A Discovery of Angels: How an Anglo-Saxon Chapel Gave up Its Secrets

A fine example of how a multi-disciplinary approach to archaeology can unlock the secrets of ancient buildings.

A 19th century engraving of the angels. Haslam (2013) observed that the the robe or cloth carried by the angel on the left had not been as detailed or ‘finished’ as the one on the right.

An Ancient Building Rediscovered

The church and environs of St Laurence has been described as being of ‘exceptional archaeological value’ (EH 2022) and the building itself as, ‘the most important remains of Anglo-Saxon architecture’ in England (Chettle & Powell 1953).

The details relating to the date of construction, architectural style and function of the Saxon chapel have engaged the interest of architectural historians and archaeologists for more than a century and a half (Haslam 2013: 272).

The building had, for many centuries, been disguised under later architectural changes and additions and its origins obfuscated by re-use. In 1715 it was recorded as being a ‘skull house’ or ossuary (Jones 1856:247, NCT 2022). Later, a first floor and staircase had been added to the Nave which was used as a boys’ school whilst the Chancel had been appropriated as a private residence (James 2022).

The chapel as it was found in the 19th century hidden by later buildings, a window had been inserted into the Chancel wall. Sketch by the Rev J L Petit 1895

Its true ecclesiastical origins were only recognized when it was rediscovered in 1857  by Canon Jones, the Vicar and noted historian of Holy Trinity church, Bradford-on-Avon (HE 2022, TSC 2022). Since then, it has taken a host of archaeologists, buildings historians and illustrators to disentangle its history.

One of J T Irving’s detailed sketches of the chapel in the 19th century, view to the south west showing the north elevation. Windows have been inserted into the chancel wall and a door – below current ground level – reveals access to a crypt below the Chancel. (c) Taylor (1972).

A recent survey of the edifice by the author has also turned up a small but significant corpus of ‘graffiti’ which includes a pentangle, several compass drawn circles and a partly obscured six-petalled rosette1

A Multi-Disciplinary Approach

A purported ‘early’ construction date of the 8th century for the chapel has now been proven to be false. The misidentification of the chapel’s origins were due to confusion over the location of an early Saxon ‘Minster’ mentioned in late medieval early documents which suggested that the chapel may have been at the centre of the complex.  

It has since been proven through excavation that the early monastic centre was located a short distance away under what is now the site of Holy Trinity church (Wessex 2016). It is now generally held that the chapel belongs to the 10th century on stylistic and architectural grounds (HE 2022, James 2022, Chettle 1953). No archaeological evidence has thus far been unearthed to prove the proposed earlier origins for the edifice (James 2002).

View of the chapel towards the south-east. The North Porticus and west gable. The west gable was subsequently re-built and re-faced adding to further confusion regarding the chapel’s origins.
Ground plan of the chapel with the surviving north porticus.
Plan by Rev W C Lukis from Jones ( 1856)

One of the keys to uncovering the true purpose of the building was the work of architect J. T. Irvine, who made detailed records of the chapel soon after its discovery by Jones. In particular, his drawing of the north elevation shows the chancel in the 1860s which had been adapted for residential use. A door had been cut through the Anglo-Saxon masonry, and two windows had been added, showing how extra floors had been inserted inside. The ground had also been built up around the church, obscuring the plinth, and a drying-shed for textiles had been added to the end of the north porticus (Slowcombe  2016). Further obscuring its origins, the west wall had been rebuilt in the eighteenth century in imitation of the remainder, and the newly-added windows dated from 1881 (NCT 2022).

Bradford on Avon St Laurence, scale drawing by J. T. Irvine of the N. side of the church before restoration, 1869.

Note the insertion of the two windows into the Chancel north wall and the door at a lower level.

Photograph : © Bath In Time. Reproduced by permission of the Trustees of the National Museums Scotland

Documentary Evidence

The first documentary reference appears in William of Malmesbury’s, ‘Gesta Pontificum’  (1125) in which he proposed that the chapel dated to the time of St Aldhelm (d. 709), but this has now been comprehensively refuted (TSC 20022, James 2002).

In 955 King Eadred (c.923-955) bequeathed three towns to Nunnaminster (St. Mary’s Nunnery in Winchester) of which Bradford was one. Soon after, another royal charter was granted in 1001 when the Bradford-on-Avon monastery was granted to Shaftesbury Abbey by Aethelred II (966-1016) (TSC 2022, James 2002, Chettle 1953). The building may have been intended to provide a safe refuge for the nuns and their relics in case of a Danish attack (James 2002).

