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East Kennett church

East Kennett church as it is today.


East Kennett: the church on the boundary

The church at East Kennett is remarkable in several ways. The building which has stood there since the 1860s is just the most recent of several. No one knows just when the first one was built but we do know there was – or had been – a church here in 972. The fact that we have such a comparatively early date is itself is remarkable – most village churches do not appear in documentary records until the Domesday Survey of 1086, and many only get written about after that, long after they must have been first built.

The date of 972 appears in a boundary charter signed by King Edgar. That is even more remarkable. Think about it. Boundary charters list all sorts of landmarks, by definition around the edges of a parish or other estate of land. But churches, then as now, are usually in the centres of parishes. I honestly don't know how many other churches get a mention in charters of around the tenth century but I'm confident the answer is 'Not a lot'.

Strictly speaking, the charter mentions a churchstead. This has the sense of a 'church site' rather than a church itself. Just plausibly a small timber-built church had been put up in, say the ninth century and had fallen down by 972. But even if this was the case – and it is by no means certain that there wasn't a building still standing at the time of the charter – we can be fairly sure that the first church stood almost exactly where the later churches were put up. Why am I so sure? Well, the church was still on a boundary until 1974.

East Kennett's main street, until 1974 the boundary between West Kennett and West Overton parishes.

Almost uniquely, until the various changes to administrative boundaries set out in the Local Government Act of 1972 were brought into effect on 1st April 1974, East Kennett was not a single parish. Houses on one side of the main street were in West Kennett and those on the other side in West Overton.

This meant the church too was just inside West Kennett parish. Indeed, historical sources refer to it as 'West Kennett chapel', not East Kennett church. To avoid confusing too many modern readers I will however refer to it as East Kennett church.

The Anglo-Saxon and Viking war cemetery

In 1006 there was a battle between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings at East Kennett. The Vikings, led by Svein Forkbeard, were travelling along the Ridgeway, heading south towards the coast. The Anglo-Saxon fierd or 'army' was mustered – probably somewhat between a Dad's Army unit and a 'proper' army – there would have been little opportunity for them to have much if any experience of fighting a pitched battle. In contrast the Vikings had most certainly seen 'active service' during their campaign of destruction.

The battle between the 'home guard' and the Scandinavian 'heavies' took place at what was then a ford (near where the bridge now crosses the Kennet). The Anglo-Saxons were defeated and the Vikings continued on their way to the sea.

Bear in mind that Forkbeard's main reason for being in England was to avenge the St Brice's Day massacre of all Danes in Wessex on 13 November 1002, ordered by King Æthelred the 'Unready'. Among those killed was probably Swein's sister, Gunhilde. The defeated Anglo-Saxon warriors at East Kennett were unlikely to have been taken as prisoners.

The modern road bridge at the site of the former ford.

Local tradition in East Kennett says that casualties were buried in East Kennett churchyard. At first glance it makes perfect sense – the dead would be buried in the nearest churchyard. Ah ha! The nearest churchyard not the nearest church! From much later sources we know that East Kennett was a chapel of Avebury until much later, so would not have had burial rites in the tenth century. By rights, the fallen soldiers should have been taken to Avebury.

This is, in essence, because medieval clergy come across as a mercenary lot. One of the chief sources of income for many churches was soul scot – the money paid by the comparatively wealthy for burial in the churchyard. This led to 'mother churches' retaining the money-spinning rights for burials until late in the medieval era. By definition a chapel – and that is how East Kennett was described until after the Middle Ages – did not have burial rights. Anyone who died in West Kennett around that time would normally have been buried at Avebury.

However not everyone who died was wealthy enough to leave enough money to pay the soul scot. Presumably if there were relatives there would have been what we think of as a 'whip round'. But the poor did get buried in churchyards anyway, without paying soul scot. At least, those who the priest considered worthy – presumably regular church-goers and such like. But it was at the discretion of the priest. So far as historians can establish, only the one's who were most emphatically not in the priest's good books were likely to be refused.

Whether or not all the men who died at the hands of the Vikings in 1006 were 'well in' with the priest is an open question. But undoubtedly there would be a strong sense that they had died as heroes, trying to defend this part of Wiltshire. The 'usual rules' could have been waived – just as they often are for war dead right through to modern times – and a 'war cemetery' established at East Kennett where both those who might have afforded to pay soul scot could lie alongside the less well-off men who fought and died with them.

