To run alongside #SaxonSeptember on @churchhunting (an Instagram account I contribute to – please go and have a look!) I’ve documented here some of my experiences at the sites I visited across North Yorkshire and Northumberland over the past few months. I’ve thrown in some of my favourite photographs as well. Most of my images are of decent quality so please click on an image to enlarge it. Today I’m going to share a bit of what I love about Saxon church architecture – as viewed from the churchyard.
I’ll begin at Bywell on the bank of the River Tyne, west of Newcastle.
A visit to the old market town of Bywell in Northumbria is a haunting experience. The sole remnants of this once busy settlement are a castle, hall, large medieval market cross and two early churches. Now predominantly a luscious, open green and a small gravel car-park serving the two churches – the site of the old market place leaves an eerie impression of community removed. It’s easy to imagine the scene of a thriving market – busy with activity under the observance of the beautiful church of St. Andrew. The tower of St. Andrew’s church, believed to have been built c. 850 AD, is one of the best of its kind.
By the 8th century, Northumbria was entering a golden age, and a particularly prosperous Christian landscape was in the process of establishment. Principal centers of royal power as well as influential monasteries and great episcopal sees were being founded across the region. A transition to church building in stone began to emerge in the North as early as the 7th century, in a gradual departure from building in wood. However, architectural development was a slow process during these early centuries and changes in church building by no means occurred at the same rate across the breadth of the country. But in the decades following the early 7th century, church towers began to pierce the sky across the North.
Even the earliest stone church buildings were noticeably large; the grand basilicas and buildings of the continental and Classical worlds finding routes of influence to Britain throughout the Saxon period. The ceiling of one of the countries most complete Saxon churches at Escomb (c.670 -690 AD) has incredible height. Although Escomb lacks a tower, its tall nave clearly demonstrates an early desire to build high – a continuation of which can be recognized still in the distinctive towers that shoot skyward over the following couple of centuries.
Bywell’s tower combines the best of Saxon aesthetics with the mind of a Saxon military tactician. It’s defensive walls, some 5 meters thick in places were clearly built to withstand attack in a violent Northumbrian landscape and to serve as a watchtower; a temperament somewhat juxtaposed in the beautiful, subtle hues of the cream sandstone from which it’s built. Despite slight architectural differences, a good number of 11th century and pre-Conquest towers north of the Humber are characteristic of defense driven building. Of course, there aren’t any definite answers as to why the Saxons built towers on their churches – or as the case may be; to why they centered their churches around towers. Due to their great height, with sites such as Bywell, it’s a sound guess that they served as practical vantage points built upwards toward God.
Typical Anglo-Saxon windows and double belfry openings penetrate Bywell’s tower. Double belfry openings are often narrower than other types of window, although this is not always the case. The openings cut straight through the wall of the tower’s upper most level at Bywell have thin central balusters dividing the openings with circular windowheads cut in oblong stones. A nice touch in the window decoration can be seen where the belfry opening and lower windows have one band of subtle outer arcading surrounding them. Bywell is an architectural delight and a champion of Saxon construction.
Yet Saxon towers can be complicated things. If they are understood to be ‘late-Saxon’, this is more true. In some instances the younger a Saxon tower is thought to be, then the more puzzling it can be to the architectural historian. Sometimes identifying a distinction between Saxon and Norman church architecture can be tough – and if there appears to be a coexistence of their sculptural and architectural features within the fabric of one building it can appear confusing. In his architectural and historic survey of Saxon towers, E.A Fisher brings to attention the problematic nature of studying church architecture in the periods book-ending the year 1066. The complex nature of Saxon architecture can in a way be better understood and more thoroughly enjoyed if it’s considered from the point of view of the skilled mason.
The Saxon mason did not simply disappear in the post-Conquest period and they will have continued to build in the years that followed. In some areas Saxon masons will have certainly continued their work; as will their children and perhaps even their children’s children. Perhaps as assistants to Norman masons. Baldwin Brown applied the name Saxo-Norman Overlap to the period 1066-1100, in realization of this. Some of the towers I visited should be considered with this in mind.
