Detail of triangular headed small windows and pilaster strips on an Anglo-Saxon church
A brief introduction to A spotter's guide to Archaeology Architecture

Anglo-Saxon Architecture: Understated Jewels of England’s Heritage

Discover the legacy of Anglo-Saxon architecture including some of England’s oldest standing buildings.

The buildings created by the Anglo-Saxons may not appear as dominant and massive in the landscape as Norman architecture, nor as soaring and daring as the gothic buildings of the later Middle Ages.

But these more intimate spaces have a style of their own and hold a special place in the architectural history of England.

What makes Anglo-Saxon buildings so special?

For one thing, their age. The earliest standing survivor of these buildings, St Peter-on-the-Wall at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex, was constructed about 54 generations ago and is still used for church services.

Let’s just stop to think about that. Around that building, the world has changed; the language the people speak has evolved; technological revolutions have come and gone; our knowledge of the world has radically altered; terrible wars have wrecked civilisations. But the little church near the Essex coast is still there.

A small stone church in a coastal setting.
St Peters-on-the-Wall, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex. The flat red bricks in the masonry come from an adjacent Roman Fort. © Mr Reginald Clark. Source: Historic England Archive. IOE01/08800/07.

Tips for ‘spotting’ Anglo-Saxon churches

  • They are often tall and ‘thin’ looking comparative to their footprint – the pre-conquest origins of many apparently later parish churches can be recognised because of these proportions
  • Use of decorative ‘pilaster’ strip moulding made of stone- this technique is thought to imitate earlier working in wood and are often features of surviving Saxon towers
  • Small, simple window openings and often with triangular tops, or rounded headed arched windows with comparatively large stones making the frames
  • Use of alternating long then short stones at the corners of structures

Churches and monasteries

As the Anglo-Saxons became Christians, they began to build churches and other ecclesiastical buildings, many in timber but also in stone. They adapted continental styles producing something unique to our Island.

The chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall

The oldest surviving Anglo-Saxon church is believed to be St Peter-on-the-Wall, at Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex. This church is said to have been built by the Saxon Bishop Cedd, around AD 654.

It sits astride the wall of a Roman fort and incorporates ‘recycled’ Roman building materials. It originally had a curved apse and two small rooms (porticuses) as well as the main part of the church or nave, to which a tower was later added. Only the nave has survived; this was because it was used as a barn until 1920.

Black and white archive photograph of a small but tall stone church with a gabled roof.
Photograph of St Peters-on-the-Wall, taken around 1919 to 1923. Source: Historic England Archive. CC72/00653.

All Saints Church, Brixworth, Northamptonshire

All Saints is thought to be the largest surviving Anglo-Saxon Church and dates to around AD 680. The ‘nave’, or main part of the church features a sequence of round headed Anglo-Saxon arches that appear to re-use Roman brick. There are small windows typical for the Saxon period. There is also a rare crypt and the lower portion of a tower. The crypt may once have housed sacred relics such as the bones of a saint. The surviving church is much bigger than would be needed for a Saxon parish church, but originally it was even larger: there are traces of side chapels to the nave that would have made the complex wider than its current length.

One theory behind its size is that it was used for church councils. Documentary evidence tells us that a number of these councils took place at a place then named ‘Clofeshoe’. Some historians suggest that Brixworth is this mysterious location, though there are other candidates.

The founding of such an impressive church may also have been a religious and political statement about the arrival of Christianity in the midlands Kingdom of Mercia of which Brixworth was part, as the former local ruler and powerful King, Penda of Mercia, had been an ardent pagan. He was killed in battle by the Christian Oswiu of Northumbria. Penda’s heir was also Christian.

The exterior of a substantial stone church.
All Saints Church, Brixworth, Northamptonshire. © Mr Roger Ashley. Source: Historic England Archive. IOE01/10835/06.

Jarrow Abbey, Tyneside

This was the home of the great monastic historian the Venerable Bede, also known as the ‘Father of English History’.

Part of the Anglo-Saxon monastery survives above ground in the chancel of the Church of St Paul. It is tall and thin, and the remaining Saxon windows are typically small. It also contains the oldest ecclesiastical foundation stone in England (albeit re-sited in its location). Written in Latin it describes the dedication of the church on the 23rd April in the 15th year of King Ecgfirth and the fourth year of Ceolfrith Abbot’ i.e. AD 685.

Archaeology has shown this was once part of a larger monastic complex including a communal hall, a refectory for meals, glass and metal workshops along with terraced plots for vegetable gardens.

An artist's reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon monastic complex viewed from above.
A reconstruction depicting an aerial view of St Paul’s Monastery in Jarrow, seen from the south west and as it may have looked in about AD 900 during the Anglo-Saxon period. © Historic England Archive.

