Category: Anglo-Saxon Beliefs


Image of Woden
Image of Woden: British Library Cotton MS Caligula A VIII

The heathen culture of the earliest Anglo-Saxons is extremely hard to understand as so little survives and is largely filtered through the lens of Christian writers. However, place name evidence and archaeology can contribute to our understanding.

One of the key gods in the pantheon was Woden. He gives his name to Wednesday, which to the Romans was Mercurialis (the Day of Mercury) and in modern romance languages is still called after that god eg “mercredi” in French. The correspondence between Roman and pagan gods is of interest because the Romans often tried to match up pantheons as they subsumed various tribal groups under their banner.

Mercury was the god of knowledge and death. He was also the messenger, connecting him with writing, and also healing, and leading the dead to the Underworld. Interestingly these themes also appear in what is known of the Norse equivalent, Othinn, and what little evidence we have points to them holding true for Woden as well.

The derivation of the name is from the earlier Germanic language, meaning “lord of wod”. This referred to an excited mental state, such as rage, rapture or drunkenness. Related words include the Old English for possession by demons or madness (woddream) or frenzy (wodnes). According to Adam of Bremen (11th century) “Woden id est furor” (Woden, that is, frenzy).

Old English glosses equate Mercury and Woden eg the Corpus Glossary at Cambridge.

The earliest written record of the Woden is the runic inscription on the Alemannic Nordendorf fibula, a 7th century brooch from southern Germany. He next turns up in Bede (where else?) in his early 8th century Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Germanic sources include Paul the Deacon’s History of the Langobards (late 8th century), where Paul claims Woden is worshipped by all the nations of Germania.

Woden was probably associated with language. However we have no tradition of Woden creating the runes in the way we have for the Norse Othinn – at least, none that survives.

Place name evidence is widespread across England. These include Wednesbury and Wednesfield (Staffordshire), Woodnesborough and Wormhill (Kent), Wenslow and Wensley (Bedfordshire) and Wensley (Derbyshire). Older place names no longer in use also occur in records. However, not every place name means it was a temple or equivalent.

Woden also features in the genealogical lists of the almost all the Anglo-Saxon royal families as an ancestor. This includes Offa, Penda and Alfred. The original source does seem to have been Mercian, during the Mercian Supremacy in the 8th century, and may have been adopted in Wessex and Kent at that time.

The link between Woden and kings and warlords was one of violence and supremacy. This was both on the battlefield and in the mead hall, when persuasion and fluency was critical to policy and decision making. Early leaders were often also priests, mediating with the gods on behalf of their people and this resulted in special (secret) knowledge through runes and writing. As healing was another of the god’s powers, the king was also seen as being able to cure disease and enact shamanic rites. Ultimately this resulted in a view of kings as sacred or having a special relationship with the sacred.

The cult animals of Othinn were the raven and the wolf, and this may also apply to Woden. The animals feature strongly in Anglo-Saxon art, such as the work from Sutton Hoo (early 7th century).

We can also see some evidence of an eye defect on objects from various graves. Othinn is well known as the one-eyed god, having left one of his eyes in the Well of Mimir. There is no surviving equivalent story for Woden but there is some evidence in Anglo-Saxon art for a parallel tradition. Many of the heads of Woden are shown in profile, for example, so that only one eye is visible but this is not conclusive. More importantly the Sutton Hoo helmet has a variation in the decoration on the eyebrows. The garnets on the right eyebrow are back by gold foil, brightening their appearance, while those on the left are deliberately left without foil, darkening their appearance. This pattern of variation is repeated elsewhere. A number of button brooches (5th-6th century) show male faces with one vertical and one horizontal eye, thought to represent a one-eyed individual. It is possible these represent Woden.

St Mary Broughton

Based on an article by Jenny Ashby, Withowinde #187 (Autumn 2018)

St Mary Broughton
St Mary, Broughton (c) PWicks 2018

St Mary’s Broughton probably dates from between 970 and 1050 AD and was most likely a thegn’s private church rather than a parish church. It was originally turriform, that is, the tower was the nave, with the chancel to the east. Internally, the tower measures 18ft (5.49 m) east-west and 13ft (3.96 m) north-south, with the walls being 2 ft 10 ins (0.86 m) thick (Taylor and Taylor, 1965). This would have accommodated a congregation of about 70 people (3 people per square metre). However, the altar could have been sited within the nave, which would have made the area for a congregation even smaller. The current tower arch would originally have been the arch to the chancel and its best side faced the Anglo-Saxon nave so the worshippers would have seen the chancel framed by an exquisite arch (which is unfortunately now hidden by a hideous curtain). The tower arch is 10 ft 6 ins (3.2 m) tall and 4 ft 5 ins (1.35 m) wide, although the actual passageway through it is only 3 ft 3 ins (0.99 m) wide due to the projection of the inner jambs (Taylor and Taylor, 1965). These inner jambs currently support thin air, but it is believed they once supported a tympanum. The jamb on the left (looking east) is much worn away by scratchings, making it look like an egg-timer. Legend has it that it was used for sharpening blades, but it’s more likely to be a case of para-religious use; people were taking scrapings from a holy place to put in food or water as a cure. The marks were probably made with iron nails. This was a common practice in the medieval period. The arch itself has no keystone, which is typical of Anglo-Saxon construction. There is a doorway high up in the west wall of the current nave, ostensibly an entrance to a gallery for thegnly worshippers, but it is probably too high up for this.

