Some years ago, my father fired my imagination when telling me about a late Saxon church in Essex which he said was the oldest wooden church in the world, the oldest wooden building standing in Europe, and where it was said that St. Edmund’s body was taken in 1013, on its way to Bury St. Edmund’s, after being martyred by the Vikings. He could not remember its name and had never been, but would like to. I was very keen to go, not only for its own sake but because it could stretch my field of interest and practice in the medieval back to its very earliest fringes. After a small amount of detective work, I found the church in question, St. Andrew’s, at Greensted-juxta-Ongar, a mile west of Chipping Ongar. As it was a bit of an adventure, I asked both my mother and father whether they would like to accompany me, and they said they would love to.
Starting early, we decided to make a day of it and we planned to visit three other churches that same day (Trumpington, Westley Waterless and Fulbourn) all in Cambridgeshire, to enhance my study of medieval memorial brasses and other points of interest (see, In Search of Medieval Inspiration section on this website). However, we were going to take our time and do each church justice and if we only visited two it did not matter. You cannot rush these things. Arriving at Greensted around 11 a.m., on a Saturday in April, having visited Trumpington beforehand, as soon as I saw the church I knew that it was unlike anything I had experienced before.
As we walked up the path, one is greeted by a low building of dark wood and terracotta coloured brick and roof tiles (Fig. 1), with a small, 17th century, weatherboard cladded tower, painted white, with a slate covered spire. I did not follow my usual method of going inside a church first, then looking at the outside. Instead of entering the Victorian porch, I was distracted by the wood on the south side of the nave (Fig. 2, detail) and a grave immediately to the east of the porch – both seen in Figure 1. There was a sign on the low metal railing around the grave which read: ‘Crusader Grave, 12th century’. My pulse quickened.
Fig. 2 Fig. 3
“Wow!” I thought, “This soldier could easily have been on a crusade with King Richard I during 1189-1192!” I shortly thereafter read in the church guidebook that the coped stone coffin lid (Fig. 3) marking the grave is believed to be the final resting place of a bowman. The guidebook noted that the location of the grave ‘suggests that he was seen as a local hero’. Then I inspected the split log nave wall, which was some century older than the grave and dated to 1060-1063 A.D. (by dendrochronology, actually 1053 + 10-55 years, based on the youngest timber and a standard allowance of the weathering away of sap rings; the latest it could possibly be is, therefore, 1108 and mid Norman). But it is widely considered to be the only Saxon wooden church to have survived, and then only the nave walls. The Normans just did not build like this.
My father, my mother and I went over the church in fine detail, looking for Saxon features. Figure 4 shows the following, Firstly, to the left, the nave, Saxon wood wall sitting on brick sill dated 1848, when the Saxon logs were shortened due to decay. Above is a Tudor tiled roof with a Victorian window (there are six of these dormer windows, three on the south side, three on the north side). Secondly, to the right, the chancel, Tudor tiled roof and window, Tudor brick sitting on Norman flint footings (the only other surviving Norman work is a piscina, set in the south-east wall of the chancel). We then wandered around the church east to west, anti-clockwise,
Fig. 5 Fig. 6 Fig. 7
Fig. 8 Fig. 9 Fig. 10
concentrating on the 51 split oak logs. I took a good number of details from these logs (e.g. Figs. 5–10), especially, though not exclusively, knots, as I feel they show character.
Fig. 11 Fig. 12
The north side nave timbers (Figs. 11 & 12) are particularly interesting, in that they contain a number of additional features.
Fig. 13 Fig. 14
Firstly, the flat timbers in the centre of Figure 13 hide the original Saxon doorway. Secondly, the niche adjacent to the doorway is popularly known as a leper’s squint (Fig. 14), but archaeologists suggest it is more likely to be a window, or that the ledge held a holy water stoup in the medieval period.
Fig. 15 Fig. 16
Figures 15 and 16 show the niche from inside the church.
Fig. 17 Fig. 18
Thirdly, Figure 17 shows an eye hole. This hole is surprisingly low down and one has to crouch to see through it. The hole worked both ways of course! Fourthly, all the logs had been split lengthwise and grooves in the sides took long tongues to seal the gaps. Originally, tenons at the base of the logs had fitted into a wooden sill and the bevelled tops (Fig. 18) would all have slotted into a horizontal beam (wallplate), secured by wooden pegs.
Fifthly, the only surviving corner log had quarter section removed to form the north-west corner and the only remaining complete log is on the west wall (Fig. 19).
Fig. 20 Fig. 21
Figures 20 and 21 show inside the church looking east towards the chancel (an archaeological dig in 1960 revealed the presence of two earlier structures under the chancel and dated to the late 6th/early 7th centuries) and north, respectively. The light is very subdued in the nave even with the addition of the six Victorian dormer windows (Figure 21 gives a totally false impression as the photograph, taken looking directly at the dormer windows, was nevertheless lightened to show the wooden wall), yet in Saxon times, the nave was windowless, save for a few eye holes. Lamps may, however, have also burned, for dark patches on some of the wall timbers may be scorch marks
Fig. 22 Fig. 23
The flat, inner sides of the logs were smoothed with an adze and sometimes show the tool’s tell-tale marks (Fig. 23). Tie beams probably crossed the building at the height of the eaves.
An unexpected bonus was a quatrefoil window set in the west wall showing some medieval glass at its centre (see, In Search of Medieval Inspiration section on this website for medieval glass) (Fig. 25).
As an interesting aside, the oak font (which can be seen in front right-hand corner of Figure 20) was designed in 1987 by Sir Hugh Casson, who my father met.
I very much enjoyed going to Greensted Church despite not really finding anything relevant for my immediate practice. Historically, it was absolutely fascinating, but the feeling behind the Saxon workmanship and its architecture, its ambience, even the colour of the wood, is markedly different from the medievalism that is currently generating ideas for my painting. In truth, I would have been surprised if I had found anything directly relevant, given all my visits to, and experiences of, Norfolk Saxon round tower churches, but one has to visit to see (you never know what you might find) and wood, of course, is a very different medium to stone. The most productive aspect of the trip was learning about Saxon construction methods and touching the ancient timbers – I just cannot get over the fact that these logs were from trees felled and worked before the Battle of Hastings – especially those showing adze marks. I feel that the Saxon period, even just a few years before medievalism begins, is a very different beast to the 13th-16th century medievalism that currently generates my ideas. It will take me a considerable amount of time to ‘experience’ the Saxon period, for I first have to truly immerse myself in it.