Christianity began to arrive in England in the 3rd century AD from Rome, and after the withdrawal of Roman power from Britain in AD410 much of the population practised Christianity, albeit it often alongside other forms of worship. However it did not really begin to dominate until the Anglo-Saxon period, where the dual influences of Celtic Christianity from Ireland and Scotland, and Roman Christianity via Augustine and the establishment of the See of Canterbury, combined to begin the almost total domination of the Church as state religion.

The building of churches, whether they be for monasteries or for more public use, was an early sign of the growing influence of Christianity. What is astounding is how many elements of these earliest Christian buildings survive today.

All of the churches on this list date from pre-AD900, and all of them are still being used for Christian worship. This list encompasses churches where the oldest physical fabric remains, so churches with ancient foundation dates but more recent buildings (such as Canterbury Cathedral) don’t make the grade. Although most of the churches on this list also have later interventions – meaning they are not purely Anglo-Saxon – they all show the form and character of that earliest phase of building. In addition, many of them make use of what was then handy nearby building material – the remains of Roman fortifications and settlements, meaning the bricks they are built of go back even further than the churches themselves. These are the churches to visit if you truly want to touch the past.

AD845 – St Andrew, Greensted, Essex

Greensted Church is reputed to be the oldest wooden church in England and the oldest wooden building in Europe still standing, although only parts of the original wood remain. Built of oak, the original building is likely to have been a variation on the popular Scandinavian style of stave church, with palisades surrounding a central space. Some archaeologists believe that there may have been an even earlier structure on this site, possibly 4th century, but no definite evidence of this remains. Some dating techniques suggest the 9th century elements may actually be later than this, a debate which remains open. Dating of wood (a process called dendrochronology) is difficult and subject to fluctuations caused by climate variations and treatment of the wood over the centuries since the tree was felled, meaning we may never know for certain. The nave is one of the earliest parts and is made of split oak logs, a standard Saxon building technique.

The church is free to visit and open daily.

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AD654 – St Peter-on-the-Wall, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex

The Church of St Peter-on-the-Wall in the equally hyphenated Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex, dates from AD654. It is built on top of a large and important Roman shoreline fort called Othona, and is reputed to have been built by St Cedd for the East Saxons. The name ‘on the wall’ stems from the fact that the church was built on the wall of the fort. This small building was in fact built as a cathedral, and Cedd was consecrated Bishop of Essex within it. Cedd was brother to St Chad, who is buried in Durham Cathedral, and their missionary work was to spread their version of Celtic Christianity as far as possible. Much of the original building survives, and the piecemeal composition of the exterior, with its mixture of Roman and Saxon brick and its small, high windows, is as fascinating as the inside.

A visit to St Peter’s, which is always open and free to visit, involves a walk across open farmland tracks to reach the truly rural building. It is regularly still used for worship by the nearly Othona Community. As might be expected there is no toilet and no parking immediately by the church, although facilities are available in the nearby village.

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AD597 – St Martin, Canterbury, Kent

St Martin’s, Canterbury, is part of the Canterbury world heritage site and is the oldest church in England still being used for its original purpose. It was founded around AD597 and originally functioned as the private chapel of Queen Bertha of Kent. Queen Bertha was a Christian married to a pagan – King Ethelbert. She is said by Bede to have prayed for the missionaries being sent from Rome, including Augustine, who was to become the first Archbishop of Canterbury and found the nearby Canterbury Cathedral. Much of the building you see today is later than this, although you can see Roman brick which was taken from nearby Roman sites, in the nave wall, and the remains of a Roman tomb have also been incorporated into the building. This oldest of English churches is an evocative and fascinating place to visit.

The church is open for daily worship, and also open free to visitors 11am-3pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. They have an excellent website:

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AD650 - All Saints, Brixworth, Northamptonshire

Sir Alfred Clapham, writing on Romanesque architecture in 1930, described All Saints’ as "perhaps the most imposing architectural memorial of the 7th century yet surviving north of the Alps". The church was originally part of monastery founded when Sexwulf became bishop of Mercia, before the death of King Wulfhere in 675AD. Large parts of this building survive within the church, which was also extensively altered in the 10th, 13th and 19th centuries. The western tower is Anglo Saxon, with a 19th century spire on top, and the so-called ‘great arch’ inside the church is an original feature, again rebuilt by the Victorians.

The church is regularly open for worship, but it is worth calling ahead it you are making a special visit.