The foundations of the Anglo-Saxon chancel extend 120 ins (304 cm) into the current nave (Points, 2016) and they are marked out in tape. However, there is no scar of it on the west wall of the nave. Externally, the Anglo-Saxon part of the tower extends to 40 ft (12.19 m); it was originally higher but both it and the stair turret (of which more later) were truncated when the belfry was replaced in the 14th century. The tower consists of 4 bands of roughly equal height of quite distinct masonry. The first is roughly-coursed rubble to about 7 courses above the south door, then 12 courses of herringbone work (this mode of construction is an efficient way of building a strong wall out of rubbish material), then roughly-dressed rectangular stones, then a mixture of these with patches of irregularly laid rubble (Taylor and Taylor, 1965). This sequence can be seen internally too. The quoins, which strengthen the corners, are laid side-alternate. There are two small round-headed windows in the south face of the tower, one on each of the middle two bands of masonry, and one similar window in the herringbone band in the north face of the tower. The Anglo-Saxons used cast concrete to make the heads of such windows, which were faced, externally, with openings cut from single pieces of stone. The south doorway is obviously Anglo-Saxon, with its round head, hood moulding, large imposts (one glaringly restored) and decorated capitals.

The external stair turret, one of only four in the country, is what originally attracted me to Broughton Church. Round stair turrets may have represented the Holy Sepulchre, the stairs ascending to Heaven. Although still Anglo-Saxon in date, Broughton’s stair turret is a later addition; there is a straight joint between it and the tower. Also, the floor levels between the tower and turret are not properly aligned. It is not built of local stones but of sandstones and gritstones from the Pennines. These are reused Roman material, most likely from York or Templeborough, some of which contain Lewis holes. This was not only a convenient building material, it also gave a link to “Romanitas” and therefore the “true” church. The building style of the turret is different to that of the tower, comprising of large, square (average size: 18 ins or 0.46 m), roughly-dressed stones. The 3 turret windows are different too; they are narrow, rectangular, vertical slits, framed with narrow strips of stone (Taylor and Taylor, 1965).

Internally, the stair turret is effectively a rubble and concrete helical (going upwards) tunnel. The treads of the roughly-dressed steps are attached individually to a central pillar, or newel, and simply bedded on the floor of the tunnel. The newel is a stack of reused Roman columns! The stairway leads to a first-floor chamber, from which you can peer down into the church, but then carries on upwards, implying that it once led to a second-floor chamber. The ground-floor door to the stairway is round-headed, with the usual lack of keystone.

There are 2 “Lindseytype” grave slabs in the church, which show there was religious activity on the site in the late 10th or early 11th centuries. One is incorporated into the floor around a pier on the south side of the nave and is almost impossible to photograph, but the other is much easier to see. It is in the Anderson Chapel at the east end of the north aisle and has some rather nice cable pattern moulding with figure-of-eight interlace.

After the Anglo-Saxon period, the church was extended, altered and moved outwards. The present nave and chancel are Norman; the aisles and arcades were added in the 1300s.

The settlement of Broughton sits on a route-way through the Lincolnshire Wolds that follows the River Ancholme. Broughton was sited on the Roman Ermine Street and must have been a Roman settlement. Ermine Street led from Lincoln to the Humber (then northwards) but there are no settlements along this stretch of it (they are all to the west on the spring line just below the Lincoln Edge) Broughton’s Moor Beck would have been the first source of flowing water after Lincoln and there might have been a nymphaeum here. Anglo-Saxon pottery and a Grubenhaus have been found in the village. The “tun” element in Broughton’s name is probably no earlier than the 8th century,  though the “brough” element may mean “borough” or it could refer to the mounds on the sandy hills within the village.

In the Domesday Book, Broughton has 2 recorded landowners and 29 sokemen (these were a class of free peasants who had more rights than villeins and are more numerous in Lincolnshire than elsewhere possibly descended from Viking settlers), along with 34 villeins and 8 bordars. A church and a priest are referred to; this church may have been St Mary’s, but as the tower nave appears to have been private, there may have been another church too. St Mary’s may have been built by Merleswein or Grinchel the latter was King Harold’s man in the area, the shire reeve of Lincolnshire.


Points, G. A Gazetteer of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian Sites: Lincolnshire. 2016. Rihtspell Publishing.

Taylor, H. M. and Taylor, J. Anglo-Saxon Architecture. Vol l. 1965. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Lecture by Dr Kevin Leahy to the English Companions at Broughton Church on 2nd June, 2018

Gods and supernatural beings

By Stephen Pollington

Stephen Pollington is a freelance researcher, tutor, presenter and author specialising in the Old English language and the history of Anglo-Saxon England.

From the earliest Germanic presence in Britain of which we have any evidence – inscriptions from the area of Hadrian’s Wall from the late 1st c. AD – to the completion of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kings in the later 600s, Britain had a heathen Germanic culture in some areas for around six centuries. Add in the new wave of heathen impetus from the later Scandinavian invasions (8th-11th centuries), and the span approaches a thousand years. During this time, beliefs and ideas about the supernatural and the gods were constantly evolving along with the societies that worshipped them.

The evidence for the ancient gods is not as sparse as some modern writers maintain, but it is difficult to evaluate. Some pre-Christian tradition comes down through Old English literature – which is transmitted through Christian literacy – or otherwise through archaeological finds which don’t have any labels to assist with identification.

