You may never have heard of King Edmund of England but you should have. He was killed by the Vikings in ways that were truly dreadful. And his horrific death is marked by an amazing ancient church that is still standing in Essex, a county in south east England.
Greenstead church – an incredible survivor
I’ve been visiting Greenstead church in Essex since I was….gosh, ten years old back in the 1970s. So – what draws me back? It’s a unique building. Possibly the oldest wooden church in Europe still in its original condition.
The main body of this very dark church is made of tree logs sawn in half. The walls of the nave inside are the smoothed sawn surfaces of the halved logs, locked together.
Outside the church, you can see the curved log surfaces, all blackened now. There has been some mystery as to the age of these logs but analysis shows they date back to the Saxon period in the eleventh century.
Originally, the church would have been like a log cabin with a large thatched roof but additions over the centuries have – rather unusually – not involved sweeping away the logs but instead incorporated them in to the building. However, they are not a decorative addition – they still form the main walls of the nave.
So why was the church built?
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Viking murder of King Edmund
It seems now to be in the middle of nowhere but Essex, as its name suggests, was the land of the East Saxons. King Edmund was the king of the East Angles in the ninth century – at a time when they were under attack from the Vikings.
In the 900s, Abbo of Fleury wrote his account of the life of Edmund at the abbey of Ramsey. He recounted how two Danish kings, Hinguar and Habba, ravaged Northumbria and then Hinguar peeled off heading towards East Anglia. Edmund was captured and put to death in a rather grisly manner. He was whipped – rather like Jesus – then tied to a tree and shot with so many arrows that he ‘bristled with them like a hedgehog or thistle’.
This echoes the death of Saint Sebastian. It was very common to mix and match the life stories of other saints and apply them to new holy people. Suffice it to say that in spite of resembling a hedgehog, Edmund somehow managed to still be alive and declaring his faith to Christ.
His head was chopped off and body discarded – though later discovered being guarded by a very helpful wolf who shouted out where it was….being divinely gifted with the ability to speak!
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Edmund the Viking murder victim becomes a saint
East Anglia and Essex continued to be attacked by the Danes – and ruled by them – in to the early 1000’s – when things got so violent and out of hand that Edmund’s body was taken from its resting place and shrine at Bury St Edmunds to London for sakekeeping.
Strangely, the Vikings seemed to have started to venerate Edmund as well as the Saxons – even though the former had done him to death. It seems his holiness came to be recognised by all sides. However, the veneration was not enough to stop nervous Saxons taking his body to London where it stayed for three years before being transported back to Bury. It was while this was happening that his body stopped for a night at Greenstead and the wooden chapel was built.
As the church was completed, in the second decade of the eleventh century – the Danes took over all of England under King Canute. Oddly, it was dedicated to Saint Andrew and not Edmund. Some think this suggests an earlier Celtic Christian influenced church was on the site. Who knows.
A place where lepers prayed
One of the things that can be noted in the log structure is a small triangular hole that many have assumed to be a leper squint. That is a hole through which lepers could view the mass from outside. This is disputed and some say it was let in light but having seen the squint, I find that less than convincing. It’s tiny! Must say that my gut feeling is that it was for the lepers.
In the Templar period, it came under the control of Walter de Baskerville (1268-1319) and for those of you interested in such things, the rectory was valued at 40 shillings in 1254. De Baskerville fought against the king in the Baron’s War and Greenstead slipped in to the hands of Roger de Clifford. De Baskerville eventually got the church and surrounding estates back but surrendered them in a land swap with another noble called Roger de la Hay.
There have been many interesting alterations to the church – all positive. The Tudors built a very quaint roof and the Stuarts added a nice wooden whitewashed tower. Even the Victorians made some additions which, for once, were tasteful and kept the character of the building. They also set the wooden logs in to a brick foundation as they had started to rot at ground level. Also to note – a crusader grave by the front porch – easily missed. Here are some photos I took on a visit in December, 2011.