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.
7th century to 10th century: Anglo-Saxon architecture
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It also has the characteristic long and short work; these are the tall and short quoins, the stones at the corner of buildings.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.