The building of churches, whether for monasteries or public use, was an early sign of the growing influence of Christianity. What is astounding is how many elements of these earliest buildings survive today. This list includes churches where ancient fabric dates from pre AD800, and all are still being used.
St Martin’s is part of the Canterbury world heritage site and is the oldest church in England still being used for its original purpose. It originally functioned as the private chapel of Queen Bertha of Kent, who was a Christian married to pagan King Ethelbert. Much of what you see today is later than this, although you can see Roman brick, taken from nearby Roman sites, in the nave wall, and the remains of a Roman tomb have also been incorporated into the building. This oldest of English churches is an evocative and fascinating place to visit.
Sir Alfred Clapham, writing on Romanesque architecture in 1930, described All Saints as perhaps the most imposing architectural memorial of the 7th century yet surviving north of the Alps. The church was originally part of monastery founded when Sexwulf became bishop of Mercia, before the death of King Wulfhere in 675AD. Large parts of this building survive within the church. The western tower is Anglo Saxon, with a 19th century spire on top, and the great arch inside the church is an original feature, rebuilt by the Victorians.
The church at Escomb, County Durham, is one of the best preserved Anglo Saxon buildings in England, but the materials it is built of are mainly Roman, taken from the nearby Binchester (Vinovia) Roman Fort. On the north wall a stone marked with the Latin shorthand LEG VI (Sixth Legion) can be seen, installed (deliberately or otherwise) upside down. In its unusual circular churchyard, Escomb is a step back in time over 1000 years.
The majority of the cathedral dates from the early mid 13th century, the beautiful west front was started around AD1220. But underneath is a much older treasure, the Anglo Saxon crypt. St Wilfrid founded a cathedral here and it was dedicated to St Peter in AD672. The crypt is the only surviving part. A contemporary account by Eddius Stephanus tells us 'In Ripon, Saint Wilfrid built and completed from the foundations to the roof a church of dressed stone, supported by various columns and side aisles to a great height and many windows, arched vaults and a winding cloister'.
Another crypt, another church founded by the prolific St Wilfred. This 7th century crypt is built mainly from worked stones which are likely to have come from the nearby Roman city of Corbridge. The crypt has four chambers, accessed by a narrow staircase from the main church. Roman inscriptions can be seen on several of the stones, including the name of the murdered Emperor Geta, whose name was supposed to be erased from all carvings on order of his brother Caracalla who ordered his death.
The original church was built on instructions from Benedict Biscop in 674-75 and the west wall and porch are still from this date. The rest of the church was added and adapted over the centuries. Inside the porch, the remains of Anglo Saxon carvings can be seen. An extensive archaeological excavation was done in the 1960s, led by Dame Professor Rosemary Cramp, the first ever female professor at Durham University. Finds can be seen on display in the church.
It is the Saxon chancel which shows the true age of the church. St Paul’s was the home church of the Venerable Bede, a monk and scholar whose most famous work is ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’. A radar scan has identified a possible hidden crypt under the Saxon chancel. Although this has not been opened up, research suggests it may also be part of the original Saxon church, meaning more has survived here than anyone suspected. Large amounts of the Saxon monastery which once stood alongside the church can be seen and explored.
Founded by St Aldhelm, a distant relation of the Royal House of Wessex, around AD700. Recent investigations have shown that the majority of the church does date from Aldhelm’s lifetime, making it one of the most complete Anglo Saxon churches to survive without major medieval interventions. It was restored in the 1870s and now once more opens for worship and visitors. With its small windows, high walls and sculpted decoration, it is a wonderful survival.