Posted by: kljolly | March 29, 2012

Chester-le-Street Church

While simultaneously creating a back story for Aldred and his family, I am also imagining his writing of the Lindisfarne Gospel‘s colophon, since that is where he reveals his parentage.  For a number of reasons having to do with the complicated notion of a “scriptorium,” I have placed Aldred in the church while glossing the Lindisfarne Gospels, since that is where this treasured relic of the community would normally be, one would imagine.  Consequently, I needed to invent the interior of the church at Chester-le-Street, pretty much from whole cloth.

Additions and editing to this post based on the good comments of posters below are highlighted in green.

We know it was made of wood rather than stone; we have a guess as to its layout under the multiple layers of the subsequent church building; and we know some of the artifacts brought from Lindisfarne as well as given to the community by King Athelstan.

The present day Church of St. Cuthbert and St. Mary has a useful webpage and diagram of the church’s building history:

So what I have to work with is the green rectangular outline of the Saxon-era wooden church, and some ideas about Anglo-Saxon church architecture of this scale, although all of those extant are in stone.  It pretty much functioned as a shrine for St. Cuthbert, although one should not forget the other relics transported from Lindisfarne, including the head of St. Oswald and of course the Lindisfarne Gospels.

King Athelstan’s charter, kept in the records of the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto (26), records these gifts to the community in 934:

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. I, King Athelstan, give to St Cuthbert this gospel-book, two chasubles, and one alb, and one stole with maniple, and one belt, and three altar-coverings, and one silver chalice, and two patens, one finished with gold, the other of Greek workmanship, and one silver thurible, and one cross skilfully finished with gold and ivory, and one royal headdress woven with gold, and two tablets crafted of silver and gold, and two silver candelabra finished with gold, and one missal, and two gospel-books ornamented with gold and silver, and one of St Cuthbert written in verse and in prose, and seven palls, and three curtains, and three tapestries, and two silver cups with covers, and four large bells, and three horns crafted of gold and silver, and two banners, and one lance, and two golden armlets, and my beloved vill of Bishop Wearmouth with its dependencies. [trans. Ted Johnson South, HSC, p. 65]

These gifts would be in addition to those given by other Wessex monarchs, not to mention other nobles who claimed Cuthbert as their patron.  But it does give you the impression that, while the exterior of the church may have been plain, the interior was glittering with rich colors from jewels, metals, and cloth.

Claiming literary license, I am modifying the church’s outline a bit in order to accommodate three shrines in the apse and get some window light onto the Lindisfarne Gospels.  I must also warn you that I am NOT an artist (that would be my sister, who is free to take over this aspect of the project) and I am terribly inept with the only graphic program I have, Paint.  So, with those warnings, here is my working diagram.

working diagram for Chester-le-Street tenth-century church

The salient features:

The north side porch (grey) is the general entrance for the laity, while the south side porch, with the cloister to the west, is where the monks and clergy enter.

The altar (green) divides nave from chancel, as is usual in this style of church without a crossing (and before rood screens and all).  The altar presumably has a large cross and other artifacts.

Beyond the altar are the quire stalls (brown) facing each other.

The hammer-headed apse has three shrines, the center one at the east end being the center-piece facing the altar, the wooden coffin of St. Cuthbert, incised with angels and apostles, as well as runic and Latin inscriptions, covered with a linen cloth (see Æthelwulf, de abbatibus xx, lines 739-41).  It is lit by three stained glass windows as well as two tapers.  I imagine two tapestries, one on either side, gifts of King Athelstan that highlight stories from Cuthbert’s life.

On the north side of the apse is a shrine (blue) displaying the reliquary of St. Oswald (his head) and related royal relics. The altar could be covered with a woven cloth that hangs down in the front showing scenes from the saint’s life.  This means that, in the absence of contrary evidence,  I have removed these relics from Cuthbert’s coffin where they were placed when the community left Lindisfarne, and where they were again placed when they moved to Durham (to be rediscovered later).

On the south side of the apse is a shrine (red) dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, also used  for displaying the Lindisfarne Gospels on a tall wooden stand, perhaps with a tapestry hanging down the back that faces the chancel.  Here is where the three windows, east, south, and west, come into play as sources of light for Aldred.  These would be plain glass, undoubtedly smallish (at least stone churches have relatively narrow windows) and with wooden shutters.  For my purposes, placing the Gospel book on a stand facing the south window has several advantages:  visitors could walk around it; the stand could be moved into the chancel for reading on holy days; and most important, Aldred can move the stand to catch the best light.

