Anglo-Saxon Churches the Oldest Buildings in the Country

Anglo-Saxon churches hold a significant place in the architectural and religious history of England. These structures were built between the 5th century and the Norman Conquest of 1066, a period known as the Anglo-Saxon or Early Medieval period.

The Christianisation of what is now England began around the 6th century, largely attributed to missionaries like Saint Augustine (not to be confused with St. Augustine of Hippo)

For much of history, the church had an extremely powerful influence over the government, beliefs and culture of the United Kingdom. Rising to particular prominence in the Anglo-Saxon era, the emergence of Christianity in ancient England inspired the construction of impressive religious buildings and monuments.

Churches dating all the way back to the Anglo-Saxon times can still be found in the UK today, with some of these considered to be some of the oldest buildings in Britain.


The emergence of Christianity in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom forever changed the course of British history. It was impacted by invaders and came to wield significant power over the rulers of the ancient kingdoms that would one day form England.

While many ancient churches have been lost to history, some still remain, and in multiple instances offer incredible examples of structures built more than a thousand years ago that are still in use today.

The oldest churches of England are a physical reminder of the early history of the UK, and a key piece of the puzzle in the story of Britain.

The Beginnings of a Christian Britain

In early history the people of Britain followed various forms of paganism, worshipping a range of deities and spirits, often closely associated with the land and natural cycles.

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These pagan beliefs were influenced by both beliefs carried over from the European continent, particularly Germanic regions, and the beliefs of people native to the British Isles.

St Laurence’s Church, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, is one of very few surviving Anglo-Saxon churches in England that does not show later medieval alteration or rebuilding. Circa 700 AD

Christianity had a small introduction into Britain in the third and fourth centuries, with the Christian faith thought to have been possibly introduced to Britain by Rome.

Yet at the same time Christianity was present in Rome, Roman paganism was also still widely believed across the empire. While Christianity gained a presence in Britain, it was again quickly replaced by pagan beliefs, particularly in the east of the country, with the invasion of the Saxons that largely followed Germanic Pagan belief systems.

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 It wasn’t until around the year 600 that Christianity would again come to make a mark on British shores with the arrival of the Gregorian Mission. The Gregorian Mission, also called the Augustinian Mission, aimed to convert the Anglo-Saxons of the British Isles to the Christian faith. it was sent by Pope Gregory the Great in 596.


First arriving in Kent, the Gregorian missionaries set out to first convert King Aethelberht of Kent. They were successful in converting Aethelberht to the Christian faith and began preaching in cities across Kent.

Typical Saxon altar as seen in Escomb Church.
Typical Saxon altar as seen in Escomb Church.

As early as the year 630, Eanswith, a granddaughter of Aethelberht, had established the Folkestone Priory, although this was later destroyed by the Vikings. As well as missionaries sent by Pope Gregory I, holy men from Ireland also influenced the adoption of Christianity across England.

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The Irish monk Aidan, was invited to become a bishop in Northumbria and established the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne. Missionaries spread across the country, and throughout the seventh century much of previously pagan Anglo-Saxon England was converted to Christianity. In 664 the Anglo-Saxon church pledged allegiance to the Pope.

The Church in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

In the early days ot Christianity in the Anglo-Saxon period, a system of bishops, archbishops, and monasteries formed the structure of the Anglo-Saxon Church. The earliest archbishops of England were based in Canterbury and York and the church and its leaders held significant political and societal power.

St Martin's Church, Wareham
St Martin’s Church, Wareham. The church is reputed to have been founded by Saint Aldhelm in the 7th century

The power of the religious leaders in the Anglo-Saxon Church was exemplified by instances in which an archbishop of Canterbury had coins issued in his name, and King Offa of Mercia could not name his son as his lawful successor without him having been consecrated by an archbishop.

In the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, monasteries also formed an important part of both religious life, and the wider development of society.

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Monasteries were a hub for learning and education. They were also economic centres and held much of the medical knowledge of the time.

Anglo-Saxon Churches

Some monasteries and churches functioned as places for healing and some even were believed to have special healing powers. These purported healing powers prompted the unwell to embark on sometimes long and strenuous journeys to monasteries in search of healing.

Shrines and holy relics were often kept in churches and monasteries and pilgrims travelled long distances to view these. It was even claimed that the body of St.Cuthbert, which itself became somewhat of a holy relic to the Anglo-Saxons, didn’t decompose because of the holiness of the saint.

Thou Shall Not Steal

In Anglo-Saxon times, churches and other religious places were well known to be centres of wealth. With a largely God-fearing Christian population, churches also were relatively unprotected.

St Peter’s Church at Wootton Wawen, near Stratford-upon-Avon.
St Peter’s Church at Wootton Wawen, near Stratford-upon-Avon.. The first wooden church was built at Wootton between 720 and 740 AD as is proved by the charter of Æthelbald which mentions the minster which then existed in the area and founded by Æthelric.

