Corhampton Church – a Saxon gem in Provincia Meanwarorum

For today’s blog, I am reposting a piece I wrote for the History Girls blog back in October, continuing my series of posts about the communities of the Meon Valley.

Corhampton (Quedementune (11th c); Cornhampton (13th); Corhamtone, Cornhamtone and Cornehampton (14th); Corehampton (16th) lies on the west bank of the River Meon, seven miles upstream from Wickham, the subject of my November post. Corhampton is equidistant, at only a little over half a mile, from two other villages, Meonstoke (the inspiration for my “Meonbridge Chronicles”) and Exton. Exton also lies to the west of the river, while Meonstoke – with which Corhampton forms a civil parish – lies on the east bank. Between the three little communities there are, today, perhaps 1000 inhabitants, but each community has an ancient church. Those in Meonstoke and Exton are 13th century, but Corhampton’s church is Saxon, built in 1020, and it is this church that I will explore further in this post.

But, first, a little more about the people of the Meon Valley.

The Romans left Britain in the 5th century, leaving behind a population some of whom at least were Christians. At about the same time, Saxons and other tribes, Jutes, Angles and Friesians, came from Denmark and northern Germany to invade and then settle in Britain, bringing with them the beliefs and customs of the polytheistic Germanic religion of Wodin and Thor. The invaders became known as the “Anglo-Saxons”, establishing in time the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex, which were eventually unified into the Kingdom of England in the early 10th century. Our area, the Meon Valley, lies close to the boundary between Sussex and Wessex.

In the late 7th century, Wilfrith (or Wilfrid), born to a noble Northumbrian family, and appointed the Bishop of York, was obliged to leave the north for a few years and spent his time evangelising the heathen south Saxons. Briefly (and indeed, simplistically, for Wilfrith’s story is actually rather complicated!), Wilfrith was keen to move the northern Christian Church from the old Celtic traditions to the new Roman practices. He was mostly successful, building many churches and founding many monasteries. But he had to appeal to Rome for support against a plan by Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to subdivide his diocese of York. While waiting for the case to be decided, he was forced into exile. He went first to Sūþseaxna rīce (Saxon Sussex) and then travelled to the Isle of Wight and to the Meon Valley, where he apparently began his missionary work. It is thought likely that Wilfrith was responsible for building many mud and wattle churches in the Valley.

Bede (the “Venerable Bede”) was also born in Saxon Northumbria, about forty years after Wilfrith, but he remained a monk, spending most of his life in a monastery in Jarrow. Bede was a scholar and author who, in his time, was as well known for his writing on scientific matters, chronology, grammar, and biblical studies as for the historical and theological work for which he is perhaps best known today.

In his most famous work, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (An Ecclesiastical History of the English People), Bede refers to the valley of the River Meon, calling it “Provincia Meanwarorum” or the Province of the Meonwara (“Meon People”), some of the Jutes and Saxons who had come from Denmark three centuries earlier.

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Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum
(Ecclesiastical History of the English People) © British Library

For seven centuries or more (until, and after, the Norman Conquest in 1066) the Provincia Meanwarorum was developed as a fertile farming valley running from the South Downs at East Meon to the Solent at Titchfield Haven. Trading vessels navigated the River Meon, wider and faster flowing in those days. Vessels reached as far as Droxford, enabling flour and other agricultural produce to be taken back to the Solent and to the trading ports of Hamwic (Southampton) and Portesmuða (Portsmouth).

In his History, Bede refers to the hamlet of Cornhampton as a settlement on the west bank of the Meon where corn was milled and traded. The mill (immediately adjacent to, and to the north of, the church) is the possible origin of the first part of name of the hamlet (“Corn”).

The Domesday Book (1086) does not include a reference to “Cornhampton”, but does refer to the parish of Quedementune, which is presumed to be Corhampton. However, there is no mention of a church in Quedementune, which is rather strange as Corhampton Church is considered to pre-date the Domesday Book.

In Bede’s time, there were about thirty villages and churches in the Meon Valley. Around 1000, by which time Christianity was firmly established, parish boundaries had been laid out, and the building of permanent churches was possible, many of those earlier churches were replaced by stone structures. However, in Provincia Meanwarorum, it is only the church at Corhampton, built in 1020, that survives more or less intact from the period. Other post-conquest churches in the valley are built on, or close to, sites of Saxon churches, and some do have links to the Saxon era. But Corhampton Church pre-dates the Norman cathedral in Winchester and most medieval cathedrals except those at Canterbury, Hereford, Litchfield, Rochester, Worcester, and York, some of which have subsequently been largely re-built.

Of the two other nearby churches, St Peter and St Paul in Exton is 13th century, situated on the site of an earlier church dating back to 940 AD, but much restored during the 19th century. St Andrew’s in Meonstoke was built in 1230 and has few later alterations, although the tower was rebuilt in flint in the 15th century, and the roof and aisles were raised in the 18th century, followed by a top to the tower, built in wood.