I have also put in two candelabras (thanks to King Athelstan) for added candle light, and two table-topped cabinets under the west and east windows.  The west side would display the sacramental utensils (chalice, paten, etc), while the east side could hold a chrism box and portable altar, both used by priests when they traveled.  The latter cabinet could be where Aldred stores his writing equipment (ink pot, quill, knife, etc).  The tricky bit is where Aldred would put his ink pot while working on the gloss.  I am taking some liberties here in having Aldred construct a small shelf attached to the reading stand where he can lay his knife and ink pot.

My main question is whether this design works:  Does it violate any known features of Saxon church architecture?  Does it accord with liturgical practice?  For example, would the clergy have kept chalice and paten, or at least displayed important ones, in the church itself?


Historia de Sancto Cuthberto: A History of Saint Cuthbert and a Record of His Patrimony, ed. and trans. Ted Johnson South, Anglo-Saxon Texts 2 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002)

Æthelwulf, De abbatibus, ed. A Campbell (Oxford, 1967).

Bonner, Gerald, David Rollason, and Clare Stancliffe, eds. St. Cuthbert, His Cult and Community to AD 1200 (Woodbridge, 1989).


  1. I’m not sure that the sacramental ‘utensils’ would be displayed at all. They may be put away in a cabinet for their own protection and to make it more special when they come out. Not everyone may have been allowed to see these treasures. Are you sure that Oswald’s head (and the bones of the other saints) would be out of Cuthbert’s coffin?

    Would it have had a Lady chapel or at least shrine/altar?

  2. Thanks Michelle. I discovered why your posts and two other posters went missing: they were in the spam folder! Not sure what earned you that spot, given that you are a fellow wordpress blogger.
    I am a bit uneasy about the chalice and paten in terms of storage inside the church versus in the clergy side buildings (unless I make the south alcove a less accessible storage area, but that ruins the three sided apse structure and its symbolism).
    The other problem is that in some ways the south side alcove is not exactly a shrine with an altar. I could dedicate it to Mary (the present day church is, but not sure when that designation was added to that of Cuthbert). Thanks for that suggestion.
    As for Oswald’s head, yes, I am taking some liberties pulling it out of the coffin, but I have this suspicion that they could have unpacked it on their arrival at Chester-le-Street, and set up an Oswald shrine, particularly given the royal patrons turning up all the time and the emphasis on Northumbrian heritage. And then with the move to Durham, also a flight (to Ripon first), they could have repacked it the same way.
    The question is why the secondary relics stayed in the coffin at Durham.
    Symeon tells a story in his Libellus iii.7 that a certain Durham holy monk named Elfred went around recovering saint’s relics from old sites, building shrines for them but taking bits back to Durham where he put them in Cuthbert’s coffin (including the astonishing secret story of hiding Bede’s bones there). This may be a Durham tradition, but doesn’t mean it was a pattern at Chester-le-Street.
    Do you think I can get away with it?

  3. My first thought was to ask if there is any evidence that the wooden coffin was ever fitted with a mensa so that the coffin itself could be used as an altar.

    I would think it a little early for a Lady Chapel in the standard sense; the Hours of the BVM hadn’t taken on a life of their own yet, and that’s what made Lady Chapels a necessity.

    I’d keep the vessels with the vestments–less chance of them being stolen.

  4. Hi Derek. Good question on the coffin. I don’t think it was fitted with a mensa, but I would need to check the reports (books in my office). However, given the carving on the lid as well as sides, it seems unlikely they would cover it. At least in the tenth century, the wooden coffin sat in a wooden church, suggesting no stone.
    This does leave me with the problem of what kind of altar would serve Cuthbert’s shrine, or if its parallel position to the main altar suggest the two are associated (that is, the church itself is considered a shrine for St. Cuthbert).
    Although it is early for a Lady Chapel, the idea of dedicating the south alcove to Mary suggested by Michelle works well for my scheme: it gives the shrine a dedication with altar in which to ensconce the Lindisfarne Gospels and Aldred.
    With an altar and Mary now in the south alcove, I can move out the sacred vessels and just leave a cabinet for Aldred’s equipment.

  5. I don’t remember if there is any evidence that the coffin was painted. Even with the carving, It isn’t very elaborate for a shrine. If it wasn’t painted, I would think that it might have still been covered with a tapestry or some other type of elaborate linen. The coffin could have also fit into a space under the alter without being fitted in any way for to actually be an alter.

    I’m also reminded that the church where St Chad’s house shrine was originally located was also dedicated to St Mary, though this was a stone church according to Bede.

