Why is St Lawrence Church where it is?

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Saint Lawrence church may be the spiritual heart of the village of Stratford-sub-Castle but it is not at its geographical heart. Why is it at the northern edge of the village amongst fields? 

Because it lies on top of an older Chapel and possibly even older sacred site, between the Iron Age Fort and river crossing to Wilton, amid homes now long lost and is the only church around and within Old Sarum to have survived.  

When the church was built (date unknown but it was one of a multiple delayed consecration in 1326) it was on the site of an already existing Chapel. 12th and 13th C walls and floors have been found on site, from an earlier building beneath the footpath between the porch and the road.

 

Which leads to the question why was that Chapel there?  Stratford became a parish in the late 13th century but in 1228 the Chapel here was an annex of Saint Martin’s Church Salisbury. As the Prebend of St Laurence (sic) was being taxed in 1217, it would be a reasonable assumption the dedication applied to the chapel.

However far we go back in human history we know that the geographical oddity of the hill of Old Sarum existed as an appendix to the Bishopdown Hill spur of chalk and that hill has always influenced man’s behaviour in the valley floor between it and the highway of the river. There are plenty of finds that tell us of Neolithic activity around Old Sarum and we know in the Iron Age around 400 BC major activity took place constructing a hill fort. There would have been traffic from the river to the summit, but we know nothing about any shrine along the way. Iron Age pottery finds have been unearthed at the Gas substation old clay quarry on Gradidge Lane.

In the Roman period the focus of settlement, the vicis or wic was at the other end, the south, of today’s village.  However Roman hypocaust tiles have been found in Dean's Farm field suggesting a Roman (heated) dwelling perhaps at or just to the north of the St Lawrence site and somewhere north of this was the river crossing on their lead road to the Mendips. St Lawrence was martyred in AD 238 [1] so it is quite possible there was a villa with a shrine to him in later Roman times (4th C). Other St Lawrence churches have been associated with Roman villas. It would be difficult to prove or disprove this with two thousand years of alluvium and colluvium on top plus burials and bones plus subsequent buildings and even a crypt until the early 20th C.

Nor can we definitely say there was any sacred site here in Saxon times, only that it would not be a surprise if there were. Alfred, King of the West Saxons (West-Sax, Wes-sex, Wessex) was a religious man. He was defeated by the Vikings at Wilton (Wylie-ton, capital of Wiltun-shire, Wilt-shire) in 871 only to recover and defeat them at Edington (878) also in Wiltshire. He chose Wilton as one of his fortified burhs and updated the defences at Old Sarum as another (perhaps emergency or refuge) burh, later consolidated by Æthelred. This was probably to the southwest of Old Sarum around our church site and would have required a place of worship. (Sar burh or Seaorburgh as a name also applied to a large Saxon Royal estate in Alfred’s time, along the Avon valley from the Woodfords to (the present site of) Salisbury). These two burhs were linked by a herepath, a Saxon military route which (must have) crossed the Avon. Just on the Wilton side of the river was the Saxon vill of Afene or Avon [2], recorded in a 972 charter and part of the estate of the Benedictine Nuns at Wilton Abbey. Perhaps there was a place of worship at our site as the first millennium ended but in 1003 Sveyn,[3]  after sacking Wilton, came to Old Sarum and would have paid little deference to any sacred site outside the defences. After his visit Old Sarum became more important as the Mint moved there from Wilton. Wilton and Sarum were in the (Great) Domesday book, presented to William at Sarum in 1086 [4], but Stratford, with or without any chapel was not. 

The 11th and 12th C saw the building of the Norman cathedrals at Old Sarum and the 12th C Chapel at our site and the 13th C the movement of the Sarum Cathedral to the present valley floor site. Our font [5] is late 12th C but could have come from another site. There are two late 12th C Lancet windows [5] in the Chancel.

 

From the 13th C onwards “Why is St Lawrence where it is?” is the wrong question. We should ask, why of all the sacred sites of worship on and around (Old) Sarum is it the only one that has survived? Within the Castle were St Nicholas’s chapel on top of St Margaret’s, by the well, and St Mary and St Mary Magdalen’s chapels. All were lost as the castle was decommissioned and by Tudor times largely dismantled. Even the curtilage of the Cathedral(s) was lost and forgotten till a drought in 1834. Of the extramural sacred sites St Peter’s and St Ethelreda’s no longer survive, and their locations are lost, the Church of the Holy Rood (Cross) and St John (the Baptist) and St Anthony no longer survive though their locations to the east are known. The eastern suburb has disappeared (but for the Old Castle Inn site), the western too. St Lawrence is the only extra mural church to have survived. This must largely have to do with its position to the south. (St Ethel(d)reda’s church may have been inside the hillfort. She was known as Aldreda and Audrey and shoddy goods at St Audrey’s Fair gave us the word tawdry, hers would have been a Saxon not Norman dedication). There may too have been (13-17thC) a church south south west of Old Sarum serving Stratford Common as opposed to St Lawrence serving Stratford Dean in addition to those named.