St_peter_and_paul_church_exton_hampshire
St Peter and Paul Church, Exton By Nicholsr (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D
Meonstoke_St_Andrews
St Andrew’s Church, Meonstoke By Pterre (Own work)
[CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D

But Corhampton Church is a rare example of a truly Saxon Church, with its Saxon font, original stone side altar, 12th century frescoes, sanctuary chair and Saxon sundial, and most of the original building still in situ. It stands on a mound adjacent to the River Meon beside an ancient yew tree, which almost certainly predates it. When the church was built, Canute was King of England (as well as of Denmark and Norway), his capital of Winchester 10 miles to the west, and Corhampton was a royal estate.

The church is remarkable for many reasons, one of which is that it is one of only a very few churches that are undedicated. It is thought that churches at this time were built under the patronage of the local lord, who would have had the right to choose to whom the church would be dedicated, a saint, for example, as are the churches at Exton and Meonstoke. But, it seems that the church at Corhampton missed out on such a dedication, and has always simply been known as Corhampton Church.

Corehampton - 2
Corhampton Church, south side © David Hughes

The mound on which the church is built appears to be artificial, rather than a natural undulation in the landscape. This is not common for a Christian church and it has been suggested that the church may stand on the site of a pre-Christian temple of Roman or even earlier which were sometimes built on mounds. Some evidence of a Roman settlement was found in the 1930s just a few hundred yards to the north of the church, and there is a Roman coffin with a lead lining, pre-dating the church by seven centuries, in the churchyard, moved there in 1912 after its discovery in a nearby field.

Corehampton - 3
Corhampton Church, north side © David Hughes

The church, consisting of a nave and a chancel, was constructed of whole flints, locally available and cheap, which were plastered over. The walls are only 2’ 6”/76cm thick, as apparently Saxon walls often were, but they were strengthened by stone quoins. The stone came from the Isle of Wight, either from Binstead or Quarr, and shipped up the River Meon. The church has survived substantially unaltered. Late in the 19th century, a porch and couple of buttresses were added, together with a vestry-cum-boiler room, and repairs were required a little earlier when, in 1842, the east end of the church collapsed resulting in some rather incongruous red brickwork being added.

Immediately to the right of the porch, set into the wall, is the Saxon sundial, one of the best preserved such Saxon dials in England. It is in fact a “tide dial”, the dial being divided into eight “tides” rather than twelve hours. The day in Saxon times was divided into eight tides, each about three hours long. The eight tides can be clearly seen, as can the hole in the middle where the gnomon, the piece that projects the sun’s shadow onto the dial and probably made of metal, would have been. The dial itself is in a reddish brown stone quite different from any other stone in the church, pre-dating the present building and maybe even dating back to Wilfrith’s time. The dial could well have been in use from the time Wilfrith was in the Meon Valley until the Norman conquest, when the use of such dials seemed to fall away.

Sundial,_Corhampton_Church_-_geograph.org.uk_-_830692
Saxon tide dial at Corhampton Church
© Pierre Terre [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

Corhampton Church is particularly renowned for its wall paintings. The collapse in 1842 of the east end of the church damaged these remarkable works of medieval art, but they were uncovered in 1968 and restored. There is some uncertainty about the age of paintings: they could be as late as 1225, but it is generally thought that they date from the middle of the 12th century.

Corehampton - 6
Corhampton Church wall painting, south wall
© David Hughes

Not all the scenes in the paintings can be deciphered. However, the painting at the top of the south wall is said to depict stories from the life of Swithun, Bishop of Winchester in the mid 9th century. One is the miracle of the eggs. Here, Swithun is inspecting a bridge being built over the River Itchen and, in the crowd that has gathered, an old woman is jostled and her eggs fall from her basket. But Swithun puts the broken eggs back together. To the right of this, the painting is thought to relate to the story of a young man who fell into the Itchen after being frightened by two wild women. He was judged to be dead when he was pulled from the river, but his body was laid for three days by Swithun’s tomb and was restored to life. Below these paintings is a border pattern coloured red and green, and below that are swags and a large medallion featuring two doves back to back with their heads turned to face one another. I understand that designs such as these are very rare for this early period. I really recommend a visit to Corhampton to see the paintings in their full glory!

Finally, an impressive feature of the churchyard of Corhampton Church is the huge, and thriving, yew tree, one of the finest and oldest examples in the country. Its branches grow at about half an inch (1.25cm) a year, and its girth is 23 feet/7m, so it is almost certainly 1000 years old and may even pre-date the church. Some historians think that churches were built next to ancient trees rather than the other way round. Certainly yews are characteristic of English churchyards, and some are estimated to be well over 1,000 years old. It seems that they may have been planted as some sort of act of sanctification. Apparently, the Druids regarded the yew as sacred and planted them close to their temples. Early Christians often built their churches on those ancient consecrated sites, so the association of yew trees and churchyards may simply have been thus perpetuated. On the other hand, some think that yews were planted in churchyards to ward off evil spirits, or because they grew so well with their roots feeding on the corpses that there was a plentiful supply of the wood for making good bows!

Corehampton - 10
1000-year-old yew in Corhampton churchyard
© David Hughes

Whatever the truth of the planting of the yews, the tree in Corhampton churchyard is magnificent. And it is truly remarkable to consider how much of the history of the Meonwara it has witnessed!

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