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Anglo-Saxon architecture

Anglo-Saxon stone carving at Earls Barton church Triple arch opening separating the nave and apse in the 7th century church at Reculver, Kent (now destroyed) St. Laurence's Church, Bradford-on-Avon (Wiltshire)
All Saints' Church, Brixworth (Northamptonshire) St. Mary's Priory Church, Deerhurst (Gloucestershire) Odda's Chapel, Deerhurst (Gloucestershire)
St. Oswald's Priory Church, Gloucester (Gloucestershire) St. Mary & St. Aethelflaed's Abbey Church, Romsey (Hampshire) St. Mary's Church, Sompting (West Sussex)
Above images special thanks to
 Anglo-Saxon architecture

Anglo-Saxon architecture was a period in the history of architecture in England, and parts of Wales, from the mid-5th century until the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Anglo-Saxon buildings in Britain were generally simple, constructed mainly using timber with thatch for roofing. Generally preferring not to settle in the old Roman cities, the Anglo-Saxons built small towns near their centres of agriculture. In the towns, there is evidence of main halls, and other forms of building of the towns people.

There are few remains of Anglo-Saxon architecture. At least fifty churches are of Anglo-Saxon origin, with many more claiming to be, although in some cases the Anglo-Saxon part is small and much-altered. All surviving churches, except one timber church, are built of stone or brick, and in some cases show evidence of re-used Roman work.

The architectural character of Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical buildings range from Coptic influenced architecture in the early period; Early Christian basilica influenced architecture; and in the later Anglo-Saxon period, an architecture characterised by pilaster-strips, blank arcading, baluster shafts and triangular headed openings.

Almost no secular work remains above ground, although the Anglian Tower in York has been controversially dated to the seventh century.

Historical context

The fall of Roman Britain at the beginning of the fifth century, according to Bede, allowed an influx of invaders from northern Germany including the Angles and Saxons. Their secular buildings were rectangular post built structures, where timber posts were driven into the ground to form the framework of the walls upon which the roofs were constructed. Though very little contemporary evidence survives, methods of construction, including examples of later buildings, can be compared with methods on the continent.

Reconstructed basilical plan of Brixworth church

The Angles and the Saxons had their own religion, but Christianity was on its way. St Patrick, a Romano-British man, converted Ireland to Christianity. The architecture though was initially influenced by Coptic monasticism. Examples of this can be seen today in the form of rectangular dry-stone corbelled structures such as at Dingle and Illauntannig, Ireland. Christianity and the Irish influence came to England through missionaries. In 635, a centre of this so called Celtic Church was established at Lindisfarne, Northumbria, where St Aidan founded a monastery.

In 597, the mission of St Augustine from Rome came to England to establish Christianity in the south, and founded the first cathedral and a Benedictine monastery at Canterbury. These churches comprised of a nave with side chambers. He brought the Roman form of Christianity which differed from the Celtic Church. The influence of this form of Christianity spread through England.

In 664 a synod was held at Whitby, Yorkshire, and leaders of both the Celtic and Roman Church decided to follow the Roman form of Christianity, resulting in uniting the church throughout England. Larger churches developed in the form of basilicas, for example at Brixworth.

Column detail, Reculver church

Subsequent Danish (Viking) invasion marked a period of destruction of many buildings, including in 793 the raid on Lindisfarne. Buildings including cathedrals were rebuilt, and the threat of conflict had an inevitable influence on the architecture of the time. During and after the reign of Alfred the Great (871-899), Anglo-Saxon towns (burhs) were fortified. Contemporary defensive banks and ditches can still be seen today as a result of this. Oxford is an example of one of these fortified towns, where the eleventh century stone tower of St. Michael's church has prominent position beside the former site of the North gate. The building of church towers, replacing the basilican narthex or West porch, can be attributed to this late period of Anglo-Saxon architecture.

Seventh century

The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon architecture dates from the 7th century. Church designs at the time differed between the north of England, which are narrow with square ended chancels; and the south, which are similar to St Augustine's churches with evidence of having apsidal ends separated from the nave by a triple arch opening, for example at Reculver. Exceptions to this include the Old Minster, Winchester. The most complete example of the northern type of church is at Escomb, but in the south there is no surviving complete 7th century church with an apse. At Bradwell-on-Sea, only the nave survives.
All Saints' Church, Brixworth, Northamptonshire
St Martin's Church, Canterbury (7th century nave with parts of possible earlier origin)
Old Minster, Winchester (648) (only foundations remain, but are marked out)
St Peter-on-the-Wall, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex (Roman building adapted 654)
Ripon Cathedral crypt (circa 670)
Hexham Abbey crypt (674)
Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Priory, Northumberland (c. 675)
Escomb Church, County Durham (c. 680)

Eighth, ninth and tenth centuries

Little is attributable to the 8th and 9th centuries, due to the regular Viking raids. Developments in design and decoration may have been influenced by the Carolingian Renaissance on the continent, where there was a conscious attempt to create a Roman revival in architecture.
St Wystan's church, Repton, Derbyshire (crypt c. 750, chancel walls ninth century)
St Mary's Priory Church, Deerhurst, Gloucestershire (c. 930)
All Saints' Church, Earls Barton, Northamptonshire
St Laurence's Church, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire

Eleventh century

The 11th century saw the first appearance of the High Romanesque style in Britain. Many cathedrals were constructed, including Westminster Abbey, although all these were have been subsequently rebuilt after 1066.
Greensted Church, Essex (1013 with oak palisade walls)
Stow Church, Lincolnshire (c. 1040 with a small part surviving from 975)
St Michael at the Northgate, Oxford (c. 1040)
St Mary's Church, Sompting, West Sussex (c. 1050, with a Rhenish helm spire)
Odda's Chapel, Deerhurst, Gloucestershire (1056)

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People
Clapham, A. W. (1930) English Romanesque Architecture Before the Conquest, Oxford.
Fernie, E. (1983) The Architecture of the Anglo-Saxons, London.
Pevsner, N. (1963) An Outline of European Architecture, Harmondsworth.
Savage, A. (1983) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, London.
Taylor, H. M. and J. (1965-1978) Anglo-Saxon Architecture, Cambridge.