Early Medieval

Early Medieval: Architecture

The majority of Anglo-Saxon buildings were constructed mainly using wood, so few are left standing. But the timber-building tradition left its mark on later stone-built churches.

Offa’s Dyke
Part of Offa’s Dyke, an 8th-century earthwork boundary


An Anglo-Saxon poet marvelling at the ruins of a Roman city (perhaps Bath) called them ‘enta geweorc’ – the ‘work of giants’. It seemed incredible that they could be the work of mere men.

Most 5th-century ‘architecture’ was largely a matter of patching up or reusing existing buildings. The little rubble-built Anglian Tower, which plugs a gap in York’s Roman walls, is one of the few new stone buildings which may date from this period.

Much more impressive must have been the 23-metre-long timber hall built within the old granaries at Birdoswald Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall. Raised soon after the collapse of imperial rule in 410, it was presumably built for the commanders of the independent war band which moved in after the garrison left.

Timber houses replaced the dilapidated stone buildings at Wroxeter Roman City, Shropshire. And though there is evidence of numerous 5th- to 7th-century stone buildings at the British princely site at Tintagel Castle, the Anglo-Saxons, who came from lands where the necessary materials scarcely existed, probably had no tradition of building in stone.

Tenth-century carved face of Christ
Tenth-century carved face of Christ on the tower of St Peter’s Church, Barton-upon-Humber. This is a rare survival of an Anglo-Saxon architectural detail: most Anglo-Saxon buildings were made of timber and were rebuilt in stone after the Norman Conquest.


Both Britons and Anglo-Saxons were accustomed to constructing great ditched and banked linear earthwork dykes.

Offa's Dyke is the most astonishing of all the engineering feats of this period, comparable in grandeur of conception to Hadrian’s Wall. 81 miles long, it stretches intermittently from near Chepstow in the south to Prestatyn in the north, clearly defining the boundary between the English and the Britons. The organisation of the massive labour force required is an impressive tribute to the power of King Offa of Mercia (r.757–96).

The dyke cannot have been defensible along its whole length, although it may have been patrolled by mounted border guards. But it was an effective means of controlling the east–west movement of people, and thus – potentially – of levying taxation too.

Stone Churches

The building tradition of late Roman Christianity produced the first stone churches in England. Earliest of all is St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, Kent, founded by the missionary saint soon after his arrival from Rome in 597. Built out of reused Roman bricks, its three churches were all modelled on Roman ‘basilica’ churches.

So too was the Roman-style stone church built in about 669 by Augustine’s followers within Reculver Roman Fort in Kent.

But the biggest of all these Roman-style stone churches – and indeed the largest Anglo-Saxon church in England – is at Brixworth, Northamptonshire. Dating from about 800, it is only slightly smaller than the early 9th-century cathedral at Canterbury, which lies beneath the nave of the present medieval building.

St Augustine's Abbey
St Augustine’s Abbey in Kent was founded in 598 following St Augustine’s successful mission to convert the English to Christianity. Used as the burial place for the kings of Kent and the early archbishops of Canterbury, the Saxon monastery was largely replaced after 1066 in a major Norman rebuilding.


The majority of Anglo-Saxon churches were originally wooden buildings – although many, as at Wharram Percy Deserted Medieval Village, North Yorkshire, were later rebuilt in stone. The only timber survivor is at Greensted in Essex, whose nave walls are built of split oak posts that have been tree-ring-dated to between 998 and 1063.

There is plenty of archaeological evidence that grand secular buildings were also of wood. The conspicuous consumption of timber by important individuals was a display of status and control over manpower and scarce natural resources.

The English timber-building tradition left its mark on some later stone-built churches. One example is St Peter’s, Barton-upon-Humber, constructed in about 970. Although it displays many of the distinctive features of pre-Norman stone churches, the thin vertical stone strips on its tower are inspired by timber decorations.

The tower of St Peter’s Church, Barton-upon-Humber
The tower of St Peter’s Church, Barton-upon-Humber, dates from about 1000. The triangular heads of the windows towards the top of the tower are typical of Anglo-Saxon architecture, while the decoration with vertical stone strips is a technique derived from timber buildings. The belfry at the top is a Norman addition.

More about Early Medieval England

  • Early Medieval: Architecture

    Most early medieval buildings were constructed mainly using wood, but this tradition left its mark on later stone-built churches.

  • Early Medieval: Art

    The early medieval period produced many examples of highly distinctive art of world-class significance.

  • Early Medieval: Networks

    Between the end of Roman rule and the arrival of the Normans, England's relationship with the wider world changed many times.

  • Early Medieval: Power and Politics

    This period saw the evolution of a nation of warlords into a country organised into distinct kingdoms.

  • Early Medieval: Religion

    Christianity in Britain tends to be associated with the arrival of St Augustine in 597, but it had in fact already taken root in Roman Britain.

Early Medieval Stories

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  • Caedmon, Whitby and Early English Poetry

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  • Queen Bertha: A Historical Enigma

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  • The Synod of Whitby and the Keys of Heaven

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  • St Hild of Whitby

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  • Two Happy Accidents Reveal Odda’s Chapel, Deerhurst

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