Christianity and was one of England’s earliest saints. His daughter, Ethelburga, was also a Christian and also a Saint (in those days sainthoods were awarded to Christians aristocrats with the same profligacy as knighthoods are granted to today’s senior civil servants, it seems: you just had to be there!). In AD625 she married King Edwin of Northumberland, who also converted in AD627. You will be astonished to hear that he too became a saint. Cynic, moi? Anyway, Paulinus (yes, yes, he was also made a saint...and the first Archbishop of York to boot) accompanied the happy couple to the royal residence at Ad-Gefrin and stayed there, according to Bede, preaching and converting for 36 days and in doing so, no doubt, launched a few more saintly careers. And Ad-Gefrin was just a mile from Kirknewton. As I say, it is a little tenuous because the parish of Kirknewton itself was not chronicled until c12 when the church was given to Kirkdale Abbey in Yorkshire.
Was there an Anglo-Saxon church here? Well there are signs of Anglo-Saxon stonework in the chancel and two Saxon coffin lids have been incorporated into the tower so if there was no Saxon church here where did they come from? The plot thickens still further with the church’s greatest treasure: a carving of the Adoration of the Magi now mounted into the chancel arch. It is at least Norman but could be Anglo-Saxon.
Excavations have shown that the westward extent of the present c19 chancel also marks the limit of the original church. The chancel on the other hand was 10 feet longer. The building was originally cruciform. There was a known incumbent from 1153 to 1197 so it was presumably Norman. The Church Guide remarks that this would have been an unusually long church chancel compared with the nave. I would add that it would also have been a remarkably long church overall as well. Why did the Normans build something so large? Well this church serves a parish of 40,000 acres - the largest in England - that once contained 15 mediaeval settlements!
Well there’s little left today even of the Norman building. The west end of the extended chancel must be at least partly Norman. So too the south chapel. A north aisle added during the Early English period was destroyed at some time and the one we see today dates only from 1856. The nave and south porch were rebuilt at the same time so there is a great deal here that is essentially Victorian. The tower is entirely late c19.
Because of its position the church was several periods in which the church was ruined to the extent that the Bishop of Durham authorised the incumbent of 1436 to say mass at any safe place outside the church. It was too dangerous to gather the parishioners in one place! Rebuilding later that century produced the present bunker-like chancel with its thick walls, tunnel vault and small windows. This was an air raid shelter of a chancel! The south chapel is similarly fortified.
The Magi sculpture, ironically, shows the Wise Men dressed in what seem to be kilts!
The church is only one of 35 dedications in England to St Gregory the Great - the Pope who sent St Augustine to these shores. It is an enigma in many ways. There is much that it difficult to understand and enforced constant rebuilding has blurred a lot. I can’t help feeling that there is much about this place we don’t know. The Magi sculpture is a treasure, albeit a crudely executed one. Go to Kirknewton, though, to sense what it was like to be living on what was to all intents and purposes a frontier village.