  6. I have checked on Cuthbert’s coffin and found references to covering it with cloth, but not any evidence of paint (if it had been painted, it would add some evidence for the role of the inscriptions in relation to the images).
    The reference to the cloth or linen covering is from AEthelwulf’s De abbatibus, the dream sequence in xx where he sees Eadfrith bent in prayer over the tomb of St. Cuthbert that AEthelwulf had described earlier as covered with a “sparkling vestment of fine linen.”

  7. Looking at the design of this church it strikes me for the first time that while the priest would have his back to the congregation/laity the monks in the choir stalls would have a full view with the priest facing them. That would highlight how important participation in the choir would be. It really makes me think about two masses going on at the same time; one for the insiders and one for the outsiders.

  8. Niggly copy-editor’s comment here, sorry, but, “quire stalls”? That would be a fancy word for bookshelf, presumably, unless by some chance you meant “choir stalls”…

    More seriously: is there a prototype out there anywhere for this `hammerhead’ transept east end? (Not an apse, surely, since it’s not, well, apsidal.) It’s off my radar if so, not that that means much once we’re away from the big monasteries or Romanesque. I’d expect a straightforward rectilinear building, which wouldn’t preclude the fittings you’ve envisioned, but would cut down on the space in the chancel. There might be a rectilinear apse for Cuthbert’s shrine, though. That would fit better with things like Wearmouth-Jarrow and so on. You may well know more about the lesser places though!

  9. Thanks for the comments, which get me thinking.

    Michelle, I don’t think priests turned their backs on the congregation until the 12th century (?), but it is a good question what happens in a dedicated shrine of this type if the monks/clergy are in the choir stalls behind the priest and there are few if any lay people in the nave. I will need to check some of my liturgical books.

    And yes, choir stalls. Something I was reading right before I wrote the post used quire and it got stuck in my head.

    As for the hammer-head shape, I don’t have an example in mind, although there are many stone churches with three round east end apses for shrines. But in wood construction, how would that rounded shape be accomplished?

    It might be best just to stick with Cuthbert’s coffin as the focus and put the other two on each side of the eastern end (taking advantage of the corner for window lighting). Unless someone else has an idea of where to put the Lindisfarne Gospels in the church where a scribe could also work on it? I will try to ask Michelle Brown in a few weeks what she thinks.

  10. I’d find a triple apse configuration more plausible, I must say., but the parallels I have in mind are unhelpful, in as much as they’re all big and southern: the Old Minster Winchester and Reculver were both built with a rectilinear apse and two rectilinear porticus (rather than a proper transept), and the much earlier St Peter’s Canterbury, later to become half of St Augustine’s, and OK not very big but still quite important, wound up that way having first had only the northern porticus and a small apse (which might not have been there at first). If you left off the southern wing you could almost use that as a model:
    __________| |
    | |_
    | _|
    |____________ |

    Kinda like that. You’d have the focal shrine in the end and whatever else was important parked off in the porticus, usually burials of heads of the community. Later on, as I say, St Peter’s had a southern porticus added and the apse built out to be semi-circular and the full width of the nave. These are all stone buildings, though, which as you say makes a difference, though it’s noticeable that round shapes still take a while to come in anyway. But does the fact that the church you’re dealing with was only in wood mean it was too low-status to be that elaborate, is what I wonder?

    I’m getting all this from Taylor & Taylor, by the way, which if you can reach a copy is good for plans and stuff, even if many of them are basically imaginary (which here is not a problem!).

  11. So, you can probably guess that my ASCII looked better in the draft box than it does there. I don’t think I can put that right, sorry, can’t guess the width of the spaces…

  12. Thanks, Jonathan, for the effort on the diagram. In fact, I had just pulled my (xerox) copies of Taylor and Taylor and Rodwell (Archaeology of the English Church) to look at when your comment came in. Your references certainly help.

    I was looking in the north at St. Paul’s Jarrow and Escomb, both stone and small enough to give some basis. I am thinking also of checking Irish models, since at least some have suggested that the idea of a wooden church for Cuthbert (the one transferred to Norham in the 9th century) may have Irish inspiration.

  13. All the suggestions and further research are leading me to revise my plan for a rectangular wood church design, so I will start over in a new post!

  14. […] Jolly of Revealing Words is investigating the design of the church at Chester-le-Street for her novel, and refining her design […]

  15. […] a fascinating article by John Blair that may shed some light on the dimensions of the wooden Chester-le-Street church (and redux) that I wrestled with last […]

  16. […] Jolly of Revealing Words is investigating the design of the church at Chester-le-Street for her novel, and refining her design […]

  17. […] Jolly of Revealing Words is investigating the design of the church at Chester-le-Street for her novel, and refining her design […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.