News Analysis

What this stone church reveals about early English Christianity

(William Wright, Amazing Aerial Views)

In August archaeologists excavating on the south side of St Mary and St Ethelburga’s Church in Lyminge, Kent, uncovered the stone apse (pictured) of an early Anglo-Saxon church paralleling the sanctuary of the later parish church. The clue that an older building might lie beneath the medieval church was already hiding in plain sight, in the church’s dedication to an Anglo-Saxon saint.

St Ethelburga was the daughter of Ethelbert of Kent and his Merovingian queen, Bertha – the rulers of Kent who first asked Pope Gregory to send teachers of the Christian faith to the English people. The arrival of St Augustine and his companions at Ebbsfleet in 597 began to fulfil Gregory’s prophecy that the Angles, once converted to Christianity, would be little short of angels.

England’s conversion was no easy business, as St Bede so minutely records in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. One of the tools deployed by the missionaries and their royal supporters was marriage alliances: King Ethelbert accordingly offered his daughter Ethelburga in marriage to King Edwin of Northumbria in 625, on condition that Edwin accepted baptism.

Thus began the conversion of Northumbria, a kingdom destined to become a light of Christian culture that shone throughout Europe. However, Ethelburga outlived her husband and, as a widow, returned to her home kingdom of Kent to found one of England’s earliest monasteries at Lyminge, in 633.

Since this story was recorded no earlier than the 11th century, its status as historical fact was questionable, until its confirmation by archaeologists this August.

A Victorian rector had claimed to have discovered remains of the ancient church, but his recording of the site left much to be desired and lacked such modern technology as ground-penetrating radar.

With extremely rare exceptions – such as the Church of St Peter on the Wall at Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex (probably built in 654) – the remains of early Anglo-Saxon churches are frustratingly ephemeral, with archaeologists often able to identify church sites only from writing implements, fragments of Gospel covers and other ecclesiastical objects. This is for the simple reason that most churches were built of wood until the reign of Cnut (1016-35).

There is a good chance that the remains excavated at Lyminge are the oldest evidence of a stone Anglo-Saxon church ever discovered. Still more extraordinary is the discovery of a small annexe (or porticus) on the north side of the church that may have been the location of the shrine that housed St Ethelburga’s body after her death in 647. The discovery of crushed Roman brick in the mortar holding the church together – lending it a distinctive pink hue – is a telltale sign that Merovingian masons from the Continent were involved in its construction.

The 7th-century church at Lyminge is just one part of a major series of excavations in the area by a team of archaeologists from the University of Reading. Lyminge’s archaeology first made the headlines in October 2012, when excavators unearthed the remains of a royal feasting hall that may have been in use as early as the 5th century, when the Anglo-Saxon lifestyle was beginning to replace Romano-British culture.

Lyminge was a royal centre for Kent’s pagan kings long before St Ethelburga chose to plant a monastery there, and her decision to Christianise Lyminge must have sent a strong message about the commitment of Kent’s royal house to the new faith.

Like so many early religious houses, the monastery at Lyminge did not survive the Viking raids of the 9th century, but the church may have endured until the 12th century when it was replaced by the present parish church. St Ethelburga’s relics were preserved through the years of the Viking threat and enshrined in the new church in a recess that survives in the south wall – before Archbishop Lanfranc took them to Canterbury in 1085. There, like the relics of so many other saints, they were lost at the time of the Reformation.

It is remarkable that St Ethelburga founded a monastery on English soil at such an early date – let alone one built of stone. It was a time when the status of Christianity in England was by no means secure. Christian kings routinely backslid into paganism, or were succeeded or assassinated by pagan kinsmen and usurpers. There was more than one moment when the future of St Augustine’s mission hung in the balance, and it was not until the 680s that all of England’s kingdoms were converted. In the 630s, most who felt called to the monastic life joined monasteries on the Continent.

If the church at Lyminge was indeed built under the direction of Abbess Ethelburga herself, these ruins provide a direct personal link with the family that initiated St Augustine’s mission to turn Angles into angels. They are a monument to Ethelburga’s courage and her confidence that the faith would survive and prosper in a pagan land.