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Anglo-Saxon stone carving at Earls Barton church
Anglo-Saxon architecture was a period in the history of architecture in Englandmarker, and parts of Walesmarker, from the mid-5th century until the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Anglo-Saxon buildings in Britainmarker were generally simple, constructed mainly using timber with thatch for roofing. Generally preferring not to settle in the old Roman cities, the Anglo-Saxons built small settlements near their centres of agriculture. In the towns, there is evidence of main halls, and other forms of building of the towns people. Almost no secular work remains above ground, although the Anglian Towermarker in York has been controversially dated to the seventh century.

There are many remains of Anglo-Saxon architecture. At least fifty churches are of Anglo-Saxon origin with major Saxon architectural features, with many more claiming to be, although in some cases the Anglo-Saxon part is small and much-altered. All surviving churches, except one timber churchmarker, are built of stone or brick, and in some cases show evidence of re-used Roman work.

The architectural character of Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical buildings range from Coptic influenced architecture in the early period; Early Christian basilica influenced architecture; and in the later Anglo-Saxon period, an architecture characterised by pilaster-strips, blank arcading, baluster shafts and triangular headed openings. In the last decades of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom a more general Romanesque style was introduced from the Continent.

Historical context

The fall of Roman Britain at the beginning of the fifth century, according to Bede, allowed an influx of invaders from northern Germany including the Angles and Saxons. Their secular buildings were rectangular post built structures, where timber posts were driven into the ground to form the framework of the walls upon which the thatched roofs were constructed. Though very little contemporary evidence survives, methods of construction, including examples of later buildings, can be compared with methods on the continent and a number of British grubenhaus have been excavated, for example at Mucking.
Reconstructed basilican plan of Brixworth church
The Angles and the Saxons had their own religion, but Christianity was on its way. St Patrick, a Romano-British man, converted Irelandmarker to Christianity. The architecture though was initially influenced by Coptic monasticism. Examples of this can be seen today in the form of rectangular dry-stone corbelled structures such as at Dinglemarker and Illauntannigmarker, Irelandmarker. Christianity and the Irish influence came to Englandmarker through missionaries. In 635, a centre of this so called Celtic Church was established at Lindisfarnemarker, Northumbriamarker, where St Aidan founded a monastery.

In 597, the mission of St Augustine from Romemarker came to Englandmarker to establish Christianity in the south, and founded the first cathedral and a Benedictine monastery at Canterburymarker. These churches consisted of a nave with side chambers. He brought the Roman form of Christianity which differed from the Celtic Church. The influence of this form of Christianity spread through Englandmarker.

In 664 a synod was held at Whitbymarker, Yorkshire, and leaders of both the Celtic and Roman Church decided to follow the Roman form of Christianity, resulting in uniting the church throughout Englandmarker. Larger churches developed in the form of basilicas, for example at Brixworth.

Triple arch opening separating the nave and apse in the 7th century church at Reculver, Kent (now destroyed)
Column detail, Reculver church
Subsequent Danish (Viking) invasion marked a period of destruction of many buildings, including in 793 the raid on Lindisfarnemarker. Buildings including cathedrals were rebuilt, and the threat of conflict had an inevitable influence on the architecture of the time. During and after the reign of Alfred the Great (871-899), Anglo-Saxon towns (burhs) were fortified. Contemporary defensive banks and ditches can still be seen today as a result of this. Oxfordmarker is an example of one of these fortified towns, where the eleventh century stone tower of St. Michael's churchmarker has prominent position beside the former site of the North gate. The building of church towers, replacing the basilican narthex or West porch, can be attributed to this late period of Anglo-Saxon architecture.

Seventh century

The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon architecture dates from the 7th century. Church designs at the time differed between the north of England, which are narrow with square ended chancels; and the south, which are similar to St Augustine's churches with evidence of having apsidal ends separated from the nave by a triple arch opening, for example at Reculver. Exceptions to this include the Old Minster, Winchester. The most complete example of the northern type of church is at Escomb, but in the south there is no surviving complete 7th century church with an apse. At Bradwell-on-Sea, only the nave survives.
St Peter's on the Wall, Bradwell

Eighth, ninth and tenth centuries

A 19th century engraving of the crypt at Repton where Æthelbald was interred.
is attributable to the 8th and 9th centuries, due to the regular Viking raids. Developments in design and decoration may have been influenced by the Carolingian Renaissance on the continent, where there was a conscious attempt to create a Roman revival in architecture.

Eleventh century

Greensted Church, from the SE corner.
11th century saw the first appearance of the High Romanesque style in Britain. The decades before the Conquest were prosperous for the elite, and there was great patronage of church building by figures such as Lady Godiva. Many cathedrals were constructed, including Westminster Abbeymarker, although all these were subsequently rebuilt after 1066. Norman workers may have been imported for Westminster Abbey through the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert of Jumièges.

Diagnostic features for Anglo-Saxon church architecture

are many churches that contain Anglo-Saxon features, although some of these features were also used in the early Norman period. H.M. Taylor surveyed 267 churches with Anglo-Saxon architectural features and ornaments. Architectural historians used to confidently assign all Romanesque architectural features to after the Conquest, but now realize that many may come from the last decades of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Typical Anglo-Saxon features include:
  • long-and-short quoins;
  • double triangular windows;
  • narrow, round-arched windows (often using Roman tile);
  • herringbone stone work
  • west porch (narthex).

It is rare for more than one of these features to be present in the same building. A number of early Anglo-Saxon churches are based on a basilica with north and south porticus to give a cruciform plan. However cruciform plans for churches were used in other periods. Similarly, a chancel in the form of a rounded apse is often found in early Anglo-Saxon churches, but can be found in other periods as well.

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