Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Escomb Church - Anglo-Saxon Rarity

I love Anglo-Saxon history, but researching it can sometimes be frustrating, not just because of the paucity of surviving documents, but because of the lack of 'locations'. If this blog post were about Anne Boleyn, it would be illustrated with photographs of the Tower of London, and paintings of the lady herself, complete with her famous necklace.

We Anglo-Saxonists aren't quite so fortunate in that regard. Many of the buildings associated with the age no longer exist, buried under later, Norman, edifices. The wooden house at Corfe where Queen Ælfthryth was staying when she murdered, or didn't murder, her stepson King Edward, has long-since disappeared, and even the stone castle built there is now a ruin. There is no surviving artwork which gives us even a rough approximation of how people looked.

Imagine, then, how thrilling it is to be able to visit Escomb Church, built of stone and probably dating to the late seventh century.



Escomb Church is about a mile and a half from Bishop Auckland, home to the Prince Bishops of Durham, and is quite a contrast to the towering grandeur of Durham Cathedral.



I always imagined that Escomb Church, being so ancient, was situated in a small, quaint village, but in fact it sits on a circle of land, surrounded on all sides by modern housing. Yet it exudes calm, an ancient building standing proud, refusing to give up all its secrets, and leaving historians puzzled.



The village of Escomb is mentioned in a grant of land by Bishop Ealdhun, who was bishop of Durham in the tenth century.

Symeon of Durham's Life of St Cuthbert, shows the bishop leasing to "three earls: Ethred, Northman and Uchtred the following lands: Gainford, Whorlton, Sledwich, Barforth, Startforth, Lartington, Marwood Green, Stainton, Streatlam, Cleatlam, Langton, Morton Tinmouth, Piercebridge, Bishop Auckland and West Auckland, Copeland, Weardseatle, Binchester, St Andrew Aucklad (?), Thickley, Escombe, Witton-le-Wear, Hunwick, Newton Cap, Helme Park." (Symeon of Durham. HistoriadeSanctoCuthberto 31.)

It is clear from the architectural evidence, though, that the church itself was built much earlier, but the first puzzle is who built it, and why? We may never know. The second of the puzzles is that the stones in the upper courses are smaller than those lower down. The height of the building and the ground plan hint at Irish Celtic influence, and the very fact that it was, unusually for Saxon buildings, constructed in stone, might point towards a connection with Gallic chapels.


The chancel arch is believed to have been reassembled from a Roman archway, although the scroll paintwork on the underside is probably much later, perhaps even fifteenth century.



The Saxon cross behind the altar is believed to date from the ninth century, although according to the guide I spoke to, it's possible that it is an earlier 'preaching cross' and actually predates the church.



Of the church windows, the smaller ones which have round headed lintels are thought to have been carved 'in situ', and their design conforms to the earliest period of Saxon building.


Behind the pulpit, carved into the wall, there is a cross, described by my guide as an 'incised consecration cross.' Its shape points once more to an Irish/Celtic influence.

Carvings to the side of a blocked up doorway in the sanctuary are believed to depict Adam and Eve standing beneath the tree of life.


In the porch, which is a later, medieval, addition to the building, there are various Saxon artefacts - the remains of Saxon crosses, and pieces of glass and pottery excavated from the churchyard.


In that churchyard, an unusual gravestone has been dated somewhere between 1100 and 1300, although it was not originally outside, but laid in the floor of the nave.


Above the porch, there is a sundial, which being on the porch, is later medieval, but on the original church wall, there is an older, Anglo-Saxon sun dial:




And so to the final puzzle: why did this church survive? It is a rare thing, indeed - a surviving stone Saxon church, so why has it not been knocked down, or 'improved', other than the addition of the porch?

It is thought that the Prince Bishops of Durham were not interested in building a bigger/better church in such a tiny village. In other words, it has probably - ironically - survived because of a lack of interest. The bishops of Durham, whose official residence is still at Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland, (pictured below) became virtually autonomous and wielded extraordinary power. Little Escomb Church was in all likelihood a beneficiary, in a strange way, of their almost regal status.


