George Hillard, a regular visitor from the States, encourages us to share his appreciation for Anglo-Saxon churches
The textbooks describe Breamore Church as a ‘nearly-complete’ or ‘significant’ surviving Anglo-Saxon church. Indeed, it is both of these, and more. St Mary’s, Breamore is about 8 miles south of Salisbury on the north side of Fordingbridge in Hampshire. It is a Late Saxon church, built around the year 980, and it is a parish church in the Diocese of Winchester.
Fortunately, more than a few of these truly ancient churches have survived and are in use today. Professors H.M. and Joan Taylor identified more than 400 Anglo-Saxon churches in their definitive book, Anglo-Saxon Architecture . Evidence of some of these churches is scant but fascinating. It may be most of a wall, or a surviving arch, or a doorway and windows; these features have, typically, been preserved in situ as the building has been renovated over the years. About 15 or so have survived largely intact and maintain a character substantially different from the Gothic cathedrals and churches which are more familiar to visitors to Britain.
They are not always easy to find, as quite a few of them are in small villages, not located near a town centre. The sign pointing the way may be small, and may say only ‘Saxon Church,’ but the visit is, without exception, memorable.
Frequently, they are located by themselves, in a glade, and are surrounded by another piece of history, the church cemetery. Typically, the nave is tall and narrow, with slim, high-mounted windows. It has a mood, if you will, unlike the later and more complex Gothic churches. It is set in a quiet place, and a slow walk round the outside is both revealing and puzzling. For in the stone, one can locate old intersections, where the roof was a bit higher in ancient times…or a filled-in arch or doorway, unmistakable in its shape and craftsmanship. I am always grateful that they kept these features while renovating the church.
The best time to visit a Saxon church is during the week (but don’t pass up a Sunday service!) when it is really quiet. I sit in the nave, and then the chancel, and just look round, and then do it again. Lighting may be minimal, but modern additions help. Memorial tablets on the walls tell the story of each church, and are likely to identify the prominent family or families through the history of the church. The oldest Saxon churches date from the mid-seventh century; the Late Saxon period ends with Hastings, but it was not an abrupt stop.
I always wonder, particularly when strolling around the churchyard…what was it like here in 1015? Who was the vicar? What were the parishioners like? Was it a hard winter? One thing we do know as we regard the silent sentinel regarding us quietly: this church was standing here then, looking pretty much as it does now.
I also reflect on the ancient services. We know that they were essentially the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Mass. Again, I turn to the people, many of whom were not literate but who spoke Old English. The Latin Mass (‘smells and bells’) must have been mysterious but compelling.
When the Normans arrived, they began to paint the walls of the churches, thus providing a pictorial accompaniment to the sermon, and perhaps a better explanation for people who did not read or write. The earliest Saxon wall paintings date from 1020 in a church in Nether Wallop.
The Saxon churches are found from the far north (Monkwearmouth, Jarrow, Escomb) to the far south (Breamore, Wareham, Worth, Sompting). These wonderful buildings are ancient testimonies of faith, with the potential to inspire us today. I visit them – the same ones – again and again. They are churches with quiet power, asking us simply to reflect and receive, and they wait patiently for us.