The Italian Connetion: Escomb Church: Built 670-690 AD

The Italian Connetion: Escomb Church: Built 670-690 AD

Run your hand over some of the stones that form the fabric of this ancient Saxon church, thought to have been built between 670 and 690 AD, and you are going back to the day when a Roman mason prepared the stone for plastering, known as diamond broaching. The cross hatching is a well-known technique among Roman stoneworkers for getting plaster, used to adorn special buildings like temples and villas, to bond. But why are the stones, which often face outward into the graveyard, built into one of our oldest churches?

It is thought much of the stone came from recycled materials taken from the Roman cavalry fort at Vinovium, which would explain the ‘Italian’ connection. So here we have a church that is a building highway reflecting styles and ways of dressing and using stone over many hundreds of years. For example, the consecration cross cut into the stone behind the pulpit suggests, because of its style, to have to have an Irish/Celtic influence, while the stone cross erected behind the alter, could date from the 9th century, or could it be even earlier forming part of a preaching cross that predates the church?

The font is one of the centrepieces of any church, and the one at Escomb was probably carved in the 10th or 11th centuries, maybe earlier. It is certainly worn and the shape reflects how babies at the time were immersed during the christening. Windows are a clue to when a church is built, and there are five windows that reflect Saxon workmanship and taste. Some of the windows have rounded lintels, while others are straight, but all are splayed to let in the maximum amount of light and keep out some of the rain and wind.

When you wander round you see all sorts of carvings. Were they cut by design or did the masons of the time do their own thing? One interesting carving is of Adam and Eve standing below the tree of life, which is cut into the right hand vestry door jamb. The church roof is high in relation to its length and width. Look up from the churchyard and see how the stones are larger near the bottom, getting smaller as they rise to the ridge of this building, which has very high gable ends.

Those with an eye for how stone is incorporated into a building will be intrigued to see how ‘long’ and ‘short’ stones have been used to form the chancel arch. Could this again be the work of Roman masons, the arch being rebuilt from one that already existed on another site? On close inspection you see that the masonry is so finely cut and dressed that mortar isn’t needed to hold it all together. If your Latin is up to scratch you might be able to translate the inscription on the left hand side of the east window on the north wall. It reads ”Bono rei publicae nato” which means “to the man born for the good of the state.” Where did that piece of stone come from originally?

The mason’s craft lives on in the many gravestones seen around the graveyard, which is enclosed in a circle wall often called the ‘God’s Toft’, a shape strongly associated with Celtic times and may even go as far back as Romano-British period. Looking up and walking slowly round the church you see all sorts of stone masonry through the ages. Above the porch you’ll find a 17th century sundial, while the one in the middle of the south wall dates back to the 7th century, and is thought to be the earliest in its original place in the country. The north wall is sombre and mysteriously dark and yet reflects best the hand of the original Celtic and Anglo-Saxon masons. A slate like stone protects a hard to read inscription, which is in fact set upside down. It reads LEG VI. What does it mean or are we looking with crooked neck at a piece of carved stone stolen from another building?

The parish Saxon church of Escomb reflects over 1300 years of history and examples of masonry through the centuries. As such it is a magnificent reflection of man’s skills with eye and hand tools and dedication to worship through the good times and bad.

Mel Russ