Another proposal stated that the  chapel may have been built as a reliquary to house the bones of Edward the Martyr (c.962-978)  whose remains were translated from Wareham to Shaftesbury Abbey in February 979. However, this too is debated; the only documentary sources occur 400 years after the date of its construction (James 2022)

Miniature d’Édouard le Martyr dans une généalogie royale du XIVe siècle (Miniature of Edward the Martyr in a 14th century royal genealogy) Public domain: Wikicommons.

In 1086, the Domesday Book – like all other written evidence up to this point –  failed to mention the chapel but it tells us that the town of Bradford-on-Avon was still held by the Abbey of Shaftesbury (James 2022).

Architectural Description

The church possesses great height in relation to is area, which creates an impressive sense of verticality both on its exterior elevations and the high internal ceiling of its Nave (HE 2020). The exterior is notable for its blind arcading, pilaster buttresses and horizontal string courses which mark it out as ‘classic’ Ango-Saxon architecture (James 2022). Today, it possesses a porticus on the north side but  the south porticus is missing.

View to south-west with the tower of Holy Trinity church in the background. Note in-filled windows in Chancel and the modern entrance to the crypt (as in the prior drawings) now below ground level. Photo: © W Perkins 2022

It is considered to be a hybrid of two different styles (or architectural traditions) combining both the Augustinian and the Northumbrian styles in terms of its proportions and the addition of a porticus to both north and south which gave the buildings of the period  a cruciform plan (James 2022).

View to north-west showing ‘reduced’ buttresses flanking the former south porticus.
Photo: © W Perkins 2022

Excavations in 2001 proved not only of the existence of a southern porticus but also a crypt below it, now infilled (Hinton 2009).

Hinton’s (2009) proposed reconstruction for both eth Rood and the crypt below the south porticus. © Hinton (taken from Slocombe 2017).

Doubts had been raised as to the existence of the south porticus as the ‘scars’ of the former structure were obscured by later modern buttresses. However, a roofline scar for the demolished porticus is visible on the southern façade of the building.

A 20th century rendering complete with the original ‘imposing’ buttresses later re-shaped to emulate ‘pilaster’ buttresses. The buttresses had concealed evidence for the south porticus. Etching by W Monk © Galleries Wiltshire Prints / Bradford-on-Avon Source Book: Architect’s Almanac 1927
Hinton’s excavations revealed the existence of the footings for the former south porticus (now demolished). The wall scars had been concealed by the modern buttresses either side of the south entrance. Revised ground plan © Haslam (2013)

A Discovery of Angels

The main focus of the chancel is the pair of sculpted angels, located high above the chancel arch – apparently found ‘embedded’ in the chancel wall during restoration (Chettle 1953). The exact nature of their discovery, location and original placement has courted controversy among researchers,

“Above this arch…..were found imbedded in the wall two stone figures of angels….executed in a kind of low-relief; the angels have their wings expanded, and around their heads is the ‘nimbus.’ They seem to be in the act of devotion, and, as they were found, one on either side, in the wall above the Chancel arch….”

Jones (1859)

View to south-east from the Nave towards the Chancel arch. Photo: © W Perkins 2022
The Bradford angels are “true Winchester figures” and probably date to about 950.. Similar angels can be seen in the Old English Hexateuch (British Library, Cott. Claud. B. iv, f. 2). James (2003). Photo: © W Perkins 2022

The accounts regarding the discovery of the angels suggest that they had been intentionally concealed within the masonry of the wall above the chancel arch, possibly once flanking a now lost Rood or larger sculptural scene. Hinton (2009) had proposed a sculptural scene with the angels above a Rood flanked by the figures of St John  and Mary.

Hinton’s (2009) postulated Rood scene with the crucifixion flanked by St John the Baptist and the Virgin. © Haslam (2013)

Haslam (2013) thought that it was somewhat puzzling that, while the two angels were said to have been found embedded in the wall near to or even in their current position (as described by Jones), no other parts of this putative rood have so far come to light. There is no trace of any portions of the proposed life-size figure of Christ on the cross nor of the two figures of St John and Mary on either side, which in Hinton’s (2009) reconstruction would have comprised the original sculptural ensemble. There is, furthermore (and perhaps more tellingly), no evidence that any part of the rood, apart from the angels, was incorporated into the original stonework on the east wall of the nave. There is no indication on the surviving Saxon stonework of any marks or scars where these figures would have been placed (Haslam 2013:289).