St Lawrence’s Church Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire

A church was founded here by St Aldhelm in about 700 but the surviving church is from the 10th century and later. A typical Saxon feature is the tallness of the church compared to its ground plan. It also features exterior pilaster stripwork, inside there is a chancel arch with a narrow entrance, both characteristic of later Saxon architecture.

In the medieval period it became a charnal house or “Skull House” and later still altered as a school and cottage. In the Victorian period, research by a local vicar named Canon Jones established the true origins of the building.

A colour photograph of the exterior of a tall narrow stone church featuring strip moulding and long-and-short quoins details.
St Lawrence’s Church, Bradford -on Avon, © Gill Cardy. Source: Historic England Archive. Image reference IOE01_04180_17.

St. Peter’s Church, Barton-upon-Humber, North Lincolnshire

St Peter’s Church at Barton-Upon-Humber was completed around AD 970 and includes a tall tower with decorative stone stripwork and triangular headed windows, a baptistry and a chancel.

Detail of triangular headed small windows and pilaster strips on an Anglo-Saxon church
Architectural details of windows and stripwork decoration at the St. Peter’s Church, Barton-upon-Humber, Humberside. © Historic England Archive. PLB_N071989.

It also has the characteristic long and short work; these are the tall and short quoins, the stones at the corner of buildings.

Reconstruction art showing an Anglo-Saxon church with a central tower.
Reconstruction illustration showing an aerial view of St Peter’s Church in Barton-upon-Humber, as it may have appeared in the Anglo-Saxon era. © Historic England Archive.

St Andrew’s Church, Greensted, Ongar, Essex

Many churches in Anglo-Saxon England would have been made of wood rather than stone, and at St Andrew’s, Greensted there is a remarkable survival constructed in timber. A recent history of English Churches suggests this is from about the 990s; tree-ring dating of its timbers carried out in the 1990s pointed to construction from about 1063. It is thought to be the oldest standing wooden church in the world.

The timber portion of the church comprises 51 vertical oak logs which were split to be rounded on the outside of the church and flat inside. This type of stave construction was used in churches in Scandinavia. Only one narrow original window remains, the large dormer windows that the visitor now sees are Victorian additions.

View of wooden stave construction of a church, the roof has large dormer windows inserted into it.
Exterior view of St Andrew’s Church Greensted-juxta-Ongar, Essex, showing the north side of the split oak nave. © Historic England Archive. DP177823.

Deerhurst Church and Odda’s Chapel, Gloucestershire

At Deerhurst, we can experience not just one but two wonderful Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical buildings within a hundred yards of each other. Although substantially altered in the later medieval period (with, for example, the addition of outer aisles), St Mary’s Church is thought to have been founded around AD 700 and contains a number of Anglo-Saxon features, including a font and a sculpture of an angel (the latter by the ruined apse outside). This church was part of a priory.

The second element at Deerhurst is Oddas’s Chapel. This was built in 1056, at the very end of the Anglo-Saxon period just ten years before the Norman conquest, at the behest of Earl Odda, a relative of King Edward the Confessor. The chapel is thought to have gone out of use in the 13th century and was later ‘lost’ to memory being absorbed into a farmhouse. It was rediscovered in 1865 by the reverend George Butterworth. It is now in the care of English Heritage.

Interior of a church with Anglo-Saxon features such as triangular headed windows.
Interior view of St Mary’s Church, Deerhurst, Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, looking along the nave. © Historic England Archive. DP181268.

Only a tiny fraction of Anglo-Saxon architecture has survived as standing buildings down to our times, and these are all ecclesiastical buildings. Their ordinary dwellings are only known to us as archaeological traces in the soil.

Domestic buildings

The Romans who had preceded the Anglo-Saxons had an array of civic buildings, town houses and country villas including those built in brick and stone. As central Roman rule in this province faltered, the economy and urban life fragmented. The skills of the builders were therefore no longer needed. Their great buildings were left visible as mighty ruins to the Anglo-Saxons who poetically referred to them in Old English as ‘brosnath enta geweorc’: ‘the decaying work of giants’.

The Saxons initially built only in wood: ‘timbrian’ – (giving us our word ‘timber’) is their verb meaning ‘to build’. Archaeology reveals that their typical homes were small rectangular single-room buildings constructed around wooden posts fixed straight into the earth. The walls between the posts were most often of wattle and daub- woven wooden panels, weatherproofed with a mix of clay and chopped straw. Other variations would be walls of upright planks. Roofing was mainly thatch or wooden shingles.

These were supplemented by A-frame structures with sunken floors (possibly for storage) known to archaeologists by the German term ‘Grubenhaus’ or ‘pit-house’.
You can experience what a typical Anglo-Saxon village looked like at the reconstruction of West Stow in Suffolk.

The reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village at West Stow, photograph from Wiki Commons.

Halls and palaces

The Saxon elite lived with their families and followers in larger barn-like communal halls, also of wood, with a central open fire (no chimney!). We have little physical evidence left of their details but descriptions in Old English, such as the poem Beowulf’ suggest that they could be elaborately decorated.

