Greensted Log Church

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:26 pm

Greensted Log Church, the oldest surviving wooden church in the worldI’m always a little wary of claims to be “the oldest” this or that.  There are probably at least a dozen pubs that are the oldest in Britain and, clearly, only one of them is.  But the good folk at St Andrews, Greensted, Essex, claim theirs is the oldest wooden church in the world, as well as the oldest ‘stave built’ building in Europe.  And, given their background, I reckon we can take their word for it, don’t you?

Firstly, irrespective of its age or unique value, let us say that this is a lovely little church.  It is unassuming, exudes tranquillity and is totally unlike the traditional stone churches in various medieval styles you may be more used to seeing.  Inside, under the wooden beams of its roof, it’s cool and a little dark.  Amongst the burials in the closed churchyard is one believed to be of a 12th century crusader, possibly a bowman; he must have been a rather special man, or perhaps he had a bob or two, because he was given a fine, stone, tomb.  Another grave, marked by the remains of a wooden cross, is that of a local 19th century innkeeper who allegedly died after arguing, it would appear unsuccessfully, with a scythe whilst drunk.

St Andrews, Greenstead, Essex - the log churchThe nave of Greensted Church dates from around 1060 and is constructed from 51 oak logs, split lengthways and fitted vertically with the flat edge on the inside.  At one time, the inner wall would have been plastered, but this was removed during Victorian renovation work.  Astonishingly, the marks made by the tools used by the Saxon builders can be seen in the timber.  The present chancel is Tudor, which was also when tiles replaced the earlier thatched roof and dormer windows were added to the nave, allowing a little more light in.  It is reckoned that the tower, with its traditional local weatherboards, is 17th century – relatively youthful at a mere 400 or so years old.  The Victorian renovation was considerable and the building was further strengthened in the 1990s.

The oldest wooden church in BritainSo, people have been worshipping Christ here for a thousand years.  It is mind-boggling to think about the guys that first built this simple church, chatting to one another in a Germanic language few of us would understand, working out how to put the structure together, breaking off for something to eat; a construction site ten centuries ago, before the Norman Conquest changed their world forever.  I wonder if any of them fought at Hastings, or Stamford Bridge, the battle that preceded it?  I wonder what they were like, what they talked about?  Sport?  Their wives?  What they had in their lunch boxes?

The timber is of course older than the building, maybe a couple of hundred years.  So the trees you are looking at were perhaps planted when the Danes were raiding Britain, when Alfred was King of Wessex, before England existed.

St Andrews, Greensted, the naveBut why build a church on this spot?  There is evidence of wooden buildings under the present chancel that date from the late 6th or early 7th century – 1400 years’ ago – and it is thought that these were an early Christian sanctuary.  The East Saxons at that time would have worshipped their old gods – Thor, Woden and so on – often in sacred forest groves.  Christianity was reintroduced into Kent after St Augustine arrived in Thanet on a mission from Rome in 597AD, but the word would not have spread that quickly – and probably not to Essex.  Old ways die hard – and it is thought that the conversion of the East Saxons was begun by St Cedd, a Northumbrian priest in the Celtic tradition who arrived in this part of the world around 654AD.  The church is dedicated to St Andrew – which, as the guide book points out, suggests a Celtic influence.  Churches were often constructed on established pagan religious sites, on the basis that it was easier to persuade people to go to a place they were used to going to; maybe this was one of those – but that is mere speculation.  ‘Greensted’ simply means ‘green place’ – perhaps a pasture in a forest clearing.

St Edmund, martyrThe church is also famous as a resting place for the body of St Edmund, on its way from London to be finally interred in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, in 1013.  Edmund was King of East Anglia and was put to death by the Danes in 869AD for refusing to deny his Christian faith.  He was flogged (scourged), shot full of arrows and beheaded.  A 16th century painting showing his martyrdom was stolen from the church in January 2012.  It was screwed to the wall and the thieves obviously knew what they were looking for; some avaricious, slimy, self-centred collector might be gazing at it greedily as you read this.  Perhaps, when he has the decency to die, he’ll have the honesty to give the church its property back.

A final snippet: some of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, farm labourers from Dorset sentenced to transportation to Australia in 1834 for the crime of forming a trade union and swearing a secret oath to help each other, ended up at Greensted when they returned from their trip overseas.  One of them, James Brine, married Elizabeth Standfield, daughter of another, at Greensted Log Church in 1839.  The entry in the marriage register can be seen in the church.