As a starting point, we could do worse than take the days of the week, the names of which go back to pre-Christian times. Sunday and Monday (the days of sun and moon) are the obvious starting points for heavenly bodies but these were probably not regarded as supernatural beings in the period.

Tuesday is the day named for the god Tiw. Almost nothing is recorded about him in Old English outside a few place-names, but Scandinavian tradition knows him as Tyr – one of the major gods who is associated with justice and honest relations among men. He must once have been the foremost of the gods (his name is cognate with Greek Zeus and Roman Jove or Ju(piter)) but he had faded into the background by the time the Anglo-Saxon came to Britain. The Norse god is involved in a story of the binding of the cosmic wolf Fenrir, and it may be that some representations of a man between wolves show the same tale – such images appear in the purse-lid from Sutton Hoo Mound 1. In this story, Tyr lost one of his hands.

Wednesday is named for Woden, the foremost of the gods and the one about whom we know most because a handful of narrative sources survive. He is associated with kings and wisdom, with writing, medicine and commerce, with warfare and with the soul’s passage to the afterlife. His name is found at the head of many lists of kings – East Anglia, Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria all believed that their royal line(s) started with the god. Occasional references to him in the poetry and the medical literature indicate that he was considered wise, courageous, cunning, powerful, tricky and determined – all qualities associated with Anglo-Saxon kings. His weapon was the spear – the badge of a freeman and a lord alike. The Norse tales have Odin (Woden) trading one of his eyes for a drink of mead which conferred wisdom; while this story is not written down in England, there are many echoes of the story’s details in the royal regalia of the East Anglian kings.

Thursday takes its name from Thor, or Thunor (thunder) as the Anglo-Saxon called him. His realm was the world of hard work, farming, fishing, hunting, smithing. His weapon was a hammer (the thunderbolt) which protected men’s dwellings from the hostile forces of nature. Hammer amulets were worn in Viking times, but the Anglo-Saxons were wearing them centuries before that and they are sometimes found in graves.

Frige, the ‘beloved lady’, gave her name to Friday. Again, little is written about her in English but her Scandinavian counterparts (Freyja and Frigg) are both powerful female leaders who command respect. Frigg is a matronly, regal lady of the meadhall who uses guile to dupe her husband Odin into doing her will. Freyja on the other hand is associated with sexuality, magic and violent death.

Saturday is named for the Roman god Saturn: he was never worshipped by the Anglo-Saxons but when they adopted the seven-day week from the Romans they used the equivalent names of deities (dies Iovis = Tiwesdæg) but had no corresponding god for Saturn.

There are a handful of other gods in the literary sources – Bældæg appears in a king-list and is probably equivalent to the Norse Baldur, the beautiful but tragic son of Odin. The kings of the East Saxons in Essex did not look to Woden for the ancestry, but to their own god Seaxneat (sword-companion) who was also worshipped in the Saxon lands in Germany. Bede, writing in the 8th century, says that ‘Eastermonth’ is named after an old goddess of the Angles called Eostre whom they worshipped at the coming of spring.

Just as important as the gods and goddesses were the supernatural beings that inhabited hills and meadows, trees and stones; they could be good friends if they were respected but would take vengeance if they were not. These beings include elves, shucks, hags, ents and many others.

To find out more

Stephen Pollington has written a book called The Elder Gods: The Otherworld of Early England (available from Anglo Saxon Books and other booksellers) which brings together a range of evidence for pre-Christian beliefs and attitudes to the Otherworld drawn from archaeology, linguistics, literary studies and comparative mythology.

Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Paganism

There was an interesting article in Wiþowinde 147 from Eadmund (Malcolm) Dunstall bewailing the fact that incorrect information is often repeated and that on the periphery of Anglo Saxon studies there is one particular area where this ersatz information is particularly rife, and that is the area of Englisc Paganism. 

 As a modern day Heathen/Pagan I could not agree more!  Whilst Saxons living alongside Heathen Norsemen in the Danelaw area may have been influenced to return to their religious roots, I deplore the way in which it is presumed by so many that Anglo Saxon Paganism was the same as Scandinavian, except for some slight name changes: Odinn to Woden, Forr to Funor, Tyr to Tiw etc.

(In fact, as someone with an interest in Norse Paganism as well,  I will observe that it was not very  consistent from one village to the next, let alone across several different countries!)  Let’s not fall into the archaeologist trap: lf we can’t explain if, it must have ritual purpose…” So much is unknown, uncertain, and down to individual interpretation.

A lot of emphasis has been placed upon the writings of the Venerable Bede, possibly England’s first historian, writing in Jarrow after the Christianisation of England. While he does provide excellent evidence regarding some Anglo Saxon Heathen practices such as mentioning the obscure Heathen deities Eostre, Hreþa (month names) & Sætere, one must remember that he was a Christian monk with a political viewpoint, especially as regarding the lineage and legitimacy of his current royal dynasty and culture.  That makes it all the more surprising that he should remind us that the

Heathen feast of Modra necht is arguably on 26 December and that Solmonaþ(February) is a feast of cakes, while September is named as Halegmonaþ (Holy Month) and November as Blotmonaþ (from its animal sacrifices). Why would a Christian cleric want to make these up?

We have a far wider range of powerful literature, in the form of texts that can be analysed for clues to our Heathen past: Heroic poetry such as Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon, material from leech books and verse charms (such as the Nine Herbs Charm), laws, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, letters, and the Anglo Saxon Rune Poem.  I would argue that you cannot get into the early Anglo Saxon mind set without understanding something of the Paganism of that period, even when it had officially ceased to exist.

