The chapel of St Peter, Bradwell-on-Sea lies at the end of the Dengie Peninsula in Essex, looking out onto the Blackwater estuary. It is a dramatic and historic location. Like Reculver on the north Kent coast, it is the site of a Roman fort, and like Reculver the church built in the fort dates to the 7th Century. But unlike the church at Reculver, much of St Peter’s still stands. It gives a vivid impression of what churches of this date actually looked like, and thus we can also gain some idea of how our own 7th Century church at Lyminge would have appeared.
At the end of a holiday in Norfolk, on the way home we made a detour to visit St Peter’s. We had previously arranged with the church warden to open the chapel specially for us, so we were privileged to have our own guided tour. At the current time, sadly the chapel is normally locked, so it is less accessible than is usually the case. Before lock-down, the chapel was normally kept open.
What is now the chapel of St Peter sits astride the wall of a Roman fort which it is believed is the one known in the Roman period as Othona. The Venerable Bede writing in the 730s, records that Sigeberht, King of Essex, requested help from King Oswiu of Northumbria with the conversion of Essex to Christianity. Oswiu was married to Eanflaed, the daughter of King Edwin and our own Queen Ethelburga. In answer to this request, around 653, Oswiu sent to Sigeberht a monk called Cedd, who proceeded to found churches in a number of places across Essex, including one that Bede names as Ythancaestir. Although not certain, this is usually taken to be the fort (in latin, the word for fort is castra) of Othona.
The picture above illustrates how Roman brick and stone have been re-used from the fort to build the church. The gable end appears to be original, and we have based our reconstruction of Ethelburga’s church at Lyminge on this, giving it a steep pitch. We have also used the dimensions of the door and window to inform our reconstruction, so this building has been crucial as a source of information for us.
At the east end of St Peter’s, the round chancel was demolished some centuries ago, so only the outline remains visible, marked out in the turf.
There was an arcade separating the nave from the chancel but this was blocked up when the chancel was demolished. However enough of the brickwork arch survives to indicate that unlike at Lyminge (and Reculver) there were not two columns in the arcade but only one.
To either side of St Peter’s, straddling the chancel and nave is a porticus or side chapel. The picture below shows the south porticus, and the blocked doorway into the nave is clearly visible. This arrangement of porticus is different from Lyminge where we know there was certainly one, and probably two porticus, on the north side, but none on the south side.
The interior of the chapel feels lofty, as we imagine Ethelburga’s church at Lyminge would have been. However, the dimensions of St Peter’s are significantly greater and overall (including the now demolished chancel) it is two thirds longer again than Lyminge, and half as wide again. So while it gives a sense of what the church at Lyminge would have been like, Ethelburga’s church was significantly smaller.
St Peter’s, Bradwell-on-Sea is undoubtedly a good model for the form of Ethelburga’s church at Lyminge. It appears to be built in the same style as the other 7th Century churches known in Kent, so there is good reason to think that it was built with help from Kent, and it could date to the middle of the 7th Century. We don’t have any absolute date for St Peter’s but the similarity with the Kentish churches of the period appears to be too great for it to have been built at any other time and under any other influence. Perhaps, therefore, Queen Eanflaed used her connections with her cousin King Eorcenberht of Kent to procure masons to help Cedd build his new church and others across Essex. We are fortunate that at least this one has survived, giving us a window on to this often shadowy period.
Our visit to Bradwell-on-Sea was wonderfully informative and we felt privileged to be able to stand within a church that has stood for so long in this remote spot. We are grateful for the generous assistance given us by church warden David Thorpe, who facilitated our visit and made it possible to view the interior.