Saturday, May 24, 2014

Early English Architecture:Part Two

by Octavia Randolph

This month we continue our examination with Early Stone Construction
For Part One, dealing with wood framed buildings, click here

At left, masons of the 11th century at work. One, perhaps the master-mason, lowers a plumb line to check the squareness of the masons' stone laying. The essential materials and tools of the mason's craft remain unchanged for more than two thousand years - hewn stone, trowels to spread mortar, plumb line to ascertain square and level construction.

It is likely true that many early churches were of timber, but it is clear from both archeological and textual evidence that many were of stone. Some Anglo-Saxon stone churches were in fact adaptations of churches originally built by Roman Christians, for there were Christians in Britain by the second century CE. (In some cases these basilicas had been heathen temples before Christianity became widely adopted amongst the Romano-British population) The Venerable Bede (c 673 - 735) wrote that the original cathedral at Canterbury was of basilica form with an apse (half round wall) at each end. It had been used as a Christian Church under Roman rule, and it is thus fitting that it is still considered the mother church of the Anglican Communion. This early building was repaired by St Augustine in 602 (at which time it had two towers), enlarged by St Cuthbert about 750, and again by Bishop Odo in 940. All of the ancillary buildings - the cloisters, refectory, workshops, and so on - were likely of timber, but the sanctuary itself was stone. (In 1067 the cathedral was utterly destroyed by a devastating fire, and the Normans built anew.)

In Northumbria the church of St Andrew in Bywell retains its Anglo-Saxon tower of multi-hued sandstone. It may date from as far back as 850, and has walls 5 m (16 feet) thick.

The beautiful tower of All Saints Church in Earls Barton Northamptonshire dates to 970 and holds especial interest in that the stonework is imitative of timber. The battlements at top are of a later medieval date. Earls Barton also features a substantial earthwork, and it is possible that it was the site of a Saxon burh.

St Andrew in Bywell Photo by F. H. Crossley

All Saints Church, Earls Barton
Photo by Brian Clayton

Church floor plans varied widely. Small porches or chapels were built onto simple rectangular churches, such as the small and jewel-like Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire. The lower part of this church may date from as early as 705, and the arcades from the end of the 10th century.

St Laurence Church, Bradford-on-Avon St Laurence Church,
Bradford-on-Avon Photo by Michael Holford

The Old Minster in Winchester, precursor of the modern Cathedral there, had when built in the 7th century a rectangular nave, square chancel and two small side chapels. Sometimes these buildings became incorporated into later larger churches which still stand: The present day parish church at Jarrow has as its chancel such an early church.

Only a few Saxon churches featured the classical "basilica" plan with apse (half round wall at one or either end). The impressive All Saints Church at Brixworth, Northamptonshire, parts of which date to the 7th century, is one which demonstrates this feature.

All Saints Church, Brixworth

All Saints Church, Brixworth. Interior looking
toward apse.  Photo by Jonathan Gilman.

The (modern) plaster on the interior would have been richly overpainted with images of saints, parables, object lessons and Bible scenes. Pews are a convenience unknown to our hardier Anglo-Saxon forbears; worshippers stood throughout the service.

The large and important monasteries at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow and founded in 674 and 681 respectively by Benedict Biscop, were distinguished by the ambitiousness of their building scheme. Benedict had travelled to Gaul and was unimpressed with the wooden churches of Northumbria. He imported stonemasons and glassmakers from Gaul and built a monastery complex at Jarrow of masonry buildings with concrete floors, coloured glass windows, and tinted plaster walls. The remains of his stone basilica dedicated in 685 survive incorporated as the chancel of the church of St Paul, and the dated dedicatory stone can still be seen. At the monastery at Monkwearmouth the still-extant western porch issued from Benedict's hands. It was originally two stories high, over 10 m tall (33 feet), and has four doorways facing North, South, East, and West. It now forms the base of a later Saxon tower.

Nearly all Saxon churches contained crypts, generally with two means of egress so that religious processions or pilgrims might enter down one stair and exit from another. Burial in church crypts or by the altar was naturally reserved for high ranking clerics (many of them soon to be saints) or outstanding patrons; Godgyfu (Lady Godiva) and her husband Leofric Earl of Mercia were buried in the Priory Church of St. Mary, St Osburgh, and All Saints which they founded and endowed in Coventry in 1043. (This small stone church no longer exists - it was replaced by a far larger church in the 13th century, then dissolved as a religious foundation by Henry VIII in 1539, and thus fell into ruin.) Godgyfu and Leofric endowed many churches, and the still-extant Priory Church of St. Mary's Stow-in-Lindsay in Lincolnshire was among them. To see their church, click here.

The interiors of churches during this period contained no pews or seating. Worshippers stood in the nave facing the chancel in which the priest officiated. Windows could be very irregular in placement. Most windows of course were unglazed, although thin slices of horn made up small multi-paned windows, much as Ælfred devised a lantern protected from draughts using such a method. Window glass was being formed by Anglo-Saxon artisans by at least the 10th century (if we discount the Gaulish glaziers brought over by Benedict Biscop in the 8th century) and precious panes were also imported from the Continent.

St Marys, Deerhurst, founded 804.Early pointed
windows high up in the west wall of the Saxon tower.
Photo by F. H. Crossley

Cement, Plaster, and Paint

Good quality stone amenable to hewing in dimensional blocks for building is rarely evenly distributed throughout the landscape. Fortunately human inventiveness honed through trial and error can make suitable substitution. Flints in mortar serve well as a building material where quality material such as limestone or sandstone is lacking. Once the art of making cement mortar was mastered fire-resistant construction was available even where dimensional stone was not.

