Some Surviving Churches


(Greensted in Essex; Earl`s Barton in Northamptonshire; Sompting in Sussex; Escombe in Durham; Dover in Kent; Wing in Buckinghamshire; and Bradford-upon-Avon in Wiltshire).

An immense number of churches throughout the country still exhibit traces of Anglo-Saxon workmanship; here a window, there a door, here some course of masonry, there a part of the foundations. But there are a few also which have not largely been rebuilt, and whose walls have survived almost intact down to the present day.

St. Andrew church in Grensted, a mile/2.4km from Chipping Ongar, in Essex. The chancel is a Norman addition to the original structure, and the wooden tower and spire at the west end of the building date from about 1400 A.D., the nave stands more or less as it was built, in the 1060`s.

This long survival of the building, which has been in more or less continuous use since Anglo-Saxon days, is the more surprising because, as you may clearly see from the outside, it is simply a primitive log-hut, the walls being composed of split oak-trees placed upright and close together, a row of about two dozen of these making the length of one of the sides of the church. The curved sides of the spit logs form the rough outer face of the walls, and the flat surfaces form the smooth inner face, which was probably plastered.

The logs are just 6 feet/1.8m in height, but are raised upon a sort of sill at the bottom, into which they are fixed with wooden pins; and a wooden tongue joins each log to the next. The roof rises at a steep angle from the line of the tops of these logs.

In 1848 a certain amount of restoration was carried out, a few new logs being inserted in place of those which had decayed, and the sill or foundation being rebuilt; but substantially the structure remained as it was, so that one may truly say that the old timber has heard the same words of divine worship spoken by the East Saxons in the Anglo-Saxon tongue as now, some 40 generations later, it hears spoken in English by the men of Essex.

An incident in the history of this ancient church maybe mentioned. In the year 870 A.D., the Viking invaders killed King Edmund of East Anglia near Thetford, which will explain in another chapter; and after his death he was canonized as a saint, and became one of the most popular miracle-workers in the country. His body rested for many years in London, but in 1013 A.D., it was carried to Bury St. Edmund`s, so named in memory of him; and on the journey it was placed for the night in the nave of this church at Greensted, which on that account was regarded with particular reverence, this perhaps being the reason why the original structure was never pulled down and rebuilt in mediaeval times, as the dating of the logs in the nave which have been shown to be cut down in the 1060`s A. D., perhaps the church was rebuilt in commemoration after this after this very special event!

The mediaeval church at Earl`s Barton, six or seven miles/9.6 – 11.2km from Northampton, has at its west end an Anglo-Saxon tower which is generally regarded architectural monuments of this period in all England. It is an astonishing structure; and as seen sometimes, rising with the sunlight upon it from the sloping grassy spaces of the churchyard where grow little groups of dark cypress trees, if they are still there? They strike the eye in a truly startling manner.

It is built in four stages, decreasing somewhat in size, and each having elaborate decorations formed of strips of patterned stone-work projecting from the flat surface. The whole tower is some seventy feet/21.3m in height; but at the top there are now battlements where once rose the original tiled roof. A fine doorway leads into the tower, and there are windows lighting the different stages, while in the uppermost storey there are rows of baluster shafts with open spaces between.

It dates from somewhere about 980 A.D., and is thus over a thousand years old; yet there it stands, unharmed by time, to tell us of the skill of the English masons in the days when the Normans were yet unheard of.

Another tower, of about the same date but of very different character, is to be seen at Sompting, near Worthing in Sussex. The tower itself is plainer in style, but the roof is more elaborate, and rises from the four gables to a low steeple. The archway inside the tower, with its side-pillars having decorated capitals, is an excellent example of the work of this age.

One of the most perfect examples of an Anglo-Saxon church is that of St. John, at Escombe in Durham, close to the town of Bishop Auckland. Escombe, or Eda`s Comb as it was called in those days, was former coal mining village, set in a comb, or valley, beside the river Wear; and the church, which has no tower, is partly hidden by a circular wall which surrounds the church and the graveyard.

The small nave and the little chancel, only 10 square feet/3.048 square m, are entirely built of masonry taken from the Roman fortress of Vinovia or Binovia, renamed by the Anglo-Saxons Binchester, which is less than two miles/3.2km away. The church was erected somewhere about 700 or 750 A.D., and the chancel arch is so obviously a piece of Roman building that we must suppose it to have been one of the gateways of Vinovia, removed stone by stone after the arrangement of the blocks had been noted, and rebuilt in exactly the same manner.

One of the stones in the wall still bears the words LEG. VI, “Sixth Legion,” inscribed now upside down upon it; and another seems to have been part of a Roman altar.

The five original windows, small and set high up, still exist, but others have been let into the walls in later times; and a porch and door on the south side have been added, though the original door on the north side also remains.

Part of the Anglo-Saxon cobbled pavement is to be seen near the font, which itself is of that date and stands on a block of stone of Roman work; and near by you may also see the fragments of a memorial cross with a sculptured design of the king found on such monuments of the Seventh and Eighth Centuries.

