Like so many of our monuments, the history of Brixworth church is tied up in speculation and hearsay.  Wikipedia notes that according to the Anglo Saxon Peterborough Chronicle, the church was founded as an abbey by Bishop Seaxwulf of Mercia before the death of King Wulfhere in 675AD.  Elsewhere on the Internet it is confidently stated that the church was founded in 675.  The distinction between the two dates should be noted, but first Wikipedia's source should be examined.

The first thing to be noted is that the Peterborough version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle is not an original source, being written in the period 1117 to 1121, using other Anglo Saxon Chronicles as its basis.  Regardless of this it used older material local to Peterborough from source or sources generally unknown.  The second thing to note is that the chronicle makes absolutely no mention of Brixworth in its entirety.  This is rather a drawback to using this ‘reference' as an accredited source.

This error probably comes from an Internet comment that states that after the appointment of Sexwulf as bishop of Mercia in 675AD:

it came to pass that from that very monastery [Peterborough] were founded many others with monks and abbots from the same congregation, as at... Brixworth, Breedon, Bermondsey, Repton, Woking and many other places.

However, what the Peterborough Anglo Saxon Chronicle actually says is that King Eathelred granted to Peterborough minster the lands of Breedon, Rippingale, Cadney, Swineshead, Heanbyrig, Louth, Shifnal, Cottisford? (Costesford), Stratford, Wattlesborough, the Lizard, Aethelhuniglond and Bardney.  The placenames given are those currently accepted and, although open to interpretation, quite obviously Brixworth is not one of them.

According to Hugh Candidus (d.c.1160), after the death of Sexwulf, Cuthbald succeeded him and added other monasteries to the mother house of Peterborough, namely Thorney (Torneia), Brixsworth (Bricklesuurtha), Breedon (Bredun), Bermondsey? (Wermundeseya), Rippingale (Repingas), Woking? (Wochingas) and many others.  The repetition of Breedon and Rippingale from the ASC list suggests that the 2 passages may be confused.  Whatever the case, there is no definitive historical evidence for the foundation date of Brixworth church.

It is often claimed that a Viking attack in 870AD destroyed Brixworth minster aisles.  The original contemporary ASC covering this period reads:

869: Here the raiding army went back to York city and stayed there a year.
870: Here the raiding army rode across Mercia into East Anglia and took winter quarters at Thetford and that winter King Edmund fought against them and the Danish took the victory and killed the king and conquered all that land.
871: Here the raiding army came to Reading in Wessex...

Obviously there is nothing mentioned about any church, let alone Brixworth.  When this event was written up by the Peterborough version of the chronicle between 1117 and 1121 they recorded:

869: Here the raiding army went back to York city and stayed there for a year.
870: Here the raiding army went across Mercia into East Anglia and took winter quarters at Thetford; and in that year St Edmund the king fought against them and the Danish took the victory and killed the king and conquered all that land and did for all the monasteries to which they came.  At the same time they came to Peterborough: burned and demolished, killed abbot and monks and all that they found there, brought it about so that what was earlier very rich was as it were nothing.

So, although it is possible Brixworth church was ruined by a host of Vikings, there is absolutely no firm evidence that they actually did this.  It would have been a detour of some 40 miles going via Brixworth on the direct route from York to Thetford.

By the time of Domesday Book the monastery had certainly disappeared, but the presence of a priest suggests that Brixlesworde minster was now used as a parish church.  So even the first solid mention of the church in history is merely through its priest and not its no doubt well established structure.

Between 1864 and 1866 the church was heavily restored, with its fifteenth century rectangular chancel, internally some 27' by 19', being removed and the early apse rebuilt in its present form.  Further the thirteenth century Verdun chapel to the south had its western bay removed and a south porch covering the entrance doorway removed.  At the beginning of the twentieth century the nave roof, south chapel, tower, spire and stair turret were repaired.  None of the roofs appear ancient.

A Roman villa stood just north of the church and there are indications that a settlement may have lain nearby to exploit the local ironstone deposits.  The ruins of the Roman buildings may have supplied the Roman tiles built into the fabric of the church.  Excavation in the vicarage garden, some 150' east of the church tower, has revealed a V shaped ditch about 10' across and 6' deep.  Organic material within it gave a radio carbon date of 710AD give or take 80 years.  This gives it a date bracket of 640-790AD.  Obviously this fits within the suggested construction date for the minster if it was built before 675AD; but, as has been noted, there is actually zero historical evidence of this being the case.  Within the ditch were found 11 east to west orientated burials which gave radio carbon dates stretching from 700AD to 910AD.  Twelfth century secular buildings were later built over the site, showing the graveyard was abandoned by that date.  So, beyond the ditching which may have surrounded the church site and the use of apparently Roman materials in the structure and its ancient design, there is nothing to date the first church with any certainty.

The original church design is odd indeed, perhaps being nearest in size to the supposed fourth century church at Silchester.  Brixworth, running east to west, seems to have originally consisted of a narthex which gave access into a long nave with side aisles accessed through Romanesque arches set in the nave walls.  Beyond this lay a square presbytery, which may have originally have been a chancel.  At a later pre-Conquest date a polygonal apse with pilaster buttresses was added making the final extent of the Saxon church.  This and the aisles were later demolished, the apse being replaced by a longer, rectangular chancel, while the removal of the aisles led to the Romanesque arches being mainly filled in and given Romanesque windows.  The 2 side rooms at the west end of the aisles in the narthex were also removed with the porch being converted into a tower.  At a later date still a semi circular stair turret was added in place of the west door.  Above the aisles were Romanesque clerestory windows, while an early ambulatory passed around the exterior of the apse.  The blocked doorways to the this in the east presbytery wall still exist. 

The arches within the church make use of what appear to be thin Roman tiles as voussoirs and gives the church its most peculiar appearance.  It would seem likely that all these arches as seen in the remains of the narthex and nave are original structures.

A few courses of herringbone masonry exist in the narthex where it has been converted into a tower.  These occur in 3 or 4 places in the south wall of the current tower and end with some poor herringbone work immediately under the projecting string course that marks roof height of the nave.  Above this the rest of the probably thirteenth century tower stands.  The D shaped stair turret on the site of the west door also has similar occasional courses of herringbone from its second floor upwards.  Possibly all this herringbone work is a single phase occurring when the aisles and narthex were demolished.  The loops in the stair turret are rectangular and probably rebuilt, but the 2 lower, monolithic ones to the south may well be original.  There is no herringbone work on the north side of the tower, only an odd, blocked doorway of unusual shape.  No quoins seem to have been used in any of this early work.


Copyright©2022 Paul Martin Remfry

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