According to the 6th century writer Gildas, the first of the heathen Saxon newcomers in the 5th century were allegedly Hengest and Horsa, two warrior leaders brought in by the Celt Vortigern to evict the Picts between about 449-456. After completing this mercenary task, they decided to stay on, against his wishes.  At a battle near Aylesford in Kent, Horsa was killed, and the still visible White Horse Stone (or possibly its replacement) is said to be where he is buried, and is thus an important place to modern heathens as a memorial to one of the two human sources of English Heathenism.  It lies off the A229 Maidstone-Chatham road, near to where the Pilgrims Way and the more modern Channel Tunnel link cross it.  lt can be found via a footpath near to a garage.

Consider briefly the names though:  Vortigen is less a name than a title, which has been interpreted as “King of Kings.” Horsa means “horse” and Hengest either “stallion” – or alternatively the almost-exact opposite, “gelding.” (How etymologists justify their art as a science sometimes eludes me!) How likely is it, for two sons to be both named in equine fashion?  I wonder whether these were titles, rather than names, in the same way that Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was known as the “Lion of Judah”?


While I will accept that some laws are copied from one king to another, the successive laws against Paganism  seem to subtly change focus in each new generation: presumably to combat whatever was the “latest fad”.  The Saxon kings and the Church give us evidence of what was going on in England by what they forbade. For example, The Laws of King Alfred include:

30. The women (faamnan) who are accustomed to harbour enchanters (onfon gealdor-crasftiganJ and wizards (scin-læcan) and witches (wiccan) * do not allow them to live.

32. And he that sacrifices to idols (god-geldum onsaeoge), rather than to God alone, let him suffer

death. (Griffiths, 2006: 50)

Hence we know that people in the 880s were acting as enchanters, wizards and witches, as well as sacrificing to idols. It is unlikely that a law would be passed against something that did not exist. Prior to that in AD666, the biographer of St. Wilfriþ tells how a priest of the South Saxons cursed Wilfriþ and his companions as they were cast ashore in a storm.

The Council of Clofeshoh (747) condemned those who practiced divinations, auguries, incantations and the like.  The Dialogue of Archbishop Egbert named those who worshipped idols or gave themselves to the devil through others who took auspices or practiced astrology or enchantment as men who should never be appointed to the priesthood. (Blair, PH L997:LL7) – Though one might think they were already part of a rival priesthood, and would not therefore be interested in the one being denied them!

Between 1009 and 1016, King Æþelræd published his laws which included Renounce all Pagan Customs (Griffiths, 2006:84) demonstrating this was still a problem within an Anglo Saxon culture that had supposedly been converted to Christianity nearly four centuries previously (Pagan practices were specifically banned under Archbishop Theodore’s 7th century Penitential, which included penances for sacrificing to devils, foretelling the future and burning grain in a house after the death of a man – the last being the only reference I know of that particular Pagan practice).

The popular image of Christian conversion across Europe is not supported by the evidence, with some countries vacillating between various religions depending on their current rulers, invaders and even who they wanted as their allies or trading partners. Why, for instance, was the supposedly  Christian King Aþelhere of the East Angles named by Bede as being within the ill-fated 30 legions of the fervently Heathen King Penda’s AD654 expedition against Oswiu? (Stenton, 1971:83) Was it purely politics? Or had East Anglia reverted to Paganism once more? Prudence Jones & Nigel Pennick provide a detailed analysis of this type of process in A History of Pagan Europe (1995).

Earlier, East Anglian King Redwald had been baptised in Kent, but merely erected a crucifix in his Heathen temple and had a massive treasure burial – hardly the actions expected of a Christian. Maybe, like Prince Charles, he wanted to be “Defender of the Faiths” to his multi-faith society.  The Prittlewell treasure grave has proved this type of ostentatious funeral wasn’t unique in this period.  Wulfstan, ,Ælric and King Cnut (AD995) collectively ban animal guising, saluting the moon, making offerings at waterfalls and trees, making oaths to Heathen gods etc., in edicts years apart – which

suggest these things were still continuing. King Edgar had already forbidden well worship, divination, and practices around trees and wells in about AD970 – only 25 years before Cnut.   It would seem unlikely that laws would be repeatedly passed against some action that no longer happened.  Of course these accounts do all give us a very clear idea of what we should do as modern Heathens if we wish to worship in the way our ancestors did.


If one examines Anglo Saxon charms such as the one to make a field fruitful (Erce, Erce, Erce) it is hard to deny that there are some very magical acts going on alongside the instruction to say the Lords Prayer (cutting turf, and putting herbs and grain into the soil, etc.).   The period may officially be Christian, but it seems a lot of the old ways lingered, in a form semi- acceptable to the new religion.

When King Æþelberht met with Augustine and some 40 Christian missionaries, around 597 at Thanet in Kent, he insisted that it was in the open air, because he was suspicious of their magic. Does that mean then, at that place and time, people believed magic could only take place indoors?


