By Jenny Ashby, gesith
This article first appeared in Wiðowinde #177 (Spring 2016)
I HAVE BEEN TRAVELLING between Yorkshire and Surrey on a regular basis this year and have taken the opportunity to visit several famous Anglo-Saxon sites, mainly churches, en route. Many gesiðas will know these places better than me, but for those who haven’t yet visited them (and even for those who have), I would like to share my joy and wonder at discovering them. Here goes with my first offering.
I had vaguely heard of St Andrew’s Church at Greensted, but then I happened to see a photo of it in a book I was reading. A quick look at my map showed that it was just off the M11 and a viable diversion for me and my trusty car (who is called Oswald!!).
My first impression of St Andrews was that it is a very pretty church. It has a white weather-boarded tower with a steeple that looks like a witch’s hat (a very familiar tower shape to a Surrey girl like me). Its tiled roof is punctuated, unusually, by gabled windows, such as you would see in a house. It has a beautifully carved wooden porch. But what makes Greensted Church unique is the nave walls, which are constructed of split logs; they date back to 1060, making this the oldest wooden church in the World and the oldest standing wooden building in Europe!
It is also a shrine to St Edmund, whose martyred body reputedly rested here on its way from London to Bury St Edmunds in 1013.
An archaeological dig in 1960 found the impressions of two wooden buildings of seventh century date under the present chancel floor. They had log walls set in trenches. If the dating is correct, the church would have been built soon after the mission of St Cedd in about 654 AD. He was a priest, later Bishop, of the East Saxons, who was trained in the Celtic form of Christianity and sent out to convert the East Saxons by King Oswiu of Northumbria. The church’s dedication to St Andrew apparently suggests a Celtic foundation.
The nave walls are the only Anglo-Saxon features to survive to this day. Their construction was more complex than the previous structure; the 51 oak logs were split in half lengthwise and had tenons at their base which fitted into a wooden sill and bevelled tops which slotted into a beam at the top of the wall, secured with wooden pegs. The sides of the logs were grooved so that tongues of wood could be inserted between them to seal gaps. Inside the logs were smoothed with an adze, the marks of which you can still see. You can also make out scorch marks on these inside walls from the oil lamps used to light the church. The church is still quite dark inside, but this makes it feel safe and cosy!
Today you enter the church from the south, but in Anglo-Saxon times the doorway was on the north side. From the inside of the church you notice, next to the site of the original door, a tiny triangular window low in the wall. A cheerful workman told me it was a spy hole for the congregation to give them warning that the priest was coming so they could look suitably composed when he came in! When you see the feature from the outside, however, it is more obviously a holy water stoup or a small window to light the doorway. I do rather like my informant’s explanation though!
The church also has Norman work, which includes the flint footings of the chancel wall and the piscina; Tudor work, which includes the brickwork in the chancel, the tiled roofs, the original dormer windows, the porch and the chancel arch; and Victorian work. The church was very extensively restored by its Victorian rector, Philip Ray, who found it in a neglected state.
Contemporaries said he was over zealous in his restoration, but actually I think he did a good job and preserved the church for us today. Relevant to our period of interest, he reset the log walls in new brick sills as the original sills had rotted and removed the medieval plaster that had been covering them – and emphasised the church’s connection with St Edmund by having some of the roof trusses carved with devices of the saint and commissioning a stained glass window depicting him.
The church today is clearly very proud of its Anglo-Saxon past and its connection with St Edmund; there are many information boards around the church. It also draws many people to it; I was there for 2 hours (I like to take my time in these places!) and there was a steady flow of visitors on a Monday in November! I heard several, as they read the boards, express interest in St Edmund and the fact that he was England’s first patron saint, which was music to my ears!
The church is open every day, 10am – 4pm in winter, 10am 6pm in summer.