Visualising Ethelburga’s church

The dig in the church yard began just a year ago this month.  Readers of this blog will be familiar with images of the Anglo-Saxon church that we uncovered, and that we are reasonably confident was built around the middle of the 7th Century.

21 Aug Chancel

So this could be the church built by Ethelburga for the use of herself and her household during her own lifetime while they lived in the hall complex on Tayne Field.  Or alternatively it could be a church built shortly after she died to take her tomb.

But what did the church actually look like?  What you can see in the picture above are just foundations.  None of this stonework was above ground.  We have just fragments of the building itself: a piece of one of the columns that supported the arcade dividing the chancel from the nave, and a few fragments of painted wall plaster.   So we have to conjecture what the church looked like based upon what we know of other churches of the same date built elsewhere in Kent and Essex, and also in France (known as Frankia) and Italy.  France is relevant because Ethelburga’s own mother was a Frankish princess and Ethelburga’s cousin King Dagobert was busy building the great church of St Denis in Paris at this time.  The presence of stone from Marquise near Boulogne, together with building techniques that point to the presence of Frankish masons, suggests strong influence from Frankia on Kent at the time the church was built.

But Ethelburga would also have been influenced by the members of St Augustine’s mission who still survived at Canterbury, many of whom came from Rome.  In particular, Bishop Paulinus was a Roman monk who had arrived in the second mission of 601, bringing books like the St Augustine Gospels.   Paulinus accompanied Ethelburga as her priest and confessor when she travelled north to marry King Edwin of Northumbria around 624.  It was Paulinus who seems to have engineered the difficult escape by sea to Kent in October 633 after Edwin was killed in battle.  After his return, he was given the vacant diocese of Rochester, so he remained in Kent.  One can well imagine that he and Ethelburga will have formed a close relationship, if only in matters spiritual, during their time in the north, and this may well have continued following their return to Kent.  So it is not unreasonable to imagine too that this former Roman monk would have shared his views on what a church should look like with Ethelburga, and the church that we discovered had a flavour of the churches in far-off Italy that Paulinus had known in his younger days.

We can now share with you some static images coming out of the development work on the reconstruction being performed for us by the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at the University of York.  The view below is from the north east, showing the chancel on the left and the nave on the right.  The structure on the side of the church is known as a porticus.  We know there was a porticus off the chancel as this was found in the dig, but there was a wall at the point where the nave joins the chancel, so this would have made the porticus very small.  It was therefore probably a sacristy, used for holding the holy vessels used in a service.  But we also know from a description written in the 1090s that Ethelburga was buried in a porticus on this north side of the church.  So we conjecture there was a second part to this porticus which lay to the west of the sacristy underneath the porch of the present church but which was entirely dug away when this later church was built.  We think it most likely that this is where the tomb of Ethelburga lay, but we cannot prove this now.

Exterior Render047ThirdDraft

It is possible the church was built of dressed Roman stone salvaged from buildings in the area, but we cannot prove this.  However, it is odd that none of this stone survived at Lyminge, either as debris to be found in the excavation, or as stone to be incorporated in the Norman church when it was built.  So it may be that Roman stone was not used and the masonry of this church was similar to the masonry of the present church, comprising local stone from Folkestone or Hythe, and local flints.  But it also seems probable that the building was plastered on the outside and would have shone a brilliant white, at least when freshly done.

Exterior from south west Render044ThirdDraft

We were lucky to find a single fragment of the west wall of the church so we know its precise dimensions.  However the doors and windows in this reconstruction are all speculation, though based on reasonable probability.

Inside, we have a good idea of what the church was like from the surviving church of this period at Bradwell-on-Sea and the church at Reculver that was demolished only in 1809.  The image below shows the church without plaster.

Interior stone Render048ThirdDraft

The software programme will be dynamic so it will be possible to layer plaster onto the walls.

Interior part plastered Render053ComparisonImage

Interior Render043ThirdDraft

However, we do not think it likely that the walls were left white and it is much more likely that they were painted.  We are still working on the precise decorative scheme, based upon survivals in other churches and what we know of the imagery used by the Anglo-Saxons at this period.  At the moment, we are thinking that the great space above the arcade will be filled with a painting of Christ sitting in majesty, with the Virgin Mary (to whom the church was dedicated) on one side and Pope Gregory on the other.  As Gregory was patron of the original mission in 597 to convert the English to Christianity, and he was subsequently reckoned a saint, it is not improbable that he might have been given an honoured position in this highly visible painting.

There is much more to do to complete the work on these reconstructions, but hopefully these few images will give you a good sense of what is to come.  It will be worth waiting for, though we will have to wait some months yet.

If you are excited by this project and would like to help us complete the work we are planning, which includes the reconstructions discussed in this post, please consider giving to our PayPal Charity Account here.  By ticking the Gift Aid box, you can increase the value of your gift by 25% if you are a UK taxpayer.  Many thanks in advance for your help.


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