After covering farming and domestic buildings, royal estates and halls, this month we will move on to Churches and Monastic complexes. Many of the towns and cities all around England started either as religious centres or else satellite villages and hamlets that serviced such centres. They were integral in helping with the administration of government (being the only institution available at the time which taught “the 3 Rs”) as much as the saving of doomed souls, and are an important source documenting the building practices of the Dark Ages.
Early churches in Dark Age England were very different to the later more grandiose churches built by the invading Normans and subsequent generations. They were small and square but tall and though they had many irregularly spaced ‘slit’ windows, little natural light entered into these buildings.
As with most buildings of this period, they were usually constructed of timber, one of the most readily available resources available. Those churches with rich and influential benefactors could be built with stone instead and it is these that have a greater chance of withstanding the elements, warfare, and time itself.
They were built to a basic blueprint which centred around the nave, the main body of the building where the congregation stood (very rarely did they use pews, poor things!). To the nave a number of other features could be added, including: side isles to make a larger more grand place of worship, a chancel in the east where the altar is found (these were usually square in shape further north and rounded in the south), a bell tower, porticus (usually a chamber(s) or side chapel(s) along the nave but can also be the name for the main entrance or porch), and transepts (the section that runs north-south across the nave forming a lower case t). Other characteristics included small crypts where relics and other items of value and wealth could be kept, as well as upper galleries in the more wealthy churches.
A monastery is a building inhabited by men and/or women devoted to the service of God. Abbeys headed by an Abbot and Priories headed by priors also come under this definition. The structure of the Monastery and it’s buildings was dependant on many influences, including amount of funds available, whether the inhabitants want a more isolated and Spartan existence or closer to settlements that called for more amenities or attract more pilgrims and attendants with its show of wealth. Earlier in the 6th and 7th centuries there were also two main traditions in the way Christianity was practiced; based on the celtic teachings and those of the Romans. This also influenced the way monasteries and even churches were built.
Monasteries built in the celtic tradition started from at least the sixth century and were sometimes sited within abandoned hill forts, coastal or inland promontory locations, and were very often in isolated locations. These celtic monasteries sometimes had what we term today ‘beehive cells’, a series of circular huts which were separated from the other monastic buildings and used for the monks to live in. These particular types of monasteries would have been common particularly further north in Northumbria and Scotland. The Venerable Bede wrote that the monastery of Lindisfarne ‘…after the manner of the Scots, he made it, not of stone, but of hewn oak, and covered it with reeds;… Eadbert, also bishop of that place, took off the thatch, and covered it, both roof and walls, with plates of lead.’
Roman Christianity was also practiced side by side with the Celtic teachings from a very early point in time, yet for Northumbria in northern England it wasn’t until the Synod of Whitby in 664 that the kingdom officially chose the Roman teachings of Christianity over the Celtic and made Rome the head of its church.
The dominant building in both traditions was the church, the centre of prayer. In the Roman tradition, next to the church and in the centre of the complex would be the cloister garth or courtyard (garden which could supply both fruit, vegetables, medicinal herbs and flowers) surrounded by four covered walkways that led to other church buildings. These included the chapter house (where important guests were received and the daily business of the monastery was organised), dormitory (large hall where the monks all slept at night), latrines, refectory (dining room where the monks ate communally and in silence whilst someone read aloud from the scriptures) and kitchen, store rooms, an abbot’s house and guest’s quarters. Many of these busy locations were found in the West range of the complex whilst the infirmary (the monastic hospital) usually stood in the east of the main buildings to provide peace and quiet for the patients. There may also be chapels, barns and stables within the precinct and the entire complex would often be surrounded by a wall and gatehouse.
Monasteries may have acted as houses of prayer and pilgrimage but they were also cultural centres providing education and employment. Many towns such as Abingdon, Oxford, St Albans, Reading, Westminster and post-Roman Chester started off purely to service the church.
