Christianity appears to have become increasingly popular in Roman Britain from the 4th century AD, with the Roman Catholic Church the dominant form of Christianity in Britain from the 6th century AD. Although challenged by waves of continental migration and occupation, the Christian Church continued to develop its character and financial and administrative infrastructure; investing in landscape and industry, establishing new religious foundations, and absorbing and re-articulating local customs and traditions. By the 10th century AD Christianity had grown into the country’s primary religion. This conversion of Anglo-Saxon Britain to Christianity had an enormous impact on society, culture and the landscape.
The majority of our knowledge of Christianity in Early Medieval Worcestershire (and Britain) comes from documentary sources. The foundation of Christian minsters (monastic sites) and ecclesiastical estates are extensively documented in the West Midlands, well recognised minster sites in Worcestershire include those at Worcester, Kempsey, Ismere (Kidderminster), Pershore, Fladbury, Evesham, Bredon, Beckford, Inkberrow and Hanbury. As noted in Jackson and Dalwood (2007, 117) Worcester, Pershore and Evesham developed into substantial monastic centres with extensive landholdings.
Documentary sources also note the presence of several other pre-conquest minsters in the county, for example at Cropthrone, Wyre Piddle, Sedgeberrow, Kemspey, Dodderhill, Bockleton, Bromsgrove, Tenbury, Clifton upon Teme and Romsley. As Blair 1988, cited in Hooke 2011 suggests, apart from burhs, minster foundations may have been the nearest thing to urban sites in Early Medieval England with many becoming towns in their own right, gaining revenue from the control of marketing, and acting as consumers of goods and services.
Archaeological identification of Early Medieval churches in the West Midlands, the majority of which would have been constructed of timber – although Hooke (2011, 3) notes the presence of early stone ecclesiastical buildings in some number along the River Avon, perhaps facilitated by water transportation – continues to prove challenging, despite the extensive documentary record. Many are likely to have stood on the site of later Norman and Medieval churches.
Early minsters are likely to have wielded significant influence on their local landscape and community, with the establishment of many organisational parish (and/or township) units likely owing its origin to the foundation of a minster. Vaughan and Webster et al (2017) note that minsters of the 8th and 9th centuries could be composed of dispersed elements, such as multiple churches and cemeteries (Cherryson, 2010); that, as evidenced in East Anglia, sites for Christian burials were deliberately located in isolation to existing pagan cemeteries, which often re-used Roman sites (Hogget, 2010); that only from the 10th century are cemeteries consistently located next to churches as churchyards (Buckberry 2010) and that an early church was not necessarily the determining factor in the establishment or continuation of settlement (Rippon 2010 and Hadley and Buckberry 2005).
Graves and cemeteries are an important archaeological resource for the Early Medieval Period and ‘Anglo Saxon’ funerary practice. As noted in Brownlee (2021) one of the most notable transformations in European Early Medieval funerary practice was the transition from a predominantly furnished to a largely unfurnished inhumation rite, with the practice of depositing grave goods almost entirely abandoned across Western Europe between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. Brownlee references the complexity of potential drivers for change including the growing influence of the Christian Church; emergence of social hierarchies and changing perceptions of the corpse. As noted in the West Midlands Regional Research Framework, with the exception of funerary practice, little is known about pre-Christian ritual in the region, although trees, springs and ancient monuments and structures may have had significance.
The first cathedral church was founded in Worcester – the potential site of an important Late Roman church – in AD680. A major landowner, as well as economic and political power across the county, Worcester has long been regarded as one, amongst many English cities, where the transition from Roman Britain to post-Roman and Early Medieval England could potentially be studied, with particular attention to the role of the Church in the continuance or transfer of political authority and the continuance or revival of economic life. For further information and research priorities, see Worcester Urban Archaeological Strategy.
From its foundation by AD701, Evesham Abbey alternated between monastic and collegiate foundation, finally becoming a Benedictine Abbey in AD989; lasting until its dissolution in AD1540. Possibly on the site of an earlier church, Evesham Abbey held extensive estates throughout the Medieval period, including land previously held by Offa at Offenham (Hooke 1985, 202); Court Farm, Offenham, was the site of a sanctorium, and the retirement home of Abbot Lichfield at the Dissolution.
On the north western side of the River Avon the scheduled remains of the abbey include the standing walls and buried foundations of the cloisters, chapter house, northern transept and precinct wall with the earthwork remains of fishponds and buried remains of stables. The northern precinct wall forms the southern boundary of the late 15th century Church of St. Lawrence, one of two parish churches in the precinct of the abbey.
In the paper The Building, Destruction and Excavation of Evesham Abbey: a documentary history Cox (1990) discusses the documentary history of the site, from its early significance as the potential site of a small, rural Romano-British ‘estate’ church to its foundation, under Ecgwine, third bishop of Worcester, and development as one of the wealthiest and most influential monastic sites in the country. The documentary evidence indicates several phases of building and re-building pre conquest. Cox similarly reviews the history of excavation on the site, from 1726 until 1975, noting that one of the most obvious matters for archaeologists to take up is the direct and sustained sharing of ideas – in terms of monastic planning and architectural ideas – between Evesham and the pre-Conquest builders of Coventry abbey and Augustine’s, Canterbury, as well as with the Norman builders of St Stephen’s, Caen, of Christ Church Canterbury, and of Gloucester abbey, and in the later 12th and 14th centuries with the builders of Wells and Worcester cathedrals respectively (Cox, 1990, 140).
