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Monday, 6 April 2015

Saxon and modern stone carvings at the ancient church of St Laurence in Bradford-on-Avon

In the small town of Bradford-on-Avon, in the west of the county of Wiltshire, is one of the oldest churches in Britain. Despite evidence of subsequent alterations, some of them also ancient, it has been described as one of the most characteristic examples of a Saxon church in the country.


St Laurence's is certainly not a big building, but it contains some beautiful fragments of Saxon stone carving.
Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:St_Laurence%27s_Church.JPG
The church was mentioned as standing in 1120 CE (or AD, if you prefer) by the twelfth century historian William of Malmsbury. He thought that it was built in the time of St Adhelm (in 709 CE) although other evidence suggests that it dates to the early eleventh century. However, it may have replaced an earlier wooden structure.  It was surrounded by other buildings and used for other purposes, before being 'rediscovered' in the nineteenth century.


The space inside, containing three rooms linked by surprisingly narrow archways, is not large but it is high with small windows. It gives the stone-built chapel a distinctive feel, not showy but not humble either. The walls may have once been plastered and painted, perhaps also draped with hangings. In Saxon times, surrounded by timber buildings, a stone building of this size in a small town must have been pretty grand in itself.


Fragments of Saxon carved stone are dotted throughout. There are two carved angels high up on one wall, which may well have once been part of a larger sculptural frieze:

Image from http://history.wiltshire.gov.uk/community/getimage.php?id=321
The altar is made up of several bits of Saxon stonecarving found in the area. The richness of the carvings found in its vicinity has led to the suggestion that the chapel may once have held relics of a saint. The church's website says that;

'A charter of King Æthelred granted Bradford to the nuns of Shaftesbury in 1001, and the church’s architecture suggests it was built for the nuns early in the eleventh century. St Laurence’s is a characteristic Anglo-Saxon building: tall and narrow with small windows. The extent and richness of its decoration, however, are rare, perhaps suggesting it was designed partly for the relics of Æthelred’s brother Edward the Martyr, which were housed with the nuns at Shaftesbury.'

saxon stone carvings

In 2012, the sculptor John Maine installed a three-part piece in the chapel above the altar. I think that it looks perfect in the setting and complements it well. At the top is a ring of Doulting stone carved by Maine. Below that is a piece of fossilised tree trunk thought to be about 150 million years old and below that is a fragment from a Saxon carved cross.



Bradford-on-Avon has several other interesting buildings, including a tithe barn and an interesting old town bridge with a building on it that was used as a cell for a while. Unfortunately I couldn't get photos of them during my visit but it's nice to be able to share this one with you.

2 comments:

  1. What a beautiful church, even from your images it looks humbling. The sculpture is very beautiful and the use of the old stone adds and contrasts. Interesting head-dress the angels are wearing. In our village church there are fragments of Saxon carving too. You've made me want to visit.

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  2. Even though it's small, it really does have a special feel about the place. The angels are interesting too, aren't they? They are installed high up in the church, so they are quite hard to see. I wonder if they were originally part of an archway?

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