‘Scattered around England are some 16000 parish churches and the vast majority of them can be found in the countryside. They come in every size and occupy every kind of site.’ So begins Sir Roy Strong’s wonderful book. ‘A Little History of the English Parish Church’ (2007).
Christianity first came to England in the 2nd century AD but churches as we know them did not exist then. Worship was carried out in rooms wherever Christians met. The origins of the parish church date back to the re-introduction of Christianity after the Dark Ages. Celtic missionaries came from Ireland in the 6th Century; Columba crossed from Ireland to Iona in 563. In 597 Augustine came from Rome and landed in Kent to spread the Christian belief.
Carved wooden or stone crosses were set up at existing sites of Pagan worship. In this way the people did not have to change their traditional meeting place.
Some stone crosses can still be seen:
All Saints Parish Church, Ilkley, West Yorkshire. Christians have worshipped on this site since about 627 AD. There are three Saxon Crosses now kept inside the (largely Victorian) church.
Sandbach. Two sandstone obelisks stand in the Market Square. They are believed to date from the 8th or 9th Century.
The Parish Church of St Mary and St John, Rothley, Leicestershire. A Saxon Cross can be found in the churchyard.
St Mary’s Church, Gosforth, Cumbria. A red sandstone Anglo-Saxon/Norse Cross stands in the churchyard.
St Paul’s Church, Irton, Cumbria. Early 9th century red sandstone Saxon cross in the churchyard.
St Cuthbert Church, Bewcastle, Cumbria. 7th century yellow sandstone cross, 14 feet high. Only the shaft remains but it is one of the finest of its age in Europe.
All Saints Church, Bakewell, Derbyshire. There are two 9th century Saxon crosses in the churchyard, http://www.bakewellchurch.co.uk/history.html
The first parish churches were built by local lords. They were essentially owned and operated by that lord. The oldest surviving parish churches in England date to about 670 AD and there are very few that are pre 10th century.
Some of the best examples are listed below:
Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex. Founded by St.Cedd in 654 it is one of the oldest Christian churches still in regular use today.
All Saints' Church Brixworth, Northamptonshire. The Church is the largest surviving Anglo-Saxon building in England and has been in continuous use as a place of Christian worship since its foundation by the monks of Peterborough in circa 680 A.D. At the west end of the church a 10th century external stair turret is one of only four similar ones to be found in England.
Escomb Church, Escomb, Durham. The church comprises a long rectangular nave and a square chancel. It is suggested from architectural and archaeological evidence that the church was built sometime between 670 and 690 A.D. Much of the stone used in the construction came from the nearby Roman Fort at Binchester.
Chapel of St. Laurence, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire. The chapel is considered most likely to be Anglo-Saxon, but everything above ground is probably eleventh-century rather than earlier.
All Saints Church, Earls Barton, Northamptonshire. The original Saxon church was a ‘turriform’ (or Tower-Nave) church, which means it comprised a tower with a small extension on one side. The tower at Earls Barton dates from 970. The nave and chancel were added in the 12th century.
St Peter's Church, Barton-upon-Humber. A turriform church with the ground floor of the tower acting as the nave and a baptistery on the west side. Dating the building is not clear but English Heritage (who now owns the building following its closure in 1970) dates the baptistery to the ninth century and the tower nave to the tenth century.
Early Styles of Architecture
There were two different styles of church building during this period. In the south of England the Roman model, as introduced by St.Augustine in Kent, was predominant. This was based on the traditional Roman basilica, with an eastern apse, no transepts, western entrance and sometimes aisles. In the north the Celtic monastic influence produced simple designs featuring tall naves with no side chambers but with doors on the sides, and rectangular chancels.
Many of the early Saxon churches were rebuilt by Normans and have then under gone further restoration and change over the years. This rebuilding blurred the two styles into a more common one based on the cruciform plan with quite often a central tower and at the beginning, no aisles. Frequently, however, rough hewn Saxon stones were reused in the later work, particularly around windows and door openings. The original Saxon foundations were also often retained.
The main legacy of this era is the tower. Towers were originally built as defensive structures against the Danes in particular but slowly became a tradition in church architecture. So whilst most towers today are not Saxon, the idea comes from that time.
Four other churches which contain substantial relics from the Saxon era are Breamore in Hampshshire, Great Paxton in Huntingdonshire, Wing in Buckinghamshire and Worth in Sussex.