Feudalism – Anglo-Saxons Buildings

The Anglo-Saxons did sometimes build with stone, although the overwhelming number of their structures were of wood. This post looks a little deeper into when and why stone (and brick) were used in their buildings. The broader context is about what was different about the period following the end of Roman rule in Britain that led to the collapse in use of stone, and then its gradual reappearance? Was it the traditional view that civilisation was replaced by barbarian tribes and economic decline, or was it something different? I do not look at Anglo-Saxon architectural features – that will be the subject of a future post.

The best evidence of use of stone in the Anglo-Saxon period (first half of the fifth century to around 1100) is not from defences or secular buildings, but from over 400 minsters and churches in England with surviving stonework from the period. Most of these buildings are from the middle and late Anglo-Saxon periods (650 to 1100). The evidence ranges from minor sections remaining within churches that were subsequently virtually completely demolished and rebuilt in later periods, to a few structures with substantial Anglo-Saxon elements, such as the tower of All Saints’ church, Earls Barton, the stair turret and parts of the tower, nave and choir of All Saints’, Brixworth, both in Northamptonshire, and St John’s, Escomb, Durham.

Pilaster stone strips, possibly imitating timber, around 970, All Saints church, Earls Barton, Northamptonshire
Tower, around 970, All Saints, Earls Barton, Northants

If we consider the depredations of the Vikings, the efforts of the Normans to expunge the symbols of Anglo-Saxon culture, the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century, and some 1000-1400 years of general wear and tear, then we can safely assume that Anglo-Saxon folk in the later centuries of the period were familiar with a peppering of stone minsters and churches within their landscape.

Who Were the Anglo-Saxons and Why Does it Matter?

The traditional wisdom is that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes were tribes from north-western Europe, which took advantage of the Roman withdrawal from Britain to raid then invade and migrate in large numbers. The newcomers pushed the native Romano-British westwards, bringing population replacement and their own distinct culture. Over time, they formed a number of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The newcomers had no tradition of building in stone, so gradually Roman stone buildings decayed, to be replaced by wood. While few people today dispute there was significant migration, there is considerable debate about the traditional view. For example, there is scant archaeological evidence of widespread violent clashes between the Romano-British and Anglo-Saxons, unlike the Roman, Viking and Norman invasions.

There is also questioning of the divide between Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon cultures, as providing evidence of different ethnic groups. Culture and its artefacts did change, but this alternative theory proposes this derived more from a change of orientation to North-western Europe—fashion rather than ethnicity. As Susan Oosthuizen comments on the archaeology.

… there are no obvious observable differences between supposed ‘British’ and ‘Germanic’ communities or individuals in the archaeology of the fifth or sixth centuries or later: they lived in and farmed the same landscapes in the same ways, and were buried in the same places with the same kinds of goods (Oosthuizen, S., 2019, p62).

So, why does this debate matter in terms of understanding what the folk we call ‘Anglo-Saxons’ built with? It means we should not just look to a wave of Germanic immigrants with no tradition of building in stone, pushing the Romano-British westwards, as explanation of the change to timber construction in the early post-Roman period. Indeed, if the traditional view were the whole truth then perhaps we should expect to see a continuation of use of stone in the west? Something else was going on. While the debate is complex, I tend to agree with Francis Pryor.

The ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and their invasions have become an essential part of England’s origin myth. What is worse, certainly for me as an archaeologist, is that they have also affectedno, infectedarchaeology as well. These much-vaunted invasions provide a false explanation for a complex of changes, each of one deserves explanation in its own right (Pryor, F., 2005, p241).

Taking up this challenge, we need to look more broadly to explain the disinterest in use of stone once the imperial framework of Roman Britain began to disintegrate, and how use of stone gradually crept back in.

The Roman Legacy

It is well known that the Romans built some amazing stone and brick structures in Britain: urban public buildings and houses, military installations, temples, villas etc, and we are justifiably in awe of them. But to some degree, our admiration of wonderful Roman engineering and their construction of grand buildings has blinded us to the dull but essential fact that the overwhelming number of the Romano-British population lived in wooden dwellings. The glory and durability of Roman stone structures, compared to humdrum biodegradable wooden buildings, has captured our imaginations and skewed our perceptions.

