Re-creating Queen Ethelburga’s church

Lyminge church c650 (Dom Andrews)
Interior of Lyminge church c 650 AD (© Dominic Andrews http://www.archaeoart.co.uk)

We are delighted to unveil the first view of how Queen Ethelburga’s church may have looked around 650 AD shortly after her death.  This view has been wonderfully recreated for us by Dom Andrews, archaeological illustrator.

We have based the view above on as much actual detail as we have, but inevitably in order to visualise the standing building, we have had to make some assumptions. Fortunately, we have the precise dimensions of the church as we found the sole surviving fragment of west wall in the dig last summer, we know there was a triple-arched arcade between the chancel and the nave and we know the columns were made of stone from Marquise near Boulogne. This allows us to say that the columns were like those that still survive from Reculver. We know too that there was white and pinky-red plaster on the walls. We can have reasonable confidence about how tall the church stood from the proportions of the nave of the 7th Century church still standing at Bradwell-on-Sea. It also seems reasonable to speculate that the floor was made of the same pink Roman-style concrete found in one of the 7th Century royal halls on Tayne Field, and which is also known to have been the flooring in the church at Reculver.

22 Aug porch 2
The nave wall under the porch with no sign of a second porticus

We have had to speculate rather more about other details. From the surviving structural remains, we have to admit that we do not know for certain where Queen Ethelburga’s tomb lay. Goscelin de St Bertin, writing in the 1090s, says that her tomb lay in a north porticus (or side chapel) and suggests that the tomb itself was modest. We did find a porticus on the north side of the church, but the surviving fragments of east and west wall reveal this to have been a narrow structure. Perhaps it was a sacristy, holding the sacred vessels used in church services, since it would have opened off the chancel. Because Goscelin’s description is quite clear, we are led to suspect that there was another porticus alongside the sacristy. This would have put it under the 16th Century porch of the standing church. Unfortunately, the construction of this porch destroyed any evidence for a second porticus, so we don’t know for certain. But we are sufficiently confident that there must have been another porticus on the north side of Ethelburga’s church that we have shown this in the reconstruction. The door opening behind the woman in the green dress and white cloak is the entrance to what we imagine was the porticus containing the tomb of Queen Ethelburga.

Clayton, wall paintings
Early 12th Century wall paintings at Clayton, Sussex

The interior decoration is of course speculation. At the early date when the church was built, we think that it is unlikely that a full painted wall scheme would have been developed, as happened later on. An example of a painted scheme dating to the early 12th Century is found at Clayton in Sussex, but while this shows what churches looked like in the period around the time of the Norman Conquest, this doesn’t help us very much with what may have been in Lyminge 500 years before. What we can say is that the paintings at Clayton illustrate a continuous tradition of painted wall plaster. As the Romans decorated plaster walls with elaborate painted schemes, and as we know from surviving evidence that the Anglo-Saxons also painted their walls later on, it is highly unlikely that the walls in Ethelburga’s church would have been left plain white. The kind of austere whiteness that we are used to in churches is a result of the protestant reformation more than a thousand years after Ethelburga’s church was first decorated. We know from their books and jewellery and surviving textile fragments that Anglo-Saxons liked colour and decoration, so it is most likely the walls were decorated in some way. We have therefore imagined a figurative scheme above the chancel arcade comprising Christ seated in majesty, with the Virgin Mary (to whom the church was dedicated) on one side, and Pope Gregory, who sponsored the conversion of Kent to Christianity, on the other. The abstract decoration used in our reconstruction derives from an early 8th Century manuscript created in southern England, possibly in Kent. We think this is a reasonable model for how archways in actual buildings may have been decorated, although we accept this could just be the product of the imagination of the manuscript artist.

 

Vespasian_BL_25668_2
Detail from the Vespasian Psalter, first half of 8th Century

For the outside of the church, we have chosen to depict a view slightly later than the inside one. We have imagined this view from the top of Court Lodge Green (the “Bumpy Field”) about 800 AD, when the monastic community was well established around the church founded by Queen Ethelburga some 150 years earlier.

Lyminge Monastery c800 (Dom Andrews)
Lyminge Monastery c 800 AD (© Dominic Andrews http://www.archaeoart.co.uk)

Evidence for the buildings of the monastic enclosure was discovered during the excavations undertaken by the University of Reading in 2008-10 in and around Court Lodge Green, and also around the War Memorial during the dig in 2019.

We have good reason to think from evidence elsewhere in the country that Ethelburga’s church would have been painted white, making it stand out magnificently in a countryside where all other buildings would have been made of earth and timber with thatched roofs.  We have thought long and hard about the likely roofing material.  Based on the steep pitch of the roof at Bradwell-on-Sea, we do not think that the church could have used Roman style tiles, since they require a shallow pitch.  Kent peg tiles had not yet been invented.  We do not think such an important and expensive stone building constructed by continental masons using imported stone for detailing would have been thatched.  It is possible the roof was shingled, but we have no evidence that shingles were in use at this time.  On balance, as there is slightly later evidence for the use of lead, and since in the 630s when it was built, there would have been plenty around to recycle from ruined Roman buildings in the area, we think it most likely the roofing material was lead.  It is possibly significant that even today, most Medieval churches in this area of Kent are roofed with clay peg tiles.  So the standing Norman church at Lyminge, with its lead roof, is quite unusual.  It is an interesting speculation whether lead was used on the current church at Lyminge because it was already on site, and that the lead that is on the roof of the church today has been recycled from the earlier Anglo-Saxon church.

The structure to the left of Ethelburga’s church in the reconstruction is largely speculative.  We found a fragment of wall in this location in 2019, but we do not know for sure what it was.  What we do know is that by 804, a charter records that the remains of the Blessed Eadburg, Abbess at Minster-in-Thanet who died around 751, had been translated to Lyminge.  A cult to St Eadburg was established at Lyminge, and was still active around 1000 when a Life and Miracles of St Eadburg was compiled, probably in Canterbury on the orders of the Archbishop.  The Miracles describe a shrine to St Eadburg at Lyminge, so there must have been a structure housing her relics still standing at that date.  It was common in the Anglo-Saxon period for ecclesiastical sites to be expanded not by adding to an existing building, or rebuilding it altogether, but by adding additional buildings.  You might therefore have a line of churches, rather than one big one.  We have imagined that this is what happened at Lyminge, and the fragment of wall to the west of Ethelburga’s church is all that remains of St Eadburg’s shrine.  This is speculation, but it makes sense of the evidence that we have, both archaeological and documentary. 

We plan to make printed copies of these reconstruction paintings available.  If you are interested, please contact us at geopaethas@gmail.com and we will provide further details.  

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