In 1987/1988 photographic survey and excavation was undertaken within the known precinct area for the Benedictine monastic foundation and adjacent to its northern boundary; no pre conquest features and/or deposits were noted (Hughes 1990). The results of a recent, 2020-2022, conservation project, focusing on fabric repairs, archaeology, and community engagement is forthcoming.
A 2011 programme of archaeological investigation, undertaken on land to the south and west of St Mary’s Church as part of the Kempsey Flood Alleviation Scheme, uncovered archaeological evidence about the population and environment of Kempsey, during the mid-late Saxon period (Vaughan and Webster et al, 2017). Documented as the site of an important minster church, established before AD799, and subsequently from the 9th century AD a Bishop’s manor house, the oldest fabric at St Mary’s is Norman (11th – 12th centuries).
A total of 69 grave cuts were recorded, of which 55 lay within the construction horizon so were fully excavated. 46 individuals were recovered, as were 587 disarticulated bones, potentially representing a further 21 individuals. A sequence of five phases of burial was identified with more phases likely below the construction horizon. Four individuals were radiocarbon dated to cal AD 840–980 to cal AD 1045–1210 (68% probability). The burial soil had a 14th century tpq, although a 9th century sherd of Stafford ware pottery was recovered from one grave. A small copper alloy pin or needle fragment, tentatively dated as Late Saxon, was recovered from the grave fill of a burial where the skeleton was dated cal AD 980 to 1040. The earliest defined feature on site was a cobbled surface, of unknown function, underlaying burial soil and so predating the Late Saxon burials.
The overlying soils contained Medieval building debris, largely of 14th to 15th century and later date which may represent the demolition of a substantial medieval building, potentially the Bishop’s Manor House. There was no evidence for the use of coffins and only one shroud pin was recovered. All of the burials followed traditional Christian burial practice with the head laid to the west and the feet to the east, although there was some variation, with those to the north of the site which were generally aligned west-north-west to east-south-east (the same orientation as St Mary’s Church).
The extent of the Late Saxon/Early Medieval burial ground remains unknown, and the limited size of the excavation did not allow any inferences to be made regarding burial within the churchyard according to status, age or biological sex. Weston in Vaughan and Webster (2017, 70-71) notes that the mode of burial at St Mary’s, with a higher frequency of intercutting graves and redeposition of disarticulated elements, with some crania re-interred within cut features, may reflect a belief in a lack of importance in intactness of the body for the ‘Final Things’. They suggest that the head may have been considered the focus of burial during the Late Saxon period, as it was in the Medieval. Excavations at the Chapter House of Worcester Cathedral is also referenced as revealing a high level of intercutting burials with 9 phases of interments and disarticulated skeletal elements present (Guy 2010, 75 cited in Vaughan and Webster et al, 2017, 70-71).
Osteological analysis, although restricted by the condition of the skeletal remains, identified both females and males as well as broad age range of individuals, indicating that the burial ground served the whole community. Poor dental health was noted as potentially indicative of a high sucrose diet. Analysis of dietary isotopes indicated that the population had a mostly terrestrially-based diet, while analysis of oxygen isotopes showed a significant divergence from contemporary and local populations indicating that at least three, possibly five, of the 12 individuals analyzed had spent their childhood in a warmer or more westerly location.
The preservation of charred plant remains was good enough to allow identification of species in the majority of cases. The commonest remains were those of cereals, with free-threshing wheat (Triticum sp) dominating. The presence of chaff suggested that crops were being processed on site, most likely at the edge of the field. As well as cereals other food crops were present including peas (Pisum sativum) and broad bean (Vicia faba). The presence of hazel nutshell fragments suggest that the local wild environment was being exploited in order to supplement the daily diet while the presence of fragments of large mammal, with a small amount showing the effects of burning, supported by the presence of fish remains and the occasional oyster (Ostrea edulis) shell fragment, may suggest the dumping of food waste perhaps from the Bishop’s Palace (Clapham in Vaughan and Webster, 2017, 63-65).
The Parish Church of St Augustine in Dodderhill incorporates the central crossing of a church consecrated in AD1220. A hilltop church, St Augustine sits on the site of a Roman Fort, overlooking the main salt-making area of Droitwich. Archaeological investigations in 1998 revealed pre-Norman stonework, on a different alignment to the present church, suggestive of a substantial Late Saxon church on the site. The manor of Wychbold in Dodderhill, which is documented in a charter of AD692 as the site of a royal palace, had a major association with Late Saxon salt production at Droitwich (Robson and Hurst, 2000). Robson and Hurst (2000) note that, in Worcestershire, minsters were generally prominent landscape features built on high ground, next to a Roman road and river crossing, reflecting their significance as centres of administrative and economic power and control.
