquest.

A short distance to the east stands the parish church of St. Peter`s, wherein the later additions and restorations have not wholly hidden the original Anglo-Saxon structure, which can be seen in parts of the nave, while at the west end there is a doorway of that period now blocked up. In the churchyard there is part of the shaft of an elaborately sculptured Anglo-Saxon cross, and a Scandinavian hogback tombstone with figures sculptured upon it; while built into the walls of the church there are some fragments of stone carving of this period.

The tower of St. Benedict`s Church in Benet Street, Cambridge, is a good example of late Anglo-Saxon work. In the Cathedral at Oxford, a piece of the wall at the east end of the choir aisle and Lady Chapel seems to be part of the original church built by St. Frideswyde a few years before her death in 739 A.D.

At kirk Hammerton in Yorkshire the original Anglo-Saxon church and tower still exist, though now the former has become only the aisle of a modern building.

The church at Hurley in Berkshire, some four miles/6.4km north-east of Henley, is largely of Anglo-Saxon date, and at the east end two of the windows of that period stil survive. It is said that the sister of Edward the Confessor was buried here, but there arenow no traces of her tomb.

Finally, the final church to be mentioned is the church at Brixworth in Northamptonshire, which was built about 680 A.D., perhaps on the site of an earlier church of Roman-British times. The structure was parlty rebuilt more than once before Norman times, and in Norman and mediaeval days it assumed its present shape. In the late Anglo-Saxon period a semi-circular turret was added to the west side of the earlier square tower, similar to the turret to be seen at Brigstock in the sme county and of the same date; and it is this feature perhaps, which will first strike the eye of the visitor.