Eighth-century church architecture
This is the sort of architecture, beautifully preserved here, that Begiloc encounters on his travels. In Chapter 2 of The Purple Thread he sits on a bench ignorant of Latin and church ritual and gazes at the building surrounding him. Now there's a thing. I enjoyed visiting this Piave in Tuscany in 2015. It dates from the eighth century and has been preserved in its entirety. It inspired my description of the priory church at Werham. In the first draft, the description was over two pages long - so much did I enjoy visiting the church. When reason took over from emotion, the description got reduced to the pulpit (one-third of the original (!) and a capital ! Well, the setting is important, but the action and dialogue even more so. I hope you like the pictures. I'm not the best photographer - not even in our village!
A while back we went to Northumberland on holiday. Pity the weather was not conducive to brilliant photography, because an obligatory stop was the abbey at Hexham. Fortunately I was able to get some decent pictures inside the abbey, famous for its Saxon crypt and I’d like to share them with you.
In his book England’s Thousand Best Churches (Penguin Books, 2000), Simon Jenkins wrote: “Few churches in the North of England equal the spectacular interior and monastic relics of Hexham.”
There has been a church on this site over for 1300 years since Queen Etheldreda made a grant of lands to Wilfrid, Bishop of York c.674.
The Saxon crypt and apse of Wilfrid’s Benedictine abbey still remain.
The crypt is a plain structure of four chambers. Here were exhibited the relics which were a feature of Wilfred's church. It consists of a chapel with an ante-chapel at the west end, two side passages with enlarged vestibules and three stairways. The chapel and ante-chapel are barrel-vaulted. All the stones used are of Roman workmanship and many are carved or with inscriptions. It’s quite an experience to go back in time as you descend the steep steps that lead into the narrow chamber – not recommended to claustrophobics!
The church also contains some interesting early sculptures: at the west end of the nave, a glass case holds fragments found in 1907. They show a crucifixion and an ecclesiastic and probably came from near Monkwearmouth, perhaps carved in the monastery there about 675-700. Some of the stones were once part of the richly decorated building, fragments of frieze or pillar, screen or furnishing. The walls and arches bore colourful patterns and scenes with animals. The Northumbrian monks were subject to different sources of inspiration. This can be seen in the various Celtic-type interlacing, the Germanic writhing animal shapes, Roman vine-scrolls all probably copied from Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscripts. With the decline of Wilfrid’s Abbey most of the carved stones disappeared, looted for other buildings or smashed for ideological motives. Some of the surviving stones still keep traces of paint.
One of the most interesting features of Hexham is the frith stool, a solid block of sandstone carved in the shape of a low seat. The stool may date to the 7th century and may come from the Roman fort at Corbridge, where Wilfrid obtained many of his building materials.
The stool may have served as an early cathedra, or bishop's seat. Frith stools were used as a place of sanctuary; anyone who managed to reach the frith, such as a criminal fleeing justice, could not be touched until they were granted assurance of justice and fair treatment.
Another Saxon relic is a small copper and gold chalice, or cup, discovered in a stone coffin during renovations in 1860. The chalice was probably used by Saxon clerics to celebrate Holy Communion. It is on display in a protective glass case, but you can get close to admire the intricate workmanship.