A minster at Hanbury is documented in a charter dated AD836 issued by the Mercian King Wiglaf. Bassett (2009) The landed endowment of the Anglo-Saxon minster at Hanbury (Worcs.) explores the foundation of this early minster and its estate – its woodland, fields, meadows, salt pits, lead furnaces and vills – tracing something of the history of its land units, up to AD1086, and the extent to which the church was successful in holding on to its lands.
The minster precinct at Hanbury appears to have reimaged, as its boundary, the earthworks of an Iron Age Hillfort, which continued to be used, as an important centre of some sort, throughout the Romano-British period. As noted by Hooke (2011) this location perhaps provided an expression of power over the surrounding landscape, not only reflective of the power of God on earth but also the role and status of the Church itself.
Evidence of Iron Age round houses (and associated pottery and environmental material), Romano-British pottery, possible Saxon pottery (identified during Dyers Hanbury Parish Surveys 1979-1981) and well-defined earthworks of medieval settlement (along with medieval and post-medieval pottery) in close proximity to the hillfort/minster site, attest to its long history and significance. The present, Grade I listed, church of St Mary the Virgin dates to the 13th century.
The site known as Pershore Abbey was founded c.AD689 and re-founded into the Benedictine order in AD972, until its dissolution in AD1540. The scheduled area incorporates the buried, limestone, foundations of cloisters, the chapter house, southern transept, refectory and calefactory, excavated in 1929-30, under the direction of Frances B. Andrews on behalf of the Birmingham and Worcestershire Archaeological Societies. The Grade I listed Abbey Church of Holy Cross with Saint Edburgha, the extant building of which is dated 11th – 13th century, is all that remains above ground.
When the foundation trenches for Phase 2 of the Development of Central Pershore were dug in 1978 a substantial former river channel was identified on the north and west side of the Abbey precinct. Three broad sedimentologies were revealed; Level C comprised the mixed sands and gravels of the channel bed, Level B was predominantly medieval fill and Level A was post-medieval build-up of loams to the present ground surface. A series of medieval fish ponds may have been modified from the existing river channel. Archaeological investigation in 1984, adjacent to the standing remains of the abbey, uncovered a fragment of walling – of oolitic limestone rubble set with hard pinkish mortar – cut by the Norman foundations, tentatively interpreted as part of the pre-Conquest Abbey (Roberts 1985, 5.6-5.10).
Excavations in 1996 investigated phases of the site including that of an ‘Anglo Saxon’ church, represented by several small stretches of foundations, terminating at the east end in an apse. No internal dating evidence was located, with the phasing resting on the fact that the Norman south arcade foundation, of c. AD1100, overlay the earlier foundations, employing a totally different type of mortar, and continuing further east where the apse curved away from the line of the Norman arcade (Blockley, 1996, 11). Blockley (1996, 11) ascertains that ‘to judge from the size of the foundations at Pershore (1.6 m. across) and the width of the building (c. 8.2 m. internally), the church was evidently a large one.
A late Anglo-Saxon (late 10th century/early 11th century) censer cover, found in a mass of gravel whilst digging a cellar, in the town, between 1759 and 1769, is now housed in the British Museum (no. 1960,0701.1). The record notes that ‘it is tempting to speculate that the Godric who inscribed his name upon this object may have been a metalworker attached to the Abbey of Pershore, like his namesake who was working at a slightly later date at nearby Evesham under the direction of Abbot Mannig, and is recorded as having made a gold and silver shrine studded with gems for the relics of St Ecgwine around 1058’ (Dodwell, C,R, 1982, 65-6).
Documentary evidence references a monastery, at Bredon, founded before AD716 by Eanulph grandfather of Offa, King of Mercia from AD757 until his death in AD796, and dedicated to St Peter; Eanulph having received lands for that purpose from Æthelbald, King of Mercia. In AD780 the monastery was given to the church by Offa. The site of a monastery in Bredon, St Peters, is recorded on late 19th century maps, in the grounds of the Old Hall. During excavation for sewerage works in 1900 two human skeletons were recovered in the grounds.
A monastery, probably a ‘family monastery’, incorporating a colony of priests and monk’s dependant on the Benedictine Cathedral church of Worcester, is documented to have been in existence at Fladbury as early as AD691. Fladbury is noted in a charter of AD697 x 699 in which Æthelred, King of Mercia, grants Oftfor, bishop, 44 hides (cassati), so that monastic life may be re-established there as when the place was first granted.
Excavation at the Fladbury Working Men’s Club uncovered a well-preserved site with complex multi-period remains, including a large sunken oven complex which yielded charcoal remains with a radiocarbon date of AD 851 +/- 81 (1967 analysis)/ AD 765 – 880 (last use of the oven complex as analysed in 2018) and the footprint of a broadly contemporary building, interpreted as likely being associated with the 7th – 9th century minster church. The precise location and scale of the 7th – 9th century minster church is uncertain although it’s possible it lies beneath the footprint of the present day, medieval Parish church (see Industry and Trade).
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