I should add that, despite the fact that the photos in this article look like relics of the 1970s, they were actually taken in 2013; I obviously had the Box Brownie on an odd setting that day.  Anyroadup, make a trip to St Andrews Greensted if you can.  You’ll find it not far from London, about 1 mile to the west of Chipping Ongar, signposted ‘Log Church’ off the A414.  Junction 7 of the M11 is a good starting point.

It’s not a museum, of course; services are held every Sunday.

Find other special places to visit on A Bit About Britain’s listing page.

23 thoughts on “Greensted Log Church”

  1. I always wondered why the Tolpuddle Martyrs (or some of them) ended up in Essex. I do have an idea that I’ve visited the place but I really can’t think when. Anyhow, it’s not too far and when the Spring comes it will be nice to get out into Essex.

  2. What a beautiful little church! And such interesting vertical log construction, never seen anything like it. Would have been a tough job splitting those tree trunks!

  3. Ongar.resident

    I visited Greensted Church this afternoon, it was lovely and cool inside on a hot summer afternoon.

    We also spent Christmas morning here in 2015.

    It’s fairly easy to get to from Ongar, a good idea could be to use the steam train and heritage bus from Epping, then walk up via the Essex way, takes around 15-20 minutes and well worth it.

  4. Thank-you for visiting Greensted Church – I’ve been meaning to visit it for some time but haven’t got round to it yet. Such a shame about the stolen painting; yet another irreplaceable treasure taken from ordinary people.
    I always thought the Bury in Bury St Edmunds meant borough or burgh.

  5. Thank you for the bit of history. Amazing to think it has withstood the ravages of time and man all these years. I love traveling by reading your blog.

  6. What a wonderful church. I love to stand in a place that has stood for a thousand years, built on something even older. When I hear about churches build on pagan sites, I always think that I am so glad to have had the chance to go to Ma’aloula, in Syria, where there were some extraordinarily old churches and very early Christian monuments, largely wrecked now of course. The altar of one was converted from the altar of a Roman temple on the site, and still had the grooves around the edge for catching the blood of the sacrifices. Looking at it, I suddenly seemed to telescope back in time. I could almost see them standing there, looking critically at the slab and saying, “Well, that’ll do fine for an altar” as their brand new church was half built around them.
    I went to the Martyrs Museum in Tolpuddle last year and got rather interested in the martyrs, so that’s another reason for visiting this church.

  7. It doesn’t look that old, because of the ‘new’ tower. I’d never have guessed if you hadn’t featured it. Poor old Edmund had a hard time of things, didn’t he?

  8. That’s great that services are still held there. Hope the painting is found and returned to the church!

  9. What a fascination church, I had never heard of it before. I hadn’t considered where the name Bury St Edmunds came from either!!

  10. The building somehow reminds me of churches I have seen in Denmark and on the island of Bornholm. It makes sense, too, doesn’t it.
    Such places steeped in history are fascinating!

    1. I have never been to Scandinavia, but I was also reminded of pictures I’ve seen of churches in Denmark! I was imagining the Vikings had built it, or something.

  11. My,my, my. My fellow countrymen really needed to be sure they had done poor Edmund in. It is a lovely church and quite amazing what was built so long ago with just a few tools.

  12. That’s been on my list of places to visit for a long time, but it’s not the easiest place to reach by public transport from my home so it keeps getting put off. Maybe someday……

  13. Cranberry Morning had my thoughts exactly – seems like they killed him two or three times. Anyway, it looks charming, and the inside is pretty and nice and cool looking (it’s very humid here at the moment, so it looks good to me!)

    So, Bury St. Edmunds is named thus because it’s where they buried St. Edmund? Fancy that! 😀 Something I never thought about, of course!

  14. Lucky you Mike – I have wanted to visit Greensted Log Church for a long time, but we never seem to head off in that direction. However, it was lovely to see it here on your blog instead. Poor old St. Edmunds – St. Sebastian also suffered the same form of martyrdom by being shot with arrows.

  15. Poor Edmund! My ancestors were serious about making sure a fella was dead. Lovely ancient structure. Would have crumbled hundreds of years ago in our climate. Very interesting post. Hope the collector of stolen goods chokes on his tea and biscuits.

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