Anglo-Saxon Churches, Britain’s Oldest Buildings

Anglo-Saxon churches are still extant in the UK today, with some considered among the oldest standing buildings in Britain. We have been fortunate to visit many of them.

These structures were erected between the 5th century and the Norman Conquest in 1066, during what is referred to as the Anglo-Saxon or Early Medieval period.

The Christianisation of what is now England commenced around the 6th century, largely attributed to missionaries such as Saint Augustine (not to be confused with St. Augustine of Hippo).

For a substantial portion of history, the church exerted a profound influence over the government, beliefs, and culture of the United Kingdom. Gaining particular prominence in the Anglo-Saxon era, the rise of Christianity in ancient England spurred the construction of notable religious buildings and monuments.


The advent of Christianity within the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms irrevocably altered the trajectory of British history. It was influenced by invaders and eventually came to hold significant sway over the rulers of the ancient kingdoms that would later unite to form England.

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Although many ancient churches have disappeared into the annals of history, some remain and provide extraordinary examples of edifices built over a millennium ago that are still in use today.

The Arrival of Christianity

The arrival of Christianity in Britain marks a huge shift in the island’s religious and cultural history. This period is closely tied to the mission of St. Augustine, who was dispatched in 597 AD by Pope Gregory the Great with the task of re-Christianising the Anglo-Saxon peoples.

These groups had overrun the earlier Christian Romano-British inhabitants and established their own pagan traditions and kingdoms. Augustine’s mission was not just a spiritual venture but also a diplomatic one, aimed at integrating a fragmented collection of warrior societies under a unified religious framework.

Upon his arrival, Augustine established his base in Canterbury, where he founded the cathedral that would become the mother church of England’s future religious life. This cathedral was not merely a symbol of the new

Canterbury Cathedral

Christian order but also served a practical purpose as a central point from which Augustine and his successors could oversee the spread of Christianity throughout England. Its establishment marked the beginning of a significant transformation in the landscape of British religious architecture and institution.

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The foundation of the Canterbury Cathedral triggered an architectural and religious movement that swept across the Anglo-Saxon territories. These early churches were more than places of worship; they were vibrant centres of governance and community life in a landscape marked by frequent warfare and political upheaval.

As Christianity spread, these churches became focal points for local populations, not only for spiritual reasons but also as venues for market activities, social gatherings, and judicial proceedings.

Architectural Features of Anglo-Saxon Churches

Anglo-Saxon church architecture is a testament to the adaptability and resilience of early medieval society in Britain. Constructed primarily from locally-sourced materials, these ecclesiastical buildings were designed to meet both the spiritual and practical demands of their time.

Inside the Anglo-Saxon Church
The early 8th Century Anglo Saxon crypt at St. Wystan’s Church, Repton.

The use of stone and wood was not just a matter of availability but also a reflection of the regional resources and technological capabilities of the period. Stone, particularly, was favoured for its robustness and resistance to the elements and became increasingly popular following the Viking invasions, as communities reinforced their sanctuaries against raids.

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The architectural style of these churches is characterized by several distinct features. One of the most recognizable is their tall, narrow windows.

These slender openings were designed to maximize the penetration of daylight while minimizing wind exposure, crucial in Britain’s often harsh and wet climate. The roofs, typically thatched with local straw or reeds, provided effective insulation and were both economical and easier to replace or repair.

Roof of an Anglo-Saxon Church
The square group of pointed arches inside the original Anglo Saxon crossing, St. Mary’s Church, Stow.

The floor plans of these early churches were predominantly simple and functional, usually rectangular, and sometimes with a rounded apse at the eastern end, which housed the altar. This layout was rooted in Roman basilica design, which had influenced Christian architecture across the Roman Empire, adapted here to local conditions and materials.

Evolution of Society

As Anglo-Saxon society evolved and stabilized, so too did its church architecture. From the 10th century onwards, as regional kingdoms consolidated and became more prosperous, more elaborate structures began to appear.

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The introduction of the cruciform plan—adding transepts to the basic rectangle—reflected this growing complexity. This design not only created more space for congregants but also added symbolic depth, as the cross-shaped layout was seen as a physical manifestation of faith.

Anglo-Saxon Church church in Dorset
Church of St Martin, Wareham.
The most complete example of an Anglo-Saxon church in Dorset, a Grade I listed building, and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

Another notable architectural technique used in these churches was the ‘long-and-short work.’ This method of stonemasonry involved alternating long horizontal stones with short vertical stones at the corners of buildings.