In fact, we know enough about villas and the size of their associated estates to be able to predict their location and distribution with some accuracy, and it has been estimated on this basis that Roman Britain has some 2,000 villas, accounting for an estimated 1% of late Iron Age and Romano-British settlements…. (Current Archaeology, 1 April, 2017, https://archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/romes-homes-range.htm).

Stone was clearly used in Roman Britain where it served a particular function and where there was an accessible supply of raw materials—mainly for defence, some significant urban buildings and as a sign of wealth, power and domination. But timber-based construction was the norm.  

… archaeology has produced a huge increase in our understanding of the range of materials and methods of construction deployed in the Romano-British countryside, sweeping away the old idea that ‘Roman’ means stone, and ‘native’ means timber (Current Archaeology, 1 April, 2017, https://archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/romes-homes-range.htm).

Tower, Barnack Church, 1000-1020
Close-up of tower, St John the Baptist Church, Barnack, Cambridgeshire, 1000-1020

Are we to explain the abandonment of stone construction solely by a massive influx of Germanic tribes, widespread conflict and economic decline or could there be other factors at work? Much archaeological evidence points to significant economic and social continuity following the Roman departure, rather than collapse, and a gradual hybridisation and transition in culture away from the Mediterranean to the North Sea. There was without a doubt a move away from employing stone for the houses of the elite, religious and defensive structures, and from urban life in general. For example, in terms of the everyday spiritual beliefs of the time, we know that the natural world was central to post-Roman beliefs, remaining so during the Anglo-Saxon Conversion period (Semple, S., 2014, p21).

Looking at the period of Roman rule in Britain and the subsequent transitional period before the development of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, some fundamental issues come to mind relating to building in stone compared to timber. It was a more complicated, skilled, time-consuming and expensive business. Consequently, it required higher levels of authority, wealth, organisation and stability to build with stone. And accordingly, it expressed higher status. Roman Britain possessed these characteristics and there was a long tradition of stone construction and the required masonry skills from within the Roman Empire. With the decay and end of Roman rule in Britain, the factors that supported the continuation of building with stone faded. Do we need large-scale and violent Germanic invasion to explain this? In my opinion, not necessarily. The removal of overarching Roman political, military and economic authority, could also explain the transformation into a more localised economic and social structure. And what was left as the years passed after the departure of the legions, and their stone buildings had fallen into disrepair, were solidly constructed building foundations and a veritable stockpile of already shaped stones and bricks. Also, there were the tangible reminders of Roman civilisation, especially for an aspiring ruling elite as the Anglo-Saxon period progressed.

The Catalyst for Renewed Use of Stone

It was the emergence of kingdoms with stratified societies and centralised authority that permitted kings to wield the resources and power to undertake larger and more prestigious projects. These projects were not, however, in the earlier generations of Anglo-Saxon society fabricated in stone but from earth and timber, such as the Sutton Hoo burial mounds in Suffolk and the royal complex at Yeavering, Northumberland (both around the early 600s).

What encouraged the use stone was, once more, the glory of Rome. This time, not coming as a secular conqueror but as spiritual evangelists with a tradition of building in stone. The mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons, initiated by Pope Gregory and led by Augustine, arrived in Kent in 597. Their strategy was to convert kings, and through them, the people. Augustine converted King Aethelbert of Kent and this commenced the few hundred years of the Conversion Period. From this point on the Roman Church and kings became connected, generally to their mutual advantage. This combination was the catalyst for the renewed use of stone.

There would have been a few stone/brick churches before Augustine’s arrival, such as St Martin’s in Canterbury, partially built of reused Roman stone and bricks, perhaps during the Roman period or, more likely, in the early Anglo-Saxon. It is probably the oldest church in England and it was here that King Aethelbert’s wife, Queen Bertha, a Frankish princess, practiced her Christian faith before Augustine’s arrival.

It is interesting that the secular elite – kings and then the aristocracy – chose Christianity as the main recipient of the largesse needed to build of stone/brick, rather than for defence or for their homes and communal halls. The string of fortified burghs built by King Alfred and his descendants used whatever materials were readily available. This included the repair and use of some Roman fortifications, such as at Portchester, Hampshire, but most burghs were surrounded by earthen banks and wooden palisades. The hall was the centre of Anglo-Saxon secular life, for gathering together and feasting. Yet, the Anglo-Saxon leadership especially chose spiritual buildings. Why?

