Join us on the search for the ‘missing minster’

Morpathia'Wansbeck Valley - Anglo-Saxon churches
Morpathia'Wansbeck Valley - Anglo-Saxon churches

FOR a few months past we have been following up the ideas about the Anglo-Saxon minsters of Northumberland and Durham put forward in the Jarrow lecture of 1963.

In it, the late Rev G.W.O. Addleshaw described the early Christian landscape of this area. It was a landscape of minsters — church settlements, each of which served a large parochia or territory. Out of this landscape of widely scattered minsters grew the landscape of parish churches that we are familiar with today.

The only minsters Mr Addleshaw found in or near the Wansbeck Valley were Bedlington and Woodhorn. This week’s map shows all the known Anglo-Saxon churches in this area. Our object now is to look at them more closely to see if we might have a hitherto unidentified minster — in other words, a missing minster.

We have already examined some of these churches before.

Bedlington and Woodhorn

According to the 10th Century Historia de Sancto Cuthberto, Bedlington was bought “with its appendants” for the Community of St Cuthbert by Bishop Cutheard c. 900-915. The Historia does not mention a church, but since Bedlington was the head place of a large estate that went as far west as The Gubeon and Twizell, this suggests that it might have been a minster in the 7th and 8th Centuries. This, and the fact that St Cuthbert’s still had a large parish in comparatively recent times, is all the evidence we have for it being a minster. Much as I like to believe it, I have to say that I find it very thin.

Woodhorn St Mary the Virgin is another of Mr Addleshaw’s minsters. Not a monastery, but a collegiate church staffed by secular clergy. Evidence for its age and importance are to be found in its Anglo-Saxon carved stones, particularly an elaborate stone cross dating from c. 1000. My guess is that the minster was founded at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea by the disciples of St Aidan in the 7th Century, but moved to the more secluded site at Woodhorn to avoid the Vikings.

Ulgham and Bothal

Ulgham has a battered Anglo-Saxon cross in the village and two Anglo-Norman window-heads built into the walls of the parish church of St John the Baptist. In the 1980s the late Denis Briggs surveyed St. John’s by dowsing. His dowsed plan shows that the original church was a simple rectangle with an apsidal end, and therefore unlikely to have been a minster. It almost certainly began as a field church, a private chapel established by a local thegn.

The same was true at Bothal. Despite the size and splendour of St Andrew’s Church, its predecessors were even plainer than Ulgham’s. What was probably the earliest was a rectangle without even the usual semi-circular apse at its east end.

Stamfordham

The church of St Mary the Virgin at Stamfordham stands on a bluff above a marsh, a typical situation for an inland minster. What confirms its identity as an early minster is a fragment of what was once a fine Anglo-Saxon stone cross discovered during rebuilding. According to the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture the fragment, which is now in Durham cathedral, is closely related to the sculptures found at Hexham and dates from 750-800. It is about 2ft tall.

Our photograph shows its best side. It features a scroll with berry bunches and pointy leaves, and is probably intended for a grape vine, symbolising Jesus’s words, “I am the vine, ye are the branches.” (John 15: 5.)

You can find more pictures and a discussion of the Stamfordham cross at www.ascorpus.ac.uk.

Bolam

Bolam St Andrew is a gem of an English parish church. The main part is medieval of various dates. The tower is Anglo-Saxon, with distinctive window-heads like those at Ulgham, and double belfry openings divided by huge balusters. Balusters were an Anglo-Saxon speciality. When they learnt the art of stone cutting, they applied their wood-working skills and made balusters by turning great blocks of stone on a pole lathe, just as they would a block of wood. There are also two fragments of an ornamental frieze set in the porch wall, and a grave cover and grave marker in the room under the tower, all of Anglo-Norman date.

Mr Briggs’s dowsed plan shows a more complex church than Ulgham or Bothal. Dowsing tells us nothing where there is an existing wall or buttress, and not every dowsed feature is Anglo-Saxon. Mr Briggs’s interpretation of the one marked H is that it was later, while the eastward extending foundation marked F looks like a rather clumsy addition to a previously symmetrical building.

Setting those aside, what we have is an earlier, almost certainly Anglo-Saxon church. It had a rectangular nave, a long chancel with an apsidal end, a tower or porch at the west end, and three narrow, box-like structures attached to its south side. These are porticus, a Latin word usually translated as porches. The singular and plural are spelt the same, but the singular rhyming with ‘bus’ and the plural with ‘juice.’ A porticus can be any part of a church added on to the main body of the building. But it can also be used in a special sense, as here, to refer to a row of narrow chambers attached to the north or south wall of the nave.

Porticus of this sort were a cross between a cupboard and a chapel. Relics, though normally of little intrinsic value, were precious. The porticus was small and cramped, just big enough to stand or kneel in while one venerated the relic. You entered it through a low, narrow doorway inside the church, making it difficult to grab the relic and run off. Porticus of this kind were of such sanctity that important people like thegns and priests naturally wanted to be buried in them.

The situation on the north side is less clear. Mr Briggs was meticulously accurate in drawing his plans. And whereas one would expect the porticus on the north side to mirror those on the south, they don’t. If this feature was indeed a row of porticus, then the middle one was made bigger at the expense of the end ones. This, of course, assumes that the buttresses conceal the foundations of stone dividing walls, a thing that could only be proved, if then, by demolishing the buttresses and excavating underneath.

Nevertheless, whatever the arrangement on the north side, it is clear that we have here a high status building. High status because of the provision for relics and because of its relatively elaborate plan. With its chancel, apse, tower (or porch) and rows of porticus, it contrasts strongly with the simplicity of Ulgham and Bolam.

Was it a minster? I don’t know; but if it was a thegn’s chapel-of-ease, it was a remarkably fine one.