This not only enhanced the structural integrity of the walls but also created a distinctive visual pattern that marked Anglo-Saxon masonry. The technique provided a rudimentary but effective form of earthquake-resistant design, as the interlocking stones could better absorb shocks without collapsing.

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Inside, the churches were often stark and utilitarian, with interior adornments limited to carved wooden crosses or painted biblical scenes. The focus was on functionality and durability rather than opulence.

However, over time, especially in richer communities, churches began to incorporate more decorative elements such as sculpted stone altars, elaborate fonts, and even frescoes, reflecting the growing influence of Christianity as a cultural as well as religious force.

The Role of Churches in Anglo-Saxon Society

Churches during the Anglo-Saxon era were multifaceted institutions that played a central role not only in spiritual life but also in the social and cultural fabric of communities. Their influence was pervasive and integral to the functioning of society in ways that went far beyond their religious duties.

Churches played a crucial role in the administration of justice. The church’s moral and ethical authority allowed it to be a natural place for adjudicating disputes. Meetings known as ‘moots’—early forms of community assemblies—were frequently held at the church or in its close vicinity.

Anglo-Saxon Church in Essex
St. Katherine’s church, Little Bardfield, Essex
This church stands in a very pleasant setting next to Little Bardfield Hall. It has a very fine late Anglo-Saxon tower.

These gatherings were used for both ecclesiastical and secular purposes, where local leaders and community members discussed laws, settled disputes, and made important decisions about the welfare of the community.

Anglo-Saxon Churches and Education

In terms of education, Anglo-Saxon churches were pivotal. In an age where literacy was not widespread, churches and monasteries often provided the only education available. They hosted scriptoria, special rooms dedicated to the copying and illumination of manuscripts.

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These scriptoria were crucial in the preservation and dissemination of knowledge. Monks and clerics trained in these scriptoria played a key role in the survival of classical and religious texts, painstakingly transcribing documents by hand. This not only preserved older works but also helped spread Christian teachings and the Latin language across the British Isles.

St Martin’s Church, Canterbury. St Martin’s was the private chapel of Queen Bertha of Kent (died in or after 601) before Saint Augustine of Canterbury arrived from Rome in 597.

The arts, too, found a nurturing home in the church. Beyond the creation of illuminated manuscripts, which themselves were often masterpieces of medieval art, churches were also centres for the development of music, sculpture, and metalwork.

Sacred Music

Sacred music evolved significantly during this period, with liturgical chants and hymns being composed to accompany church services. Stone carvings and religious iconography adorned church interiors, and the creation of reliquaries and crosses showcased the intricate work of Anglo-Saxon metalworkers.

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The strategic placement and inherent authority of churches contributed significantly to unifying the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. As Christianity spread, the church became a symbol of a shared religious and cultural identity that transcended traditional tribal and kingdom boundaries.

Earls Barton, All Saints’ Church.
The Church of England parish church of All Saints at Earls Barton is a noted Anglo-Saxon Church; its tower is believed to date from 970 AD
after Danish raids on England.

This was a crucial factor in the gradual consolidation of these territories into what would eventually become a more unified England. By promoting a common Christian identity, the church helped to mitigate the tribal loyalties that had previously divided the island.

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This unification was not merely spiritual but also political. The church’s moral authority provided kings and leaders with the divine sanction to rule, and its network across the kingdom acted as a communication channel through which royal decrees and church edicts could be widely disseminated.

Thou Shall Not Steal

In Anglo-Saxon times, churches and other religious establishments were widely recognised as centres of wealth. With a predominantly devout Christian population, these sites were also relatively unprotected.

Theft from the Church was deemed a severe sin and thus occurred infrequently within Anglo-Saxon communities. However, Scandinavian invaders who arrived on the shores of Britain held no such religious scruples.

Indeed, one of the earliest documented interactions between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons was the Viking raid on the holy island of Lindisfarne in the late eighth century.

Lindisfarne Castle. Holy Island

As Viking assaults on religious settlements became more frequent, entire monasteries, including that on Lindisfarne, were deserted. The community of St Cuthbert abandoned the island entirely in the ninth century.

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Nonetheless, whilst it is undeniable that Vikings targeted and raided religious sites, it has been suggested that some of these accounts might have been exaggerated or that attacks by other groups were deliberately unrecorded. This may have been an attempt to depict the Vikings as barbaric and impious due to their pagan beliefs, which starkly contrasted with the spread of Christianity at the time.

