Rotherham MinsterAbsent from work today – not because of the snow but because of a  middle of the day appointment – and I’m chasing ghosts from the very distant past in my local area. Sadly for ghost hunters and Most Haunted aficionados, I’m not after the spiritual or ethereal kind but more the traces of an Anglo-Saxon past, buried beneath the fabric of the current Rotherham Minster.

John Guest’s voluminous book Historic Notices of Rotherham gives little indication of the pre-Norman history of Rotherham’s main church, now Minster, beyond indicating that there was a church on the current site prior to 1066.

What we do know from various sources is that the Saxons in the area initially had wooden places of worship, sometimes Christian, sometimes pagan (and in some cases both – see Raedweld in east Anglia, who maintained two altars in his one church) and that at various points in history these were torn down and replaced with partially wooden and partially stone, or entirely stone, buildings. There were such buildings in Doncaster during the Anglo-Saxon period and it is fair to assume that Rotherham would have had similar, most certainly a stone church of architecture common for the era.

Unfortunately, nothing of the fabric of that building remains, above ground at least.

Plan of Rotherham Minster

Remnants of an Anglo Saxon door jamb and wall were found where circled during the 1875/6 neo-Gothic restoration by Sir Gilbert Scott and Henry Cane. This was probably the west wall entrance – you can imagine the position the Anglo Saxon church may have taken.

Guest alludes to the discovery of some elements from this Anglo Saxon stone building being uncovered during the neo-Gothic restorations at Rotherham All Saints (now the Minster) by Henry Cane and Sir Gilbert Scott during 1875/6 though.

These consisted of a door jamb and adjoining wall foundations that were found under the north-west pier of the tower, under the arch which joins the north transept of the current Minster with the north aisle of the nave. This is off-set from the centre of the current orientation of the church but it is more than certain that any Anglo-Saxon church would’ve been smaller and narrower.

Is the path from the north aisle into the north transept and indicator of where this much older building sat? The north and south walls of any Anglo Saxon building would fit on a through line through the north transept, the altar possibly sitting somewhere on the north side of the current, Norman chancel.

This is pure speculation though I am keen to follow it up with a look at the archaeological notes of Dorothy Greene. These notes are currently held in the Rotherham archives at Clifton Park Museum which is, unfortunately, closed due to the lockdown.

Until then one can only speculate on the appearance of that church from what remains elsewhere from a similar period – a small, plain structure with tiny barred windows and a massive sanctuary door to offer respite for parishioners from marauding bands. There are plenty of Anglo-Saxon buildings nearby in South Yorkshire but most of these have been altered in subsequent centuries and are more characteristic of later periods.

From a little further afield though the one that has caught my eye is the Church of St John the Baptist at Kirk Hammerton, near York. Originating in the 8th century, it has a western tower with a door and a narrow, high chancel. Maybe there was something like this on the hill where the current Minster sits.

The Church of St John the Baptist, Kirk Hammerton

The Church of St John the Baptist, Kirk Hammerton. Note the well preserved and distinctive Anglo-Saxon parts of the church, including a west entrance.

The Anglo Saxon part of the church at Kirk Hammerton

Inside the Church of St John The Baptist at Kirk Hammerton, near York. This has been much extended to the north side (the left) since the Norman conquest in 1066AD