By indexer
161 days ago

Anglo-Saxon architecture

Modern knowledge of Anglo-Saxon architecture is limited by a number of factors. One is that many of their buildings, particularly domestic dwellings, were wooden, and so have not survived. Another is that people of later ages built over the top of earlier foundations, thus obliterating or confusing the evidence of what was there before.

Often this was accidental, but in the case of the Normans there were deliberate attempts to build from scratch as a way of imposing themselves on the defeated native population after the Conquest of 1066. This meant that many buildings, such as churches, were swept away and new ones built in the Norman style. However, there were also many that survived or were adapted rather than destroyed, and some can still be seen to the present day.

Knowledge of Anglo-Saxon domestic architecture comes largely from archaeology, but also from descriptions in early writings. During the early Anglo-Saxon period, from the 5th to the 7th centuries, most people would have lived in wooden huts, either raised above the ground on stout wooden posts or incorporated into workshops such that the working part would have been sunk below ground level.

The typical wall construction was “wattle-and-daub” which consisted of panels woven from thin strips of wood and made watertight by applying a mixture of mud, clay and animal dung. This was a technique that goes back to ancient times and was certainly not unique to the Anglo-Saxons. Roofs would have been made from reed thatch or wooden shingles.

Many early settlers lived in isolated buildings, such as in forest clearings, or two or three families might live in closer proximity. The earliest villages would have been small, with the most dominant family having a larger house or hall, built on a rectangular pattern, in which members of the extended family would also live.

Some Anglo-Saxon sites have been excavated that show that several large buildings were built close together, either as monastic sites or royal palaces. For example, at Yeavering in Northumbria King Edwin built a palace based on an earlier Iron Age hill fort. The earliest buildings were a wooden fort with parallel palisades, to which were added a large timber hall and an amphitheatre. The hall was later rebuilt with the new structure being over 100 feet in length, with an earlier pagan temple replaced by a Christian church and cemetery.

The arrival and spread of Christianity in England from the early 7th century onwards led to the building of churches and monastic buildings and the development of more formal villages in which the population worked on shared fields and lived within easy walking distance of the church. Village boundaries would be marked by raised earthworks, which in some cases would have had a defensive purpose but were often there to prevent farm animals from wandering and protect them from wolves and other wild animals once a wooden fence had been erected on top.

Larger communities were formed within more extensive earth walls, sometimes based on much older settlements such as Roman towns and cities. The development of the “burh”, meaning a defended place and the origin of the “borough”, was accelerated when the Vikings threatened the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 9th century.

Although most early churches were wooden, like the houses, these were often rebuilt in stone, especially in the burhs. A typical Saxon church was small and rectangular, but tall with a high roof. The windows were small and few, so the interior would have been dark and lit by candles.

An excellent example of a late Saxon church is St Martin’s at Wareham in Dorset (see picture), built on the wall that borders the north side of the town, the boundaries of which are clearly traceable some 1,300 years after they were built. The original 8th century church was destroyed by the Danes in 1015 but soon rebuilt. Later alterations did not change the basic design of the church, many features of which are original. The church is still in use to this day.

Another remarkable survival is Greensted Church is Essex, part of which is wooden and, although its dating as belonging to the Saxon period has been questioned, was certainly built (or rebuilt) in the Saxon style from split oak tree trunks that are more than 900 years old. It is believed to be the oldest wooden church in the world.

At Deerhurst in Gloucestershire a Saxon church tower can be seen, built in five stages at different dates. Close by are the remains of another Saxon building, which was clearly a chapel consisting of a nave and chancel, both rectangular and each measuring about 40 feet in length.

Although Saxon churches generally followed a rectangular pattern, it is known that the cruciform shape was introduced before the Conquest. Although most such churches did not have fully developed transepts, a few did, such as that at Breamore, Hampshire. Another feature often found in Saxon ecclesiastical buildings is the apse, this being a semicircular projection at the eastern end which can be seen in Romanesque buildings throughout Europe.

Other typical Saxon features include pilaster strip-work (narrow bands of stonework standing proud of a vertical surface and defining a series of panels) and quoining (the use of large stones at wall corners, sometimes arranged to give an alternate “long and short” appearance with each course).

There are around 400 examples of Anglo-Saxon church buildings in England, although these vary from foundations on which later buildings were erected to a very few examples that have survived virtually complete from when they were built. Strangely enough, some of the best survivals have been of buildings that ceased to be churches centuries ago and were only recognised for what they really were in relatively recent times. This is true of the well-preserved examples at Bradford-on-Avon (Wiltshire) and Bradwell-on Sea (Essex). The latter building was a grain barn for much of its existence.

The fact that such buildings, if left alone, can survive for around 1,000 years (the chapel at Bradwell-on-Sea is around 1,400 years old) is testament to the skill of their builders. By sticking to simple methods of stone construction, and not over-reaching themselves, the Anglo-Saxons showed that they could build to last.
fortune Yes, those old building can survive for centuries. Interesting how long will survive those new modern glassy buildings
indexer @fortune St Martin's has been there for close on 1,000 years - as you say, it is unlikely that the glass towers will do as well!