Exploring England’s oldest Anglo-Saxon church

One of England’s most alluring traits is the way its historical ages pile atop one another. This is a nation where farmers discover Roman coin hordes in their fields, where people drink in 400 year-old pubs, where people worship in churches that have been around as long as England has been Christian.

If you’re ever visiting Durham in northern England be sure to take a brief drive or bus trip to the nearby village of Escomb. In the center of town stands this church, built sometime around 670-690 AD. England was not England back then, but rather a patchwork of warring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In many regions, people had converted to Christianity within living memory, and there were still some who clung to the Old Religion. The crumbling remains of Roman cities, forts, and shrines could still be seen, remnants of a greater civilization that was already taking on the character of legend.

At this time some unknown individuals built this church. It has been in use almost continually ever since and is the oldest intact Anglo-Saxon church in the country. Its sturdy walls have borne the centuries well. If you look carefully you can see much of England’s history marked in its stone.

The Anglo-Saxons were actually three distinct tribes–the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes–who came from what is now Denmark and northern Germany to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Romans in the early fifth century. The Angles settled in this part of the country. They were still pagan then, and would remain so for a century. Eventually churches started to appear. The stone for this church mainly came from an abandoned Roman fort nearby. A couple of the stones even have old Roman inscriptions, one saying “Legion VI”, which had been garrisoned at the fort.

%Gallery-101095%The Angles added their own elements. A seventh century sundial sits high on the wall, decorated with a serpent and a monster’s head. The serpent symbolized the Teutonic creator god of the pagan Angles, and the serpent may be a symbol of the god of chaos and creativity. It’s interesting that the newly converted Angles kept a lot of their pagan symbolism! The sundial has only three marks, to show the times for mass. A more modern sundial with proper hours was added in the seventeenth century.

Inside the church are some early medieval crosses and a baptismal font that once had a locking cover to keep the locals from stealing the holy water to use for spells and folk medicine. Paganism died hard in this part of the country!

What’s most remarkable about this church is that it’s still being used. It was abandoned for a time and was in danger of falling into ruin in the nineteenth century, but the local parish decided to save it. Services are held here regularly, and during my visit I got to speak to the organist, who told me that priests vie with one another to be assigned to such an historic house of worship. The congregation uses a special old Gaelic prayer rooted in the Celtic tradition that fits nicely with the atmosphere of the place:

As the rain hides the stars,
As the Autumn mist hides the hills,
As the clouds veil the blue of the sky,
So the dark happenings of my lot
Hide the shining of thy face from me.
Yet, if I may hold thy hand in darkness,
It is enough,
Since I know, that though I may stumble in my going
Thou dost not fall.