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Wreay (Cumbria)

Deerhurst (Gloucestershire) - rewritten

Widecombe (Devon)

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Castor (Cambs) - rewritten

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Isle Of Man

The Anglo-Saxon Period

Anglo-Saxon Architecture

There are very few churches that are mainly Anglo-Saxon (and none that are 100% so). For a start, there were very few stone churches at that time. Anglo-Saxon churches were mainly of wood and thatch. Those that were stone were often  “minster” - or monastic - churches that have over time become parish churches.  Anglo-Saxons (and their less-remembered Frankish tribes the Frisians and Jutes) were not great stonemasons at all. They did not build stone castles. They were essentially agrarian people who lived mainly in scattered communities. When the Normans invaded they replaced all the wood and thatch churches with stone buildings. Where a stone church existed the Normans often, but far from invariably, incorporated what was already there.

Saxon towers have survived rather better than other parts of Saxon churches simply because it was a mammoth task to replace them, although most of those remaining have had further stages added over time. These towers vary wildly. Some have “pilaster strips”: raised courses of vertical and/or horizontal stonework and it is believed that the masons were simply re-creating a type of decoration that was more usually carved in wood.  Some towers, especially in Norfolk and Suffolk, are round in plan and some are thought to have had defensive as well as religious functions.

Anglo-Saxon windows are very distinctive. Where you see a triangular-headed one it is a pretty safe bet you are seeing Anglo-Saxon work. Some believe, again, that it was a format that  worked well in wood: the masons were in effect using planks of stone. Other windows have round heads and can often be distinguished from Norman windows by disproportionately large surrounding stones. Or they may have crude little turned pillars or “balasters” either side. As you visit more churches you will develop you own sixth sense about Saxon windows and be right 90% of the time.

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Top Left: Saxon windows inside Brixworth (Northants). Lower Left: Double triangular-headed windows at Deerhurst (Glos). Second Left: Triangular headed window with large stone surround - Barnack (Cambs) tower. Second Right: Pilaster strips, triangular bell opening and Celtic decorations also at BarnackFar Right: Saxon round tower (with a Norman top stage), Little Saxham (Suffolk)

The Anglo-Saxons were unique in their use of two masonry devices. At the corners of towers or in the quoins where two walls meet, they liked to use an arrangement where long thin “planks” of stone were laid alternately horizontally and vertically. This is known today as “Long and Short Work” and it was not used in any subsequent architectural period. Another device unique to the Anglo-Saxons was the use of “Herringbone Masonry” where courses of stone were laid in a slanting configuration, each course pointing in the opposite directions to the ones above and below.  In churches this is unique to the Anglo-Saxon period although, of course, it is quite a quite common device used in brickwork. Often you will see only one or two courses because the stone was replaced later. The picture below is of Marton in Lincolnshire. You can see the herringbone courses very clearly. They are an invaluable pointer to Saxon work because often, as here, they were retained when the walls were rebuilt much later and the windows completely replaced.. Note also long and short work to the left of the picture. This picture is a classic example of Anglo-Saxon masonry concealed within a later facade.

Left: The great west tower at Earl’s Barton Church (Northants). The pilaster decoration on this tower is the finest in England. Note the unique quintuple openings in the bell chamber at the top of the tower, each pair of openings separated by balasters. Only the battlements at the top are not Anglo-Saxon. Centre: Marton Church (Lincs).  You can see how much of the original herringbone masonry has been replaced by later horizontal courses. Right: Marton west tower. This is a fine example of a large area of surviving herringbone masonry and you will probably agree that it is an attractive device. I rather suspect that it is not terribly strong structurally, especially when original structures were extended vertically and this might account for its subsequent removal in many locations. Note that Marton Tower has no pilaster strips at all. They were not by any means ubiquitous. Perhaps one factor was the local availability of suitable stone.

