Northamptonshire is blessed with some fine Saxon churches. And the largest – in fact the largest Anglo-Saxon church in Britain – is at Brixworth. Actually, a monastery was founded at Brixworth sometime before 675AD, more than 1300 years ago, when this part of the country was in the Kingdom of Mercia and England did not even exist. The monastery and its church were almost certainly made of wood and the present stone church dates from between 750-850AD. Goodness me, it was already two or three hundred years old by the time the Normans arrived. Alas, the monastery did not survive the Danish invasion of 870; the church was badly damaged and was only repaired a century later, between 960 and 970.
When they built the church, the Saxons re-used Roman terracotta bricks, pillaged from another building – possibly a nearby villa, or maybe from even further away. They originally constructed side chapels along the nave, known as porticuses, which were done away with in the 10th century rebuild. The arches leading to the porticuses were partially filled in and made into windows, but the tops of the arches, showing the Roman bricks, are clearly visible.
The lower part of the tower is also Saxon work. The curious round stair turret, which looks so out of place, was added in the 11th century and the spire in the 15th. The entrance to the church is through a fine Norman doorway built within a much larger Saxon arch. Inside, All Saints’ Brixworth has been left, thankfully, largely un-tampered with. It has a rather splendid early 15th century ‘triumphal arch’ (the remains of the Saxon original can be seen either side) and a simple, but impressive, timber roof.
My last visit to Brixworth was in 2012. I went on a whim, after a tedious business meeting in the area, ill-prepared, with limited time and in fading light. My photos are poor and I need to return. Even so, I was lucky enough to chat for a while to the vicar, a lovely guy who was just about to retire after 30 years at the church. It was a privilege to converse with this gentle, courteous, man. Somehow, it added to the peace and timelessness of the place. It’s a cliché, but I did get a sense of the generations that have worshipped there. Despite it being late January, the Christmas tree and nativity scenes were still on display – something to do with a Church of England guideline, apparently, though the vicar also explained with a chuckle that the tree saved having to buy fresh flowers. He showed me the medieval painted screen, restored and moved from the nave as a memorial after the First World War. When this was done, large chunks were cut off to make it fit; but at least they preserved what was left. Behind the screen is the 13th century Lady Chapel, which contains the effigy of a knight – possibly a Crusader. If you look carefully, you can see the vicar, just about to enter the church, in the last picture, below.
What the kindly vicar didn’t mention was the Brixworth Relic. It seems that, during restoration work in 1809, workmen found a 14th century reliquary that had been concealed in a wall. Inside was a fragment of bone, wrapped in a cloth, believed to be St Boniface’s larynx bone. It had been hidden sometime around 1500, apparently to prevent it being pinched by Protestant reformers. I know this factoid is a little hard to swallow. Anyway, St Boniface was born in Devon, probably in Crediton, around the year 675AD – roughly coincident with the founding of the monastery at Brixworth. He became a missionary in Germany, was appointed by the Pope as the first archbishop of Mainz, was murdered by bandits in Frisia in 754 and buried in Fulda, where his tomb became a shrine. I have no idea what connection Boniface had with Brixworth, though he appears to have been popular there in the Middle Ages and continues to be commemorated at the annual church fete in June. Still, having a bit of saint in your church is traditionally good for visitor figures. Is it still there? Do we want to know? Possibly not.