Jenny Ashby in Wiðowinde issue 180
ALL SAINTS, BRIXWORTH, in Northamptonshire, is one of our most famous and complete Anglo-Saxon churches. It is likely that it was founded in AD 675 as a daughter house of the monastery of Medeshamstede (Peterborough), but the earliest parts of the church as it stands today were built around AD 750 during the reign of King Æþelbald of Mercia (716 757). However, Brixworth is not a typical Anglo-Saxon church; it seems to be a copy of a Roman basilica and is architecturally unique.
As you approach the church, you see a brown-gold building with a rounded stair turret (one of only four remaining in the country) attached to the tower, which has a spire. Then you notice, in the north and south walls, the oversized, blind arches with their double rings of radially-placed thin bricks which once led to 10 side chapels (or porticus). Walking round to the east end, you notice what a narrow building this is and then you see the apse, polygonal and with a “ditch” surrounding it, which is actually the remains of a ring crypt or ambulatory.
Its original ground plan, with its separate choir, ring crypt and porticus, echoes that of the 8th century St Peter’s in Rome. Both buildings looked back to Rome’s Classical past. The arches built with those radial bricks resemble those of Leicester’s “Jewry Wall”, which formed part of the 2nd century baths. Similar two-ringed arches occur in churches contemporary with Brixworth in Rome, such as Sant’Anastacia. This aspiration to “Romanitas” (Romanness) is also reflected in the countrywide uniformity of liturgy and services decreed by the church councils from the 7th century onwards. Things had to be done the “Roman way” to prove orthodoxy.
The church now is smaller than it was originally. The porticus, each of which was probably dedicated to a different saint, are gone. At the west end, where the tower and stair turret are now, there was a substantial forebuilding, or narthex, comprising 5 compartments which spanned the whole width of the building including the porticus. At the east end was the apse with its low-level ambulatory surrounding it. This “Period l” church was built all in one go on an ambitious scale, which must indicate a royal patron. It was constructed of stones from a variety of distant sources – recycled Roman bricks, probably from Leicester; non-local oolitic limestone; various igneous rocks from Leicestershire (Charnwood Forest); non-local Triassic sandstones and local Northamptonshire ironstone. Four metres above ground this mix of building stones abruptly stops and the rest of the Anglo-Saxon church is constructed mainly of the local ironstone. The first phase was probably commissioned by Æþelbald or his successor Offa, both of whom had the power and resources to build such a large church. The change in building stone indicates a hiatus in construction; the project was completed in the 9th century, possibly under the patronage of Burgred of Mercia (852 74). This Period ll church differed from the original in that 4 of the 5 chambers of the narthex were removed, leaving just the central porch, which was then built up as a tower with adjoining stair turret, access to a ringing chamber. The original north and south doors from the side chambers of the narthex into the tower can still be seen. A possible fire sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries destroyed the porticus roof and resulted in the dismantling of the porticus. You can see the original porticus roof line below the clerestory on the north side of the nave and choir; it has a distinct band of fire-reddened stone.
The church now had its current tall, narrow form. Over the centuries it has seen alterations, but on a relatively small scale. The south door, inserted into one of the porticus arches, is early Norman. A lady chapel was added to the south side and the upper part of the tower added in the 13th century. The choir arch dates from the 14th century. The church underwent extensive restoration – back to its Anglo-Saxon appearance – by the Rev C. F. Watkins in the 19th century, when the apse was reconstructed on its original foundations, repairs made and the present windows inserted within the arches in the nave and choir walls. The timber ceiling was rebuilt in 1965-66. Yet Brixworth is still essentially an Anglo-Saxon church.
Inside, the church is whitewashed except for the arches (and roof ), which only serves to emphasise their “otherness”. The west wall of the nave contains the doorway at ground level which was the original entrance to the church from the pre-tower porch (the great west door on the outer side of the porch was blocked when the stair turret was built). The blocked doorway above it may have been an entrance from the upper floor of the porch to a supported wooden gallery which would have protruded into the nave. The triple arched window above that was possibly added at the same time as the tower and stair turret – and cuts through the arch below! The Period l roofline can be discerned at the level of this window. The Anglo-Saxon clerestory windows in the nave would have let much-needed light in when the porticus were in place. The choir separates the nave and the apse and was intended for the clergy; it is an early example of this practice. The 14th century chancel arch that today divides the nave from the choir cuts through the original three-arched Anglo-Saxon masonry screen – you can see the remains of the original arches at each side. The Anglo-Saxon arch into the apse has entrances to the ambulatory, now blocked of course, either side of it and low down. The apse would have contained the high altar in the Anglo-Saxon period, underneath which, in the crypt, was probably a holy relic (see below). The ambulatory, which had a vaulted roof, shown by a projecting brick course outside, would have enabled pilgrims to get close to it.
Apart from its incredible Anglo-Saxon architecture, Brixworth Church contains three Anglo-Saxon antiquities. Just inside the modern entrance there is a carving of an eagle, which is part of an Anglo-Saxon cross head of about AD 800, hewn from a Roman stone cross.
By the pulpit there is the lower portion of a 10th century Anglo-Scandinavian cross. It is of non-local dark red sandstone and some faint carving can still be made out of a dog with long legs facing left.
And then there is the relic. In the nave there is a 14th century stone reliquary in a glass case. It has a square base and a lid with 4 gables. It was found hidden beneath the middle window of the Lady Chapel in 1809. It is believed it was bricked up to save it by the last chantry priest, Thomas Bassenden, in around 1550. Inside was a wooden box containing a fragment of a human throat bone and a scrap of parchment. It is widely believed to be that of St Boniface (Winfrith), 675 754, the (English) Apostle of Germany. It could have been presented to the church by Offa and been the reason for the building of the crypt and ambulatory. Usually locked away, the relic was brought out for the Yorkshire Gesiðas to view when we visited on our way to Hastings on 14th October.
Brixworth, a flourishing religious community in the 8th and 9th centuries, if not the 7th too, may have another claim to fame. At the Council of Hertford, 672, it was decided that a synod of all the bishops should be held once a year at a place called Clofesho. These synods ended up being held in a variety of venues, however, of which Clofesho was one. There is no direct evidence, but it is possible that Brixworth was Clofesho. Brixworth village is situated on two slight hills separated by a deep cleft – Clofesho means “cloven height”.
There is no other church like Brixworth. It is so early and so distinctive in style that it is a “must see” for any Anglo-Saxon enthusiast. It is open every day.
Cooper, K and Parsons, D. All Saints Church, Brixworth. 2010. Anthony Watkins.
Gem, R. Architecture, Liturgy and Romanitas at All Saints Church, Brixworth. 2011. Friends of All Saints Church, Brixworth.
Keynes, S. The Councils of Clofesho. 1994. Friends of All Saints Church, Brixworth.
Sutherland, D S. The Building of Brixworth Church. 2014. Friends of All Saints Church, Brixworth