Like the tower at Bywell, the tower of All Saints church at Appleton-le-Street near Malton, North Yorkshire, is also a delight. Especially for its proud pairs of double belfry openings across each face of both upper levels. The lower tower levels are mid-11th century in date and therefore it can be thought of as one of Baldwin Brown’s Saxo-Norman Overlap towers, as the upper most level is transitional. Irregardless – the two tiers of cut-through belfry windows are quite special. Situated atop a steep hill, the early Christians of this area certainly wanted the sound of their church bells to be heard in all directions! So as we have seen with Bywell, and now Appleton-le-Street – certain architectural differences can be understood as performing to enhance a churches function within the landscape – whether that be defensive or to maximize the projection of sound in the cases of Bywell and Appleton-le-Street.
St. John the Baptist church at Kirk Hammerton is a fasincating building. It too has a stunning tower, c. 950 AD in date (claims between the 9th to 12th centuries have been put forward; Kirk Hammerton’s Saxon origins remain the subject of some debate) The tiny, slit windows below the upper level are themselves extraordinary. They are significantly more primitive in design compared to those present further north at Bywell. They are squat, narrow slits you would be forgiven for struggling to immediately identify from ground level. On each face, two narrow openings between four single stone quoins allow condensed beams of light in. The tower and surviving Saxon nave and chancel were built with gigantic stones – perhaps harder to work with. The double belfry windows of the Kirk Hammerton tower are special in that they show character. The windowheads are crudely cut and the balusters are set deep into the wall. You can read the craftsman and stonemason’s struggles and successes in the architecture.
The stone quoining strengthening the corners of the tower is gigantic and the stonework across the Saxon building as a whole is at once regular and irregular. Kirk Hammerton’s ad hoc fabric of large stone slabs is contrasted in Bywell, where smaller, narrower stones used in the construction appear more linear and less random in their setting (admittedly less so as it moves into the upper levels).
In 2010 at St. Peter and St. Paul’s church, Scrayingham – the outlines of narrow Saxon windows and the angled roof-line of a small porticus were identified within the exterior North wall of the nave. The church, previously thought to have been a Victorian rebuild of an earlier medieval building, was ironically undergoing further restoration when I visited in an attempt to see these Saxon features for myself. Not distorted behind clunky scaffolding however was another Saxon feature; distinctively large stonework in the fabric of the exterior West wall. The corners are laid in a standard sided alternate quoining fashion and like Kirk Hammerton, some Roman stone (in Scrayingham’s case; gritstone) can be identified amongst the general stone wall fabric.
Masons at Scrayingham may have salvaged stones from Roman sites along the major road between Malton and York; whilst Kirk Hammerton’s Roman stone likely came from earlier sites along the old Roman road between York and Aldborough, at which major forts were situated respectively. It was not uncommon for the builders of early stone churches to recycle Roman stone or to reappropriate sites of former Roman building. The Chapel of St. Peter-on-the-Wall at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex is a fascinating, complete 7th century church constructed nearly entirely of Roman brick. Corbridge in Northumberland is a town rich with Roman history and worthy of a thorough exploration. A good example of re-used Roman material is the west arch at St. Andrew’s church in Corbridge between the nave and the Saxon tower.
Saxon doorways are themselves as spectacular in their simplicity as Saxon windows. External Saxon doorways were built tall and narrow – internal doorways and arches even more so. There are many varieties of Saxon door across the country – although structurally, exterior doorways are often found with large ‘through stones’ laid in the quoining fashion supporting a round arch cut either into a single block or formed of separate smaller stones. Kirk Hammerton’s Saxon south doorway adheres to the latter pattern.
The remains of any decorated or sculptural stonework contemporary with the earliest stage(s) of an original Saxon building at any of the sites I visited were wholly nonexistent. When a sentence or brief paragraph (often without clear referencing) written in a short church pamphlet identified or alluded to a no-longer present piece or program of decorated stonework it was practically unidentifiable or somewhat abstract.