Several factors seem to be at play here, but they boil down to the cachet of Roman civilisation to the Anglo-Saxon elite. This was ignited by the Christian mission from Rome and kept burning by the growing traffic of missionaries to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and then of Anglo-Saxon churchmen and secular leaders to Rome.

… as Nicholas Howe put it in a very influential publication in which he described Rome as the ‘capital of Anglo-Saxon England’. It is in fact from there that one must begin, as no other place on the continent was as important to the Anglo-Saxons as Rome (Howe, N., quoted in Tinti, F, 2021, p12).

Blair comments that the practice of granting deserted Roman sites to monastic founders was widespread throughout the former northern provinces of the Roman Empire (Blair, 2006, p188). The newly Christianised Anglo-Saxon kings strove to emulate civilised practice of kingship. Thus, during the generations of the Conversion Period, previous Roman sites; often forts, small towns or villas, were often given by freshly converted kings to missionaries as sites for monasteries and their churches. Examples include:

  • the church of St Peter-on-the-Wall at Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex, built of reused stone and brick in 653 by St Cedd on the wall of the Roman fort of Orthona, granted by King Sigeberht of the East Saxons;
  • Dorchester-on-Thames, granted to St Birinus by King Cynegils of Wessex around 640; and
  • Reculver, granted to the priest Bassa by King Ecgberht of Kent in 669 (Blair, 2006, p188).

All Saints, Brixworth, Northants, 960-70
Tower & stair turret, All Saints, Brixworth, Northants, 960-70

Construction could be of timber, stone, or both, but former Roman sites provided an abundance of ready to use hardware—already quarried and fashioned stone, bricks, and even whole arches and columns. Disused Roman buildings also furnished strong foundations and repairable structures. These, of course, had always been available. It was not so much that the materials had been lacking in supply, but that they had not been in demand, and thus the skills to work stone had decayed. Thus, when the Northumbrian aristocratic churchman, Benedict Biscop, inspired by his visit to Rome, sought land on which to build a monastery from King Ecgfrith of Northumbria in 674, he brought stonemasons and glaziers from Francia. Firstly, to build St Peter’s Church, Wearmouth and later, in 681, to build St Paul’s at Jarrow. We can plausibly assume that the movement of skilled craftsmen from the Continent was a growing trade, and led to the transfer of their skills to local folk.    

It was not so much that the mission sought places that had an architecture with which they were familiar but that the evangelising mission and the kings they converted found common purpose in attaching themselves to the legacy of Roman civilisation. It was an attachment already well attested in kingdoms on the Continent.

Anglo-Saxon kings drew heavily on the spiritual/magical power of the past, in a sacred landscape including ‘sanctified ruins’ (Semple, S., 2014, p33). For the pre-Christians, it was standing stones, hillforts, barrows, and for those who converted, it was the reminders of Roman civilisation.

For the Church, it was also part of a strategy to convert the pagan landscape to Christianity, whether this included features of the natural world or built environment, including Roman sites associated with ‘pagan’ gods and spirits. This was in keeping with Pope Gregory’s instruction to Augustine that he should not destroy pagan temples but purify and re-dedicate them to the Christian faith.

Middle and Late Anglo-Saxon Periods

As the Church continued with conversion across the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, more minsters and churches were built to deliver pastoral services to the community and to strengthen the Church’s hold on society. While the overwhelming majority of buildings continued to be of wood, stone and brick were increasingly used. The motivation to imitate Rome was augmented by another significant driver for the use of stone.

Stone was a sign of permanence and status, not only for the Church and for kings, but also for the aristocracy. Our view of churches and other places of worship today is that they are owned by the relevant religious organisation. Not so in Anglo-Saxon times. They were often owned and endowed by members of the nobility and for secular, as well as spiritual, motives. Monasteries and churches possessed what were tantamount to tax advantages for their owners, and monasteries also became centres of economic activity and wealth. And to build in stone was the cream on the cake.