For those interested in the later period of Saxon history, it should be pointed out that Bishop Ealdhun was witness to a charter of King Æthelred in 1009 granting land to Morcar, thegn of the Seven Boroughs. He was also the father of Ecgfritha, who married Uchtred, Earl of Bamburgh. Perhaps a more familiar spelling is Uhtred. He was also known as Uhtred the Bold, he was treacherously killed, and it is he from whom a certain Mr Cornwell claims descent...

[all photographs by and copyright of the author]

Morcar of the Seven Boroughs and Uhtred of Bamburgh feature in my new book Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, to be published by Amberley books on 15 September 2018

18 comments:

  1. I've never visited Escomb, indeed had never heard of it till this week (mea culpa) but I have been to Greensted in Essex, which is an Anglo-Saxon timber church, and unique. http://www.greenstedchurch.org.uk/ Also, not far away from me here in Wiltshire is St. Laurence's church in Bradford on Avon, which dates from around 10th century and survived because it became a house, before being restored and reconsecrated. Like Escomb, it's very tall compared to its footprint. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Laurence%27s_Church,_Bradford-on-Avon

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    1. Greensted and St Laurence's are on my visit wishlist. I don't often get that far south, unfortunately. Thanks for the links - always nice to have some additional info :-)

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  2. Wow. I think I have a spot for this in my next book. Thanks for this.

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  3. Does that tomb has an smiley face on it? lol

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    1. It does look like it, doesn't it? I saw a similar one in the cemetery at Dunfermline Abbey, so it's obviously not a 'one-off' :-)

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  4. A wonderful post that makes me glad that I got to visit so many churches when I lived in the UK. None were as old as Escomb, but many had fascinating histories going back centuries. Sadly, moving to the US all that history is now only available via posts like yours and online research. (I am unlikely to ever return in this lifetime.)

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    1. There is so much to enjoy and marvel at in old churches, isn't there? If I recall correctly, you were based in Wales when you were over here? Another place full of historic buildings. I've never been to the US, nor am likely to, so, like you, the internet is a great place for me :-)

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    2. I grew up in the South East but lived in East Anglia as well, then North Wales before we left for the US. So, fifty-plus years of historic buildings in a way - lots of inspiration there.

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    3. Kent, Essex and Sussex are my core counties so Mercian.

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    4. I spent a great deal of my youth in East Anglia and still have a lot of friends in the area. Until last week my mum still lived there, but she's up north with us now. North Wales holds a special place in my heart - I fell in love with it on my first of what turned out to be many visits.

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  5. Looks like a fantastic church to visit, I have family who live near Durham so will be making a visit at some point soon. Fortunately I live next to another Anglo-Saxon church and have spent many visits there,always noticing something new I haven’t seen before. www.friendsofbrixworthchurch.org.uk, would recommend if you’re ever in the area, you won’t be disappointed.

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    1. Brixworth is on my go-to list, especially as it's in old Mercia, which is the kingdom I write about, in the main. Thanks for the link - I see Michael Wood is speaking there next month - I might try and get along to that!

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    2. I think you’re correct, it would have been in the borderlands between Mercia and the DaneLaw and probably would have seen a few disputes over the years! Today it’s situated in the district of Daventry, which back in medieval times was known as Danetree, with a tradition that the vikings planted an oak tree on top of the hill, to mark the centre of England. I love old folklore and will be pre ordering your new book, which sounds great.

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    3. Oops just checked and seen that the church goes right back to the 7th century, so definitely In Mercia when first built!

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    4. Fascinating to think that at one time, Mercia covered virtually the whole of England, one way or another - from the Humber in the north, while in the south the Mercians controlled Kent, Essex and Sussex. I hope you enjoy the book (warning - it's extremely pro-Mercian!)

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  6. When I visited years ago it was a Sunday and I stayed for the service. It was nice to be even a brief part of a community that worshipped in that building for 1300 years. Or longer - some of the stones came from a nearby Roman fort.

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    1. How wonderful. It's nice to visit these places when they are empty and quiet, but how special, as you say, to be part of the worshipping community - it gives an added context to the history of the building but also a reminder of its original purpose. It's lovely that there, as with Deerhurst which I also recently visited, there is a continuity of use and that services are still regularly held.

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