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AD670 – Escomb Saxon Church, Bishop Auckland, County Durham

The Church at Escomb is one of the best preserved Anglo-Saxon buildings in England, but the materials it is built of are mainly Roman, taken from the nearby Binchester (Vinovia) Roman Fort. On the north wall a stone marked with the Latin shorthand LEG VI (Sixth Legion) can be seen, installed (deliberately or otherwise) upside down. The stone has been chiselled down, but there is evidence that internally the original church was plastered and would have been white, bright and light, and evidence has been found of very high quality stone carvings.

In its unusual circular churchyard, and still at the heart of its village, Escomb is a step back in time over 1000 years. Visitors can collect keys from a nearby house if the church is not open, and during the summer guides welcome visitors.

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AD672 – Cathedral Church of St Peter and St Wilfrid, Ripon, North Yorkshire

The majority of Ripon Cathedral dates from the early-mid 13th century – the beautiful West Front was started around AD1220. But underneath this Early English style gem is a much older treasure – the Anglo-Saxon crypt. St Wilfrid founded a cathedral church here and it was dedicated to St Peter in AD672. The crypt is the only surviving part of this church. A contemporary account by Eddius Stephanus, author of an eighth-century Life of St Wilfrid tells us "In Ripon, Saint Wilfrid built and completed from the foundations to the roof a church of dressed stone, supported by various columns and side-aisles to a great height and many windows, arched vaults and a winding cloister."

Down a steep staircase, you enter what feels like a cave, with whitewashed walls, a small altar table and candles lighting the space. Wending your way out the other side you are led back up another set of steps and back to the present day.

Ripon Cathedral is free to visit and open every day from8.30am to 6pm. The crypt is open during these hours and can be found at the end of the nave.

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AD674 – Hexham Abbey, Northumberland

Another crypt, another church founded by the prolific St Wilfred. Dating only a few years after the church at Ripon, this 7ty century crypt is built mainly from worked stones which are likely to have come from the nearby Roman city of Corbridge. The land to build this church was given to Wilfred by Queen Etheldreda and the original building burned to the ground in 875 during a raid by Halfdene the Dane. The crypt has four chambers, accessed by a narrow staircase from the main church. Roman inscriptions can be seen on several of the stones, including the name of the murdered Emperor Geta, whose name was supposed to be erased from all carvings on order of his brother Caracalla who ordered his death. Its survival here therefore adds an additional, and even older, interest to this wonderful space.

Hexham Abbey is open 9.30am-5pm daily, and is free to visit, although donations to help care for the building are very welcome.

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AD 674 – St Peter, Monkwearmouth, Sunderland

The original church of St Peter’s was built on instructions from Benedict Biscop in 674-75. In the current building the west wall and porch are still from this date. The rest of the church was added and adapted over the centuries - the tower was added before AD1000 on top of the porch, and the rest of the church in the 14th century. Inside the porch, the remains of Anglo-Saxon carvings can be seen. An extensive archaeological excavation was done in the 1960s, led by Dame Professor Rosemary Cramp, the first ever female professor at Durham University. Finds from the excavations can be seen on display in the church.

St Peter’s, now part of the Jarrow-Wearmouth Abbey, along with St Paul’s, the next in line on this list, is free to visit and open from 10am-3pm every day. There is a café, toilet facilities, and nearby parking.

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AD 680 – St Paul, Jarrow, Tyne and Wear

At St Paul’s, Jarrow, it is the Saxon chancel which shows the true age of the church. Twinned with the slightly older St Peter’s, Monkwearmouth, it now forms part of the Wearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, although the two churches are seven miles apart. St Benedict was the first abbot and himself stipulated that the two churches should be ‘one monastery in two places’. St Paul’s was the home church of the Venerable Bede, a monk and scholar whose most famous work is The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a work which has earned him the title ‘the father of English history’. In 2011 a radar scan of the church identified a possible hidden crypt under the Saxon chancel. Although this has not been opened up, research suggests it may also be part of the original Saxon church, meaning more has survived here than anyone suspected. Large amounts of the Saxon monastery which once stood alongside the church can be seen and explored.

The Church is open daily 10am-3pm and is free to visit. It does close for short periods over the winter and so it is worth calling ahead if you are making a special journey.

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Early 8th century – St Laurence, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire

St Laurence’s was founded by St Aldhelm, a distant relation of the Royal House of Wessex, around AD700 – the exact date is unknown. Although some of the church is later – maybe 10th or 11th century – recent investigations have shown that the majority of the church does date from Aldhelm’s lifetime, making it one of the most complete Anglo-Saxon churches to survive without major medieval interventions. For centuries the church was not used as such – among other things it was a school and a domestic house, with the Norman church nearby fulfilling the need for a parish place of worship. However it was restored in the 1870s and now once more opens for worship and visitors. With its small windows and high walls, as well as some very fine sculpted decoration, it is a wonderful survival.

The church is free and open seven days a week.

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