This is by no means to say that Saxon stone churches in the North were not filled with architectural sculpture or decorated stone. At St. Wilfrid’s church in Hexham, Northumbria (no traces of which presently remain above ground), a richly colourful and decorated interior was accounted by Eddius Stephanus in the 8th century. Eddius appears more tantalized by the rich colour schemes, exotic fabrics and glittering metalwork adorning the interiors than the dressing of stone; something Bede too is at times also guilty of. Helpfully however a later medieval account identifies much architectural sculpture within the church and attributes Wilfrid himself as patron to this decoration. Wilfrid is known to have traveled to Gaul and Italy during his life, seeing for himself the great architectural splendors of the Classical world. Whilst this attribution is a possibility – there is insufficient evidence to conclusively link Wilfrid as the patron. Although what is clear is that representations of Saints and a variety of decorated relief in stone was present in this Northumbrian church at some point up until the late 9th century.
On the fringe of the North York Moors, two decorated, sandstone door jambs discovered at Lastingham suggest at some point before St. Cedd’s early monastery in the area was abandoned during the Viking period, that there was a decorated church building of some size and status. Dominic Tweddle places them between 8th and early 9th century in date and as a continuation of an architectural tradition beginning in Monkwearmouth. Evidence of Cedd’s original building is hard to find and these two door jambs are a significant discovery that shed some light over the obscurity surrounding what kind of building may have existed here. Lastingham plays a significant role in the history of Anglo-Saxon England and its history is something I’ll return to in another post.
Fragments of decorated architectural stone have also been found at a handful of other sites across the North. Excavations of the monastic site at Monkwearmouth unearthed large scale pieces of baluster shaft with traces of their original paint. There is nothing to suggest that sites such as Bywell, Kirk Hammerton and others were not themselves bright, illuminated spaces with high quality decorated stonework too. There were decorated baluster fragments found at the Northumbrian church at Jarrow built under Benedict Biscop in the 7th century; like Bishop Wilfrid a well traveled man as well, who used masons from Gaul in the construction of his early church. There is also an example of a decorated baluster shaft on display in the museum at Whitby Abbey.
Finally, as a departing note on architecture as I move on to sculpture; the topic of the following article I’m putting together on Northern Saxon churches- it’s worth walking around the exterior of some church buildings in the North Yorkshire and Northumberland areas in particular, as they often have a fair amount of Anglo-Danish sculpture embedded into the walls. Fragmented cross-heads and cross-shaft pieces and so on, of varying quality appear frequently at some sites; commonly discovered during widespread rebuilding efforts to many town and village churches in the 19th century. A small taste, but far from the sweetest of examples, is the west-face of the tower at St. Andrew’s church, Middleton.
St. Andrew’s church, Middleton. Quoining in the tower (left) has been associated as belonging to an earlier 8th century church. Although I have concerns over whether this is actually the case. Also, an 8th Century ‘St. Cuthbert’ style crosshead inserted above the west door (right).
Small church guides. Their information often sourced from local gazetteers.
http://www.extraordinarybookofdoors.com/Pages/default.aspx – fantastic images and immense architectural detail.
Fisher, E.A. Anglo-Saxon Towers: An Architectural and Historical Study. David & Charles Limited, 1969.
Gilbert, Edward. “Saint Wilfrid’s Church at Hexham” and Cramp, Rosemary. “Early Northumbrian Sculpture at Hexham” in Saint Wilfrid at Hexham. Oriel Press, 1974.
Hawkes, Jane. The Golden Age of Northumbria. Sandhill Press, 1996.
Points, Guy. Yorkshire: A Gazetteer of Anglo-Saxon and Viking Sites. Rihtspell Publishing, 2007.
Tweddle, Dominic. “The Church in Northumbria: Sculpture” and Gem, Richards. “England and the continent: Church architecture” in The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture AD 600-900. British Museum Press, 1991.
Wood, Ian. Lastingham in its Sacred Landscape. Lastingham Publishing, 2009.
A big thanks to my Dad for the really great days out exploring the North York Moors. For driving us to the strangest of villages or bogs and dropping me off in the middle of nowhere on my bike. Entomology and historic churches.