Anglo-Saxon churches have an incredibly rich architectural history, many of which are surprisingly well preserved. They are built from a wide range of materials and in a variety of styles, but there is an underlying commonality that unites them all: they are religious buildings.
Saxon Churches were first built at the end of the 6th century as a response to the re-introduction of Christianity in England. This new religion was strongly influenced by Roman practice, and it is this that is most readily apparent in Anglo-Saxon churches.
The earliest surviving churches are found in two regions of the country; southeast England around Kent and in the north. These churches have a strong influence from the basilican tradition and include St Peter and St Paul, Canterbury (c. 600), and St Peter-on-the-Wall, Bradwell (c. 660).
Other early Saxon churches of note are the Celtic church at Escomb, County Durham (c. 7th/8th century), and the monastic churches at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, Tyne and Wear (c. 675).
One of the most unusual features in Anglo-Saxon churches is their towers. These tended to be turriform in shape, rather than round-headed like the later Norman ones, and in some cases were built re-using Roman brickwork. They are especially rare after the Norman Conquest, but the tower at All Saints’ in Sompting, West Sussex, is thought to be one of the earliest examples of this type and dates to the 680s AD.
Those that do exist are generally very impressive, with their elaborate and often unusually fine stone carving. They also tend to be substantial, with good stone areas and massive blocks of brick or stone. Frequently, they were built on good foundations, and reused a large amount of Roman stone which had been left behind at the time of the Roman Conquest.
They usually have a contrasting pattern of alternating horizontal and vertical stones, which is called ‘long-and-short work’. It is also common to find a series of hood mouldings or strip-work in an area that would otherwise have been covered with a roof.
Another feature of Anglo-Saxon churches is a distinctive stone cross that was erected at sites where people had been gathering for worship. These were often carved, but they could also be decorated with painted or tinted designs.
A very large Saxon cross can be seen at Ilkley, West Yorkshire.
During the tenth century, a significant movement occurred in the church towards replacing the secular clergy with monks. This was mainly encouraged by St. AEthelwold, Archbishop of Winchester, and it aimed at encouraging a move away from the Roman style of the previous century.
It is also worth noting that the Saxons did not completely give up their paganism: they still had their own festivals, and sometimes even incorporated pagan elements into their churches. There are a number of examples of this, including St Martin’s in Canterbury and Wells Cathedral, Somerset.
It is important to be able to recognise the different architectural and decorative features that are typical of Anglo-Saxon churches. It is particularly important to be able to identify the various stone features that were so characteristic of this period, such as walling, quoining, tympanums and sills. This will help you to understand the enduring beauty and unique character of Anglo-Saxon churches, which are as remarkable today as they were in their day.