While there will always be linguistic and etymological arguments around place names, some of them

Wansdyke, Wednesbury (- Woden’s Barrow) Wednesfield, Thundersley (þunor’s grove), Tysoe (Tiw’s

Hill Spur) etc.- do seem to give evidence of centres of religious cults, Thurstable (Funor’s Pillar)    suggests a link with the sacred lrminsul pillars on the continent destroyed by Charlemagne, but St Anselm commenting on Heathen temples in Wessex mentions also crude pillars (ermula) of the same foul snake and the stag were worshipped with coarse stupidity in profane shrines… (Thompson, 2004:19). It was, of course, a stag that surmounted the whetstone sceptre of Sutton

Hoo, despite the wolf element to the Wuffing dynasty’s clan name,

Place names with an original element of hearg (hill sanctuary) in them such as Harrow Hill, likely indicate an outdoor altar site. Weoh = idol, allegedly, and this forms a Pagan element in place names such as Wayland Wood. What is much more controversial is the use of the Grimr nickname for Woden as part of place names. Whilst Grimsby might have been a centre for his worship, some places such as Grimsdyke, Grimspound, Grimes Graves etc, may have been named by later generations after a being that had by then gained ‘bogeyman’ status. What has not had much attention given it in recent years is the idea of areas named after their original tribes, who in turn were ruled by people who could only do so by claiming direct lineage back to a Pagan deity such as Woden or Seaxnot. A study of Frank Stenton (1971) will still repay the effort.


According to Bede, the Heathen priest Coifi was asked by King Edwin of Northumbria to persuade the people to convert to Christianity in 627, by setting an example. He carried a spear on a stallion and threw it into the temple (ealh) at Goodmanham in the East Riding of Yorkshire – all taboo acts for an Anglo Saxon Heathen priest. (Blair, P. L977:121).  In contrast, at least one Icelandic priest owned a stallion and none seemed barred from carrying arms. Though they did share the custom of not taking weapons into the temple.

Certainly there must have been some well-constructed Heathen temples in England. Why else would Pope Gregory write to Abbot Mellitus a letter dated 17 June 601 (quoted by Bede) instructing him:  

I have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols in England should not on any account be destroyed. Augustine must smash the idols, but the temples themselves should be sprinkled with holy water and altars set up in them in which relics are to be enclosed. For we ought to take   advantage of well built temples by purifying them from devil worship… (Branston, 8., L974:53-54)

Those English Heathen temples must have flourished well into the era of Christian conversion, since

elsewhere Bede mentions an unbroken tradition of at least one heathen temple seen by King Aldwulf of East Anglia ‘who lived into our own times’ and who testified ‘that this temple was still standing in his day, and that he had seen if when a boy.'(Branston, B. 1974:54) The temple in question had belonged to Aldwulf’s predecessor King Rædwald, who died in about 625, and is believed to be the main burial at Sutton Hoo, His temple was probably where Rendlesham church now stands in Suffolk.   If the life of Aldwulf (Eadwulf) is taken as 664-7L3 (Pollington, 2005:120) and if he saw it when he was six years old (the earliest he is likely to have been able to recollect) then the temple was there in 670 – fofty-five years after the death of Rædwald and the supposed end of Heathen practice. Bede also writes about King Sighere of the East Saxons rebuilding ruined temples and restoring Heathen worship after a serious plague in 665.


A plate on the side of the Sutton Hoo helmet shows what appear to be two figures, each dancing with two spears and a sword, across two crossed spears on the ground. They have elaborate helmets on that appear to be crested with large bird-headed horns. There is a similar figure shown on the Finglesham belt buckle from Kent, and they have close parallels with panels from Torslunda, Sweden. It appears that ritual dancing is going on, and Ormsgard Dark Ages Theatre was

trying to do some experimental archaeology around that at Sutton Hoo during 2008. While one may argue about what sort of ritual dance it is, it would be hard to put it into a Christian context.

Two of the figures from the Torslunda plates have helmets with boars on them, and at least two similar helmets have been found in England: at Benty Grange, Derbyshire and fragments at Woolaston, Northants and Guilden Morden, Cambs.   Whilst they could simply be decoration, are they evidence of a boar cult an animal sacred to the god Frey? As I indicated at the start of this article it is all down to interpretation.

Kirk Hammerton Church

By Jenny Ashby in Wiðowinde issue 197

Exterior of Kirk Hammerton Church
Kirk Hammerton Church

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 (

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., 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!)., 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 ( 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.

Brixworth Church

Jenny Ashby in Wiðowinde issue 180

Exterior of Brixworth Church
Brixworth Church

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

Bradford on Avon Church

By Jenny Ashby in Wiðowinde issue 194

Exterior of Bradford upon Avon Church
Bradford-upon-Avon Church

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.

Deerhurst Church

By Jenny Ashby in Wiðowinde issue 182

THE PRIORY Church of St Mary the Virgin at Deerhurst, Gloucestershire, is one of our very best and most complete Anglo-Saxon churches, ranking with Brixworth in importance. It was one Anglo-Saxon church that I’d actually heard of before I began to get seriously interested in them and I took my indulgent husband and children there years ago when we lived nearby in Worcestershire but at the time I didn’t fully appreciate how much of it was  Anglo-Saxon. The beast heads on the chancel arch and inner west doorway, for example, are so perfect (and still have traces of paint on them) that I couldn’t believe they were that old!

Saxon font at Deerhurst Church
Saxon font in Deerhurst Church

The village of Deerhurst lies four miles south west of Tewkesbury on a spur above the river Severn. As it did in Anglo-Saxon times, the river presents a flood risk. Nowadays you drive through the flood gates to park beside Odda’s Chapel (of which more later); then, the boundary ditch of the monastery (the “Vallum monasterii “) probably doubled up as a flood defence. The river, however, must have been the reason for the development of the monastic settlement as it was the artery to the Bristol Channel and the wider World.