As no timber churches survive from the early medieval period (St Andrews in Greensted is dated later to the mid 11th Century) we are forced to rely on surviving stone built churches for many of the details. Churches such as St Laurence, Bradford-on-Avon and Boarhunt in Hampshire show that a number of stone based construction techniques were used. Materials included ashlar blocks, coursed stone, coursed rubble, or random rubble. Floors could be made from mortar or plaster when not left as compacted earth or baked clay.
A popular form of stone work used is termed “pilaster strip-work”. This is when narrow bands of stonework are arranged vertically within the wall so that they stand out like long rectangular panels or strips of stone. Pilaster strips are also known to have been arranged in herringbone designs as well.
When dressing the corners of buildings the Anglo-Saxons used quoining (large square dressed stones that form a corner) or another technique called ‘long and short work”. This is when the large square dressed stones that are short and square are topped by large rectangular stones in alternating sequence, hence the name “Long and Short”.
Windows were usually tiny slits spaced throughout the wall of the building. These could take the form of single slits or even double slits with a small column spacing that divided the opening. As in the case of doorways, these windows can be dressed with triangular or semi-circular caps on top or decorated lozenges at the base and sides for decoration.
An example of a circular window can be seen at Framingham Earl in Norfolk. This window still has the imprints of the baskets that were used in the construction. It is thought that two woven baskets were sat end to end forming a “mould” for the aperture, with the wall then constructed around them.
Glass window panes would have been extremely expensive and most churches would have left the opening bare or else covered with thin skins or cloth. There are only a few examples in the chronicles of glass being used in churches, such as at York Minster during the height of Northumbrian superiority and wealth in the 8th century. However, both plain and coloured glass has been found at the monastic site of Wearmouth-Jarrow which may have covered windows. Tinted plaster has also been found on this site, suggesting that such buildings could have been plastered inside and/or out in fairly colourful hues. Even the church of Whitherne in Scotland was supposedly white-washed fairly regularly, even during the Roman Period when it was called Candida Casa. It has been suggested that this is where its name stems from, the White house.
To end with, here are some of the many examples of Anglo-Saxon church architecture still visible today. We are all extremely lucky that such examples of Pre-Conquest and Dark-Age Britain survives and from these examples it is obvious that although they may not be towering Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals, they are far from plain or simple.
The original St Peter and Paul church, Canturbury (c.600) was a basilica with an apse (half round wall) at one end.
St Peter-on-the-wall, Bradwell (c.660) in the Roman basilica tradition with rounded chancel in the east and plain walls.
St John’s Escomb in county Durham (c.690) built in the Celtic tradition and using Roman bricks from the fort at Binchester
Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, Tyne and Wear (c670s). This monastery was built in the Celtic style and not the Roman basilica style. It has tall aisles and nave and a rectangular chancel as typical of northern England. Benedict Biscop imported stonemasons and glassmakers from Gaul to build these two churches in 674 and 681 respectively. The monastery of Monkwearmouth/Wearmouth was originally two stories high being over 10m tall with four doorways facing north south east and west.
Brixworth Northamptonshire (c.676) was built reusing old Roman bricks and is unusually long at nearly 100ft.
St Andrews, Greensted in Essex is a wooden church dated to c. 1060. Upright oak timbers have been split so that the rounded edges still show on the outer walls and excavations have also revealed two earlier structures of the 6th and 7th centuries.
Church of St Andrew in Bywell, Northumbria still has its Anglo-Saxon tower of sandstone and may be as old as 850.
All saints church in Earls Barton Northamptonshire dates to 970 and was possibly the site of a Saxon burh or fort.
Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire had small porches or chapels built onto a simple rectangular church. The lower part may date from around 705 and the arcades from the late 10th century.
The Old minster of Winchester built in the 7th century had a rectangular nave and square chancel and two small side chapels.
St Mary’s priory in Deerhurst, Gloucester has a Saxon font, twin windows and sculpture of the virgin and child over the inner door.