St Laurence’s: the Hidden Anglo Saxon church of Bradford upon Avon by Rebecca Davies BSc. (Hons).

Introducing Bradford upon Avon

Bradford on Avon is a market town in West Wiltshire, situated upon one of the many rivers in Britain called the Avon. Avon comes from afon – Welsh for river.

From the Visit Wiltshire website:

‘One of the most compelling features about Bradford on Avon is its unique position on the edge of the Cotswolds facing the River Avon. The ancient bridge in the centre of the town remains its natural focus and the bridge still retains two of its original 13th-century arches. The historical view from the main bridge incorporates the hill above the town which is dotted with the old weavers’ cottages and the river bank flanked with the 19th-century former cloth mills.

St Laurence' Church Bradford upon Avon - river in Bradford upon Avon

The local building stone is the famed Bath stone – a mild yellow limestone with great architectural potential.

And woollen mills, now converted into flats.

Wollen mills in Bradford upon Avon
Woollen mills in Bradford upon Avon

An Anglo-Saxon church

And, on top of all these interesting buildings the town boasts an Anglo Saxon church. And the people of Bradford upon Avon don’t beat about the bush, they have an Anglo-Saxon church and they sure want you to see it.

signage - to the Saxon church

History of St Laurence’s church

In a previous blog I described the Anglo Saxon art in Wiltshire. (Romilly Allen). Though there are some churches here that have the carvings, and elements of the architecture. St Laurence’s though is the only mostly complete building of this period in the county. Thus, it is well worth examining.

St Laurence' Church Bradford upon Avon
St Laurence from the south

William of Malmesbury says this church was standing in the 1120s, but he thought it dated to the time of St Aldhelm who died in 709 AD. It is thought to be early eleventh century, for the nuns at Shaftsbury to house the relics of King Edward the Martyr.

For many centuries the tiny church of St Laurence’s lay forgotten, hidden away behind further random building and ivy growth. Canon Jones, vicar and historian, rediscovered it in 1857 after it had been pressed into use as a cottage and schoolroom.

Later generations have often accused the Victorians of over-enthusiasm in their restoration of old churches. But what we must bear in mind is that most our mediaeval churches were in a poor state following long neglect and sectarian turmoil.

Empathetic restoration

The work at St Laurence’s was undertaken with great sympathy. The only thing you see here that you could call modern are the buttresses, used to hold up the walls following the removal of a supporting cottage. During this work they discovered the carvings of two beautiful angels but sad to sat they are too high in the wall to see with ease.

St Laurence' Church Bradford upon Avon - angels on the wall

Architectural features

The first thing you notice with this church is how tall it is, compared to its small size. This is a typical feature of an Anglo Saxon church.

St Laurence' Church Bradford upon Avon - looking towards the east.
St Laurence’ Church Bradford upon Avon – looking toward the east

The church has distinctive albeit narrow doors. Likewise the windows. Notice the Roman arches on both doors and windows.

Pilasters

Pilasters are a columnar architectural feature popular with the Anglo Saxons. These are decorative rather than load bearing designs.

St Laurence' Church Bradford upon Avon - pilasters

And last but not least of course, is the arched arcading. A lot of effort has gone into this church.

St Laurence' Church Bradford upon Avon - arcading

Anglo Saxon Art

The Angels are not the only examples of Anglo Saxon Art in the church.

tesselation at St Laurence' church Bradford upon avon

The altar saw reconstruction from a fragmentary piece of contemporary art. It’s interesting that this consists of two designs unique in the county, spirals and tessellated patterns. Unfortunately it is rather battered and Romilly Allen’s reconstruction may well be the best way to visualise the design. (Romilly Allen).

Alter cloth of St Laurence's church by Romilly

I don’t know what the carver was trying to do, making such a big block of design elements. In insular art, it is the practice to use them as mere fillers. Maybe they were attempting a decorated but minimalist effect? Or they wanted to use a more unusual design element and so turned them into a big feature?

Above it is a fragment of an Anglo Saxon grave slab. (St Laurence’s).

Grave slab at St Laurence's church at Bradford upon Avon

Altar frontal cloth

In a frame on the south wall is the altar frontal.

Altar frontal at St Laurence's church bradford upon Avon

This is a somewhat modern piece, designed by the church architect Sir John Ninian Comper and worked by Lucy Bucknall, of the Sisters of Bethany School of Embroidery. It is goldwork on a red rose brocade. It spent many years in storage and was not in the best condition. Thus it saw restoration in 1999 by Flo Beith of the Sarum group of Embroiderers who restore ecclesiastical embroideries.

close up of altar frontal cloth St Laurence church Bradford upon Avon
close up of altar frontal cloth St Laurence church Bradford upon Avon

In conclusion

To my mind, the interesting thing about St Laurence’s is that although it is clear that the architect was familiar with Roman ideas, and must have seen ruined examples in Bath (pretty much the other side of the river), they do not use actual examples of Roman stonework.

Tockenheim carving - St Laurence's church at Bradford upon Avon

This is a Roman carving of a deity – likely Aesculapius, which has been re used on the 12th century church in Tockenham, a little south of Royal Wootton Bassett. We call it architectural salvage. But the Romans themselves had a word for it, Spoila. It was common in all societies and at all periods of history.

Some churches of this period do indeed re-use Roman material. The church of St Peter in the Wall, near Bradwell on sea, in Essex is a good example – a little church built on the remains of the Roman shore fort called Othona. (St Peter).

St Peter on the wall -  church
St Peter on the Wall


It includes the thin Roman bricks – more like tiles in fact. Though the Anglo-Saxons were capable builders in stone, as far as we know, there were no secular buildings in anything but timber. It was not a media they were too confident in.

At any rate, next time you are in Bradford on Avon, will you pay a visit to this tiny church that is over a thousand years old?

Thank you very much to Christopher Tanfield who opened up the church for me for an hour.

NB: All Photos by the Author except the Altar drawing (Romilly Allen), and the St Peter on the Wall. Photo: St Peter).


Bibliography

The Church of St Laurence, Bradford on Avon. A short guide. Trustees of the Anglo Saxon Church 2018. A leaflet.

St Laurence Church. Things to do in Bradford on Avon | Saxon Church Bradford on Avon | The Church of St Laurence (Accessed 5th April 2021).

St Peter in the Wall Home (bradwellchapel.org) (Accessed 5th April 2021).

ROMILLY ALLEN, Notes on the Ornamentation of the Early Christian Monuments of Wiltshire.

Wiltshire Archaeology Magazine, Vol. 27, P. 50-65.