Let’s take a look at arches. The “Gothic” style pointed arch had not been invented in the western world. Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Normans all used arches with a round profile. You might reasonably expect that the Anglo-Saxons also used a triangular profile for arches but they did not. I think any architect would tell you that it is not nearly strong enough to be used for supporting large areas of masonry. It was sometimes used for doorways but not for tower arches or chancel arches where load-bearing was of great importance. Anglo-Saxon archways tend to be of massive and often quite crude masonry. As we will see, they liked to build their churches very tall so strength was everything in an arch. Norman arches can be quite elaborate, using several courses of masonry, often richly decorated. You can trace their roots back to the classical architecture of the Greeks and Romans - the very reason that in most of Europe what we call “Norman” architecture is called “Romanesque”. Distinct “capitals” separate the piers of a Norman arch from the arch itself and upon these they liked to carve decorations. Anglo-Saxon arches however are not decorated and where the Normans had capitals, the Anglo-Saxons had huge “impost blocks” that were part of the load bearing structure. The Anglo-Saxon also often  liked to use stones that spanned the whole width of the surrounding wall. The voussoirs - the individual shaped stones that comprise the semi-circular arch itself could sometimes be quite crude.

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Left: The chancel arch at Wittering (Cambs). Few Anglo-Saxon chancel arches remain because the chancel is the part of a church that was rarely left unchanged over the centuries. Note the way that the masons created a double arch for added strength. Note also the enormous impost blocks. Centre: Transept arch at Breamore (Hampshire). You can see clearly here how the impost blocks and the voussoirs (arch stones) run right through the depth of the doorway. Right: The west tower arch at Market Overton (Rutland). There are many more remaining Anglo-Saxon tower arches than of chancel arches: towers were expensive to demolish and replace!

Anglo-Saxon stone churches had a surprising tendency to be very tall; surprising because height served no practical purpose and would, of course, involved extra expense and structural risk. It seems likely that height was a symbolic gesture to take the church nearer to the God. Whereas many churches were having their walls raised during the High Gothic period in order to accommodate a light-admitting clerestory, the walls of some former Anglo-Saxon churches were actually being reduced in height!

There are also vanishingly few Anglo-Saxon aisle arcades. Saxon churches rarely had aisles or transepts. A surviving aisle is at the Anglo-Saxon minster church at Great Paxton near St Neots in Cambs. Early Anglo-Saxon minster churches often had side chapels called “porticuses” on their north and south sides. These little chapels were different from the transepts with which we are more familiar. Transepts usually have arches as large as those that separate nave and chancel. These “crossings” between nave, chancel and transepts often form a large space that is the epicentre of  many great churches and cathedrals. Porticuses, on the other hand, were small, often with very small or even no physical connection to the main church. Rather than being an extension of the devotional space of the church they were almost self-contained adjuncts. Some could not be entered from within the main church at all. In a world of oil lamps and candles, we can imagine that these porticuses were very dark and atmospheric places. All of the churches at which they are known to have existed were monastic churches. These porticuses would have admirably suited the enclosed world of monastic life with its devotion to the early saints and holy relics. It seems likely that lay people would not have been allowed in at all except on special occasions.

In some churches, such as Deerhurst, there is evidence that over the centuries more and more porticuses were added to form an unbroken line along the north and south aisles. From here, of course, it is but a short step architecturally  to an aisle. Aisles, however, like transepts were designed to extend the space within a church and that space was continuous and designed for what we would now call an “open plan”. Even a line of porticuses would not have been open at all; there would have been no open arcade, only small doorways. It would be a mistake to suggest that a line of porticuses led to the concept of an aisle. The Roman basilican plan had had aisles more or less as we know them long before the Anglo-Saxon emigrations to England.

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Brixworth Church (Northants) has been described as the finest Anglo-Saxon building in Europe. On each side of the nave you can see the signs of the long-disappeared porticuses that lined this magnificent church. At one point there were as many as ten in all. You can see that beyond the chancel is a semi-circular apse: a characteristic element of the Roman basilican plan.

