Tuesday 10 June 2014

Buildings: The Anglo-Saxon church at Bradford on Avon

The small church in Bradford on Avon is one of the few Anglo Saxon churches to have survived and is one of the most complete. That it has done so is something of a miracle or an accident, seeing that it has been used as a church, a school and a cottage.  The Victorian historian Canon Jones recognized the building as a church and it was restored in the 1870s. It is now used as a place of worship from time to time.

The church is dedicated to Saint Laurence, one of the very early Christian martyrs. Churches to this former deacon of Rome are often a sign of an earlier Christian community in the area. Whether or not that is the case, the medieval historian William of Malmesbury records that the church here existed in the 1120s. 

William thought that it dated back to the time of the 8th century and that it  was built by St Aldhelm.  Aldhelm, of the royal house of Wessex,  was the bishop of Sherborne and, after his death in 709, his body was known to have been brought to Bradford on Avon, maybe for burial in his church. That is possible, though the present building, from its architectural style, looks to be from the 10th century, which would fit a tradition that the church was intended to house to remains of King Edward the Martyr, the older brother of King Ethelred, who was murdered in 978, though Edward ended up buried in Shaftesbury Abbey.

The building is very tall for its size and decorated with arcades, similar in style to those seen  above on Bosham church as represented on the Bayeux Tapestry. It has few windows and these are small, while the doorways are tall and narrow.  In Anglo-Saxon times the interior would have been lit by candles. This sounds plain but there is evidence of decoration around the doorways and in the plinth running around the walls. It’s probable that the now whitewashed walls were painted, and in bright colors. This would have given the church an impression of a jewel,  a very suitable spot for the resting place of a martyr king.  Other decoration includes two stone angels, discovered in the east wall of the nave, and a stone bowl, which is now used as a font.

The church is important to show how the Anglo-Saxons viewed religious buildings as enclosed yet airy sacred spaces, a great contrast with the larger Anglo-Norman churches that came later. It reminds me of a sacred version of an Anglo-Saxon great hall, an intimate and companionable space for worship. 

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