All Saints Brixworth – Anglo-Saxon Church Architecture

All Saints Church at Brixworth in Northamptonshire is one of the best examples of Anglo-Saxon church architecture in England. Pevsner (1985), Parsons (1988) and Cooper (2010) give a date of C675 for its foundation, probably as a timber building which was later replaced by masonry one in the late 8th or early 9th century The basis for this date is the interpretation of the chronicle of Hugh Candidus, a C12 monk of Peterborough, (admittedly writing 500 years after the event) who in reference to the appointment of Sexwulf as the Bishop of Mercia, mentions the foundation of new monasteries by monks and abbots from Sexwulf’s congregation in a number of locations including Brixworth. The first masonry church at Brixworth has been grouped architecturally with Canterbury Cathedral, Cirencester Abbey, and the Minster of St Mary in Wareham which are thought to be of the same period. The building has been added to substantially and is unusual in having a crypt with an apsidal ambulatory below ground level at the east end. The purpose of the ambulatory was to give proximity and access to the crypt housing preserved relics – possibly those of St Boniface.

Examples of the Roman bricks used in the arches of All Saints. The workmanship of their use seems imperfect and to indicate an overall understanding of the form but not necessarily of the detail of the original Roman practice.

It’s widely accepted that All Saints Brixworth was dedicated to St. Boniface, an 8th century missionary thought to have originated from the south west of England. An alternative view is that its present dedication may indeed be the original and an early instance of the cult of All Saints. If the dedication to St Boniface is correct the architectural value of the dedication is of more importance than it may initially appear. A connection with St Boniface gives the church a continental context and similarities have been drawn between All Saints and the monastic church of Fulda (central Germany and resting place of St. Boniface) have been drawn by both Parsons and Gem. The importance of these similarities is that it links the Anglo‐Saxon and Carolingian churches and also the Roman influence of their designs.

Left – the “Original” Ground Plan of All Saints showing the Porticuses along the nave and semi-circular barrel vaulted ambulatory around the crypt below ground level at the east end. Right – An eighteen century plan of the church as it exists now with the aisles (porticuses) removed, a new south aisle added as well as rectangular chancel (later removed).

This is most immediately apparent in the round Romanesque arches which originally formed Porticuses (side chapels) lining the nave and in the large arch separating the sanctuary from the nave. These arches have all been formed using reclaimed Roman bricks which may have originated from a nearby roman villa and / or may have been transported from Lactodurum (Towcester) and Ratae Corieltauvorum (Leicester) where there were large civic buildings from which to reclaim them. Similarities in architectural design have been drawn between Brixworth and the architecture of Carolingian and Ottonian France and Germany especially with semi-circular ambulatory outside the crypt below ground level which are thought to have become feature around c. 820 before reaching a peak of popularity on the continent in the 10th and 11th centuries. Not only is this the only Anglo‐Saxon crypt known to have taken this form (Parsons, 1988) but it is also thought possible (according to Pevsner) that it predates its Continental cousins since there are neither records nor examples of greater age on the Continent. In the 10th century the narthex at the west end was replaced with a tower and turret stair which still survive – one of only four in England to do so.

Left –the 8th-9th century form of All Saints with the subterranean barrel vaulted ambulatory going around the crypt at the east end and the porticuses forming “aisles” down the north and south sides and wrapping around the west end to form a narthex. Right – a section through this hypothetical reconstruction showing the narthex at the west end and entrances to the porticuses on the north side of the nave. Images by Daniel CR Wallage.

The C8th – 9th establishment of the church using the Roman  bricks would have been an unusually large church building for the time and it is possible that All Saints at Brixworth was used for ecclesiastical Synods in the 8th and 9th centuries.

Left – View from the south west showing the 10th century addition of the bell tower and turret stair which replaced the Anglo-Saxon narthex at the west end. Right – A section showing how that stair and tower may have been configured in the 10th century. Images by Daniel CR Wallage.

About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
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