A touch of grandeur from a village’s medieval aristocrat

Bothal St. Andrew
Bothal St. Andrew

This week’s Morpathia article by Roger Hawkins looks at Bothal, from field church to baronial church.

WE looked last week at Ulgham church and at church dowsing. St John the Baptist, Ulgham, is a neat, well-finished Victorian building. St Andrew’s, Bothal, is medieval, rough and aristocratic, and has the touch of grandeur.

These differences reflect their histories. Ulgham was a poor agricultural village — not even a parish, but a chapelry attached to Morpeth.

When John Hodgson went to see it, Ulgham consisted of two rows of ‘very indifferent thatched cottages, with gardens behind, and a wide disorderly street between them.’

As for the church, ‘Its walls within, when I saw them in 1829, instead of being a goodly white, were painted with blotches of green and black damp.’

William Woodman, speaking of the same church, described it as ‘an unhappy example of carpenter’s Gothic.’

The present church, which replaced the one Hodgson and Woodman saw, was built in two separate parts, the chancel in 1857, and the nave in 1863.

Janet Brown describes it as ‘a small but pleasant building, well proportioned, and of the same size as the previous ones.’

Coal mining brought prosperity, and in 1875 Ulgham was sufficiently well-resourced to become a parish in its own right.

Bothal was one of many estates that William Rufus gave to Guy de Balliol in about 1090.

The Bertrams, who were descended from Balliol, demolished the Anglo-Saxon church, built a new one in the Norman style, and went on to enlarge and improve it over the centuries.

The manor house was crenellated (made into a castle) by Sir Robert Bertram in 1343. It was a favoured residence, and the village and church prospered accordingly.

It passed from the Bertrams to the Ogles, two of whom have a magnificent tomb in the south aisle, and eventually to the dukes of Portland. It also has a Norman piscina (wash-basin for the communion vessels), medieval window glass and Jacobean altar rails.

The Ogles’ successors did not reside, and in the late 17th Century the Tanners’ Company of Morpeth used the great hall of the castle for storing oak bark.

But in the 19th Century it became the headquarters of the Portland estates in Northumberland and was occupied for over a century by successive generations of the Sample family as agents to the duke of Portland.

The Victorian part of the castle, the Sample wing, was built in 1857-59 and enlarged in 1909.

Bothal as you see it now is very much a model estate village, making an appropriate setting for the church and castle.

Several pieces of Anglo-Saxon sculpture have been found in St Andrew’s Church, one being built into an inside wall of the chancel.

Professor Cramp suggests that it might be part of a cross-shaft, placed on its side. She dates it to 975-1025.

The rest are in the Hancock Museum, and are of the same date or a little earlier. The late Roland Bibby suggested that the priest’s doorway – the arch of which, like the Ulgham window heads, is carved from a single block of stone – may be Anglo-Saxon.It clearly belonged to a different building and has been rather clumsily inserted here.

The late Denis Briggs dowsed this church, as he did Ulgham’s, and found not one, but two earlier churches.

The larger and presumably later of the two was about one-third the size of the present church. Like Ulgham, it had an apse and the foundations of its walls underlie the arcades of the north and south aisles.

The smaller one was on a slightly different alignment than its successors. Its inside dimensions were about 12.5ft by 30ft.

It could hardly be simpler – one room, no apse, no chancel. What this tells us is that St Andrew’s was not an Anglo-Saxon minster. It was a field church. Even the larger of the dowsed buildings was too small and plain to be a credible minster.

Bothal’s mother-church was actually at Sheepwash

Until well into the 19th Century the rector of Bothal had his rectory house there, and Hodgson records ‘the large and beautifully formed basin of a stone font’, which the rector used as a cattle trough!

This is presumably the font now preserved in the churchyard at Bothal.

Bibby argues that Sheepwash could not have been the mother-church because Bothal goes back to Anglo-Saxon times, while the church at Sheepwash, which no longer exists, is not recorded until 1311.But he did not have the advantage of the dowsed plan.

Not every Anglo-Saxon minster became a medieval mother-church, nor did every mother-church start out as a minster.

We have examples, even before the Conquest, of churches that were not minsters supplanting ones that were, to become the local mother-church.

As late as Hodgson’s day, Sheepwash bridge was the head of navigation on the Wansbeck for ‘small ships.’

It is perfectly credible that an Anglo-Saxon minster should have been founded on the uppermost navigable reach of the Wansbeck, only to fall into ruins for lack of support, while the church at Bothal, having become the head church of a Norman barony, prospered as never before.

But what is that rectangle at the east end of the smaller church, just in front of the present chancel arch?

As we mentioned in a previous article, dowsing cannot tell you exactly what you have detected. All we know is that there is something oblong under the floor that is denser than the surrounding earth.

Ruling out the improbable, like a cast-iron inspection hatch, it could be a stone grave-cover. If so, it is no ordinary one.

Graves are normally aligned east-west, not north-south. From its shape and position, it looks more like an altar.

Three possibilities suggest themselves. It could be the mensa (table-top) of the altar of that early church, or the floor-slab on which the altar stood.

In either case, it might still have its consecration marks, five crosses, one at each corner and one in the middle, to show that a bishop, perhaps an Anglo-Saxon bishop, has blessed the altar for use.

Thirdly, though unlikely, it could be a tomb placed underneath the altar. If so, it should contain the remains of the patron saint.

There is no question of it being St Andrew’s tomb, but a slight possibility is a local saint, now unknown, whom St Andrew later displaced as patron of the church. Local saints of this sort are found in Wales and Cornwall, but not here.

Whatever the explanation, we shall probably never know it. You can’t go digging up the church floor, nor the churchyard, unless for a burial.

This is the beauty of church dowsing; it gives us a glimpse of the invisible.

We will return to our local Anglo-Saxon churches again in the New Year.

l For further reading, see Janet Brown, Ulgham, its story continued, 1986. Roland Bibby, Bothal Observed, 1973. John Hodgson, History of Northumberland, Part II, Vol. 2, 1832, available on www.archive.org