Fundamentally, monastic property was conceived as a special kind of family property: it had a religious status, but one that was interpreted in traditional terms (Blair, 2006, p82).

One possible incentive for a lay noble to endow a new church or minster was the opportunity such an act presented for the ostentatious display of wealth… their names would be remembered in perpetuity by these new communities. Building in stone (a technique unknown to the Anglo-Saxons before the conversion) provided new media for the expression of wealth in monumental display (Foot, 2009, p79).

Parish churches, as we know them, did not develop as a significant part of the landscape until the late Anglo-Saxon period (850-1100). They were an opportunity for local thegns to demonstrate not only their piety but also their position and wealth in an age where the physical manifestations of holiness, such as saints’ relics and stone churches, conveyed prestige for the owner.

Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England was successfully assimilated by a warrior nobility which had no intention of abandoning its culture, or seriously changing its way of life, but which was willing to throw its traditions, customs, tastes and loyalties into the articulation of the new faith (Wormald, 1978, p57, in Foot, 2009, p348).

While stones and bricks continued to be repurposed from Roman ruins, quarries were also worked from the middle Anglo-Saxon period, and especially in the late Anglo-Saxon period. A good example was at Barnack in Cambridgeshire, originally worked by the Romans. It was used in St John’s Church, Barnack, built around 1000-1020, as well as All Saints’ Church, Brixworth, Northampton, originally built in the second half of the seventh century. Building in stone had become a prestigious industry.

Stow Minster
Stow Minster, Lincolnshire, from 975-1050

Conclusion

In an age when the vast majority of buildings were of timber, the Anglo-Saxons did go to the effort of building some of stone and brick. Virtually all of the evidence of stone construction comes from monasteries and churches. The houses of the elite were of timber, and although a few existing Roman forts built of stone were repaired and used as defensive structures, the default for new defences continued to be earthen banks and wooden palisades.

A number of factors seem to have combined to deliver this focus on sacred spaces:

Unlike the early period following the decay of Roman rule in Britain, the rulers of the emerging Anglo-Saxon kingdoms gained the capacity and authority to engage in sponsoring expensive and prestigious projects, and drew heavily on the numinous power of the past. The Christian mission from Rome, commencing in 597, initiated several centuries of conversion, starting with kings, who endowed the mission with land and wealth. This relationship gave new life and meaning to disused Roman sites, which were granted to the missionaries to build monastic centres. These sites provided the practical wherewithal for stone buildings, including solid foundations and an abundance of already fashioned stones, bricks, arches, columns etc. Moreover, the sites embodied the desire to imitate Roman practice as the model of civilised kingship. This was a desire reinforced by a growing traffic to and from Rome by senior churchmen and secular leaders.

In a world of temporary timber construction, stone had an air of permanence. This suited not only the Church but also kings and the aristocracy, who endowed minsters and churches as testament to their piety and to perpetuate their memory. The relative permanence of stone spiritual spaces provided monuments to God, the Church and the elite of middle and late Anglo-Saxon society.

In my published murder mystery, Murder at Elmstow Minster, and my forthcoming novel, The Fenland Spell, much of the action takes place in two Anglo-Saxon minsters, both of which were formerly Roman sites and combine stone and timber buildings. If you like historical murder mysteries, I hope you consider buying them!

(All photos by author)

References

Blair, J., (2006) The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Current Archaeology, 1 April, 2017, https://archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/romes-homes-range.htm

Foot, S., (2009) Monastic Life in Anglo-Saxon England, c. 600-900, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Howe, N., (2008) Writing the Map of Anglo-Saxon England: Essays in Cultural Geography, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

Oosthuizen, S., (2019) The Emergence of the English, ArcHumanities Press, Leeds

Pryor, F., (2005) Britain AD, Hammersmith, London, Harper Perennial

Semple, S., (2014) In the Open Air, in Carver, M., Sanmark, A. and Semple, S., Signals of Belief in Early England, Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited, Oxford, Oxbow Books

Tinti, F., (2021) Europe and the Anglo-Saxons, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Wormald, P. (1978) Bede, “Beowulf” and the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxon Aristocracy, in Farrell (ed.) Bede and Anglo-Saxon England, BAR, British series, 46 (Oxford: BAR, 1978) 32-95, at p57.

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