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BRADWELL-JUXTA-MARE, St. Peter-on-the-Wall  (TM 031 082),

ESSEX. 

(Bedrock:  Eocene, London Clay.)

 

The oldest church in Britain, still standing to the height of the eaves.

This small but ancient and highly significant building marks the spot where St. Cedd landed in 653, having been sent out from Lindisfarne by King Oswiu of Northumbria (reigned 641-70) on a mission to evangelize the East Saxons.  This was an undertaking rather less hazardous than might at first appear since King Sigeberht of Essex had already accepted Christianity on a visit to Gaul in 627 and, besides, seems to have agreed in advance to receive Cedd anyway, when making a visit to Oswiu’s court earlier the same year.

 

The building to be seen here today was almost certainly constructed c. 660 under the direction of Cedd himself and probably replaced a temporary wooden structure.  It consists of a nave 49½ feet by 21½ feet (15.1 m. by 6.6 m.), which survives to its full height, and traces of foundations that show there was once: (i) a chancel that extended about six feet (2 m.) eastwards before ending in a semicircular apse;  (ii) two porticuses - one each to the north and south of the junction of nave and chancel;  and (iii), a W. narthex - which, in later years, had for a time a little tower built above it, used at one stage as a beacon for shipping!  (See the photograph at the foot of the page.)  The nave displays the re-use of Roman materials (not only brick and tile, but also Kentish ragstone, septaria, and even some oolitic limestone), of which plenty would have been immediately to hand as this is also the site of the now-vanished Roman fort of Othona.  The W. window, which is the only one whose round-headed arch remains, is turned in Roman brick, as are the surviving parts of the arcade that once separated the nave from the chancel and are now to be seen in the blocked E. wall.  Remaining fragments of St. Pancras’s church, Canterbury, St. Mary’s, Lyminge, and St. Mary’s, Reculver, all in Kent and dating from the mid-seventh century, show there were usually three arches in this position (probably because the construction of a single-span 'chancel arch' was too structurally demanding at this time), but measurements suggest there can only ever have been two here at Bradwell.  The building plan also shows the N. porticus was entered from the chancel and the S. porticus from the nave.  This would conform with their use in the Roman church at this time as what were then known as the diaconicon and the prothesis, respectively a room for the clergy and the keeping of sacred vessels (i.e. a kind of vestry-cum-sacristy), and a room for the reception of offerings from the worshippers (and not the other way round as stated in the 1966 guide to the building).  (See Sir Arthur Clapham, English Romanesque Architecture Before the Conquest, Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1930, pp. 26-27).    Very large doorways, now blocked, were cut in the N. and S. walls in the seventeenth century when, for a time, the building was used as a barn.  However, remnants of its original buttresses can still be seen at the western corners as well as at various points along the walls.  The present roof, of course, is modern:  the original would probably have been shingled.

 

Situated on the edge of Bradwell Marshes, this is surely the county’s most atmospheric church - a building that is in its way more powerful, and certainly more enduring, than the already decommissioned nuclear power station that now looms ominously on the skyline just two miles to the east.