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Kirkdale (Yorkshire) - revised

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Bradford-on-Avon

Dedication : St Laurence     Simon Jenkins: **                                                     Principal Features : Almost complete Anglo-Saxon Church 

There are a few churches in England that are “must see” buildings for any enthusiast of church architecture. Kilpeck, Castor, Escomb, Lavenham....to mention but a few. St Laurence, Bradford-on-Avon is indisputably another. Heath and Kilpeck in Herefordshire enable you to stand there and feel what it was like to be in a Norman church a thousand years ago. Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire lets you be an Anglo-Saxon for a a few minutes. Simon Jenkins gives it only two stars. I can see why: this church is essentially bare and unadorned. But that is its importance to us. For the experience it is a five star church.

Frustratingly or romantically, depending upon your personality, Bradford cannot be dated to within 300 years! That only goes to demonstrate the length of this period of architecture in England and its determination to resist all efforts at imposing patterns and chronology over its five centuries. Anglo-Saxon is a delicious mystery that defies the academics.

Bradford is still used occasionally, but it was replaced as the parish church by the mainly Perpendicular Holy Trinity Church (one star from Mr Jenkins)  literally just across the road. St Laurence had been used as a school, a house and a warehouse before being recognised for what it originally was in 1856.

For a long time St Laurence was believed to have been built by St Adhelm in the early c8 but it seems that this is largely discredited although there are still some people that believe that at least some of the church dates from that period. Another theory holds it to be c10 because

it is known that Adhelm’s body was moved to Bradford at that time. St Laurence, so the theory goes, was built to house the body. To reinforce this argument, a crypt is known to have existed under one of the porticuses (side chapels). However (don’t you just love all this?) it is believed that there was a monastic church on the site of All Saints Church across the road. So some people believe that St Laurence was built as a separate mortuary chapel as an adjunct to the monastery. The Church Guide goes on to suggest that it dates from after AD1001 when King Ethelred granted Bradford to the nuns of Salisbury. They were custodians of the body of Ethelred’s brother, Edward the Martyr, and so St Laurence - a large and rich stone building for the time - was built to house his remains.

Also, as Jenkins points out, Pevsner and the Church Guide disagree about what is and is not original! All we really know is that this is substantially an Anglo-Saxon church and there is general agreement that it is the most complete one we have.

It is a two cell structure with a porticus to the north. There was one on the south side that has been lost, although its outline is till visible. It has the characteristic extreme height of Anglo-Saxon stone churches. The outside is decorated with pilaster strips and blind arcading. This decorative scheme is delightfully complete. There are signs that some of the windows were enlarged at some point within the Anglo-Saxon period. The Victorian buttresses strike a jarring note, but we have to excuse this in the interests of keeping the building still standing once the schoolmaster’s house was demolished! The west wall was also carefully rebuilt to be in sympathy with the original.

The sheer height of the church in relation to its small plan is very striking when seen from within. The doorways too seem almost comical in their tall narrow dimensions. Except on the brightest of days this is a church that can create an air of ancient sanctity which is almost unmatched.

There are two angels mounted on the interior of the east end wall, with their stiff formalised wings, haloes and delicately carved clothing. They are believed originally to have been positioned further down the wall above a now-disappeared crucufix.

The church from the the south west with its rebuilt west wall. Note the outline of the lost south porticus.

The view from the north west with north porticus to the left.

The north eastern aspect. Note the pilaster strips abd the blind arcading.

The gable of the north porticus. Note the discontinuities in the upper string course and in the vertical pilaster strips. Note also that the vertical strips have “bases” from which they spring.

The south door.

The chancel arch,

Looking through the north door of the nave, through the north porticus. This doorway is a particularly elaborate construction of stone blocks and, to the left, narrow pillars carved in relief.

The view from the the nave to the chancel arch. Note the angels high on the east wall.

Inside the chancel itself. This was at one time used as a cottage! The stones used for the reconstructed altar and cross were all found around the chapel.

The west end. There are signs that there might originally have been a main door here.

The angels, believed to be from the “Winchester School” of carving.

The blind arcading of the north east end of the church. Note that each arch has a small “capital” and each pair of arches springs from a “base”.

Indications on the east wall of the chancel that alterations have been made here. There are remnants of pilaster with “reed” decoration and also of a window or niche.

The north porticus. This is perhaps the most intrigiuing part of the church. Few Anglo-Saxon porticuses have survived and we can see on this one that the decoration would have been elaborate.

Footnote

So how does St Laurence fit with what is known of Anglo-Saxon architecture? Well for my money it goes a long way to demonstrating the near-impossibility of creating any kind of definitive schema for the period in the way that one can for all of the others. As recently as 10 years ago St Laurence was seen as being an early c8 church and one respected author said that it became the pattern for many Anglo-Saxon buildings throughout England. If it has been c8 it would have been contemporary with the known c8 building at Escomb in Northumbria. Now it seems that these buildings may have been as much as 300 years apart!

Is this church “Romanesque”? No, surely not. There is no apse, no aisles, no triple chancel arch such as were built in the c7 churches of St Augustine or at Brixworth . Is it “Byzantine”? Well only to the extent that it reaches for the sky in the way that Byzantine structures did. But it never had a tower, a defining characteristic of the Byzantine “turriform” church in England. If it is anything it is Celtic in its simplicity of form. Yet it had porticuses that Celtic churches did not. Then we have to remember that St Laurence may have been built as much as 200 years after the Synod of Whitby led to the “Romanisation” of the English church. The bastion of the Celtic church had been in the north, especially Northumbria. Why would it be emulated 200 years later, 250 miles south west?

The more I read of Anglo-Saxon architecture, the more I realise that most historians are groping in the dark and, it seems to me, trying vainly to put structure around a period of architecture that where none is possible. Should we be surprised? Right from and before the Synod, this country was under perpetual threat of attack from across the North Sea. England itself went through periods of near-anarchy, with regional king fighting regional king. Far from being a “dark” little island, Britain was being influenced by traders and invaders from all  over the known world. The many hordes of treasure that have been dug up give us ample evidence of that. With political instability and invasion should we expect architecture to be in some way following a uniform pattern? The influences were many, but a single cultural identity surely impossible?

There are indentifiable subsets of English churches from the Anglo-Saxon period, but often we seem to be trying to shoe-horn our Saxon churches into one or the other category in the face of all contrary indications. Best, in my view, to just enjoy what we can see and refrain from too much futile analysis!

 For a super website about Anglo-Saxon churches see http://www.anglo-saxon-churches.co.uk.