Several buildings can claim to be England’s oldest. These are the best contenders.
We define a building as a structure with a roof designed to shelter occupants or contents from the weather.
St Martin’s Church, Canterbury, Kent, 7th-century
The Church of St Martin in Canterbury, Kent, is the oldest church in England. We believe it’s also the oldest complete standing building.
On the same site was a church used by Roman Christians, and the exterior was partially built of Roman brick and rubble. The interior contains a chancel from the 7th-century (altered in the 14th-century) and a Norman stone basin.
According to the medieval monk Bede, the 6th-century Frankish Queen Bertha used St Martin’s for Christian worship before her husband, Æthelberht, the Anglo-Saxon King of Kent, converted to Christianity.
The Anglo-Saxon font is traditionally associated with the later baptism of King Æthelberht in 597. However, it’s more likely to have been built between 1155 and 1165, originally a wellhead from the Abbey.
Along with Canterbury Cathedral and St Augustine’s Abbey, the church of St Martin is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Roman Pharos, Dover, Kent, 2nd-century
In the early 2nd-century AD, the Romans built a Pharos, or lighthouse, in Dover, Kent. This would have guided the ships of a Roman fleet into the harbour below.
The Dover Pharos is the most complete standing Roman building in England. It’s also one of only three lighthouses to survive from the whole of the former Roman empire.
The Pharos owes its remarkable survival, in part, to its reuse over the centuries.
Next to it stands the Anglo-Saxon church of St Mary in Castro, built around AD 1000. The Pharos was almost certainly incorporated into the design of the church as a bell tower.
The site probably became the centre of a fortified Anglo-Saxon settlement, which would help to explain why this huge church was built there.
The remains of a Roman building, Colchester, Essex, before AD 340
Suppose you’re not concerned if the walls or roof of a building survive.
In that case, many options exist for sites of buildings whose foundations can still be seen, like the remains of a late Roman building in Colchester, Essex.
Colchester was once the Roman city of Camulodunum, their first colony and capital city in Britain. It’s also England’s oldest recorded town.
The remains of a building near a large Roman cemetery have been interpreted as a church, a funerary banqueting hall, or a Mithraeum (temple of Mithras).
Archaeological excavations have revealed soil containing pottery dating to the 2nd and 3rd centuries. This has been used as evidence for the date the wall could have been built.
Additionally, several coins found during excavations suggest the building might have been finished between AD 320 and 340.
Wroxeter Roman City, Shropshire, around AD 90
The remains of even older buildings can be found at Wroxeter Roman City in Shropshire.
Known to the Romans as Viroconium, Wroxeter was once the 4th largest town in Roman Britain. It was almost the same size as Pompeii in Italy.
Wroxeter was established in the 1st-century AD as a legionary fortress. A town was later built and inhabited until the 7th-century.
The site is exceptionally well preserved, with little disturbance of the archaeological remains.
Standing over Wroxeter’s ruins is the iconic Old Work. This surviving 7-metre-high basilica wall is England’s largest free-standing Roman wall.
Grimspound, Dartmoor, Devon, between around 1500 and 800 BC
Several millennia of buildings were made from timber and stone before the Romans even arrived in England.
Grimspound in Dartmoor, Devon, is one of the best-known prehistoric settlements. It dates from the later Bronze Age, sometime between 1500 and 800 BC.
Between the Hookney and Hameldown tors, you can find the remains of 24 houses, each with low walls and banks enclosing a circular floor area.
Other houses also lie outside the enclosure.
Coldrum Long Barrow, Kent, around 3900 BC
We can also consider megalithic tombs and long barrows as buildings because they were deliberately constructed with roofed chambers. To modern eyes, they feel architectural.
Long barrows acted as funerary monuments during the earlier Neolithic period (around 4000 to 3000 BC) and are among the oldest surviving visible monuments.
Coldrum Megalithic Tomb near Trottiscliffe in Kent dates to around 3900 BC and is one of England’s least damaged megalithic long barrows.
It takes its name from the now-demolished Coldrum Lodge Farm.
The longhouse at White Horse Stone, Kent, around 4000 BC
Even older, the earliest Neolithic structure discovered in England is the timber longhouse at White Horse Stone in Kent, from around 4000 BC.
The longhouse was likely a communal structure, and while the site’s remains are no longer visible, a nearby standing stone may be broadly contemporary.
Standing stones are prehistoric ritual or ceremonial monuments that may have functioned as markers for routeways, territories, graves, or meeting points. This one may have formed part of a chambered long barrow.
A settlement at Star Carr, North Yorkshire, around 9000 BC
The oldest building remains discovered in England are the early Mesolithic lake-side settlement at Star Carr near Scarborough in North Yorkshire.
Excavations in 2008 found a structure at the site, which has been interpreted as a hut. It was probably a seasonal shelter for hunter-gatherers.
The building was part of an extensive settlement area, including timber platforms by the lake edge and more huts on the dry land. There is also evidence of activity involving the manufacture and use of flint tools within the structure.
Though the Star Carr structures are the earliest known examples of Mesolithic buildings in Britain, we can’t be entirely sure of what they would have looked like as there are several ways in which such a building could have been constructed.
However, archaeologists have attempted experimental reconstruction of the slightly later and much larger Mesolithic house from Howick, Northumberland.