Stealing from the Church was considered a grave sin so occurred in Anglo-Saxon communities somewhat infrequently. However, Scandinavian invaders that landed on the shores of Britain held no such religious reservation.

In fact, one of the first recorded encounters between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons was the Viking raid on the holy island of  Lindisfarne in the late eighth century.

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As Viking raids on religious settlements became more common, entire monasteries were abandoned, including on Lindisfarne, where the community of St Cuthbert left the island completely in the ninth century.

However, while there is no doubt that Vikings attacked and raided religious sites, it has been posited that some of these accounts may have been exaggerated or attacks from other groups purposefully not recorded. This was possibly in an effort to portray the Vikings as brutish and unholy due to their pagan beliefs; beliefs that were in direct conflict with the spread of Christianity at the time.

The Oldest Surviving Anglo-Saxon Churches

Some of the oldest surviving churches in Britain date back to the Anglo-Saxon times, and offer a rich glimpse into the influence of Christianity on the history of Britain.

The Church of St.Martin

 The Church of St.Martin in Canterbury is often considered to be the oldest surviving church in the UK. Dating all the way back to at least 597AD, the ancient church is reported to be the ‘oldest parish church in the English speaking world’, and is recognised as a world heritage site.

St Martin's Church, Canterbury
St Martin’s Church, Canterbury. St Martin’s was the private chapel of Queen Bertha of Kent (died in or after 601) before Saint Augustine of Canterbury arrived from Rome in 597.

Astonishingly, this church that has a history stretching back more than a thousand years, is still in operation, running services every week, as well as being open for visitors to explore.

While the church dates back to the arrival of the Benedictine monk Augustine at the end of the sixth century, some parts of the church are thought to date back even further with origins in Roman Britain, although the exact purpose the Roman elements of the building had is not certain.

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As well as the Anglo-Saxon and Roman origins of the church building, other parts of the structure date from the 12th, 13th, 14th and 19th centuries, including the church bells, one of which was constructed at the end of the fourteenth century.

The Church of St.Peter-on-the-Wall

Another ancient church, the Church of St.Peter-on-the-Wall located in Essex dates back to the 650s – 660s AD, when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were undergoing a period of Christianisation.

The Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall in Bradwell-on-Sea stands as one of England’s oldest churches, with its origins dating back to 660-662. This Christian place of worship maintains much of its original structure, making it a historical treasure.

Despite the fact that it is thought to have originally been built by Bishop Cedd in the seventh century, the church is still in use today.

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While the building itself is relatively small, it does boast walls over two feet thick and is constructed of stones and Roman bricks. Adding to its impressive history, the ancient church was built on the same site as an ancient Roman fort.

Escomb Church

Escomb Church in County Durham is another great example of a surviving church with origins in the seventh century. Just one and a half miles outside Bishop Auckland, Escomb Church is one of only four Anglo-Saxon churches in England considered complete.

A Saxon church
Built around AD 670–675 during the era of the Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria, the church was primarily constructed using stone sourced from the close-by Roman fort of Vinovia (Binchester). A sundial from the 7th or early 8th Century adorns the gable of the south porch, while the north wall features a repurposed Roman stone, marked “LEG VI” (Sixth Legion), intriguingly positioned upside down. Additionally, an Anglo-Saxon relief, depicting an animal’s head, protrudes above the sundial.

In structure, the church nave is tall and narrow, characteristic of Anglo-Saxon church construction. The church once lay within the borders of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. The fascinating history of this ancient church gets even richer with the fact that the seventh century builders reused Roman bricks in the church’s construction.

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Bricks bearing Roman marks, including one bearing the mark LEG V, denoting the sixth legion, can still be seen in the church walls. It is thought that many of these bricks were sourced from the old Roman fort at Vinovia.

St. Laurence’s Church

St.Laurence’s Church in Bradford-on-Avon offers a particularly special find for lovers of religious and architectural history as it is one of the few examples of an Anglo-Saxon church that didn’t undergo further additions or adaptations during the later years of the medieval period.

A saxon church
St Laurence’s Church in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, stands as a rare example among England’s Anglo-Saxon churches, largely due to its preservation without subsequent medieval modification or reconstruction. Dedicated to St Laurence, historical records propose that the church’s foundation could be attributed to Saint Aldhelm, with its inception likely around the year 700.

The exact date of the church’s founding is somewhat debated, with estimates from 700 AD up until the eleventh century. One theory has even been offered that the church dates back to the rule of Aethelred the Unready and the idea that the church was built on land he granted to nuns fleeing Viking raids.

Tales from Ancient Times

For a large part of the history of Britain the Christian church has held significant influence. After missionaries arrived on the shores of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms around the turn of the seventh century, the Christian faith spread throughout Britain and inspired the construction of many religious buildings and monuments.

While many of these ancient churches have been lost to history, ransacked by invaders and fallen victim to conflict, neglect and decay, some still survive. Some of the oldest buildings still in use in Britain are churches, and when visiting these ancient buildings today it is worth taking a moment to wonder – what ancient tales do they have to tell?