By Jenny Ashby in Wiðowinde issue 197
The church of St John the Baptist, Kirk Hammerton, North Yorkshire, is possibly the most complete Anglo-Saxon church in Yorkshire (Edmondson, 2014), although not the oldest. It stands on top of a mound, which could be of glacial or fluvial origin, in the centre of its village, 9 miles west of York and within a mile of the A59. A Roman road, the Rudgate, runs nearby. The village is listed in the Domesday Book as having “land for several ploughs, a mill, a fishery, a church and a priest”. The earliest church was dedicated to St Quentin, a Roman missionary martyred in Gaul by the Romans in about 267 AD whose cult was favoured by the Carolingian kings. The dedication was changed sometime after 1667 to the current one (britainexpress.com).
The Anglo-Saxon church we see today is now just the south aisle of a much later church. In the early 13th century, the north walls of the nave and chancel of the old church were removed entirely to create a north aisle, with Early English arches inserted in their place. In 1834, the church was enlarged again, this time on a much grander scale; a new nave was built with a new north aisle beyond it, thus relegating the Anglo-Saxon nave and chancel to the status of a south aisle and chapel. In 1891, the church was restored, with repairs made to some of the pre-Conquest fabric.
Concentrating our gaze onto the Anglo-Saxon part of the church, we see it is constructed of large blocks of roughly square grey-brown gritstone, laid more or less in courses with even larger blocks forming the side-alternate quoins. It began life as a simple 2-cell building, consisting of a nave and chancel, dating to the period 600-800 AD (Taylor and Taylor, 1965, Points, 2007). In the later 10th century (950-1000 AD), the tower was added at the west end; that it is a later addition is shown by the lack of bonding between the nave and tower walls.
The tower is 50ft (15.24m) high and 9ft 2ins (2.79m) square internally. Its upper stage, which forms less than a quarter of its height, comprises the belfry with double windows on each face, each with 2 round heads cut into the lower sides of large square stones and supported on plain, rectangular imposts and jambs that go right through the wall. Cylindrical shafts provide support in the middle of each window.
A square string course separates the belfry from the taller, lower stage of the tower. This part of the tower is plainer and has 2 narrow openings, one above the other, on each side apart from the east.
The tall (9ft 8ins – 2.95m), narrow (3ft 3ins – 0.991m) west doorway may be slightly later than the tower itself but is still Anglo-Saxon (Taylor and Taylor, 1965). The lower semi-circle of its arch is slightly recessed into the wall. Its jambs are odd in that they are recessed behind the face of the wall to allow for the addition of the mismatched angle shafts, the north one of which, bizarrely, has a more elaborate capital than the southern one.
No original openings remain in use in the nave and chancel, except the south doorway. This has been heavily restored but enough survives to show us what it was like. The western impost, unlike its eastern counterpart, is original and shows vestiges of its moulding. Characteristic Anglo-Saxon stripwork and hood moulding outline the shape of the doorway. This doorway is slightly wider (3ft 5ins – 1.04m) but shorter (8ft 6ins – 2.59m) than the west doorway.
Further east along the south wall, the blocked outline of another Anglo-Saxon doorway can be discerned, both internally and externally. Slightly smaller than its neighbour, it has similar stripwork, although in this case it has been cut back to lie flush with the wall. Why so small a nave should have 2 doorways so close together is a mystery. The Taylors (1965) suggest it could have opened into a porticus (side chapel), although the continuous line of a plinth round the nave walls would tend to refute this theory.
Moving inside the church, the small size of the original nave, 21ft (6.4m) long and 13ft (3.96m) wide, is immediately apparent. The chancel is even smaller at 13ft 4ins (4.06m) long and 8ft 6ins (2.59m) wide. The walls are 2ft 2ins (0.66m) thick.
The tower arch is a bit odd, being slightly lopsided and of an almost horseshoe shape. The Taylors (1965) think it might have been built by inexperienced workmen cutting through the original west wall of the nave to access the tower when it was constructed. The jambs of the tower are massive through-stones penetrating the full width of the wall. High above the tower arch, and partially obscured by later roof trusses, is a blocked rectangular doorway that would have given access to the upper part of the tower.
The chancel arch is of 3 orders (semi-circles), the outer 2 flush with the face of the wall and the inner one recessed to match the line of the large imposts and the jambs. The lower part of the south jamb has been hacked away at a later date, possibly to give a better view of the altar. The northern side of the archway is a Victorian restoration. The arch is 13ft (3.96m) tall and 5ft 10ins (1.78,) wide; the tower arch is of very similar size.
In the south wall of the chancel, there are traces of a blocked Anglo-Saxon window, the only vestige of the original windows left. The piscina in the chancel may, or may not, be Anglo-Saxon.
Finally, the origin of the name of the settlement seems to be subject to different interpretations – or at least the “Hammer” part does. “Kirk” is generally agreed to be Old Norse for church and “tun” Old English for enclosure, estate or farmstead. Kepn.nottingham.ac.uk, usually the first source I check, declares the “hammer” in this instance means steep rock, cliff or hammer-shaped crag. As Kirk Hammerton lies just above the river Nidd on flattish land just 65 ft (20m) above sea level, I find the steep rock/cliff interpretation hard to believe, let alone the hammer-shaped crag (whatever that would look like!). Aboutbritain.com, going back to Domesday Book, finds the village name in 1086 was “Ambretone” or “Hanbretone” and derives from this a meaning of “village on a hill”. This is more likely as “ham” is Old English for village and “bre” is Old Welsh for hill. However, the similar word “hamm” denotes land in a river bend, a promontory, dry ground in a marsh or a river meadow (anniewhitehead2.blogspot.com quoting Margaret Gelling) and I suggest this is a more appropriate meaning in this case. So, I think Kirk Hammerton means “church in an enclosure on a (small) hill above a water meadow/river bend”, which best describes the site of the settlement. The multi-lingual mix of the name, moreover, is not uncommon in the North.
Edmondson, D. Anglo-Saxon England in 100 Places. 2014. Amberley. Stroud.
Points, G. Yorkshire: A Gazetteer of Anglo-Saxon and Viking Sites. 2007. Rihtspell. Kings Lynn.
Taylor, H.M and Taylor, J. Anglo-Saxon Architecture. Vol l. 1965. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.