On the cliffs of Dover, within the walls of the castle, there stands the church of St. Mary-in-Castro which has been restored and was used by the garrison for divine service, after having been for long a roofless coal-hole. This ancient building was erected in the early part of the Seventh Century or possibly even earlier, and a great deal of Roman material was used in its construction, some of which was doubtless taken from the ruins of the great Pharos or Lighthouse built here by the Caesars.

This Roman lighthouse, the lower part of which is still standing, adjoins the west end of the Saxon church, and was evidently used as its tower; and looking from the one building to the other, you can see that the masonry is the same in both. It is a very impressive thought that Englishmen still perform their devotions here within these walls which have looked down on their Anglo-Saxon forefathers of 1,400 years ago kneeling at prayer on the same spot and in the same faith.

Another interesting church, dating from the Eighth Century, is to be seen at Wing, Buckinghamshire, some three miles/4.8km from Leighton Buzzard. The important feature here is a raised apse or chancel beneath which is a dark crypt where the bones of saints or other sacred relics were kept in a central chamber, the so-called confession. There is a passage passing round it for the use of pilgrims, who could look at the lamp-lit relics through apertures in the walls, and make their prayers, before moving on round into the church again.

One of the most perfect example of an Anglo-Saxon church in England is that which is now to be seen in the picturesque little town of Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, near the borders of Somerset, about eight miles/12.8km from Bath. Until the middle of the Nineteenth Century this small grey stone building was lost amongst the jumble of stone houses of the Middle Ages which had grown up around it; and part of it was used as a school-house, while another part actually formed the residence o a widow, now dead, who dwelt there wholly unconscious of its sanctity or its immense age.

The building, which stands on the slope of the hill, just to the north of the Twelfth Century parish church, is probably that which William of Malmesbury mentions as having been erected here just before the year 700 A.D., by Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne, who died in 709 A.D., though arguments have been brought forward to suggest that it belongs to a later period of the Anglo-Saxon epoch. This Aldhem, who was a relative of King Ine of Wessex, was born no more than two centuries after the retirement of the Roman legions from Britain, and not much more than a generation after the final collapse of Roman civilization in our country, which fact will demonstrate to the reader the great interest of this church as a link with the remote ages of British history.

He was buried at Malmesbury, a score or so of miles/km north of Bradford-on-Avon, where he had founded the abbey which was the parent of the Twelfth Century building now to be seen there in ruins; and this church at Bradford seems to have been one of the places where his body rested on its journey from the Somersetshire village of Doulting, near Shepton Mallet, and about eight miles/12.8km from Wells, where he died, to its eventual tomb. At each of these resting-places a memorial cross was set up; and here at Bradford you may still see fragments of such a cross preserved in the porch of the church.

After his death Aldhem was canonized as a saint, and various accounts of his life were written in which his piety and his scholarship are extolled, and tales are told of his good works and his miracles. He was the first Englishman to write in Latin verse; and he also wrote poetry in his native Anglo-Saxon, and set it to his own music. Amongst his writings is a set of 101 riddles composed in Latin hexameters, which once were thought to be very clever; and we have a letter of his written to a British King, admonishing him for not conforming to the customs of the Church of Rome.

These writings of his throw considerable light on the manners of the Seventh Century, and give us some idea of the luxury of the age, as, for example, when he censures the court ladies for waving their hair by means of curling-tongs and putting too much rouge on their cheeks, and speaks of the very nuns wearing beautiful dresses instead of the garb of their order; or again when he writes of the churches of the period as having cloth of gold on their altars, golden crosses and chalices studded with gems, beautiful glass in their windows, and fine organs of many pipes.

On the other hand some of the tales reveal the absurd simplicity of the time. One such story, for instance, relates that once while Aldhem was staying in Rome, his attention was called to a certain new-born baby, a foundling, whose father according to the scandal-mongers, was the Pope. Aldhem baptized the child when it was but nine days old, and he took this opportunity of clearing the Pope`s name. He held the child up before the assembled company and asked it  sternly whether the Pontiff was its father, so arranging matters that it appeared – supposing by its lusty cries – to deny this parentage with mush indignation. Thereupon, the gossipers admitted that the allegations were unfounded, at which the Pope was so relieved that he gave Aldhem all manner of rich gifts.

The small church of his at Bradford-on-Avon, with its fine architectural features, is almost perfectly preserved, except that of the porch on the south side has been destroyed, and the visitor now enters directly into the nave. This nave, stoutly built of exposed masonry, is a mysterious little place, originally lit by only one small window high up in the south wall, but not having two new windows let into the west end for the benefit of visitors.

On the north side there is a porch which was entered by an arched doorway so narrow that but one person at a time could pass through it; this being, supposedly, like the absence of more windows, a measure of defence against the ill-disposed. Through the arch at the east end you look into a dim little chancel, where now stands a modern altar, lit again by a single small window; and high above this arch there are two sculptured figures of flying angels, somewhat similar to the sculptures angel of the same date which is to be seen in the Cathedral at Manchester.

Churches such as these which are mentioned here, and those which will mentioned in a later chapter, bring vividly before us the activities of our remote Anglo-Saxon forefathers. Here in these ancient buildings we may stand today with the inspiring tale of 1,300 years and more incorporated in the walls around us; and thus the long continuity of our tremendous story is made astonishingly apparent. It is the enormous length of this continuity of ordered life in Britain which is of such psychological importance to the mind.