Bamburgh Village: the Anglo-Saxon Church

Project Director, Graeme Young, gives us the second instalment of his blog thread covering the origins and development of Bamburgh Village.

Bamburgh Village and the Church in the early medieval.

In a previous blog entry I started a short series of articles on Bamburgh Village. In this weeks instalment I am going to have a brief look at the origin of the village church during the Anglo-Saxon period. Click here to see the earlier blog entry

At the heart of the community of most English villages lies the parish church and Bamburgh, in this regard, is no exception. A church, close to the site of the royal fortress of Bebanburh (Bamburgh), is mentioned in the pages of Bede when he details the death of St Aidan.

Depiction of St Aidan

He describes how the Saint died at a church in the royal residence near to the fortress of Bamburgh. We have no reason to doubt that this royal residence was the Anglo-Saxon settlement that pre-dated the medieval borough and as a consequence the church used by St Aidan should be the predecessor of the present church dedicated to this very saint.

St Aidan’s as it stands today

In fact, given that Bamburgh’s Parish church is the only dedication to St Aidan known in medieval England, this seems a pretty safe assumption. There is a further tradition that the simple timber church burnt down, leaving as a sole survival, the very timber beam against which St Aidan died and that this beam has been preserved through every rebuilding of the structure to this day. Its quite possibly the case and if so, its certainly exciting to think that we can see a survival of that first church, connecting us all the way back to the seventh century.

The early arrangements for the church are not preserved by detailed records, so we have to try and read between the lines of the few that survive. It is clear that St Aidan used the earliest church as a centre from which to preach the Christian message to the population of the district. As time progressed and Christianity became more established the nature and role of the church will have changed and we can speculate that St Aidan’s would have taken on a more monastic character, forming a minster church at the heart of an important royal estate. A situation common in Anglo-Saxon England. At the time of the Norman Conquest of England the church properties in Bamburgh, we are told from a tradition recorded by Aelred of Rievaux, lay in the control of one ‘Algar the Priest’ (perhaps meaning Aelfgar). This may well reflect the tendency of ecclesiastical sites to fall under the control of individuals or families, almost as if they were private property. This seems to have occurred in provinces somewhat cut off from the development and reform of the mainstream church of southern England possibly due to the presence of Viking Kingdoms in Yorkshire and the Midlands.  The church during the 9th-11th centuries in Northumbria was a place full of cross cultural influences between Christianity and Scandinavian paganism that produced carved crosses, such as that from Gosforth in Cumbria, which mixes depictions of scenes from Norse mythology with the crucifixion. This was a world in which an earl of Northumbria could make an astute political marriage to a daughter of the Bishop of Durham!

2 thoughts on “Bamburgh Village: the Anglo-Saxon Church

  1. One of the few regrets I have about leaving the UK to live in Australia is that I basically ignored the history on my doorstep when I lived there. Always too busy with work & sports to take notice of the history under my nose. I lived for over 25 years in Newcastle; holidayed yearly in Embleton for >15 years; visited Bamburgh oodles of times; played against their cricket team on their home ground [with the castle as the backdrop] several times but I didn’t have the interest or knowledge to appreciate the historicity of my local area.

    I’ll need about three months just in the North-East just to catch up.

    Thanks for all the updates


  2. Pingback: Heavenfield Round-up 3: Medievalists at Work « Heavenfield

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