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ST PETER’S BEDFORD – AN ANGLO-SAXON CHURCH by R.R. Evans
For over a thousand years Christians have worshipped at the beautiful Church of St. Peter de Merton beside St. Peter’s Green in Bedford. Few of them, though, can have been aware that the first village of Bedanford is thought to have been centred here. The early history of this site may date back, possibly, to between 585 & 827 A.D. during the days of Mercia and the early spread of Christianity. Built mainly of timber, its precise shape is uncertain, only stonework surviving alteration to tell us of the early days of the later building here.
St Peter’s, in fact, was at one time known as St. Peter’s-in-the-Fields as it was originally outside the town walls – perhaps used in the towns defences and later as a parish church, to serve the farming community. Saxon villagers appear generally to have been ‘left free to build their own churches’, the usual sign of interference by Norman overlordship (at least by the end of the eleventh century) being limited to the addition of another storey to a Saxon tower, as at Clapham in this county.
Indeed, there are only five churches in Bedfordshire having undoubted Saxon work, namely; St. Peter’s, Bedford; St. Mary’s, Bedford; St. Thomas’s, Clapham; St. Mary’s Stevington and All Saints’, Turvey. The lower part of St. Peter’s tower and portions of the chancel contain examples of just such work, perhaps the most obvious being clearly visible from the nave inside. In the interior west wall of the tower (behind the pulpit and lectern) are embedded two great stone monoliths which are virtually megaliths because of their great size – over 6ft. high; and, above the pulpit, are remains of long-and-short work, “quoins”, where the stones are alternately large and small, characteristic of Saxon masons’ building methods.
It was only just over a century ago, when plaster was stripped from the chancel in 1890, that signs of damage caused by a great fire were found in many of the stones – which had become cracked and calcined. This might have occurred at the hands of the Danes under Thurkill in 1010, when forty ships sailed down the River Ouse to ransack and burn Bedford. Be that as it may, experts believe that, at St. Peter’s, the Saxon church first consisted of a single- storey west porch with a small aisleless nave to the east. That the tower was built up later is clearly indicated by the quoins, those in the upper part being little larger than the rest of the rubble used. They bear no comparison to the size of stones used for the long-and-short work of the lower quoins. Thus, today’s choir is housed in what was once the thin-walled west porch, the extreme west end of the building being where is now the chancel entrance.
Visible from outside at the projecting south-west corner of the chancel (old Saxon nave), are further long-and-short quoins and on the tower’s south face is some herring bone work not far from two blocked round-headed double-splayed windows. After the great fire and the Conquest there may have been a period when the tower was used for military purposes by the Normans. Perhaps ancient yew trees from the churchyard supplied the wood for archers’ bows and arrows while this was a watch-tower but, certainly, traces of the foundations of an apse beyond the east end (discovered during restoration in the 1860’s) suggest that the Normans may have rebuilt the church at a later date. A unique round-headed arch – of limestone rubble and some 8ft. high – has survived intact from round about this time. Dating back to approximately 1080 it is situated in the north wall of the tower and is partially obscured by the organ console. It was exposed in 1890 during removal of plaster, along with the now restored fenestella (or niche), the original dimensions of the fourteenth century priest’s door west of that, the low “leper” window (almost certainly not used by them!) and, intriguingly, the greater portion of a round-headed window in the north wall up near the altar. Could this have been like others in the apse known to have existed in Norman times? It can only be a guess but, undeniably, the east wall behind the altar is not properly bonded into the side walls. The original end wall could well have extended some further ten feet beyond that which is now there. Sadly, none of the other three tower arches has been left unaltered, the triple-chamfered east arch being of the thirteenth century when the church was restored, and the west is modern.
Both chancel and the tower (now virtually central after considerable extension westwards) can, then, be dated back to the tenth or eleventh century- although only the north side belfry window is in good condition. The pseudo-Norman twin openings (copied from St. Mary’s) arrived in 1850, some twenty years after the ornamental parapet! The best example at St. Peter’s of genuine Norman work is the magnificent doorway arch in the south porch – “a fine piece with two orders of shafts, carrying decorated scallop capitals, with saltire crosses in the abacus, and roll mouldings, one of them with a spiral beaded band” (Pevsner). It was not, however, originally an integral part of the church, having been transported there about 1545 from the former church of St. Peter de Dunstable*, which probably stood on the square opposite St. Mary’s before it was demolished. The arch was re-sited during Victorian enlargement of the nave and aisles (1845-85) and the porch added in 1902, as protection for it. This door was, for some time, the main entrance to the church.
In 1898, a further rare example of Saxon architecture came to light. With the removal of the chancel roof and other interior improvements a triangular – headed doorway, walled up for centuries, was revealed halfway up the tower, in the east wall of the belfry. This is the normal position for an upper doorway leading from the tower on to a wooden gallery or chamber. Perhaps it was the priest’s place of residence in medieval times – at any rate, it is now closed by a wooden door, the lower part being visible from ground-level 22.5 ft. below it. The jambs of the doorway are of rubble like the quoins but in the north one is set a Hiberno-Saxon stone carved with two confronting dragons – upside down! They have protruding tongues, wolf-like heads and intricate tails; on another face of the stone is an interlaced figure-of-eight knot, a pattern apparently frequently found on old Cornish crosses. This motif was common throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, and some are of the opinion that the stone, measuring only 10 in. by 15 in., may be a cross-shaft fragment dating back to the late eighth century. Several sculptures of fanciful confronted, or single bipeds ‘developing into interlace’ have been found in what was once eastern Mercia. It is thought that they may reflect the artistic taste of the major east Mercian monastic houses such as Peterborough, or Ely whose art is not otherwise documented. This exciting theory leads one to wonder whether St. Peter’s was the site, or Church of, a Saxon Monastery known to have existed in Bedford and to have been endowed by King Offa. On the other hand, it is as well to remember that similar carvings of beasts by Danish hands do exist – in view of Bedford’s position on the boundary of English Danelaw. The small runic stone is not the least of all St. Peter’s architectural treasures; in its own right it deserves further conjecture as to its origin and significance in the ancient building.
1. Beds. Archeol. Journal. Vol III, pp. 7-10 (1996) “The Anglo-Saxon Churches of Bedfordshire”, TERENCE P. SMITH.
2. “The Greater Anglo-Saxon Churches, An Architectural – Historical Study”,
by E.A. FISHER. Pub. Faber and Faber (1962) pp. 151-3.
3. “Anglo-Saxon Architecture”, Vol. 1. Cambridge Univ. Press (1965)
by H.M. and JOAN TAYLOR – see pp. 58-60.
4. The Archaeological Journal, vol. 139, pp.57-8 (1982). “St. Peter’s Church, Bedford”.
5. “The Buildings of England – Bedfordshire, Huntingdon and Peterborough”
by NIKOLAUS PEVSNER (1968).
6. “Links with the Past – St. Peter de Merton”, by A. CROSS. 73 pp. 1st ed. (1905)
7. “The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art & Culture A.D. 600-900”,
by L. WEBSTER et al., eds. (1991)
*According to the deeds of the Church Estate the title of St. Peter’s de Merton was used from the 12th Century, to distinguish it from this other St. Peter’s on the south side of the bridge; the name came from Merton Priory in Surrey, founded c.1117 and a connection with Merton College, Oxford has also been traced.