The only surviving timber-built church in England, at Greensted, Essex.
Tree-ring dating suggests it was built between about AD 1063 and 1100.

If this scenario is right then it would also make perfect sense that the church would be rebuilt. At this date such a chapel is most likely to have been built of wood, not stone. While stone-built churches – such as the one that would have been standing by then at Avebury – were intended to be restored as needed, timber-built churches were not 'patched up' but simply rebuilt once decay had set in. This is why there is only one surviving timber-built church in the whole of England, at Greensted-juxta-Ongar in Essex.

The only fly in this neat ointment is the discovery of burials of warriors to the south of the ford in the grounds of Manor Farm. Most probably these are the Vikings killed in combat rather than the local lads.

East Kennett church in later times

From architectural evidence there seems to have been a stone-built church here in the twelfth century. This may be linked to the creation of a separate parish sometime before 1291. There was also another phase of building in the thirteenth century and substantial renovations in the fifteenth century.

However sixteenth and seventeenth century records frequently mention the decay of the church fabric as a consequence of the negligence of the owner of the rectory estate. By then the priest was a curate who had to live on a rather paltry stripend – most of these curates seem to have left as soon as they could! By 1807 there was a nave and south porch, with a wooden bell turret at the west end. All these were swept away as part of the major rebuilding of 1863–4.

The interior of East Kennett church. Two of the elaborate corbels can be seen at the top of this photograph.


The structure of the modern day church is essentially the same as it was in 1863, including some remarkable Lombardic-style corbels inside the nave.

Why was there a church here?

Chapels are usually built where there is a congregation. And there is indeed some archaeological evidence of an Anglo-Saxon settlement predating the modern village. This may be the sole reason that a 'manor chapel' had appeared by 972. This is exactly when many of the churches which were to evolve into parish churches were first established.

But the location on a boundary is intriguing. Doubly so as the boundary follows the Ridgeway, and the church – really just a chapel at that time – is on the nearest rise of ground above the fording place over the Kennet. The land delimited in the charter of 972 uses the Ridgeway as a boundary, and the churchstead adjoining that boundary as a landmark.

This of itself makes the churchstead 'liminal' – that is 'on the threshold' (limen is Latin for 'threshold'). But rivers are also effective boundaries. This makes the churchstead doubly liminal, tucked into the corner of both an east-west boundary and a north-south divide.

As such it is exactly the sort of place which in pre-Christian times might have had a shrine. In the East Midlands there is evidence of votive offerings to Toutatis – whose name translates as 'tribal protector'. The places where these offerings have been discovered are mostly close to tribal boundaries.

Christian Malford church; photograph taken from near the bank of the River Avon.

Christian Malford church (ringed in red) and the River Avon (highlighted in blue). Based on an image from Google Earth.

Also in the Midlands are modern settlements called Stapleford and Wyford or Weeford. These are the fords with a stapol or a weoh– a carved wooden 'idol' or shrine. In Wiltshire there is a similar type of place-name: Christian Malford. Despite later corruption this was originally the crist mael ford – the ford with the 'Christ (land)mark', most probably a cross or crucifix. (The Old English word mael is the origin of our word 'mole', meaning a mark on the skin.) The church at Christian Malford is now at the end of a dead-end street, but the topography suggests an ideal place for fording the River Avon. The route would have become redundant once a bridge had been built (at a place more suitable for a bridge than a ford).

People would either have asked for protection before crossing the ford, or given thanks after making it across safely. Either way offerings would have been expected. Building a chapel both offered the protection of Christ, rather than a pagan 'idol', and also allowed the clergy to benefit from the tradition of making offerings.

I cannot prove that this was the case at East Kennett. But the location is spot on.

A medieval slipper chapel?

After the Reformation the clergy – a mere curate – had to make do with a very modest income. This in itself suggests that before the Reformation there was an additional income. The best guess, for reasons explored elsewhere (see skew passages), is that this church was on a pilgrimage route. Anyone coming up the Ridgeway from the south would cross the Kennet at this point.

