History moves forward. The new becomes old and the old becomes decay, leaving only the most unyielding relics behind. Throughout time, cultures have waxed and waned, risen and fallen until finally becoming buried in centuries of rubble.
The Anglo-Saxons of early medieval Britain were one such culture. These raiders and migrants of northern Europe were drawn into the vacuum left by fallen Rome. Over the centuries they melded with the native people creating a culture all its own. They were a hard-living people with a justice system of heavy fines and capital punishment, where social classes were strictly defined and war was a way of life. Nevertheless, their most time-resistant artifacts are those of a religious nature. Places of worship rather than war stand long after their makers succumbed to the Norman conquest, as if to say, "We were here."
Roughly 50 churches of Anglo-Saxon origin can be found in more than bits and pieces. Many of these are in ruins, destroyed by Viking invasions or by the infamous Henry VIII during his Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. Others have been added to, rebuilt or "improved" over time. It takes only a little guidance and a good eye to be able to identify churches built during this period.
Anglo-Saxon architecture was simple. The stonework is not elaborate and there are few elements of ornate design. The beauty is in the age and in the stories within the stones. Their names have been lost and their faces forgotten, but with their hands the Anglo-Saxons created monuments to their place in time that have lasted over a millennium.
One of the most intact examples is St. Peter's Church in Escomb, County Durham. It was built with stones scavenged from an abandoned Roman fort, like many that bear the marks from that fallen empire. High on an exterior wall you will find a worn and faded sundial that marks the hours of prayer, the same now as it did then. The sundial is the oldest one of its kind that has not been moved from where it was originally placed 1,300 years ago.
In the village of Earls Barton in Northhamptonshire, the tenth century tower of the Church of All Saints rises to a height of over 60 feet. It is all that remains of the original Anglo-Saxon church, but it is clearly a work of art. The simple design of Anglo-Saxon pilaster strips adds a beautiful, symmetric effect. The long stone strips run up the tower and crisscross around four deep-set, pointed windows, one facing each direction. Further up the tower, sixteen Anglo-Saxon arched windows sit just below the Norman style battlements. The building of this tower must have tested the patience and strength of the builders as well as their skill.
Only twenty miles north of Earls Barton, in the village of Brixworth, is another Church of All Saints, this one with a complete Anglo-Saxon nave. Many additions have been made over the centuries, but its foundations remain pre-Norman, as can be seen from the reused Roman bricks and the distinctly Anglo-Saxon herringbone masonry, apparent in several areas of the tower and tower stair. An even more impressive example of herringbone masonry can be found at St. Margaret's of Antioch in Morton, Lincolnshire. Here, the herringbone technique is so complete in some places that it looks like rows of stone braids built into the church.
Many features can mark a building as Anglo-Saxon, and can be found in churches and church ruins across Britain, but in the village of Greensted-juxta-Ongar is a charming little church that is truly one of a kind. The oak walls of the nave are all that remain from before the Norman conquest, but they are enough to give St. Andrews the distinction of being not only the single remaining wooden building of Anglo-Saxon origin, but also the oldest wooden church in the world.
Early British churches are a remarkable remnant of the past. Those that have not fallen into ruin have become a foundation for centuries since to build upon. Architecture and art from every era of British history can be found within the walls of churches built when Christianity was still in its beginnings and paganism lingered around the fringes. Built in a culture that was destined to fall, the architecture of the Anglo-Saxons lives on, reminding us that history moves forward, but cannot be erased.