Of all the peoples who invaded and shaped what is now England it is the Anglo-Saxons who have had the most impact. Ever since their arrival in the 5th Century AD, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and other Germanic tribes were pivotal in creating the English nation that we know today from the government systems of shires, boroughs and hundreds, the permanent establishment of an English church, the English monarchy and the very name and concept of “England” itself. Anglo-Saxon culture was so strong that it doggedly survived brutal wars and conquests by the Vikings and particularly the Normans. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Anglo-Saxons was the survival of its West Germanic language after the Norman Conquest. In one of the subtlest revenge stories in history the French-speaking Norman conquerors eventually (and proudly) became “English” and the once-suppressed language blossomed to become the global lingua franca that it is today.
Despite their linguistic and cultural importance to history, the Anglo-Saxons have left few physical traces of their existence particularly buildings. One of the main reasons is that the Anglo-Saxon period was frequently troubled by savage wars and invasions. The era is not known as the “Dark Ages” for nothing and the Vikings in particular burned and destroyed most of the settlements that they encountered, which the Anglo-Saxons mostly made out of flammable materials such as wood and wattle-and-daub. Consequently the best surviving structures are stone churches or earthworks and what they reveal is a fascinating insight into a rustically English world that is far removed from the more familiar power of post-conquest architecture.
Here is a selection of ten Anglo-Saxon sites that can still be visited; Medieval England never looked so different!
1: St Paul’s Church, Jarrow, Tyne and Wear.
In the 7th and 8th centuries Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey was one of Europe’s most influential centres of learning. It was founded between 674-81 by a Northumbrian nobleman and became the home of Saint Bede, better known as the “Venerable Bede”. Bede completed the book An Ecclesiastical History of the English People in about 731, which is considered to be crucial in the development of an English national identity and as such Bede is considered the “Father of English History”. Bede spent the vast majority of his life at Jarrow and although most of the remaining abbey is late medieval the chancel in St Paul’s Church still stands from Bede’s time and is full of Anglo-Saxon treasures. Built in 681 it still contains its original Latin dedication stone, various friezes and most remarkably Anglo-Saxon windows. One of these contains fragments of stained glass that were found in a 1970s archaeological dig. Consequently it is possible to see sunlight through the same glass that Bede would have been familiar with 1,300 years ago.
2: Alfred the Great’s Walls, Wareham, Dorset.
King Alfred the Great of Wessex (r.871-99) is the only English monarch ever to be titled “Great”. He successfully defended Wessex against a Viking invasion, forced them back to their northern stronghold and also helped to found the first English navy and education system. If Wessex had fallen it is arguable that England as we know it would not exist and Alfred was the first to style himself as “King of the Anglo-Saxons”. Part of his success was down to properly fortifying 30 key settlements in Wessex with defensive earthworks of which Wareham is the best surviving example. The earthworks still surround the town to this day and are 1,200 metres long. In an age long before bulldozers they remain a powerful legacy of Anglo-Saxon resistance against a brutal foe.
3: St Laurence’s Church, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire.
This little gem of a church is unique for being one of the few Anglo-Saxon churches that has no medieval additions or rebuilding. Its age is uncertain but Saint Aldhelm might have founded it around 700 and the age of the building itself ranges between 700 to 1001 although nothing is certain. Nevertheless it is exceptionally complete and is stylistically very different from what we perceive to be a medieval church.
4: All Saints’ Church, Brixworth, Northamptonshire.
While St Laurence’s is tiny, All Saint’s Church in Northamptonshire is one of the largest Anglo-Saxon churches in England. One architectural historian described it as, “perhaps the most imposing architectural memorial of the 7th century surviving north of the Alps” and it’s easy to see why. Built in a Romanesque style the nave (main body) of the church is entirely Anglo-Saxon in construction and dates from the 7th century. There is also a stair turret from the 10th century. The only noticeable part of the church which isn’t pre-Conquest is the tower and spire from the 14th century.
5: Offa’s Dyke
Throughout most of the Dark Ages Anglo-Saxon England was split into several kingdoms. In the 8th century the most powerful of these was Mercia, which dominated central England under its powerful king Offa. To protect his western borders Offa ordered the construction of earthworks along the Welsh border. The Dyke was up to 65 feet (20m) wide including its ditch and eight feet (2.4m) high and ran along low ground, hills and rivers. Many sections of it can still be walked along today including a three-mile stretch that overlooks Tintern Abbey and is managed by English Heritage.
6: Greensted Church, Greensted-juxta-Ongar, Essex.
Greensted is the oldest wooden church in the world as well as the oldest timber building in Europe. It is an exceptionally rare survivor from the Anglo-Saxon world and the timbers from the nave date from around 1060, although there were earlier wooden structures dating from the 6th and 7th centuries. The nave contains a “Leper’s Squint” where lepers, who were not allowed inside the church, could receive blessings from the priest through a small aperture in the oak wall. In 1013 Greensted was a brief resting stop for the body of Saint Edmund, King of East Anglia. Edmund was killed by Vikings in 869 and centuries later his body briefly lay in Greensted before his reburial in Bury St. Edmunds.
7: Church of St Mary the Blessed Virgin, Sompting, West Sussex.
This is perhaps the most striking of the surviving Anglo-Saxon churches. The tower, which was built between 960 and the end of the 11th century re-used Roman brickwork and is the only surviving example in England of an Anglo-Saxon tower capped with a Rhenish Helm (Rhineland Helmet) roof. This symbolises the Anglo-Saxons Germanic origins more than any other building and is similar in style to buildings in Coblenz, Andernach and Cologne.
8: Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex.
Dating from around 660 this small church is the 19th oldest building in England and was constructed using Roman bricks from an abandoned nearby fort. St Cedd, who was converting the East Saxons to Christianity, originally built it as an Anglo-Celtic church. Today the chapel is remotely located on England’s east coast and almost a kilometre away from the nearest road. This isolation is probably the best way to experience what it was like to live in Anglo-Saxon times without modern conveniences.
9: All Saints’ Church, Earls Barton, Northamptonshire.
The tower at All Saints’ is the oldest and most impressive part of the church. It dates from around 970 and is richly decorated in a unique Anglo-Saxon style known as a turriform church. These churches were structures built entirely around a tower with an eastern extension serving as a sanctuary. After the Norman Conquest these kinds of churches became rare and very few survived unaltered. The tower also has multiple belfry openings, which is very rare for an Anglo-Saxon tower and suggests that the church always had bells.
10: St Michael at the North Gate, Oxford.
In the heart of the bustling academic town is a remarkable church. Located in the major shopping precinct of Cornmarket Street, St Michael’s is the oldest building in Oxford. Founded in the early 11th century the church is notable for its tall tower, which was built between 1040-50. In it’s early days it would have been the most conspicuous structure in the city and even now it is a notable feature in a city famed for its architectural wonders. The 97 steps to the top of the tower offer an unrivalled view of the “City of Dreaming Spires” and is one of the few links to the city before it became famed for its university.