In my page “The pre-Norman Church”, I point out that most Anglo-Saxon churches probably did not follow the Roman basilican plan at all. Even Brixworth, which clearly did, had a central tower above its crossing - a far from Romanesque feature. Most churches would have been much simpler, especially in the north where the Celtic form of Christianity was a much stronger influence. The likes of Deerhurst and Brixworth would have been very much the exception. Much more common would have been simple two celled structures with just a nave and a chancel. And why not? The fact is that there was little that was organised about Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England. Much of it was still Pagan well into the eighth century and please don’t fall into the trap of thinking that as soon as a King converted to Christianity his subjects suddenly became devout. There was a chronic shortage of Bishops for long periods of time and just when things were settling down a bit along came the Vikings from AD793 onwards to sack the monasteries, subjugate large tracts of the country and to bring their own pantheon of Gods. Anglo-Saxon England was in constant political and religious turmoil. Is it any wonder that the church architecture of the period was distinctly non-standard? Or that churches were, on the whole, lacking in grandeur?

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Top Left: St Laurence Church, Bradford-on-Avon. Top Right: Breamore (Hants) Bottom Left: Brixworth (Northants) Bottom Right: Escomb (Durham)

Let’s have a look at the structure of Anglo-Saxon churches. If you look carefully at the four pictures above - all of “celebrated” Anglo-Saxon churches, you will see how little they have in common. One thing they do have in common is height. Look, for example, at the size of the Escomb nave compared with its south door which would, of course, be a little more than the height of a man. Brixworth we have already mentioned. It would have been by far the biggest of these four churches and is one of only three surviving Anglo-Saxon basilican churches in England, the others being Great Paxton (Cambs) and Lydd (Kent). Even Kent is now thought to be Romano-British rather than Anglo-Saxon. The real differentiator for Brixworth is its apse. Precious few of these survive. The reason is fairly simple: if you want to extend a rectangular chancel (and most churches did) you take down the east wall and extend it. If you have an apse then it is easier to demolish it altogether! Even Brixworth’s apse has been remodelled externally.

Bradford-on-Avon and Escomb are nearly three hundred miles apart. Both are basic two-celled structures but Bradford had porticuses on each side. Its exterior is decorated with pilasters and blind arcading. Escomb had no porticuses and is as plain as can be. Before remarking too much about the disparity in decoration, note that Escomb was built with stone recycled from an abandoned Roman fort. External decoration is all very well but the stone has to be available to make it possible. Note, however, the shallowness of the Escomb chancel. Bradford’s takes up much more of the floor plan.

This shallowness is reflected in the church at Breamore. This is believed to a “turriform” church: one that had its tower as its central feature, the base being, in effect the nave and with very shallow porticuses and chancel surrounding it in imitation of the Byzantine style of architecture (for more on this see “The Pre-Norman Church”). The nave we see today was much later.

So we are seeing here at least three different basic floor plans: basilican, two-celled and turriform. Each can be with or without porticuses. So we look in vain for any “standard” pattern. I have already mentioned the political and religious turmoil that was England during the Anglo-Saxon period. It is important to also remember, however, that the so-called Anglo-Saxon period was of extraordinary length - over six hundred years! To put that into perspective, the same period of time covered the Norman Period up to the Great Fire of London! During that time we talk of at least five distinct architectural styles in a period of single king hegemony and a highly structured Roman Catholic organisation. Compared with that the Anglo-Saxon period was anarchy! The stone churches built at the end of the period were not noticeably more sophisticated than those built by St Augustine in the early sixth century. This gives church historians a real problem. Putative building dates for Anglo-Saxon churches can change by two or three hundred years - and Bradford-on-Avon is a prime example.

