The Monastic Settlements and Churches of East Anglia and Southern England:
The great men of the counties and boroughs were not only concerned with wealth and power in this life, but also with their status in the next. That was why they erected churches, chantries and noble tombs to house their earthly remains, and paid priests to say masses for their souls in perpetuity. As we have already noted, the Normans were as muscular and and progressive about their Christianity as they were about their conquest and administration of foreign lands. The rule of the Conqueror coincided with a great revival of monasticism across western Christendom, from Scotland to Hungary. Even so, the number of new houses for monks and nuns built in Suffolk alone is remarkable. By 1200, there were twenty-eight monasteries and abbeys where small religious communities were permanently employed in caring for the sick and singing masses. At Bury St Edmunds (below), while the townsfolk grumbled in their urban hovels, the monks spent a large part of their income on making their abbey one of the grandest in Christendom. The poet-monk John Lydgate tells us that, not satisfied by the additions made to the buildings by Cnut, the now non-Saxon monks began, immediately after the Conquest, to build a new church with stone brought from Caen in Normandy.
The destruction and re-building of the old Saxon minsters, such as at Winchester, and the great town abbeys, as at Bury St Edmunds, should not be taken as a model for most of the parish churches of England. Suffolk people continued to be as devoted to their parish churches as they were distrustful of the great abbeys. There was scarcely a church in the county that did not experience some enlargement, extension or alteration in almost every medieval generation. The Normans built many churches but only a few, such as St Mary Wissington retain the original Norman pattern. Naves were widened to accommodate an increasing population in the thirteenth century, and chancels were extended. From about 1200, chantry chapels were enlarged or incorporated within existing buildings. The village churches we associate with the Normans are, for the most part, much later in construction, although they may retain Romanesque features, especially in their interiors, a few of which are survivals from the earlier eleventh century. Of course, the most famous abbey in England, was initially built under Edward the Confessor, but owes much to the Romanesque style he had observed during his exile in Normandy.
The Expansion of Christendom: England, The British Isles and the Continent:
In the forty years from 1093 to 1133 that was taken to building the great columns of Durham Cathedral and the vaults that they support, Jerusalem was taken for Christianity, as a result of the First Crusade of 1096, and the population of north-western Europe had expanded to a point unsurpassed since the Celtic migrations of the fourth century BC.
The expansion of Roman Catholicism in the west was delivered at the edge of a Norman sword in much of England, but we only have to look at the monastic remains in Scotland and Ireland to be aware of the broader cultural assimilation that was taking place by largely peaceful means by the end of the eleventh century. Irish Romanesque has left many fine examples in the ruins of churches at Kilmacduagh and at Clonfert Cathedral, originally the foundation of St Brendan the Navigator.
Shortly after this was built, Somerset masons must have brought to Ireland not only their skills but the stone they knew from building the first Gothic cathedral in Europe to employ the pointed arch throughout, that of Wells. With this stone they constructed the first cathedral of Dublin, Christ Church, of which only the north side of the nave remains as their original work. Some years before, the first Cistercians, chief among the patrons of the Gothic style, had arrived at Mellifont north of Dublin.
The religious order most favoured by William the Conqueror and the early Norman kings was that of Cluny. The two most notable sites of Cluniac foundations are at Thetford and Castle Acre in Norfolk. All the new orders introduced in the twelfth century, the Premonstatensians and Victorines, the Tironensians, Carthusians, Augustinians and Cistercians were all of foreign origins except for the Gilbertines, founded by St Gilbert of Sempringham. Between them, they had a profound effect on the political and historical development, the landscape, and the agriculture of the British Isles as a whole, one that was largely independent of temporal authorities, however. Over the following four and a half centuries, from the Conquest to the Reformation, these orders entered nearly every region, to raise their churches and cloisters, and to establish around themselves new communities.
The Premonstratensians, drawing on their origins from Prémontré outside Laon, built one of their earliest abbeys in Suffolk, and then found they had to move it away from the swampy lands to near the small town of Leiston (see photos above). They were also particularly important in Scotland, founding the great Border house of Dryburgh and also reviving the holy site of St Ninian’s white church at Whithorn. In the reign of Henry I, his Queen Consort, Matilda of Scotland, founded the house of Holy Trinity in Aldgate for the Augustinians. Henry I also handed over to them what was to be their richest abbey, at Cirencester, where they also built the splendid parish church for the townspeople.