Altar and (repaired) east wall in the chancel. Photo: © W Perkins 2022

Parish Church or Mortuary Chapel?

A long architectural debate  as to whether the work on the chapel ever reached completion has also been critical to understanding its intended use. The evidence for unfinished decoration in a number of places within the building can be seen as physical evidence that work was halted on the church before it was finished in its entirety (Haslam 2013:289). It is possible therefore, that the whole programme of construction was abandoned before the translation of Edward’s relics from Shaftesbury to Bradford were likely to have taken place. This particular set of circumstances appears to provide the most reasonable explanation both for the lack of any evidence of the cult of Edward at Bradford in later sources, as well as for the apparently unfinished scheme of decoration on the structure which had already been built (Haslam 2013:289). Furthermore, as Hinton points out, it is not certain that Edward’s relics ever came to Bradford. There is no reference to the cult of Edward at Bradford in the works of Wulfstan or of William of Malmesbury (Haslam 2013:289).

The Graffiti

The small but significant corpus of graffiti2 was recorded in one short session at the chapel in 2022. It comprises almost exclusively ‘ritual protection marks’ (or apotropaics) whose intention was to protect or bless the building – with the exception of a set of initials and further ‘ambiguous’ or partially illegible signs and symbols which require further investigation. Some of the marks were on or around the chancel arch – a ‘liminal’ point between the Nave and the Chancel – and so therefore located at a ‘threshold’ which is the common location for apotropaic symbols. The remainder are mainly of the south wall of the chancel – the holy of the holies. The range of symbols appear to drawn from ancient antecedents adapted for ‘Christian’ use.

Pentangle (five-pointed star) on jamb of chancel arch.
Photo: © W Perkins 2022

Of great significance is the five-pointed star (often misidentified as a pentagram) also known as the Endless Knot. Like much apotropaic graffiti, it derives from an ancient antecedent known from the Sumeria in the Near East c. 4th millennium BC. Its history, evolution and multiple phases of appropriation (and re-appropriation) has been catalogued elsewhere. It was famously emblazoned on Gawain’s shield when he encountered the Green Knight and the symbol was used to evoke the qualities of sacred Christian numerology associated with the number ‘5’ (five wounds, five virtues, etc) (Champion 2017). It is a significant component of this small corpus.

The pentangle used on a Sumerian ceramic alongside cuneiform script c.4th millennium BC.
Pentangle cut ino chancel arch; it has been crudely executed with a pointed metal blade and is not geometrically correct or in proportion. It has been subsequently painted over with whitewash / white plaster.
Photo: © W Perkins 2022
Pentangle enhanced. It can be seen that it has been made in haste with a pointed metal object that has skipped over the masonry surface.
Photo: © W Perkins 2022.
This graffito is also difficult to pick out under the whitewash. It appears to be three triangles set one inside the other and would have been intended to invoke the Trinity. Photo: © W Perkins 2022

The next main category of graffiti is the compass-drawn circle, here represented by a number of simple single-circumference circles and several overlapping examples (Types 1a, 1b)3. The significance of the circle within graffiti corpora is outlined more fully in ‘Return To The Source’ (Perkins 2022). A link to the article is provided below.

A series of compass-drawn circles have been cut into the masonry of the south wall of the chancel, these are around 6cm in diameter. they too were once covered by the limewash. Photo: © W Perkins 2022
Feint compass-drawn circles, south wall of the Chancel. Photo: © W Perkins 2022
What appears to be initials ‘AH,’ with, underneath a single ‘A’ which is a common symbol found in graffiti corpora and in its ‘protective’ role was meant to invoke ‘Alpha’ (and Omega)..’I am the First & Last.’ This powerful phrase is interpreted by many Christians to mean that Jesus has existed for all eternity or that God is eternal. Photo: © W Perkins 2022
Two overlapping circles whose scribed circumference has been filled by both whitewash and later by the brown mortar repair almost obscuring them.
Photo: © W Perkins 2022

One of the most common and potent of all apotropaics is the six-petalled rosette (Type 2a),3 also based upon an ancient solar symbol. Like the pentangle, it begins its journey in the Near East (at least from the c.8th century BC) before appearing within sacred art of almost every culture – from the eastern Mediterranean and Anatolia through to the Balkans. The symbol appears again in early Christian contexts in both the Eastern and Western European church, sometimes in association with the Virgin (Perkins 2022). This version is partially obscured by plaster and three later ‘peck marks’ which have damaged the top of the design.

