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Anglo-Saxon church alignments

Bob Trubshaw

When is a ley not a ley? The answer seems to be, when it is the subject of an academic paper. Amid the intensely erudite jargon that befits a publication entitled Studies in late Anglo-Saxon settlement [1] is a relatively accessible chapter by Warwick Rodwell entitled 'Churches in the landscape: aspects of topographjy and planning'. This contains a detailed discussion of what the author terms 'planned, linear arrangements of related buildings and features.'

He begins his discussion with the following remarks: 'This is not an easy subject to tackle briefly, and is one which has, to its great detriment, been largely shunned by zserious scholars in recent decades for fear of being dubbed as ley hunters. There is no reason to confuse this pointless but harmless pastime with research into the planning of religious structures.'

Quite what is it which makes Them 'pointless and harmless' and Us into researchers is less clear when Rodwell begins to present his evidence. The first example he uses is Wells catheral. This is adjacent to the site of a Roman mausoleum which was superceded by early chapels. Nevertheless, these chapels respected the orietnation of the mausoleum, which itself was influenced by local topography. This means that the churches are orientated at approximately 60 degrees rather than east, i.e. 90 degrees.

When Wells cathedral was built in later Anglo-Saxon times, that too followed the same orientation. But the eastern 'focus' (or terminus) of these buildings was St Andrew's holy well. By the mid-elevnth century 'a chain of features and structures had grown up to the west, all based upon a single axis.' To the south-west of St Andrew's well was the small chapel of St Mary the Virgin (on the site of the Roman mausoleum), and close to the south-west was the minster church of St Andrew. On the same axis but several hundred yards across town was St Cuthbert's. In between, both the high street and the market place also respected this axis.

At St Albans a similar pattern can be detected in the late Anglo-Saxon town. A pair of churches, the market place, a cross and a major entrance to the town all aligned. Evidence of tenth century town planning at Worcester and Hereford appears to tell similar stories. At Worcester the important sites seem to be the east gate, the (former) market place, St Swithun's church and, further west, All Saints' church. Continuing the 'ley' further west leads to the presumed site of an Anglo-Saxon bridge over the River Severn.

At Hereford it is the west gate which aligns with the market place, All Saints' church, the market place again and ending at St Peter's church. Similar but simpler plans can be detected at Abingdon and Barton on Humber where two wells form the terminal foci. Rodwell provides a number of other examples of wells which are on the axis of Anglo-Saxon churches.

There are a number of places where axial alignments of Anglo-Saxon churches and chapels seems probable. At the Old Minster, Winchester, no less than three originally-separate structures were extended to form a complex building. Less easily detectable from the surviving evidence are possible alignments at Hackness, Hexham, Leicester and Winchcombe.

One of the best examples of such axial alignments is at Glastonbury. The detailed archaeological and documentary evidence for the evolution of Glastonbury Abbey in Anglo-Saxon and early Norman times enables a particularly detailed picture to be built up.

It is not the intention of this article to repeat in detail the information provided by Rodwell, but simply to draw attention to an article which (despite originally appearing over ten years ago) has apparently been overlooked by 'pointless and harmless' ley hunters.

References

1: Studies in late Anglo-Saxon settlement, ed. M.L. Faull, Oxford University Department for External Studies, 1984.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.24 August 1995.


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