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All Saints' Church,

Founded in the Mid-8th Century

All Saints' Church, Brixworth, Northamptonshire is
"perhaps the most imposing architectural monument of the 7th century yet surviving north of the Alps"
-- Sir Alfred Clapham

The date of the construction of All Saints' Church, Brixworth is unclear; however, it is without question one of the most outstanding churches of its period in England. It has been in continuous use as a centre of Christian worship from its building to the present day. It is also the largest structure to survive from those early years although it is thought that a Viking attack destroyed the side aisles in AD 870.

Although the date of construction is debatable, I have attempted to show both sides. This initial page has been adapted from the guide produced by Revd. Nicholas Chubb and is available for sale at the church. For the other side of the debate, see the detailed essay for more information.

Why was this church built?

Brixworth was thought of as a suitable centre from which to spread the Gospel to the non-Christian natives of Mercia, the middle kingdom of early England. Christianity spread through the country from two directions: north and south. It was first established in the north in Celtic parts where the monks settled many communities. Each community was a centre for new work and in time the monks who lived at Lindisfarne formed a centre at Medeshamstede (modern Peterborough). The monks from Medeshamstede formed their own new centres. According to an early twelfth century passage in the Peterborough Chronicle following the appointment of Sexwulf as Bishop of Mercia in AD 675 "it came to pass that from that very monastery were founded many others with monks and abbots from the same congregation, as at ... Brixworth, Bredon, Bermondsey, Repton, Woking and at many other places".

Who inspired the building of a church here?

One theory supposes that it was Wilfrid, Bishop of Hexham. His work was chiefly in the North and the Midlands, and he was a regular visitor to France and Italy. In his enthusiasm for converting his fellow countrymen to the new faith he spared no effort. It is believed that he brought crafts-people back with him on his trips to the continent to help build the churches which he was founding. There is no doubt that Brixworth shows both Saxon and Italian or Syrian influence in a marked degree and this in itself is a puzzle that needs explanation.

All of these arguments for an early date are interesting, but it must be borne in mind that the church we have today may not be that mentioned in the Peterborough Chronicle but one built in the 8th or early 9th century. It could have been built about 750 by King Ethelbald of Mercia in honour of his friend Boniface. This would fit in very well with the existence today of the relic thought to be from the larynx of St. Boniface. In which case the chamber in the tower could have been a chapel for the King himself. A later date than 680 would also help in the argument surrounding the building of a first apse and crypt-chapel underneath. Although Brixworth has similarities with many contemporary buildings, it does not follow any one type slavishly, and this may well be because of its geographical position where it was open to many influences from all sides. For more details on the debate about the date see the detailed essay link below.

Why has the church survived so long?

Probably due to a number of fortunate coincidences. At first it was an important monastic centre an then quite quickly the church became the parish church of a not very important village and perhaps it was just ignored. Whatever happened we are very lucky that we have a fine example of early Anglo-Saxon architecture at Brixworth modified comparatively little by succeeding generations.

The following was furnished by Michael Lewis, a Brixworth resident and a member of the All Saints' Council and choir. He has kindly responded to my questions about the church and surrounding area.

The New Bell

The church had a new bell hung in 1993. It was installed to commemorate the end of a restoration compaign spearheaded by the Friends of All Saints' Brixworth to reinforce the spire and tower. For many years the bells were silent on account of the weak structure of the tower. Recent restoration has started on the Lady Chapel to replace the decayed leading in the windows. In a church of All Saints' age, restoration projects are more or less continuous.

The Brixworth Relic

The 'Brixworth Relic' has quite an involved history. The reliquary was found beneath the middle window of the Lady Chapel when some restoration work was being undertaken in 1821. When it was opened a wooden box was discovered containing a fragment of bone wrapped in cloth. The wooden box had an inscription believed to be the initials of Thomas Bassenden, the last chantry priest, and the date when he had the relic bricked up in the wall for posterity - circa 1500. In some early parish documentation there are several references to guilds of St Boniface and in wills and accounts referring to festivities around St Boniface's Day (5th June). This connection with an early Christian who was born in Crediton, Devon, travelled to Europe as a missionary, later became the Bishop of Mainz, is a bit suspicious. Nevertheless, it is believed that St Boniface was martyred in his own cathedral and that someone acquired his larynx bone and brought it to Brixworth. It was considered important in those early times to have some connection with a known holy person. The reliquary was displayed for many years above the pulpit, but increased vandalism and theft of the building in recent years has forced its removal to a safer place, the location of which I cannot disclose! The feast of St Boniface is commemorated today with the annual church fete, always on the first weekend in June.

The Roman Villa

Eagle CarvingAlthough magnificent, Brixworth Church is not the oldest archaeological site in Brixworth. There have been extensive excavations at the site of a Roman villa north of the Church. Much of the fabric of the church comprises re-worked Roman tiles and the Eagle in the doorway is carved on a stone used in the original Roman building. It is hoped that one day the Eagle may be removed to discover what lies on its reverse side.

Article by Stephanie James

Part 2: Architectural & Historical Discussion


    Stephanie James 2003. All Rights Reserved.