Let’s continue our look at Anglo-Saxon churches by looking at the question of decoration. As with most aspects of the churches of this period we would struggle to find much of a pattern. Norman churches were by no means standard in their decoration but we would have a high expectation that such a church would have doorways surrounded by one or more courses of decoration - zig zag moulding being the bog-standard but some with much more spectacular patterns. We would have a reasonable chance of seeing a course of “beakhead” decoration. We might hold out hope for a decorated tympanum above at least the south door. We would be surprised if there was no decoration on the door capitals and we might hope for something spectacular. We can say exactly the same things about Norman chancel arches. Many churches still have spectacular Norman corbel tables.

What would we expect of an Anglo-Saxon church? Well, not a lot! In fact, we should not expect anything although we might be pleasantly surprised. There is not a single part of an Anglo-Saxon church that was habitually decorated and there were absolutely no corbel tables that we know of. Carved decoration in Anglo-Saxon churches was a comparative rarity.

We can only hazard guesses as to why. Let’s begin by reiterating that decorative carving was in its infancy. The available tools were unsophisticated. The Anglo-Saxons had not been part of the Roman world and would not have inherited their building traditions.. The masonic tradition would have been, we have to surmise, starting more or less from scratch. Moreover, the period from the departure of the Romans to the arrival of Normans was one of constant political and religious turbulence. Decoration and frippery thrives in settled times, not uncertain ones. Moreover, this was the only era in English history when church-building in stone was largely under the supervision of the clergy. Christianity had its work cut out overcoming in turn Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian paganism. It was a serious business and the clergy was devout, evangelical and monastic. Everything in post-Roman England legislated against extravagant display in churches.

The Normans changed all this. For the first time parish churches were being built in stone and under patronage from the incoming Norman grandees using masons they appointed, not under the auspices of the clergy. Churches acquired uses that would surprise us today: for drinking, dancing, storing produce and so on. They were village assets, not monastic assets. This tradition would continue until the Reformation.  It is no different today: it is the parishes that commission and finance alterations to churches, not The Church itself. The decoration we see on our churches is the legacy of the growth in lay involvement in church-building and the development of distinct masonic traditions.  It is striking that the iconoclasts of Reformation and Commonwealth took exception to the “idolatrous” representations of saints, not to pagan or secular imagery. Those that ascribe deep religious symbolism to the most bizarre of carvings might care to think about this!

So there is not too much decoration to see in Anglo-Saxon churches. Most of the little Anglo-Saxon decoration we see today is very obviously devout. But what are we to make of the monster heads that are also to be seen at, for example, Deerhurst? We do know that Gregory the Great rescinded his original exhortations to his emissaries to eradicate paganism. He seemed to realise that accommodation was likely to be more successful than conquest. Possibly the monsters we   often see were a nod, even if an allegorical nod, in that direction? Is it also likely is that the builders were hedging their bets? We can see many examples of where Viking Gods co-exist with Christianity - not least in the crosses on the Isle of Man. Do we suppose that the Anglo-Saxons who preceded were more willing to totally abandon their gods - gods that sometimes varied from their Viking equivalent in little more than name? Or did these carvings have some genuinely Christian meanings to those that carved them?

Such was the completeness of the Norman modernisation of English churches that we cannot know how much carving was lost. We do have a legacy of fine set-piece carved figures of Christ and Mary and other great figures of the New Testament. Christ was not invariably portrayed on a cross at this time. Where this was the case there was was none of the focus on the pain of the crucifixion that was to become so ubiquitous in later centuries. Rather, the carvings had a “matter-of-fact” feel to them; they were symbolic not real and Christ was, it seems. taking it all in his stride!   These were not very common at the time although “rood” pictures survive at Breamore and Romsey Abbey (both in Hants) to name two. During the first thousand years or so of Christianity the Son of God was more commonly portrayed in attitudes of majesty rather than of pain and death. The quality of carving was often very fine and more artistic than most of the Norman stuff that followed. Some are believed by art experts to have been influenced by the Byzantine schools of sacred art, and not invariably by Western Europe.