In Scotland, Bishop Robert , with the agreement of David I, dispossessed the Celtic monks or Culdees at St Andrews (left) in order to place the most sacred relics in Scotland in the care of the Austin canons. The Culdees were given another site, St Mary of the Rock. Bishop Robert had been prior of the Augustinian house at Scone and he built on the promontory of St Andrews the church dedicated to St Regulus, the Syrian monk who, according to legend, had brought the bones of St Andrew to Scotland in the fourth century AD. The tall tower of St Rule still stands outside the ruins of the cathedral which was begun by Bishop Arnold in 1160. The Augustinians were particularly close to the Scottish royal family: they also held the famous abbey of Holy Rood in Edinburgh and the great Border abbey at Jedburgh.
The Cistercians founded abbeys throughout the British Isles. In Scotland they established the greatest of the Scottish border abbeys at Melrose (right), on the request of David I, in the place where St Aidan had first founded a monastery, and where St Cuthbert had been born. In Ireland their first house, at Mellifont, was founded in 1142. In Wales, their first and most famous house was at Tintern in the Wye Valley, founded in 1131, but they also went on to found the abbeys at Strata Florida and Valle Crucis, near Llangollen in north Wales.
The twelfth century saw the rapid expansion of monasticism throughout the British Isles, especially among the Cistercians and the Gilbertines, and was part of a continental expansion, including in Normandy itself. It was a historical phenomenon which stemmed partly from Rome, partly from Christian rulers, but mainly from the mission of the monks themselves to open their doors to the humble and illiterate who desired the monastic life, to the growing number of poor pilgrims who needed hospitality, and to those in need of treatment for their illnesses.
The devotion of both Saxon and Norman kings and queens, as well as some of their lords may have aided this development of monasticism, but it was not part of a Norman conquest which left Scotland, Wales and Ireland untouched until the Plantagenets attempted to enlarge their empires to the north and west.
The Hidden Legacy of the Saxons: Signs of Survival:
In recent years, the careful cataloguing of surviving Anglo-Saxon churches, that it has become clear how many of these there are. In 1978, 267 churches were listed, identified from structural analysis and visible architectural detail as at least partly Saxon. More should probably be added. Few remains of the earliest churches have survived, mostly only as post-holes under later-excavated churches, since these were mostly built of timber. The timber church that does still remain at Greensted in Essex seems also to incorporate later Scandinavian influence. A few stone churches can be dated to the seventh or eighth centuries, usually from historical sources. Most of these are in Kent, where the first Augustinian mission was based, such as St Martin’s in Canterbury (above). There is also a group in northern England, including Jarrow, where a foundation stone gives the precise date of 23 April 684 for the dedication of St Paul’s. Unfortunately, most of that church was demolished, not by the Normans, but by the Georgians in 1782, and all that remains in Gilbert Scott’s nineteenth century church of the Saxon original is the chancel.
Escomb in County Durham gives a better idea of an early Saxon church. This simple two-celled building still sits in its round churchyard (left). It was larger once, with a western annexe and a side chapel to the north of the nave, but its present classic simplicity makes it a model for the reconstruction of early Saxon churches.
The proportions of the nave and chancel arch, which are tall and narrow, are a classic feature of Saxon architecture, as are the massive stones which form the corners of the nave and side of the chancel arch, possibly brought from an earlier Romano-British site which became a quarry. The windows are small, intentionally designed to reflect as much light as possible in the small space, whilst at the same time seeking to economise in the use of glass, or, if left unglazed, to minimise the draught.
Brixworth in Northamptonshire is perhaps the most impressive surviving Saxon church. The arches of the Saxon aisles still exist, made from bricks which have been dated to Romano-British times, but they are blocked up. Many different kinds of stone have been used in the construction of the church, showing how other Saxon churches might have been added to and changed, using different raw and recycled materials, from one phase to another.
The majority of churches defined as Saxon belong to a later period than Escomb and Brixworth, to the tenth or eleventh centuries, when many were rebuilt after the Viking destruction. However, parts of these churches were rebuilt from original blocks and features, including stone strips, pilasters, which can be seen on two well-preserved towers at Earls Barton and Barton-on-Humber. Some of the more decorative features can be compared to those on contemporary continental buildings. At Barton-on-Humber (see photo above), a very small church was built originally, with the tower forming the nave crammed between a small chancel and a baptistery. Over the centuries the original building was gradually added to. Archaeologists were able to trace this growth because the later church had become redundant and they could therefore excavate the whole of the interior. They were therefore able to expose a round apse, as well as to excavate part of the cemetery, where they found Anglo-Saxon burials. In other churches which have been proved to have much surviving Saxon fabric, it has been more difficult to excavate because the early walls were covered with plaster inside and later concrete rendering outside, leaving only windows and doors as a means of dating them.