The name “Deerhurst” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “deor”, meaning deer, and “hyrst “, a wooded hillock. The village is tiny these days too small for a pub as a friendly local remarked to me when I visited last August and it is dominated by its large, wonderful church.

Bede may well have meant Deerhurst when he referred to a minster in Hwiccan territory, but the church’s documented history starts in 804 when it was given a substantial gift of land by Ealdorman Æthelric of the Hwicce, whose father, Æthelmund, was buried there in 802. Enriched by Æthelric’s gift, Deerhurst subsequently expanded and became one of the most important monasteries in the area, holding lands in the High Cotswolds, Bredon Hill (Worcs) and the Avon Valley, as well as 66 hides round the settlement of Deerhurst itself. St Alphege (953 1012), the Archbishop of Canterbury martyred by the Danes, was a monk here. The Treaty of Deerhurst, which divided England between Edmund Ironside and Cnut after the Battle of Assandun, was signed in 1016, showing that Deerhurst was a very important place by then. Later in the century the estate was owned by Earl Odda, but when he died in 1056 it reverted to the King, Edward the Confessor. Edward then gave it to his favourite abbey, St Denis in Paris. This hastened the decline in the fortunes of Deerhurst and by 1100 its pre-eminence had been overtaken by other local foundations such as Tewkesbury, Winchcombe and Evesham. In the 15th century King Henry VI confiscated its lands, as its revenues had been passing out of the country during the Hundred Years’ War, and it was given to Eton College. In 1440 it became a cell of Tewkesbury Abbey.

Many of Deerhurst’s Anglo-Saxon features were rediscovered during major restoration work in 1861-2 by the Rev George Butterworth. More recently, in 2006, a painted figure of a saint carrying a book was discovered in a stone panel high up on the east wall of the nave. It is probably 10th century in date and may be the oldest wall painting in any church in Great Britain. However, it is not really visible from ground level.

Although the present Anglo-Saxon fabric of St Mary the Virgin dates from the early 9th to the 11th centuries (with some earlier masonry in the nave), the church was founded in the 8th century, when tradition tells us that Ebba, daughter of King Eanfrith of the Hwicce, retired here after becoming a widow. But the site is even older. Rahtz (2000) describes five phases in its development. In the first phase it was possibly a Roman military site, with a later villa nearby. Pre-4th century cremation urns were found under the nave of the church in the 19th century, suggesting this was a pre-Christian sacred place. Other Roman finds have turned up in excavations, such as tile, mortar and crushed brick in the foundations of the west wall.

The first church, built in the 7th to 8th centuries as a minster in the territory of the Hwicce, was a basic rectangle consisting of a nave and chancel with a porch added to its west end.

In the 8th century, a semi-circular apse was added with flanking porticus, or side chapels, at either side of the east end. On the north side was a triple porticus, the central one of which had 2 storeys. The eastern one beyond it (now gone) was of one storey and the western one was an entry porticus (porticus ingressus). The south side had a similar arrangement, though possibly without an entry porticus.

The apogee of the church came in the late 8th to 10th centuries (Rahtz’ phase 4), following Æthelric’s grant, when the basic rectangle, already tall, was heightened. A 7-sided polygonal apse replaced the semi-circular one and it had blind arcades separated by strip work; each of the 7 arches being triangular with (probably) a sculpture of an archangel within it of which one remains (see below). The double-headed window, which appears in all the text books, was inserted into the west wall of the nave and lit a major second floor chamber in the porch / tower. Incidentally, one of the stones in this window contains a Roman Lewis hole! The fabulous beast heads date from this period too.

In phase 5, the 10th to 11th centuries, the porticus were extended the whole length of the church, even flanking the tower on the north side, but probably not the south. The porch / tower, whose construction spans all the phases of the church’s development, was raised to its present height possibly after 1066. There is a complex of different floor levels within the church, due to evolving functions in the growing Benedictine monastery. There are also 17 doorways! Putlog holes in the walls are left over from their construction only they are not holes. The wood was sawn off flush with the walls and lies in situ rather handy for radiocarbon dating!

So, approaching the village from the Tewkesbury direction, the church stands out, in the flatlands of the Severn Vale. Its height is remarkable and, as you get nearer, you can see the original roof line as a scar on the tower, showing that once the walls and roof were even higher.

Walking up the path to the church, and deciding to view the outside first, the tower attracts the eye. It is 21m (70ft) tall and it is all Anglo-Saxon apart from its 14th century belfry. It started out as an 8th century porch then grew as the church expanded! Standing at the west door, you see an Anglo-Saxon arch with a 14th century doorway within it. A 9th century monster head (or prokrossos) looms above the arch. Higher up the wall is another doorway, with another monster head, much eroded, above that. This doorway, now blocked, would have led to an external balcony from which the priest could maybe have displayed holy relics for the faithful to see without being able to touch them. Different phases in construction of the tower can be discerned by changes in the stonework, including layers of herringbone masonry.

Continuing along the church’s north side, you come to the foundations of the apse. The arch leading to it from the chancel, although intact, is filled in and has become an outside wall.  Some of the masonry of the apse survives on its south side and high up on this is the Deerhurst Angel. This famous carving, perhaps originally one of seven, has enormous staring eyes with stylised wings and hair, which are suggestive of Celtic influence. The present day farmhouse was probably the refectory of the monastery and its lawn the cloister garth.