Saxon cement mortar was quite strong, allowing masons to safely construct walls which were unusually thin and tall for the material. Ninth century mixing pits for the creation of mortar have been found near St Peter's Church in Northhampton. Paddles attached to a huge timber cross bar centred on a vertical pin were turned when men pushed against the bar while walking in circles around the shallow mixing pit. Arduous work, but the resulting high quality cement was obviously worth the expended effort.

Mortar was used not only to affix stones to each other but in the creation of plaster. Many stone buildings had plaster exteriors as well as interiors. Plastered interiors in the case of churches were almost always decorated by figural paintings. These were uniformly over-painted during the Reformation (in many cases with scriptural verses), but still could have been recovered using modern techniques. Wrong thinking "restorations" in the 18th and 19th century stripped away nearly all of the extent plaster on Anglo-Saxon stone structures, including the remains of Anglo-Saxon wall paintings - a great and irreparable loss. Early restorers did not understand that the original builders of these churches meant them to be plastered and painted. They rashly chipped off centuries-old painted plaster to expose rough stone work that the generation who erected the buildings never intended to be seen. Still, a handful of fragments survive in a handful of churches to tantalize.

At any rate the painting of timber, stone, and plaster was commonplace. It is important to consider this when looking at the remaining Anglo-Saxon stone structures, or contemplating the reconstruction of a great hall. In the same way that it is hard for us to believe that the chaste white sculpture of Phidias was once painted in riotous colours when it adorned the Parthenon so must we allow our preconceptions to fall away while imagining Anglo-Saxon architecture in actual use.

Stone carving was well evolved and many Saxon churches were embellished with stone sculpture and bas reliefs. Like so much from the era, what remains is very often fragmentary, and much sculpture was broken up and used as rubble filling in later construction. The juxtaposition of depicted scenes reveal a sophisticated knowledge of scripture and of contemporary religious commentary, oftentimes incomprehensible to later viewers.

Wiltshire Stone angel from St Laurence, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire.
Drawing by Andy King

Stone and wooden sculpture too (very little of the latter has survived) was routinely coated with gesso, painted with mineral paints in brilliant colours, and often had additional attachments such as gems of glass or metal work affixed to them. Paints included black, white, red, yellow, green and mixtures thereof. Iron oxides yielded red and yellow ochre, copper salts gave green, charcoal black, and lime brilliant white for highlighting. Painting not only gave life and colour to the stone, but could be used to correct any defects in the natural stone or in its carving. The painting of sculpture also allowed distinguishing elements such as special colours or even the names of personages included as means of identifying the subject.
Entire walls were painted by plastering over wood timber or wattle work or stone. The plastered wall was next lime-washed, readying it to receive mineral colour paints which were then fixed with casein made from skim milk. Apart from the beauty and liveliness they imparted during services, wall paintings in churches served as a Biblia Pauperum, "Poor Man's Bible" illustrating episodes from scripture, scenes from the lives of saints, and allegorical lessons.
Sometimes the plaster itself was tinted either inside or out; in the case of the religious complex at Monkwearmouth the exterior plaster bore a pale rosy tint.

The End of It All

The Norman invasion of 1066 had an immediate and disastrous effect on Anglo-Saxon architecture. With the huge influx of Norman clergy following Hastings virtually every important English church was rebuilt or substantially altered. The great halls of now-slain ealdormen and thegns were taken over by Norman victors and altered to new tastes. Many existing structures whether sacred or secular were completely dismantled and their successor erected over the site. The necessity to subdue the populace led to the rapid building in stone of castles and other fortifications. But the Norman style of building in stone did not obliterate all timber halls in burh settings, and the Normans were quick to seize upon and make use of local forest reserves. The Saxon burh at Goltho described above was rebuilt by its Norman owner in the middle of the 12th century, using timber construction.

If you have enjoyed these essays on architecture you'll also enjoy looking into some of the reference books I used:

  • Timber Castles, Robert Higham and Philip Barker, Stackpole Books 1995
  • Anglo-Saxon Architecture, Mary and Nigel Kerr, Shire Archaeology 1989
  • Medieval Wall Paintings, E. Clive Rouse, Shire Publications 1991
  • Winchester in Anglo-Saxon Times, Andy King, Winchester Museums Service 1993
  • Anglo-Saxon and Viking Life at the Yorkshire Museum, Elizabeth Hartley, The Yorkshire Museum 1985
  • The Mead-Hall: Feasting in Anglo-Saxon England, Stephen Pollington, Anglo-Saxon Books 2003
  • English Church Design, F.H. Crossley, Batsford 1948
  • The Anglo-Saxons, James Campbell, editor, Penguin 1982
  • The Meaning of Mercian Sculpture, Richard N. Bailey, Vaughan Paper No 34, University of Leicester 1988

Octavia Randolph is the author of The Circle of Ceridwen Saga.  Six months on Amazon's Top Ten for Women's Adventure. Book Four coming Summer 2014. Young women with courage. Swords with names. Vikings with tattoos. Warfare. Passion. Survival. Sheep. And Other Good Things...

Book One
Book Three

Book Two

Melkorka: A Novella


  1. A great post and very helpful addition to my research of Saxon churches before the conquest. Thanks so much!

  2. Thank you for an excellent essay and for including that wonderful bibliography. You probably couldn't quite work it in, but I'd like to point out that the Old Minster at Winchester was re-designed in the late 10th century to include a throne room in the cathedral's upper levels. From here the king (Aethelred II) could look down upon the Mass and be seen by his subjects. Unlike the worshipers below him, the king did not have to stand.

  3. Pat, I like this detail about Æthelred being able to literally look down on his subjects! Lets us truly picture him... Many thanks.


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