A six-petalled rosette partially obscured by the whitewash, plaster and having suffered series of ‘peck’ marks made into the masonry.
Photo: © W Perkins 2022

The six-petalled rosette can often be found acting as an apotropaic mark both in secular buildings as well as within agricultural buildings where food produce and animals were kept. Numerous examples can be found only a short distance away at Barton Farm Tithe Barn in Bradford-on-Avon (Perkins 2022b).

There are multiple iterations of the six-petalled rosette (these versions may have been left incomplete deliberately) only a short distance away at Barton Farm Tithe Barn, Bradford-on-Avon.
Photo: © W Perkins 2022

As usual, this article bears the caveat that it only represents the results of a brief ‘preliminary’ survey and that a much a more detailed recording programme – using advanced methods of GPS recording and 3D scanning of the graffiti – is required. Dating graffiti is also notoriously difficult. Here we have only a broad date range to consider; the marks were evidently made some time after (or during) the period when the stone blocks had been laid in place – but before the application of the whitewash and plaster which has subsequently obscured the designs.

In summary, although the corpus is small, it consists of almost exclusively apotropaic marks and symbols which focus around the chancel arch and on the south wall of the Chancel. In most graffiti surveys, both locations would be considered to be ‘significant’ – one being the ‘threshold’ between the secular and scared space within the chapel whilst those on the wall adjacent to the altar had been made close to the spiritual epicentre of the chapel.

Wayne Perkins

December 2022.

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Notes

  1. The six-petalled rosette in also known variously as a daisy wheel, hexfoil, hexafoil and the ‘flower of life.’
  2. This is a preliminary survey only, undertaken during a short visit without access to other parts of the building.
  3. Champion, M (2017) Medieval Graffiti Survey: Volunteer Handbook. 2nd Ed.

Thanks & acknowledgements

The author would like to acknowledge the excellent overview of St Laurence’s  by Stephanie James on the  www.earlybritishkingdoms.com website, and this piece is indebted to the archaeological work of D Hinton, the architectural detective work of J Haslam, JT Irvine’s marvelous illustrations. It is in memory of the Rev W H Jones – from that great class of ‘ecclesiastical antiquarians’ – who made the initial discovery.

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Bibliography

Chettle, H F, Powell, WR et al (1953) ‘Parishes: Bradford –on-Avon, in, A History of the County of Wiltshire,’ in, Victoria County History. (Eds Pugh Rb & Critall, E), Volume 7, pp 4-51.

www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol7/pp4-51

[accessed 9 August 2021]

Haslam, J (2013) ‘The Unfinished Chapel at Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, and Ecclesiastical Politics in The Early Eleventh Century,’ in, Archaeological Journal 170

file:///C:/Users/wayne/Downloads/The_Unfinished_chapel_at_Bradford_on_Avo.pdf

Hinton, D A (2009) ‘Recent Work at the Chapel of St Laurence, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire,’ in, Archaeological Journal, 166:1, 193-209.

Hinton, D A (2010) Chapel of St Laurence, Bradford on Avon

https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/bradford_na_2010/index.cfm

Historic England (2022) Church of St Laurence, Church Street, Bradford on Avon. Listing 1036034.

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1036034?section=official-list-entry

James, S (2003) ‘St. Laurence’s Church, Bradford-upon-Avon. The House that Aldhelm built?’

http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/adversaries/archaeology/bradford_avon01.html

Jones, Rev W H (1853) ‘Bradford-on-Avon,’ No. 2, in, Wiltshire Magazine. Vol. V. Devizes. Bell & Daldy, 168, Fleet Steet; J. K. Smith, 36, Soho Square

National Churches Trust (2022) ‘Saxon Church of St Laurence’

https://www.nationalchurchestrust.org/church/st-laurence-bradford-avon

Rare Old Prints

http://www.rareoldprints.com/p/5759

Perkins, W (2022) ‘Return To The Source’

Perkins, W (2022b) ‘Charming the Fields: Crop Storage & Magical Protection at Barton Farm Tithe Barn, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire.’

Slocombe, P & I (2017) ‘Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire: Archaeology and History’ (Summary for visitors prepared by the Royal Archaeological Institute, Royal Architectural Institute.

Trustees of the Saxon Church of St Laurence (2022) ‘Church of St Laurence, Bradford-on-Avon’

Wessex Archaeology (2016) Saxon Bradford-on-Avon.

https://www.wessexarch.co.uk/news/saxon-bradford-avon.

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