Saxon Church Guide


St Laurence’s Church, Bradford on Avon, is an ancient building. The twelfth century historian William of Malmesbury reports that it was standing in the 1120s, but he thought it dated back to the time of St Aldhelm (d. 709). A charter of King Æthelred granted Bradford to the nuns of Shaftesbury in 1001, and the church’s architecture suggests it was built for the nuns early in the eleventh century.

St Laurence’s is a characteristic Anglo-Saxon building: tall and narrow with small windows. The extent and richness of its decoration, however, are rare, perhaps suggesting it was designed partly for the relics of Æthelred’s brother Edward the Martyr, which were housed with the nuns at Shaftesbury. Some time later the church, being no longer required, was lost amidst other buildings and only came to notice again in the nineteenth century.

It was recognized as a late Saxon building by Canon Jones (a Vicar of Holy Trinity and a noted historian) in 1857, but in 1871 he read William of Malmesbury’s comments and decided that it must have been built much earlier by Aldhelm. However, it is more likely that Aldhelm’s church would have stood somewhere on the site of the present Holy Trinity.

The Church of St Laurence is still used as a place of worship by the congregation of Holy Trinity, as well as by other Christian groups. saxon church arch and sculpture

Features to look for

A The west wall was rebuilt in the eighteenth century in imitation of the remainder, and the windows here date from 1881. There may originally have been a main entrance in this wall.

B Further late alterations are visible from the south side, where there was probably a porticus to match that on the north and perhaps with an underground chamber. The present buttresses were necessary to support the wall once the schoolmaster’s house had been taken down.

C The blind arcading running right around the building, with the string course below, itself supported by pilasters, were all incised into the ashlar fabric during or after construction, and together constitute a striking and important feature of St Laurence’s. The fact that this decoration was incised into the stone has suggested to some that it was a late addition to the building, but note the large base stones supporting some pilasters which suggest that the decoration was planned before construction began.

D The windows in the south wall of the nave, the south wall of the chancel and the west wall of the north porticus, are all original Saxon features, but again alterations can be demonstrated for they were converted to double-splayed form some time after the church was built.

E The church is now entered through the south door, and the proportions of the building are most striking from inside. With few windows, and lit by candles, the church would have been very dark inside, suitably for a building housing royal and saintly relics. Although the walls are quite plain now, remnants of interior decoration are visible, in the plinth running around the walls and the pilaster strip-work decorating the characteristically narrow doorways. It is also quite possible that the interior was painted, perhaps quite brightly, but the most noticeable decorative feature now is the pair of angels in the east wall of the nave, which were found here or nearby in 1855. These have been compared in style with those in a tenth century illumination from Winchester, and probably survive from a more extensive sculptural scene.saxon church floor plan

F The north porticus survives, and the off centre position of the door to the outside suggest that the porticus served as a chapel, with an altar against the east wall. There is a display here of photographs and documents relating to the Saxon Church, and a stone bowl, found locally, currently in use as a font.

G More Saxon sculpture is in the chancel, which had been converted into a separate cottage. Carved stones found nearby have been made into an altar, and fragments of a cross have been set above it. Such work would have characterised many of the more important Saxon churches.