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Anglo-Saxon Christian images from (left to right) Breedon-on-the-Hill, Deerhurst and Castor. The Breedon Treasure, by the way, is certainly Byzantine in its depiction of the Archangel Gabriel. We know this from the three-fingered benediction he is giving. Note also that he is clean-shaven! Note the beautiful economy of design in the Deerhurst Virgin. Then on the right we have a very pagan image from Deerhurst, Many of our forefathers did not just abandon their old beliefs. In the monster heads at Deerhurst we can see old Celtic and Pagan imagery.

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Daglingworth Church in Gloucestershire has an extraordinary collection of four Anglo-Saxon carved plaques mounted on its walls. They are believed to be tenth century and nobody knows who carved them and why. Astonishingly, three of them (above) were discovered when the chancel arch was rebuilt in 1850. The stones were being used as jambs for the arch with their images turned inwards so that they were invisible. They represent, from left to right, Christ Crucufied, Christ in Majesty and St Peter with the key to the Gates of Heaven. Note how Christ is represented on the cross as a large and dominant figure. The Anglo-Saxons disliked showing Christ as a broken man. Note the distinctive looped fastening on the belts of Christ in Majesty and St Peter.

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Left: Another crucifixion scene from Daglingworth. Right: Three saints depicted on one of the famous frieze fragments at Breedon-on-the-Hill (Derbyshire).

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Animal carvings from (left) Breedon-on-the-Hill and (right) Fletton (Cambs). The carved panels at these two churches are generally believed to be stylistically similar although the connection between the two churches is not understood.

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Above and Right: More Anglo-Saxon Carvings from Fletton.

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Anglo-Saxon crosses or “Roods” at (left) Romsey Abbey and (right) Breamore (both Hampshire)

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Left: England’s only two-aisled Anglo-Saxon church - Great Paxton (Cambs). Right: Anglo-Saxon solidity: Kirk Hammerton (Yorks)

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Left and Centre: Two contrasting Yorkshire Anglo-Saxon towers. Left: Barton-on-Humber. Here we see classic elements of the Anglo-Saxon period: pilaster decorations, triangular headed windows and arcading, arched bifora. One of the three great Anglo-Saxon towers with Barnack (Cambs) and Earls barton (Northants)  Centre: Kirk Hammerton. Large stone blocks are not conducive to decoration. Right: Brigstock (Northants) is one of only two examples of an Anglo-Saxon church with a western stair turret. This almost circular tower adjoins the Anglo-Saxon western bell tower. The bell tower was itself built in two phases and the stair turret was added when the tower was itself raised. Note also the long and short work on the left corner of the tower. The other surviving example of an Anglo-Saxon western stair turret is at Hough-on-the-Hill (Lincs). Great Hale church, also in Lincolnshire, is the only Anglo-Saxon tower to have an internal bell stone stairway.

This can only be the briefest of introductions to Anglo-Saxon architecture and art. Thankfully, schools and historians have largely abandoned that extraordinarily unhelpful expression “The Dark Ages” to describe this very formative part of our island history. Almost every month, it seems, produces new “finds” of Anglo-Saxon art - usually jewellery - that give new insights into the social, political and military upheavals of this period. Most, moreover, serve to emphasise the extent to which we have traditionally underestimated the sophistication and creativity of our post-Roman, pre-Norman ancestors. One might say “the more we find out the less we know”. The churches evolved through the influence of four major Frankish tribes (Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians), two major branches of Christianity (Celtic and Roman) in a country of numerous kingdoms who constantly fought amongst themselves and all of whom “converted to Christianity at various times. And then we had from AD793 onwards the Viking incursions and eventually Viking settlement after which the country was for a time effectively partitioned. With all of this, is it any surprise that we struggle to assert fundamental facts and truths about our Anglo-Saxon heritage? Anglo-Saxon architecture and sculpture is distinctive only to the extent that it defies real definition! Beware sweeping statements! Never presume to think you fully understand!