Friday, July 7, 2017

Escomb Church - Anglo-Saxon Rarity

by Annie Whitehead

I love Anglo-Saxon history, but researching it can sometimes be frustrating, not just because of the paucity of surviving documents, but because of the lack of 'locations'. If this blog post were about Anne Boleyn, it would be illustrated with photographs of the Tower of London, and paintings of the lady herself, complete with her famous necklace.

We Anglo-Saxonists aren't quite so fortunate in that regard. Many of the buildings associated with the age no longer exist, buried under later, Norman, edifices. The wooden house at Corfe where Queen Ælfthryth was staying when she murdered, or didn't murder, her stepson King Edward, has long-since disappeared, and even the stone castle built there is now a ruin. There is no surviving artwork which gives us even a rough approximation of how people looked.

Imagine, then, how thrilling it is to be able to visit Escomb Church, built of stone and probably dating to the late seventh century.

Escomb Church is about a mile and a half from Bishop Auckland, home to the Prince Bishops of Durham, and is quite a contrast to the towering grandeur of Durham Cathedral.

I always imagined that Escomb Church, being so ancient, was situated in a small, quaint village, but in fact it sits on a circle of land, surrounded on all sides by modern housing. Yet it exudes calm, an ancient building standing proud, refusing to give up all its secrets, and leaving historians puzzled.

The village of Escomb is mentioned in a grant of land by Bishop Ealdhun, who was bishop of Durham in the tenth century.

Symeon of Durham's Life of St Cuthbert, shows the bishop leasing to "three earls: Ethred, Northman and Uchtred the following lands: Gainford, Whorlton, Sledwich, Barforth, Startforth, Lartington, Marwood Green, Stainton, Streatlam, Cleatlam, Langton, Morton Tinmouth, Piercebridge, Bishop Auckland and West Auckland, Copeland, Weardseatle, Binchester, St Andrew Aucklad (?), Thickley, Escombe, Witton-le-Wear, Hunwick, Newton Cap, Helme Park." (Symeon of Durham. HistoriadeSanctoCuthberto 31.)

It is clear from the architectural evidence, though, that the church itself was built much earlier, but the first puzzle is who built it, and why? We may never know. The second of the puzzles is that the stones in the upper courses are smaller than those lower down. The height of the building and the ground plan hint at Irish Celtic influence, and the very fact that it was, unusually for Saxon buildings, constructed in stone, might point towards a connection with Gallic chapels.

The chancel arch is believed to have been reassembled from a Roman archway, although the scroll paintwork on the underside is probably much later, perhaps even fifteenth century.

The Saxon cross behind the altar is believed to date from the ninth century, although according to the guide I spoke to, it's possible that it is an earlier 'preaching cross' and actually predates the church.

Of the church windows, the smaller ones which have round headed lintels are thought to have been carved 'in situ', and their design conforms to the earliest period of Saxon building.

Behind the pulpit, carved into the wall, there is a cross, described by my guide as an 'incised consecration cross.' Its shape points once more to an Irish/Celtic influence.

Carvings to the side of a blocked up doorway in the sanctuary are believed to depict Adam and Eve standing beneath the tree of life.

In the porch, which is a later, medieval, addition to the building, there are various Saxon artefacts - the remains of Saxon crosses, and pieces of glass and pottery excavated from the churchyard.

In that churchyard, an unusual gravestone has been dated somewhere between 1100 and 1300, although it was not originally outside, but laid in the floor of the nave.

Above the porch, there is a sundial, which being on the porch, is later medieval, but on the original church wall, there is an older, Anglo-Saxon sun dial:

And so to the final puzzle: why did this church survive? It is a rare thing, indeed - a surviving stone Saxon church, so why has it not been knocked down, or 'improved', other than the addition of the porch?

It is thought that the Prince Bishops of Durham were not interested in building a bigger/better church in such a tiny village. In other words, it has probably - ironically - survived because of a lack of interest. The bishops of Durham, whose official residence is still at Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland, (pictured below) became virtually autonomous and wielded extraordinary power. Little Escomb Church was in all likelihood a beneficiary, in a strange way, of their almost regal status.

For those interested in the later period of Saxon history, it should be pointed out that Bishop Ealdhun was witness to a charter of King Æthelred in 1009 granting land to Morcar, thegn of the Seven Boroughs. He was also the father of Ecgfritha, who married Uchtred, Earl of Bamburgh. Perhaps a more familiar spelling is Uhtred. He was also known as Uhtred the Bold, he was treacherously killed, and it is he from whom a certain Mr Cornwell claims descent...

[all photographs by and copyright of the author]


Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, also set in Mercia, is scheduled for release later this year, and she is currently working on a history of Mercia for Amberley Publishing, to be released in 2018.
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  1. Replies
    1. Thanks - I'm glad you enjoyed it. I was thrilled to be able to visit the site.

  2. Fabulous, I love this and as you know wander around old churches a lot.Fab photos. Thanks so much.

    1. Thanks Jane - you'd love this place, I'm sure. Stuck in the middle of a housing estate and yet so peaceful. I'm so glad I was finally able to visit.

  3. Its is always wonderful to find Anglo-Saxon buildings isn't it? Roman ruins are fairly common and Normal era onwards of course but for those of us whose focus is the Anglo-Saxon period it often feels like we are scrapping the barrel of archaeology. So little survives on any scale so to see a whole church is great. Nice article.

    1. It was really rather moving, yes. My family is used to my habit of standing in fields, by rivers, and 'bumps' (or as I call them, burial mounds!) but to be inside a church that survives from the period was really rather special.

  4. I visited years ago and like you expected a small village around the church. it looks as if it is being looked after better now.

    1. It does seem to be very well maintained, with a team of volunteer guides and essential works being carried out. The grounds are kept very tidy too :-)

  5. Terrific. It pays to know what is left. Nice story, Annie.

  6. Screveton, outside of Nottingham. Richard Whalley and his wives and children maybe back in 1400s.


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