Noteworthy Examples of Anglo-Saxon Churches

Some of the oldest surviving churches in Britain date back to the Anglo-Saxon times, and offer a rich glimpse into the influence of Christianity on the history of Britain.

St. Peter’s Church, Monkwearmouth

Anglo-Saxon Church in Monkwearmouth
It can be found in Monkwearmouth

St. Peter’s Church in Monkwearmouth, Sunderland, is a prime example of Anglo-Saxon construction that has stood the test of time. Founded in AD 674 as part of a monastic complex, this church is particularly notable for its original Anglo-Saxon features, including narrow, high-set windows and the distinctive long-and-short stonework—a masonry technique typical of the period.

This technique involved using long stones laid horizontally, interspersed with shorter stones set vertically at the corners, enhancing both the structure’s stability and aesthetic appeal.

St. Paul’s Church, Jarrow

St Paul’s Church and remains of Monastery, Jarrow

Just a short distance from St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s Church in Jarrow forms the other half of this ancient monastic duo. Also established in the 7th century, St. Paul’s has been a centre of Christian worship continuously for over 1,300 years.

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It is famously associated with the Venerable Bede, an early English monk and scholar who spent much of his life at the Jarrow monastery. Today, visitors to St. Paul’s can still observe its original chancel, which vividly encapsulates the architectural style of its time.

St. Laurence’s Church, Bradford-on-Avon

Anglo-Saxon Church in Bradford on Avon.
Bradford on Avon St Laurence’s Church

In Wiltshire, St. Laurence’s Church in Bradford-on-Avon offers another remarkable glimpse into the Anglo-Saxon epoch. This church is almost entirely preserved as it was constructed in the early 11th century, making it one of the most complete examples of a Saxon church in England.

The precision of its preservation allows historians and architects alike to study its construction techniques and artistic embellishments, which remain largely unchanged since the time of its builders.

Conservation of Anglo-Saxon Churches

Today, the conservation of Anglo-Saxon churches presents a myriad of challenges. The enduring structures that remain are beleaguered by the ravages of time, adverse weather conditions, and the impacts of human activity.

Anglo-Saxon Church site.
Site of an Anglo-Saxon church. Wakefield.

Ensuring the survival of these historical edifices requires a rigorous and thoughtful approach to preservation, one that carefully balances the use of traditional materials and methods with the incorporation of contemporary conservation techniques.

The Battle Against Time and Nature

One of the principal adversaries in the preservation of these ancient structures is the natural weathering process. The materials used in Anglo-Saxon construction, such as stone and wood, are particularly vulnerable to the damp and variable British climate.

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Over centuries, moisture can penetrate these materials, leading to structural weakening, rot, and the growth of damaging lichens and mosses. Regular maintenance and weatherproofing using appropriate conservation methods are essential to mitigate these effects.

Human Factors

In addition to natural wear and tear, human factors also pose significant threats to these historic churches. Urban development, pollution, and sometimes even the well-intentioned but misguided attempts at repairs using inappropriate materials or techniques can all contribute to the deterioration of these sites.

For example, the use of modern cement in place of traditional lime mortar has caused irreversible damage to some structures. Cement is less porous than lime mortar and can trap moisture inside the walls, exacerbating decay rather than preventing it.

Balancing Modernity with Tradition

The challenge of conserving Anglo-Saxon churches also involves the delicate task of integrating modern conservation technologies with traditional building methods. While it is vital to maintain the historical integrity of these buildings, using solely traditional techniques may not provide the protection needed to preserve them into the future.

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Consequently, conservationists often employ a hybrid approach. This might involve the use of laser scanning technologies to diagnose and analyse structural weaknesses, alongside traditional hand-crafted repairs to stonework and woodwork.

Legislative and Financial Constraints

Preservation efforts are further complicated by legislative and financial constraints. Many Anglo-Saxon churches are listed buildings, meaning any conservation work must meet strict regulatory standards and often requires lengthy and complex approval processes.

Additionally, funding for conservation projects is not always readily available, relying heavily on charitable donations, public funding initiatives, and volunteer efforts. Securing sufficient funds is a continual struggle, yet it is essential for the ongoing preservation work.

The Need for Expertise

Expert knowledge and skills are critical in the conservation of Anglo-Saxon architecture. Specialist conservators who understand the unique properties and needs of these ancient buildings are vital. Training the next generation of craftsmen and conservators in these traditional skills is essential to continue this important work.