Furthermore, as Dr Martin Palmer has pointed out, East Kennett church is about a mile from Avebury church. As too is Winterbourne Monkton church to the north, also once a dependent chapel of Avebury and on a long-established route to Avebury. St James' church in Avebury has all the evidence of being an important pilgrimage shrine in its own right (see St James dedications in Wiltshire). At the very least there would have been a major influx for the feast of St James on 25th July.

By the early thirteenth century onwards pilgrims had developed all sorts of pious customs and practices. One of these was to walk the last part of a pilgrimage barefoot. They took their footwear off at a 'slipper chapel'. The best-attested example is at Houghton St Giles, one mile from Walsingham in Norfolk. While there is no direct evidence that East Kennett and Winterbourne Monkton churches were actually thought of as slipper chapels, the distance from Avebury is just right.

Anyone using the footpath from Winterbourne Monkton to Avebury is following in the footsteps of such medieval pilgrims. Leaving East Kennett church and walking to the farms at West Kennett then over the 'free to roam' part of Waden Hill means following the footsteps of much older travellers, as this picks up the route of the West Kennett Avenue, built in the late Neolithic. To approach Avebury on foot today means walking along the re-erected parts of this Avenue. But just how long before the Anglo-Saxons was this churchstead at an important crossing place over the Kennet regarded as somewhere sacred?

Main sources:

Blair, John, 2005, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, Oxford UP.
English Heritage listing www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/en-311570-christ-church-east-kennett-
Victoria County History for Wiltshire www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol12/pp119-125 (Note that the description of the battle erroneously states that the Danes were defeated.)

Additional sources:

My understanding of 'unusual' burials at chapels was greatly assisted by Vicki Score and Jon Morison's published discussion of recent excavations at St Morrell's chapel, Hallaton, Leicestershire. Before the Reformation this was a locally-important pilgrimage shrine about five hundred metres south of the parish church, and approximately the same distance east of a regionally-important Iron Age shrine. The site has revealed evidence of use in the Roman period although only one shard of Anglo-Saxon pottery.

St Morrell is associated with the Christianisation of 'pagan' sites in France. This is consistent with the substantial Norman motte and bailey to the north-west of the chapel. A twelfth century date is assumed for the earliest chapel building, although the site seems to have been regarded as 'special' before this. Indeed, such continuity has continued long after the post-Reformation demise of the building as the site is still the focus of the annual 'Hare Pie Scramble and Bottle Kicking' custom on Easter Mondays.

The excavations at the chapel site revealed about six inhumations, most of which were unusual in either the way the corpse was placed in the grave or because of skeletal abnormalities or injuries – one man had died as a result of a weapon blow to the head. There would almost certainly have been more burials but ploughing has damaged the presumed extent of the churchyard. The surviving burials were dated to the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, so caution is needed before drawing parallels with the putative early eleventh century burials at East Kennett.

Vicki Score and Jon Morison, 'The lost chapel of St Morrell, Hallaton', Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society, Vol.88 (2014), p55–74.

Articles about Anglo-Saxons in and around Avebury

What was a bury?

St Afa

East Kennett: the church on the boundary


Other articles by Bob Trubshaw relevant to Anglo-Saxon Avebury:

Weohs and stapols why Waden Hill is so named.

Places of Anglo-Saxon worship

Anglo-Saxon inauguration sites and rites a possible origin for the King Sil legend associated with Silbury.

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Articles about the prehistory of Avebury and environs

Overview of prehistoric Avebury and environs

Altars not burial mounds

Henges – brands or performances

Henges – dead or alive

Simulacra photos

Sound in the prehistoric landscape

Avebury sunrises and sunsets

Avebury and environs in the Roman period

Articles about Anglo-Saxons in and around Avebury

What was a bury?

St Afa

East Kennett: the church on the boundary


Wiltshire battles

Understanding the Wansdykes

Articles about Medieval life in and around Avebury

Overview of medieval Avebury and environs

St James' – from minster to mother church

St James dedications in Wiltshire

Skew passages

The alien priors

Medieval graffiti

The 'barber-surgeon'

Articles about aspects of Avebury's twentieth century history

Overview of twentieth century Avebury

Avebury ghosts

Keiller's occult connections

Halloween 1938

Mary's annunciation

photo gallery