Returning to the west door and entering, you see immediately, over the inner doorway, a carving of the Virgin Mary. It looks modern in its simplicity, but it is not. It is 9th century. Originally painted, she holds a shield in front of her, on which would have been an image of the Christ Child. Jesus is here being depicted as a child in the womb, rather than a babe in arms; this unusual iconography has origins in the eastern Mediterranean.

Go through this doorway, then look back at its arch. You now see two incredible beast heads, one each side of the hood moulding. They still have traces of paint on them and their eyes and nostrils may have contained coloured glass. They are also 9th century, but look too perfect to be that old!

Go through the next arch, which is also Anglo-Saxon, then you are in the nave. Look back at the west wall and you see one of the most celebrated sights surviving from Anglo-Saxon times. At ground level is the doorway you’ve just come through, with a glimpse of the beast label stops we’ve just looked at beyond. On the next level are two corbels, which would have supported the former western gallery, with a blocked doorway, which would have led into it and small triangular windows (one on this wall and one each on the south and north walls of the nave) which would have provided light for it. Up a level again and you see the 9th century double-headed window, beyond which would have been the bell chamber. This window is possibly the most well-known Anglo-Saxon window of all. Above the window is a large rectangular stone, which was is likely to have been a dedication stone.

The nave is 18m (60ft) long and 6.4m (21ft) wide, with walls only 0.76m (30ins) thick. Its walls were pierced by 6 arches in about 1200 and clerestory windows in around 1500, when the roof was lowered, but originally it was accessed via doorways from the porticus.

The present chancel was originally the crossing between the nave and the apse. Behind the altar is the massive, now blocked, arch to the apse which we noted from the outside. The arch has beast head label stops, still carrying traces of paint, like their fellows over the inner porch doorway. Corbels at first floor level and blocked doorways on the east wall show that there was an eastern gallery in this church as well as a western one. Flat-headed doorways on the north and south walls of the chancel gave access to porticus. The upper,  roundheaded windows in the same walls were openings from the upper floors of the two central porticus from which folk could observe the Mass at the high altar. These upper floors were originally built of timber, later replaced by stone. The triangular doorway into the north porticus incorporates a reused grave cover.

In the north porticus (now the eastern end of the north aisle), square niches in the walls were aumbry cupboards for storing sacramental goods. The now blocked flat-headed door led to the (ruined) north east porticus. There is also a rather good medieval brass on the floor.

Finally, we mustn’t forget the font, which is the finest Anglo-Saxon font in existence.  Originally possibly part of a cross shaft subsequently hollowed out, it is carved from a piece of oolitic limestone and dates to around 800. It is exquisitely decorated with spiral, vine scroll and animal motifs.

As if an exceptional church is not enough, a short stroll away is Odda’s Chapel. It deserves an article to itself, but, briefly, it was built by Earl Odda in 1056 (we know this because its dedication stone survives) in memory of his brother, Ælfric. Only rediscovered in the 19th century (it is still attached to a farmhouse), it is an Anglo-Saxon time capsule.

There is so much to see at Deerhurst believe it or not, I’ve tried to be brief! It is such an amazing place. If you only ever visit just one Anglo-Saxon church, let it be this one. It is open every day.


Edmondson, D. Anglo-Saxon England in 100 Places. Amberley. Stroud. 2014

Hooke, D. The Anglo-Saxon Landscape of North Gloucestershire. 7th Deerhurst Lecture. Friends of Deerhurst Church. 1990

Points, G. An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Church Architecture and Anglo-Scandinavian Stone Sculpture. Rihtspell Publishing. 2015

Porter, A. The Priory Church of St Mary the Virgin at Deerhurst. R J L Smith and Associates. Much Wenlock. 2002

Rahtz, P. Deerhurst Above and Below Ground. Deerhurst Lecture 2000. Friends of Deerhurst Church. 2001

Taylor, H.M. Anglo-Saxon Architecture, Vol lll. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1978

Worth church

By Jenny Ashby, gesið

This article first appeared in Wiðowinde #183 (Autumn 2017)

I HAVE KNOWN THE CHURCH OF ST NICHOLAS AT Worth all my life; a painting of its chancel arch by my Dad has always hung in their lounge and I can remember looking at it from babyhood, wondering why he’d painted it. Years later he told me he painted it because it was Saxon and it had inspired him. But I’d never actually visited it. So this January I at last decided to go, a personal odyssey, having discovered that not only was it part of my family’s story but it is also one of England’s finest Saxon churches.

Interior of Worth Church
The interior of Worth Church

When Dad visited Worth years ago, it was a little Sussex village. Nowadays it is part of Crawley New Town, squashed between housing estates to the west, the M23 to the east and Gatwick Airport to the north. Yet it is well-signposted and I found the church first time. Parking Oswald in the little approach lane, I walked through the lych gate and wow! The church is stunningly and unmistakably Saxon, with its pilaster strips all round the outside, its double-headed windows and its apse. I was expecting a flint church, like many churches in Surrey and Sussex, but no, this one is golden. It was a gloriously sunny day and the Wealden sandstone from which the church is constructed just glowed, it looked ethereal. Busily taking loads of photos, whilst trying not to tread on the carpets of snowdrops in the churchyard, I disturbed a fox, who regarded me for a while then trotted off. I reflected that Worth Church is an oasis of Saxon peace in a mad world.

