Last Updated on 10th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
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.
What a fascinating church, I love the architecture. What an unexpected bonus for the Vicar to be present to show you around 🙂
I don’t think the photos are poor in the least! What an excellent church! I’m glad the Victorians didn’t renovate it. Many churches keep their Christmas trees and Cribs on display until Candlemas http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/holydays/candlemas.shtml
Actually, Clare, the Victorians did renovate it! Fortunately, they did it very well! This is one of my favourite churches, and I used to visit a lot when we lived in the area.
There’s also the remains of steps down at the east end, leading down to what might have been a place where an important relic was kept, and up again at the other side.
Thank-you Lesley. It is good to know that the renovations were done carefully. I will certainly try to visit this wonderful church!
Remarkable to find such an early example of a Saxon church.
Very nice church. Thanks for the tour. I’m surprised that they keep the tree up until late in January. It looks like a live tree. That’s against fire rules here.
Thanks for such a good tour. When you return there again, I’ll look forward to finding out what was done with the relic. That book I read recently talked about the reuse of Roman stones for medieval structures. Can’t remember if this place was mentioned in there.
What a beautiful, distinctive looking church!
Thanks for writing of All Saints’ Church in Brixworth.
I read that some of the side aisles are thought to have been damaged by the Vikings in the year 870!
About the relic, do you think that the kindly vicar would be ashamed or embarrassed about it? I don’t think so, maybe he thought you already knew of it and was tired of being asked about it? Only a guess, I don’t know.
I found this: http://friendsofbrixworthchurch.org.uk/The%20Church.htm
Mike, I’m not trying to sound like a know-it-all or anything, it’s just that I can’t believe that the vicar would be embarrassed about the relic!
Thanks, Kay – I’m sure the vicar was at ease with his relic 🙂 Brixworth church’s entry on the attraction directory also has a link to the Friends of Brixworth Church’s website.
We always seek out Anglo-Saxon churches to visit, will have to add this one to our list.
Lovely post. The history is amazing and so ‘old’ compared to Canada and North America. That there has been a church on this spot for so many centuries is mind-boggling to me.
Hard to swallow. 🙂 I love these posts about churches, Mike! Somehow the relic of St. Boniface brought up ‘Have a Bit of Priest’ from Sweeny Todd. Sorry. That silliness brushed aside, I marvel at how long there has been a Christian presence on that spot. I’d love to visit that church and see those architectural details in person. Yet again, the dates remind me of what an infant country the United States is. Thanks for the post.
Sorry, the Bit About Britain threw me off. It’s Have a Little Priest. Maybe a bit of a little priest, Sweeney Todd.
Lovely pictures. I visited Brixworth church with my cousin when I was in England 4 years ago. We had a day out exploring interesting locations. Sadly all my photos of that trip got eaten by my computer.
Happy to email you some of mine – but they’re not very good!
Hi Mike – I used to drive past the church all the time in the 70s – but shamefacedly never went in … should go back sometime – that road has wonderful rhododendrons … used to love the drive in May!
Gorgeous interior without being too gaudy – incredible history .. I thought Boniface was a Sussex name … but I see not – so glad you were able to chat to the vicar – maybe he wanted to forget the relic as he moved on or retired probably …
Thanks for reminding me about days gone by! Cheers Hilary
What a handsome and stately church, and it is difficult to believe over 1,000 years old. I love the decorative red and green screen, quite pretty and delicate for such an imposing edifice. These days i find the idea of saint’s relics a bit creepy, but as a kid took it as completely normal to know somebody’s bit of fingernail was held within a church. How times change 🙂
Oh and I meant to say that the Saxon brickwork using Roman bricks must be almost unique. Wow.
What an absolutely stunning church. I keep meaning to give Northants another try. I usually like to explore by bike, but when I have pedalled out in Northants, I have have found it very hard because there seem to be so many horrible big roads and miles of ugly development to negotiate. I really should give it another go, perhaps this summer. At least it’s not too hilly. Don’t be so critical of your pictures, they are not chocolate boxy but as soon as I saw the church I really wanted to know about it. So thanks for posting and putting Northants on my radar again.
Hi Mike, another little fact for you is that there is a Bishop of Brixworth (the Suffragan Bishop to the Bishop of Peterborough). Brixworth is beautiful and glad you went along on a better day! Take care. Chel
I didn’t know that – thanks, Chel.