Posted by: kljolly | April 6, 2012

Chester-le-Street church, redux

Perhaps trying to shape my own vision of the Chester-le-Street church first, based on Aldred’s scribal needs, was useful as a starting point, but now I need to revise it based on what actual information we have about rectangular and wooden churches of its approximate size.

The size is tricky–I have not found specs for the wooden church at Chester-le-Street at either the church’s website  diagram (in my previous post) or in Eric Cambridge’s otherwise very useful article (“Why did the Community of St Cuthbert Settle at Chester-le-Street”) which also includes a diagram showing the possible placement of the wooden church under the existing church.  He gauges the position of the wooden church based on the later cenotaph marking the location where St. Cuthbert used to rest, and its width that of the narrow nave of the present church, which presumably built its inner arcade on the previous wall and then lengthened the church one direction or the other (or both).

Pending further information, I estimate the external length at  53.5 feet and width 22.5 feet (based on some very sketchy math involving the ratio in the diagram and GoogleEarth’s ruler!).  Those dimensions make it somewhat larger than Escomb or St. Paul’s Jarrow (the present day chancel).

Escomb Church, County Durham

Another comparison is with other wooden churches.  Most of the information is textual.  Neil Xavier O’Donoghue covers the Irish evidence for wooden churches, including the gender-split Kildare cathedral  (The Eucharist in Pre-Norman Ireland, pp.  148-55).  Bede refers to an early wooden church at Lindisfarne made of hewn oak and reed thatch, later covered in sheets of lead (EH III.25).  We also know the wooden shrine of St. Cuthbert was moved from Lindisfarne and reconstructed at Norham by Bishop Ecgred (830-845; HSC 9).

And then there is one surviving Anglo-Saxon wooden church in Essex, St. Andrews at Greensted (or at least some of the wooden fabric survives dated to c. 1000).  The split oak is visible in this image:

St. Andrews Church, Greensted, Essex

The interior is a bit harder to imagine, since other things have been done to it in the intervening centuries.  Taylor and Taylor (Anglo-Saxon Architecture) describe the techniques of securing the split oak logs (tenons cut top and bottom to fit into mortises in the oak sill and roof-plate; grooves cut in the length for tongues of oak to block drafts).  The inside flat surface of the oak was adzed rough to accommodate the application of plaster (or its Anglo-Saxon equivalent?), although today the interior wood is left bare with wooden battens jammed into the joints:

nave, St. Andrews Greensted

I would imagine the interior walls of this church and of  Chester-le-Street would be plastered and either painted with scenes or hung with tapestries.  High dormer windows at Greensted (original Anglo-Saxon design?) suggest possibilities for light entering the church (I don’t see evidence of windows cut in the sides of the nave).  Greensted also shows evidence of a smaller chancel beneath a larger one reconstructed later.  Cambridge envisions Chester-le-Street as having an east end chancel narrower than the nave, although the church’s diagram does not.  The alternative to a narrower chancel is installing in a rectangular building two interior walls on either side to mark off a chancel of the same width as the nave, like this:

That brings me to the question of the altar and coffin of Cuthbert.  In single-cell churches (a simple rectangle) the altar was placed in the east end but not against the back wall (Taylor has an article about this, but I can’t seem to locate my copy).   With a chancel, however, would an altar over the coffin of Cuthbert be against the back (east) wall of the chancel, with the choir stalls on either side?  I am thinking of this set up at St. Paul’s, Jarrow (Bede’s church):

chancel, St. Paul's Jarrow

This design would work well for placing the coffin of St. Cuthbert as the altar against the east wall of the chancel.  But then where to place the Lindisfarne Gospels, or, if one accepts a dedication to Mary at this time, a shrine for her?  I am open to suggestions.

Addendum:  I have been looking more closely at the Monkwearmouth and Jarrow churches.  These are 7th-8th century foundations that might have served as models, albeit in stone.  Similar in plan, both St. Peter’s at Monkwearmouth and St. Paul’s at Jarrow are thought to have had a second church or shrine on the same axis immediately to the east, possibly dedicated to Mary; these structures might have been conjoined to the main church,  along with other additions (Fernie, pp. 48-52).  Something similar is possible for Chester-le-Street, a main church  initially built to house St. Cuthbert’s shrine, then other buildings added on or merged in to that main church.  Other aspects to consider include whether there was a tower or a second level, both more likely in a stone church but not impossible in a wooden one.