Worth is a common Old English place name, usually meaning “enclosure”, but in this case, and in that of Worthing, it comes from the personal name “Wurth”. Worth lay within the Forest of Andredsweald and the church is believed to have been founded by King Edward the Confessor himself, who dedicated it to St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (died 6th December, 343 AD). Built to a very high standard, Worth Church may have been a minster or perhaps an outpost of Chertsey Abbey, as it was then in Surrey. Held of King Edward by Oswol, after the Conquest it was given by William l to William de Warenne, whose family held it until the middle of the 14th century. It passed to the Fitzalan family (Earls of Arundel) then, in 1415, to the Nevilles.

The church is cruciform in shape, with an apse at the east end; it has been dated to between 950 and 1050, but possibly earlier which of course would preclude Edward the Confessor being its founder. As it stands today, 99% of the nave walls, the three great internal arches and the two transepts are original Saxon work. It is constructed of coursed rubble (irregular shaped stones laid in lines) which is the commonest fabric used in Anglo-Saxon walling. The nave walls are 2 ft 9 ins or 0.84 m thick; Anglo-Saxon walls are seldom as thick as 3 ft (0.91m) and the average is 2 ft 7 ins (0.76 m).

Outside, it is almost completely encircled half way up the walls by a stone string course, although this is absent from the tower, which is Victorian, and the ends of the transepts, which were altered in the 13th century. String courses may have just been decorative, but they could have enhanced the lateral bonding of the walls or been designed to throw rainwater clear of the building (Taylor, 1978). The Saxon

windows sit directly above the string course and pilaster strips descend at intervals from it. The pilaster strips are of dressed stone and would have helped ensure the walls were straight and upright. The vulnerable angles of the building were protected by dressed quoin stones laid alternately upright and flat with great care and accuracy. They were cut back from the wall to allow for plastering (Taylor, 1978).

The apse is the chancel. Apsidal east ends are a feature of churches south of the Wash, apart from Hexham. The lower walls of the semi-circular apse at Worth are Saxon, but the upper walls, windows and pilaster strips are nineteenth century restorations.

You can see the ghost of the Saxon north door in the brickwork; opposite is the Saxon south doorway, now hidden on the outside by the pretty porch, which was built in 1886. You usually enter the church by its west door, which is also 13th century. Having extensively photographed the exterior, it was time to go inside.

As I entered the church, through the west door, a choir started to sing. I looked around nervously, afraid I was intruding but there was nobody there! It took a while for it to dawn on me that it was a recording, triggered by my entry! My tour was accompanied by a variety of hymns and classical music, a nice touch.

From the door I could see almost all of the interior, apart from the furthest parts of the transepts; this would always have been the case, there were never any internal doorways as there were at Deerhurst. Dominating the view were three massive Saxon arches, one to each transept and one to the chancel, the latter being much the tallest. That chancel arch was entirely familiar to me, I had known it all my life. And yet the church seemed lighter than in Dad’s painting. The walls are white now.

Following a disastrous fire in 1986 which destroyed the roof, the roof was restored in 1988 and the church refurbished and presumably repainted.

Taking it logically, I looked at the nave first. At its west end is a gallery, dated 1610,

which once extended the full length of the north wall of the nave. The font is 13th

century, the stoups 14th century and the pulpit 16th century. The iconic double-headed windows are pure Saxon. There are two pairs in the north wall and one in the south wall (its twin having been later replaced by a 15th century window). They have great through-stones to support their round heads and each has a baluster (a vertical pillar, which in this case bulges slightly in the middle) between the heads. You can see the outline of the Saxon north door in the north wall. The Saxon south

doorway is opposite and dwarfs the later door that is set into it. The nave measures 60 ft x 27 ft (18.29 m x 8.33 m), which gives a ratio of 2:4 breadth to length. The chancel is narrower, being 33 ft x 21.5 ft (10.06 m x 6.55 m).

Now for the chancel arch: it is one of the largest Anglo-Saxon arches in existence, after Stow, Great Paxton, Dover and Wing (Taylor, 1978). It is 22 ft (6.71 m) high and 14 ft (4.27 m) wide. Its jambs (vertical bits) are cylindrical, whilst the arch itself is

square in cross section. High up on its south side are the friction marks of a rope, and on its south jamb there are more signs of wear; these point to the likely existence of a sanctus bell in earlier times. A sanctus bell was rung at the most

important stages in the Mass, such as the consecration of the bread and wine.

The south transept, now the Lady chapel, contains an altar recess consisting of an infilled early (Saxon?) semi-circular arch. The north transept is now the chapel of the

Blessed Sacrament. It contains a small window illustrating the arms of the de Warenne family; this is the oldest glass 12th century in the church.

I was loath to leave the church, having a 270 mile journey back to Yorkshire ahead of me, but I took the joy of having been there with me. Open every day, Worth is worth a visit!


Edmondson, D. Anglo-Saxon England in 100 Places. Amberley. Stroud. 2014.

Harrison, F. Notes on Sussex Churches. Hove. 1908.

Taylor, H.M. Anglo-Saxon Architecture, Vol lll. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1978.

St Nicholas Church, Worth. Church Guide. 2007.

‘Parishes: Worth’, in A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 7, the Rape of Lewes, ed. L F Salzman (London, 1940), pp. 192-200. British History Online  

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Greensted Church, Essex

By Jenny Ashby, gesith

This article first appeared in Wiðowinde #177 (Spring 2016)

Stained glass window of St. Edmund in Greensted Church
St. Edmund window in Greensted Chrurch

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.