Later some very rich nobles or royalty built partly in stone. King Alfred’s biographer Asser mentions royal manors of masonry construction.

Later buildings with upper floors are also described- though not always in a positive light. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle records the fatal effects on a gathering of aged worthies when an upper floor collapsed at Calne in AD 978- with a lucky Archbishop left perched on an isolated beam.

An artists reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon royal hall and surrounding structures.
A reconstruction illustration showing an aerial view of Yeavering Anglo-Saxon royal township, Northumberland, as it may have appeared around AD 627, looking west over the Great Hall from the palisaded enclosure. © Historic England Archive. IC119/001.

Defensive buildings

The Anglo-Saxons did not build stone forts such as the Romans, nor castles as we might imagine them. Under pressure from the Vikings though they did build an impressive network of earthwork ramparts and ditches called ‘burhs’. Many were built by King Alfred and his daughter Athelflaed. These burhs varied in size from offering protection for smaller strategic sites like mints up to the largest that had planned towns within them. Later there were private burhs to guard the residences of ‘thegns’ or nobles.

A black and white aerial archive image of the area around Castle Close, Wareham, with part of an an earthwork ditch and bank on the left of the image.
An aerial view of the site of an Anglo-Saxon ‘burh’ at Wareham, Dorset © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection. EPW061384.

We did not have space to feature all the surviving traces of beautiful Anglo-Saxon architecture in England in this post: if you’d like to share more of these gems with readers let us know about them in the comments.

The role of Historic England
Because they are so rare and old standing Anglo-Saxon churches and monastery buildings are mostly protected as Listed buildings or scheduled monuments in the case of ruins. You can find out more about them from the National Heritage List for England.

Further reading

I work in Historic England’s Content Team. I originally come from a corner of Essex rich in history. My previous background was as an archaeologist, having worked around England, Central Europe and the Near East.

17 comments on “Anglo-Saxon Architecture: Understated Jewels of England’s Heritage

  1. artculturetourism

    Wonderful blog Robin! And super photographs and illustrations.
    Marysia Zipser,

  2. Dr Charles Kightly, F.S.A

    Thank you. High time we took more notice of Anglo-Saxon buildings. No space for more, I understand, but big St Mary’s ‘minster’ at Stow near Lincoln and little St Gregory’s Minster, Kirkdale, N.Yorks are worth a look

  3. Moira Birks

    We just visited the Bradford on Avon Saxon church yesterday. We were deciding how to convert it back to a house……😉

  4. Is there some sort of evidence to support the unusual roof shape shown in the reconstruction drawing for St Peter’s Church in Barton-upon-Humber?

    • Robin Page

      Thanks for asking this Brian. We think that the artist may have based the reconstruction of the tower roof on the one at St Mary’s, Sompting, Sussex
      The type of roof is known as a ‘Rhenish Helm’ because it is also seen in the Rhineland area. As you can see from the reconstruction the tower at St Peter’s would have originally been very prominent and central to the layout.

  5. Caroline Howarth

    Interesting article, thanks Robin

  6. Nat Alcock

    Just for the record, Greensted dates from ‘after 1063 and before 1100’, so a bit later than you say -Doesn’t make it any less remarkable!

  7. Charles Trollope

    You can check the historic background of old churches by checking the bearing of East. The Anglo Saxon East is a little different. Often the replacement Norman church is on the old Anglo Saxon bearing.

  8. Lawrence Mayes

    There is also St Helen’s Chapel, in Colchester. It’s late Anglo Saxon and pre-dates the Norman castle which is a few hundred yards away.

  9. A fascinating blog, thank you for compiling it Robin.

  10. Allan Scattergood

    Earls Barton in Northamptonshire has a church with a Saxon tower

  11. very interesting blog. Looking forward to more.

  12. Diane Elizabeth Beaumont

    Would be good if you mentioned that Wareham also has a Saxon Church St Martin on the Walls

  13. Liz Butcher

    Wow! Makes me want to make a pilgrimage to see them all! Here in West Berkshire we are also very proud of : where a Saxon window was discovered during renovations.

  14. Dominic Williams

    Is it possible for a burghs fortifications to erode almost completely over time? So that all you have left is a shadow of the outline of the ditches.

  15. Strphen Murphy

    The church of St Mary the Virgin at Marston Moreteyne in Bedfordshire has a separate tower built around 950ad. The walls at the base of the tower are 2 metres thick. It is thought to have originally been built as a refuge. The tower is about 70 feet north of the church. In the 1830s the west end of the church started to crack. According to documents in the Bedford county archives, the cause of the cracks was put down to the wall subsiding into an old moat. I am not sure if it would ever be possible to prove that the moat was contemporary with the tower but it could be an interesting line of research.

Leave a Reply