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Recent Additions

Kirkdale (Yorkshire) - revised

Wootton Wawen (Warwickshire)

Beckford (Worcestershire)

Wareham (Dorset)

Melbury Bubb (Dorset)

Morcott (Rutland) - revised

Bere Regis (Dorset)

Winterborne Tomson (Dorset)

Swaffham Prior (Cambridgeshire)

Little Snoring (Norfolk)

Billesley (Warwickshire)

Old Shoreham (Sussex)

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. Those that were stone were usually “minster” - or monastic - churches that have over time become parish churches. Saxon towers have survived rather better than other parts of Saxon churches simply because it was a mammoth task to replace them! Many 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. Some, especially in Norfolk and Suffolk, are round in plan so that many had defensive as well as religious functions.

Anglo-Saxon windows are very distinctive. Where you see a triangular-headed one it is a safe bet you are seeing Anglo-Saxon. Others 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 6th sense about Saxon windows and be right 90% of the time.

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

Anglo-Saxon doorways, like Norman ones, were invariably round-headed but, as with Saxon windows, were surrounded by much cruder masonry blocks. In fact, it is safe to say that with Anglo-Saxon architecture most things were understandably big and crude. It is a surprising fact that the humble hammer and chisel did not come into use until the mid-Norman period so carving was executed with a hatchet!

Externally, other than a tower, evidence of Saxon work is likely to be quite subtle. Probably the finest of all Anglo-Saxon towers is that of Earls Barton in Northampton (below). Note the pilaster strips that adorn it like the timbers of a Tudor house. Look at the crudeness of the little columns that divide the bell openings and the filled-in windows. Ignore, by the way, the glaring disfigurement of the battlemented top stage which is much later!

In this picture, note also the curious arrangement of the masonry at the corners of the arch. There are narrow horizontal stones separated by similarly narrow vertical ones. This is known as “long and short work” and is unique to Anglo-Saxon architecture. It is not always so obvious. See, for example, the way it appears in the quoin between the nave and chancel at Wittering Church in Cambs. If you see long and short work you know the church has at least some Anglo-Saxon origins.

Another pointer to Anglo-Saxon masonry is “herringbone” where courses of stone are laid at angles to each other. 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.

You don’t need any subtle clues to Marton’s Anglo-Saxon origins: the tower (right) is very clearly Anglo-Saxon - and just look at that herringbone work which is as fine as you will see anyway. Note also that there are no pilaster strips on this tower - they were not ever-present on Saxon towers by any means.

Have you spotted that in these pictures all Saxon windows and doors have rounded or triangular tops? Surprising as it may seem, the pointed arch was unknown until as late as the c12 so all Saxon and Norman windows and doors are round-topped. When you see them there is a 95% chance that they are Saxon or Norman. Saxon window and door openings tend to be much plainer that their Norman equivalents but this is not an infallible guide. Conversely, there are NO pointed arches from the Anglo-Saxon and Norman periods: they simply did not exist.

There are very few Anglo-Saxon aisle arcades. Very simply, Saxon chuches rarely had aisles. A surviving one is at the Anglo-Saxon minster church at Great Paxton near St Neots in Cambs.

There are, however, Anglo-Saxon tower arches between nave and tower and Anglo-Saxon chancel arches between nave and chancel. left, you will see a picture of the one at Wittering in Cambridgeshire. Note that this is unadorned. It does not have “capitals” between the pillars and the arch that often have the richest of decorative scenes on a Norman chancel arch. Rather, it has enormous “impost blocks” that are undecorated.

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.

I have said that there are no complete Anglo-Saxon churches in England. This is literally true, I think, but there are some that are almost so to the point where we can really term them as being “Saxon churches. Examples include Escomb and Jarrow in Northumbria and Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex. The latter was commissioned by St Augustine, no less, as long ago as c7. Below is a picture of St Laurence Church, Bradford-on-Avon Wiltshire which has the best claim to being completely Anglo-Saxon, mainly because the Normans who might have been expected to have altered it abandoned it in favour of a new church and in doing so spared it any later depredations. Even so, alterations have obviously been made.  It is rather extraordinary that projected dates for the building of this church range from as long ago as AD709 to as “recently” as early c11! What this tells you, however, is that the Anglo-Saxon style did not change much for 350 years.

The first thing that strikes you is the height of this extraordinary church. This is even more conspicuous when you look at the internal picture (below left).

There are very few windows. Notice the “blind arcading” that adorns the exterior of the church - a decorative device we will also see in Norman and Early English architecture. Note also the pilaster strips.

The right hand picture is taken from the north side and the large extrusion to the left is neither a porch nor a transept. It is a “porticus” - or side chapel - that were seen on a number of Anglo-Saxon churches. The most remarkable evidence of the existence of porticuses can be seen at Brixworth, Northants (below left) where the blocked arches on either side of the church point to a large number of them that have sadly been demolished.

The picture on the right is of the interior of St Laurence, Bradford-on-Avon. Here you can really see the extraordinary height of the church. Even the doorway to the chancel  is very high. The paucity of windows makes you realise that this would have been an extraordinarily atmospheric church, lit as it would have been, only by candles or rush tapers. The angels high on the chancel wall were found nearby in 1855 and placed here. That brings us nicely on to the subject of Anglo-Saxon decoration and carving.

One thing that annoys me above all things historical is the habit of carelessly referring to the period between the departure of the Romans and the advent of the Normans as “The Dark Ages”. This is a loose term that serious historians rarely use now. The departure of the Romans was not the end of civilisation nor, as

we will see, the end of art and education. Moreover, implying that the Normans with their savagery brought civililsation to our poor benighted islands is simply too much to bear. Britain was envied for its comparatively sophisticated political, social and judicial systems. The discovery of more and more “hoards” of Saxon treasure - not least the Staffordshire Hoard found in 2011 -  have proven not only the artistic abilities of our ancestors, but also the breadth of their knowledge of other European arts and cultures.

“Anglo-Saxon” and “Christianity” are hardly synonymous! The Anglo-Saxons were Pagans with numerous gods of their own. In England Christianity took a big step backwards until some of the local Kings began to convert in the late 6th and the 7th centuries. The churches that emerged at this time were not bedecked with decorative carvings as many Norman churches were to be. See, for example, St Laurence Bradford on Avon shown above. The two angel carvings are the sum total of the adornments here, and comparative austerity seems to have been the norm at most Anglo-Saxon churches.

Nevertheless, there is plenty of Anglo-Saxon carving to be seen - if you don’t expect to turn up at a church and see some kind of Anglo-Saxon art gallery! The nearest to this that I know of is at Breeden-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire. In many churches you will, however, see precious remnants of that time. Often they will not br overtly Christian - indeed, quite the opposite!

Anglo-Saxon Christian images from (left to right) Breeden-on-the-Hill, Deerhurst and Castor. The Breeden treasure, by the way, is certainly Byzantine in its depiction of Christ. 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. If you find this surprising just think about superstitions that you may have - about seeing magpies, smashing mirrors and putting shoes on the table. Old ideas can be a long time a-dying, can’t they?