Eric Cambridge, “Why did the Community of St Cuthbert Settle at Chester-le-Street,” in  St. Cuthbert, His Cult and Community to AD 1200, ed. Gerald Bonner,  David Rollason, and Clare Stancliffe (Woodbridge, 1989), pp. 367-86.

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).

Eric Fernie, The Architecture of the Anglo-Saxons (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1982).  NA 963 F4 1983. 

Neil Xavier O’Donoghue, The Eucharist in Pre-Norman Ireland (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011.

H. M. Taylor and Joan Taylor, Anglo-Saxon Architecture, 2 vols. (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1965).

D. M. Wilson, ed., The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge University Press, 1976).


  1. Why do you think it was displayed all the time? Why would it not be on a lecturn or on the altar, where ever gospel books are normally kept?

  2. Good point. Under normal circumstances it would either be on the altar or on a lectern, but my problem is where Aldred would have worked on it while glossing. I want to keep him in the church with it, preferably standing at a lectern, rather than taking it out to a different building.
    Perhaps I am thinking of my experiences in the British Library where it is a Big Deal to request to view a manuscript in the reading room that has to be brought out of a glass display case!

  3. Ordo I specifically mentions the Gospel Book being prepared for Mass and carried to the altar by the Deacon from whence it is processed to the ambo in the course of the mass. Obviously the ordines were always adapted based on local layout and custom. If the Gospel isn’t going to be stored in a book chest or with the altar plate, I’d think it would be kept on the altar (in a cover to protect it from rodents and the “gifts” of birds in the rafters?). Then it would make perfect sense for Aldred to take it to the ambo for glossing work.

  4. Thanks, Derek, for reminding me of the liturgical ambit. The altar and lectern are fine for use during the mass, but I can’t imagine the Lindisfarne Gospels going into ordinary storage at other times, since it was treated as a relic. But you are right about leaving it open on display where it might suffer damage. Other than the bejeweled binding, would it have been placed inside a reliquary?

    I have wondered about Aldred’s description of the three makers, one the scribe/designer Eadfrith, second Ethilwald who bound and covered it, and then third Billfrith, who did the ornamentation on the outside (jewels and metal). Could this “treasure binding” (recreated in the recent facsimile edition owned by a handful of libraries and churches) have functioned as a reliquary such that it was left out, closed, on Cuthbert’s tomb or an altar?

  5. I would think that the newest finds at Sheffield would be a good guide for the metal book binding. Didn’t they think that some of those corner pieces and crosses came off the covers of books. It could have still been kept in a reliquary box for its protection.

  6. You’re right–I had forgotten about those Sheffield pieces, very intriguing for book binding, especially the corner pieces. The impression I get from the Lindisfarne Gospels description (and Michelle Brown has written extensively on the treasure binding while working on the facsimile) is that the whole book was covered in metal and encrusted with jewels. But maybe what Billfrith made was essentially a reliquary box into which the already bound gospels were placed. Either way, I picture the whole volume pretty much sealed when closed.

  7. How about a special cumdach?

    • Yes, Michelle Brown suggests that possibility in The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality, and the Scribe, pp. 208-13 (look under book shrines in the index). She also emphasizes the reliquary function over the reading function of the book in terms of its placement and liturgical use in the church.
      Which makes Aldred’s glossing activity all the more interesting: where would he spend his time, like a craftsman, doing his glossing work? I still favor him carrying it out in the church itself, as a devotional act.

    • Those drawings of cumlachs really is so similar to the Sheffield scrap pieces of metal. Several corners and the folded cross could have been from a book cover. I would think that some of the covers may have had dyed leather (red or purple?) with the metal on top. Some of those small plagues like the sea horse could have also been in the open corners.

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

  9. […] 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 […]

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

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