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Breamore

Dedication : St Mary’s                 Simon Jenkins: **                                               Principal Features : One of England’s most important Anglo-Saxon Churches

Oh my word, Simon Jenkins - only two stars? Well, I suppose I can see why. Breamore (pron, “Bremmer”) is not the most exciting church for the casual visitor. When I was a lad I was a trainspotter (I know, I know, I’ve heard all the jokes). If you hadn’t been trainspotting at Crewe your mates thought you couldn’t be serious. I suppose being a cricket fan and never having been to Lords is similar. If you are interested in Anglo-Saxon architecture you need to go to Breamore. “Why?”, I hear you ask.

Well, it might sound a bit lame, but it’s all about its ground plan. You see, not all of our Anglo-Saxon churches owed their designs to the “Romanesque” basilican style of Western Europe. Some of them were totally un-basilica-like and were built with a central tower, the ground floor of which would serve as the nave, and two or more very shallow lateral excrescences. Dominated by the tower, these are known as “Turriform” churches. It is believed that they owe their shape not to Romanesque practice, but to the Byzantine tradition of Eastern Europe. The Byzantines built domes; Western Europe didn’t know how to build domes so they built towers instead.

Very few remnants of these churches remain because, of course, they were horribly impracticable as populations grew. Indeed, an absolute necessity at all of these churches was to extend the western wing of the church to form the now-traditional western nave. Breamore, dating a few years either side of AD1000 was a slightly

later development of the turriform ground plan in that it began life with a long nave. Looking at the picture above, note that the south “transept” is not as wide as the tower. It is not, in fact, a true transept: it is a “porticus” - a side chapel. In some Anglo-Saxon churches, such as c7 Brixworth in Northamptonshire these porticuses may not even originally have had an entrance from within the body of the church itself. The nave even had a western chamber, possibly a baptistery, that has now been lost: a remarkable sophistication for the time. Sadly, Breamore’s north porticus was also removed in c15. Both the stages of the squat tower are original and the Church Guide believes that there may originally have been two more stages: it must have been quite a sight. To see much more about all this please read my article “The Pre-Norman Church” by following either this link or the one at the bottom of menu in the left margin.

So what we have here is a church that represents a milestone in church development and we can still see a great deal of the original. Perhaps the most striking feature is the door from the tower through to the south porticus. It has the usual rather crude geometry of an Anglo-Saxon doorway but with something rather special: an inscription in the Anglo-Saxon language: “HER SWUTELATH SEO GECWYDRAEDNES THE” which is believed to mean “Here is manifested the word to thee”. There is another fragment of lettering above the chancel arch - “DES” - which implies that the inscription may have continued all around the crossing arches.

Inside the porch above the doorway is a re-located Anglo-Saxon rood (cross), probably originally located above the chancel arch, that is a real treasure that has been preserved by the porch. There are also fragments of wall painting both within the porch and on either side of the east wall.

A south porch was added in the middle of c12 and an agnus dei was inserted above the door. The chancel was rebuilt in about 1340 and the Decorated east window inserted. The c15 saw the narrow Anglo-Saxon tower arches replaced by the wide ones we see today. With the changes in rites and liturgy the original arches would have been totally dysfunctional so this was inevitable. To my eyes they made a real pig’s ear of it, however.  The squat geometry of the arches looks all wrong somehow.

In general, you would have to say that it’s been messed about with a great deal with the kind of patchwork of odds and ends of windows that ruin the aesthetics so many English churches. Somehow, however, enough of the Anglo-Saxon remains to ensure that it is still a true treasure - even if its main attraction is in its original design rather than the fabric we see today.

The church as seen from the south. Note the porticus is narrower than the tower itself. The porch is c12. To its right is a vertical stone pilaster strip: a decorative effect much favoured by the Anglo-Saxons.

The tower space is now used to house the choir.

The interior looking towards the east. The tower arch and the chancel arch beyond it now extend almost the entire width of the building.

The chancel is, let’s be honest, a little messy. Mediaveal painting flanks the altar and there is a blocked door on the left hand side. Funerary monuments add to the clutter.

The Anglo-Saxon south porticus door. The carved inscription looks as if it were done last week rather than 1000 years ago. Note the “through stone” with rough cable moulding and which runs from front to back of the arch.

A foliate capital from the north side of the tower arch

Breamore has one of the biggest collections of hatchments* I have seen in a church. These are on the north side of the tower. The original Anglo-Saxon splayed window spaces have been inset in with rectangular windows.

* A hatchment is the coat of arms of a “noble” family. Otherwise known as a funeral escutcheon, they were hung in the front of the dead person’s house - usually for a year - before being put on the wall of the church. In the case of Breamore, the hatchments are of the Hulse family. English parish churches perform many worthwhile functions. Perhaps the perpetual reminders of the overweening self-importance of the “nobility” down the centuries is not one of them. Nevertheless, such things are part of the tapestry of our history and it would be churlish to deny that they add interest to many a church! See also the footnote below.

More hatchments on the east wall of the tower, adding a splash of colour. Note the fragment of an inscription just above the arch.

Patches of wall painting to the north (left) and south (right) of the altar. The Church Guide (which is both excellent and amazingly cheap at only £1!) says that there are layers from several eras. Some kind of structure picked out in blue paint can be discerned on the north.

The Breamore rood. Sadly it was defaced during the Reformation. It is interesting because Christ’s figure is contorted with pain, a rare depiction from that time. St Mary and St John the Evangelist are the flanking figures. Although much weathered, you can still, remarkably, see a background painting of a landscape woith buildings and palm trees. An extraordinary treasure.

Also above the porch is this agnus dei (lamb of God) roundel from c12.

Also remarkable is this fragment of wall painting on the south west of the porch. It is of Judas hanging from a tree, although only the tree roots are easy to discern!

The south door with the agnus dei above. The doorway is c12. Only at Breamore could this seem quite ordinary!

The north side of the tower. The roof line of the lost north porticus can still be seen.

Surviving Anglo-Saxon pilaster strip on the south side.

At the south western quoin of the south porticus we can see the “dead give-away” of Anglo-Saxon architecture: “long and short work”.

The tower and south porticus.

Footnote -  Hatchment Symbolism

Hatchments show the marital status of the deceased. The conventions were as follows :

Black Background : This denotes that the deceased was single at the time of death. For widows and widowers the arms are divided in two with the arms of the dead person and his/her spouse on either side. Where the deceased was a bachelor or a spinster then his/her arms cover the whole hatchment.

Background half-black, half-white: Where the man dies before his wife the left side is black and the right is white. Where the woman dies first left side is white and the right is black.

You often see the word “Resurgam” underneath the arms. This is nothing to do with the arms of the family but simply means “I will rise again”.