Thursday, 25 October 2012

Greensted, Essex

St Andrew is, partially, lays claim to be the oldest extant wooden church in the world and possibly the oldest wooden building in Europe. It has recently been tree ring dated to sometime between 998 and 1063; the oak walls of the nave are classified as remnants of a palisade church or a kind of early stave church.

Personally I found the interior dark and gloomy and rather dull but the exterior is fascinating as is the fact of its age.

ST ANDREW. The church is famous all over England as the only survival - and what an unlikely survival - of a log-church. Moreover, it can with some probability be dated c. 1013, the year of the passing through of St Edmund’s body. The nave is built of oak logs split vertically in halves and set vertically in an oak sill. The present sill and the brick plinth belong to the restoration of 1848 (Thomas Henry Wyatt) which is also responsible for the nave roof. But the Tudor dormers of timber are original save for two and worth some study. The chancel of brick is early C16 (one S window and the S doorway), its E end C18. The W tower is also entirely of timber, in the Essex tradition. Its date is uncertain. It has the usual internal construction, is externally weatherboarded and painted white and carries a shingled broach spire. - PAINTING. Small arched panel of St Edmund, c. 1500. - STAINED GLASS. Head of a man; c. 1500 (W window).

St Andrew

Saxon split oak nave walls (2)

West window (2)

GREENSTED. It is a shrine of universal pilgrimage, unique in its sylvan setting and unique in one of its possessions, a wooden church with Saxon timbers built into its walls. It is the Saxon church in which St Edmund’s body rested on its last journey.

Even if its timbers were not so captivating for their great age (1013), the picture of this primitive church would draw the pilgrim to it. Its 19th century dormers, its neat porch with a red-tiled roof harmonising with the low roof of the nave, the little shingled spire on the wooden tower, and the red brick of the chancel wall, draw us into this rugged churchyard where roses bloom amid cypress trees. Giant survivors of the forest make a perfect background for a church whose walls stand much as they were when the monks of Bury St Edmunds, having, in their fear of the Danes, carried the body of their saint for safety to the walled city of London, brought it back and rested it in this forest sanctuary on its way.

Here are the oldest wooden walls of Old England; come close to them and run your fingers along the shaped timbers and feel the marks of the adze made by the Saxon carpenter. The trees they felled to build this church were growing when the Romans came; they felled a score of oaks and split each trunk in three, using the outer beams as a palisade and the central planks for the roof and the sills. It is interesting to see how these Saxon carpenters made this place. Roughly adzing off the upper ends of the uprights into a thin edge, they inserted them into a groove in a beam running along each side of the nave. They fixed their bases on a wooden sill, but a century ago they had so rotted that a dwarf wall was placed below them, their height being reduced by about a foot. There are 21 logs on the north wall with three extra ones where a door once stood, and 16 logs on the south, through which wall we enter. The Saxon nave is 29 feet long and 17 feet wide. The original roof was thatched and was lighted from a window in the timbers of the west wall and from others in the chancel.

The church was much refashioned in the 16th century when the chancel, the beautiful priest’s doorway, and the charming tower and belfry were added. A small painted panel of the martyrdom of St Edmund shows him wearing a crown but clothed in a loin cloth and bound to a tree pierced with arrows shot by soldiers, one of whom wears Roman armour. The panel is probably all that remains of a 15th century screen*, and keeping company with it is another medieval portrait of the saint in a roundel of the west window; it shows his crowned head.

One possession the church has more curiously linked with the martyrdom of St Edmund, the wooden covers of a Bible and a prayer book, made from the timbers of what is believed to be the actual tree under which Edmund was martyred. The tree was growing at Home in Suffolk and had become a giant nearly 20 feet round when it fell 100 years ago. Tradition had long fixed on this as Edmund’s tree and it is remarkable that when the tree fell a Danish arrowhead was found in the trunk. The arrow is still in existence. The fine lectern on which this interesting Bible rests was carved in our own time by a local craftsman, from an oak growing at Greensted. It is a skilful piece of craftsmanship, likely to go down the ages with the 18th century pulpit, the medieval piscina, and the odd stoup cut 700 years ago in one of the great timbers of the wall.

* This was stolen in January of this year.

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