A church of Saxon proportions may well contain pre-Conquest fabric, but even if none is found, continuity can be argued because the original church has been added to piecemeal over the centuries, so that its original shape has become fossilised in the later versions. Medieval builders sometimes built around an old church, reproducing it exactly, only in larger dimensions, and pulling down the old church only when finishing the new, so that the congregation could always worship with a roof over their heads. One such church is at King’s Sutton in Northamptonshire, where no visible features are earlier than the twelfth century, but the nave has classic early proportions. The walls of the nave are quite probably Saxon, with twelfth-century aisles and much later clerestory windows cut through them. Historically, this was a minster, a large and important church served by a group of priests, and serving several parishes. Later in the Anglo-Saxon period this type of church government gradually gave way to the parochial and diocesan system we know today, but it is still possible to work out where many of the original minsters were.
Many more churches than those defined as having Saxon architectural origins still incorporate the remains of Saxon buildings. In fact, if we could count the numbers destroyed in the great Victorian rebuilding, we would probably discover that a very substantial proportion of the smaller churches of England had not fallen victim to Norman builders, and that, after the Conquest, many people would have worshipped in the same church as their Saxon and British ancestors before 1066. Much of the visible fabric of the ordinary villages and market towns of Anglo-Saxon England was still to be seen in Norman and early medieval times, if not into late medieval and early modern times.
Pride and Prosperity:
The continuing passion for building and rebuilding reveals considerable local pride and devotion, and illustrates a talent for united and well-organised effort. It also provides evidence of enormous wealth, much of it stemming from the trade in wool. At the time of the Domesday Suvey there were about eighty thousand sheep in East Anglia, spread fairly evenly over the whole region. Every farming community made its own cloth and sold its surplus wool in the local markets. To these markets at Bury, Ipswich, Sudbury came merchants from London and Europe. Throughout the early Medieval period wool was Suffolk’s most important export and the basis of its extraordinary prosperity.
However, compared with the prime sheep-rearing regions such as the Welsh borders and the Yorkshire moors, Suffolk wool was of an inferior quality. Shropshire fleeces were fetching fourteen marks a sack when the Suffolk farmer could only get four marks for his. Nevertheless, Suffolk was richer than Shropshire due to the volume of trade, since it was closer to continental customers. Most of the buyers came from across the North Sea from Germany, the Baltic States and the Low Countries, regions with which East Anglians had long and close commercial contacts. The sight of these buyers riding eastwards to Ipswich or Dunwich followed by long lines of laden packhorses was a very familiar one to medieval Suffolkers.
However, by the beginning of the twelfth century, the development of international trade, the building of castles, churches and cathedrals, due to the growth of important centres of pilgrimage, had all contributed to the concentration of population and the growth of towns such as Ipswich (above). The case of Bury St Edmunds showed that it was impossible for feudal law and custom to apply to emerging centres of trade and commerce.
The Norman Conquest was a military invasion that left physical remains in the archaeological and architectural record. However, much of the fabric of everyday life did survive the Conquest. There were no real changes in religion, in burial rites, house types, jewellery, pottery or coinage. The basic ethnicity of the population remained the same, so that genetic analysis of skeletons in recent years has shown little change in composition. The Normans simply added a top deck or layer to Anglo-Saxon society, a ruling élite, and one that was not simply Norman, and certainly not very Norse. In fact, the ‘Conquest’ helped to re-orientate England from being part of Cnut’s North Sea trading empire, to a commercial fulcrum with the European mainland, which it has remained as for the past 950 years. Linguistically, Norman French, which became the Court language, did not supplant the dialects of the Anglo-Saxons as a dominant lingua franca, and these dialects gradually became a common tongue based on the Mercian dialect, incorporating Danish vocabulary, with a few French synonyms added. Latin remained the language of government and administration, as it had been under the House of Wessex. Culturally, the British Isles became more integrated within Christendom, a process which, under Edward the Confessor, was already in progress before the successful invasion. Only in the way castles were sited and in the drastic rebuilding of significant religious monuments do we have unequivocal evidence of a full-scale and widespread conquest. Even then and there, these kinds of change need to be evaluated in longer-term historical and broader geographical contexts.
Printed Sources: as previously listed in earlier parts, especially Copinger (1905).