By Jenny Ashby in Wiðowinde issue 194
The church, or chapel, of St Laurence at Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, is one of our most famous and complete Anglo-Saxon buildings, yet it remains an enigma. It is built of ashlar (finely dressed stone cuboids of the same size) which is very unusual in an Anglo-Saxon context. Richly, even elaborately ornamented, it seems no expense was spared to create a place of singular architectural beauty. Even more enigmatic is the date of its construction.
But first, a description of the chapel, which is situated on rising ground on the north side of the river Avon. It originally consisted of a small rectangular chancel, a slightly larger rectangular nave and two porticus (side chapels). The whole of this building still exists, apart from the south porticus. This latter had to be demolished and buttresses added to support the wall in 1871 when the building was purchased from the then owners and was repaired, restored, re-consecrated and opened to the public. It had gone through various secular incarnations over the years and for the previous century the nave had been a school for boys, the south porticus the schoolmaster’s house and the chancel had been a cottage!
Externally, the first thing that strikes the visitor is the elaborate decoration of all the faces of the chapel. There are pilaster strips at each corner and in the middle of each wall. A broad “frieze” runs around the entire building just below the eaves comprising two square string courses (protruding horizontal strips of stonework) connected by an attractive arcade of blind, round arches standing on short pilasters. This is interrupted by the scar of the south porticus and the modern buttresses on the south face. The west wall was rebuilt in the nineteenth century in the style of the original (it had been pierced by later windows and doors).
The north and south doorways are both round-headed. Both sides of the north door and the internal side of the south door are entirely outlined in quite chunky stripwork. The north door is displaced to the west of centre, probably to leave space beside it for an altar or font; indeed, this is where the present font sits. There are three original windows in the chapel, one each in the chancel, nave and north porticus; they are round-headed and double-splayed. The windows on the west face are restorations.
Even on a bright day, the interior of St Laurence’s can be rather gloomy, especially the chancel. The disproportionate height of the walls to their width and paucity of windows could account for this! The height of the nave walls (25ft 3ins or 7.7m) is greater than the length of the nave (25ft 2ins or 7.67m) and almost twice its width (13ft 2ins or 4.01m). This tall, narrow theme is even more noticeable in the chancel and the north porticus. The walls of this lofty construction are only 2ft 5ins (0.74m) thick, a testament to the strength of Anglo-Saxon mortar.
The chancel arch, like the doorways, is cut straight through the wall and is outlined in stripwork. Again, it is tall (9ft 9ins or 2.97m) and narrow (3ft 6ins or 1.07m).
Far above the chancel arch, facing the nave, are a pair of carved angels, which were probably originally sited just above the arch, possibly with a Christ figure between them.
Above the altar is part of an angular cross shaft and on the sides of the altar itself are three separate pieces from the same original panel. All these stone remnants are Anglo-Saxon.
So, when was St Laurence built and by whom?
One school of thought declares it was built in the early 8th century and that building survives almost in its entirety today (e.g. Taylor and Taylor, 1965). This idea is based on the writings of William of Malmesbury (circa 1125AD) who said that St Aldhelm founded three monasteries in 705AD: Malmesbury, Frome and Bradford on Avon. Aldhelm’s building at Bradford on Avon survives up to about half the total height of the chapel and the rest is a 10th century restoration, probably added to house the relics of King Æþelred ll’s brother, Edward the Martyr (died 978 AD). The pilaster strips that adorn the total height of each wall were, on the lower, older parts of the walls, incised into the earlier stonework and the double-splayed windows were formed by altering the outer faces of the original 8th century windows.
Another theory dates the church to the reign of King Eadred who, in 955AD, bequeathed the land to Nunnaminster (St Mary’s nunnery in Winchester) to build a chapel to house the relics of St Aldhelm. The carved angels above the chancel arch date to this period, being in “Winchester style” and are similar in form to those depicted in the Old English Hexateuch.
The most popular explanation today, however, is that the chapel in its present form dates to around 1001AD. In this year a charter of King Æþelred granted Bradford on Avon to the nuns of Shaftsbury, whose abbey housed the bones of his brother, Edward. The chapel was built – or perhaps adapted from a 10th century building – as a reliquary for Edward’s remains. As both a king and a martyr, Edward deserved a fitting resting place. Perhaps the grandeur of the building went some way to allay Aethelred’s perceived guilty conscience for the part he played, albeit indirectly, in his brother’s murder. The dark interior, lit by candles, would have been suitably sombre for saintly relics. There is evidence that the walls were originally painted, perhaps adding to the atmosphere of the shrine. I wonder if the dedication to St Laurence, who was also a martyr (he died in 258AD under the orders of the Roman emperor Valerian), is significant.
St Laurence could originally have been a mortuary chapel for the original monastery of St Aldhelm, which probably lies under the present church of All Saints, which is literally just across the road.
That the chapel is an ancient foundation, probably dating back to St Aldhelm, should not be in doubt, I believe, whatever the date of the present construction.
I’ve visited St Laurence’s several times over the years and it has always been open. It really is a special and beautiful place.
Points, G. An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Church Architecture and Anglo-Scandinavian Stone Sculpture. 2015. Rihtspell Publishing.
Taylor, H M and Taylor, J. Anglo-Saxon Architecture. Vol l. 1965. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.