The proximity of (Old) Sarum in an important reason for our church once styled as St Lawrence Juxta Sarum to have survived. The river and a crossing somewhere nearby are relevant as is the Wilton Burh and Abbey beyond it and the Abbey lands extended to near the church, at least to the river. The modern road however is irrelevant to its position.

Although the church has a door from the tower facing the road and a Wayside cross on the roadside and three gates from the road to the churchyard the church is much older than the road. Thomas Pitt’s benefaction of 1711 is proclaimed to the modern road so it must have been the route for passing traffic then.

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But there are much older routes going past the church. In 1992 the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments in England without any geophysics surveyed the fields around the church, revealing mediaeval roads, buildings and fields (image right). They demonstrated a route running to the east of the church probably from the stile at Gradidge Lane, past the back of the church, not following the current footpath to a stile on the modern road but heading across the gardens of Dean Farm House.

This route was excavated near the church in 1969 for an oil pipeline and nearer Dean Farm House garden wall the Old Sarum Landscapes Project (OSLP) in 2018 [6] (after extensive geophysical surveying). Some pottery dated this as Saxon-Norman and some from near Romsey as Saxon, 10th C.

 

It heads for the river.

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Would it be a huge leap of faith, distance or time (all three needed to explain the church’s location) to see this continue to the crossing (probably somewhere near the current bridge, though probably without a bridge) and the inter bur(g)hal herepath beyond?  West of this route are half a dozen tofts, plots of land with inhabited buildings, for whom the church was a neighbour. Three present day routes, the modern Road, the footpath parallel to it and the footpath from Gradidge Lane to the road, cut across these plots. To the west of these lay more dwellings and plots to the river, only Church Close, now Church Meadow House, remains between the road and river with the mediaeval house platforms in the meadow next to it. These are perhaps a little later, 12th -13th C.  To the east of the mediaeval ? Saxon route is a road from Dean’s Farm House to the Churchyard which is still clearly visible today. It appears as a tree lined avenue, as does the modern road to the west of the church, in the Andrews and Dury 1773 map of Wiltshire, both are probably from earlier in the 18th C, but not a burgage map twenty years later. In the 1877 Ordnance Survey map the road has gone but the avenue of trees remains, by the 1900 OS map they too have disappeared.

Occupation at the Dean’s Farm site goes back to the early Bronze Age. Stratford Decani was a village whose name meant belonging to the Dean. It later became Stratford(e) Dean(e). (In the Sarum Liturgy the chancel has the Decani on the south and the Cantoris on the north). We can only talk of Dean’s Farm or Stratford Dean when there was a Dean ie when there was a Cathedral ie post Conquest (Cathedral consecration was 1092). They and their West Saxon rectilinear precursor burh housed worshippers in need of a church. The focus of the village which had been to the south of the modern village in Romans times moved north to Stratford Dean by the 14th C then slowly the area between the two, Stratford Canon or Common grew as over the centuries Stratford Dean dwindled, leaving our church seemingly stranded in an open field. Newton Westgate (a new clergy dormitory suburb at the West gate of (Old) Sarum, dwellings along the top of the field we have been discussing and the north side of Phillips Lane) has disappeared even more completely than Afene and Stratford Dean. Its residents were more likely to have had their spiritual needs met within (Old) Sarum, at least until the 13th C when they seem to have left. Lay residents may have used a Chapel / Church of St Lawrence though.

Why is St Lawrence Church where it is? The answer in one word is, Salisbury. Sarisburie. Sarisbyrig. Searobyrg. It is two words joined together. The hill named after Sor or Sar, a human or mythical leader or deity, was the site of defensive fortifications spanning over two millennia, from the Iron Age to World War II and of worship for about two centuries, 11th to 13th. St Lawrence lies in its shadow and in amidst the West Saxon bur(g)h on the southwest side of that hill on the road to the river crossing and the next bur(g)h and county seat and Abbey at Wilton and served local areas of habitation, some now lost.

[1] See https://www.stratfordsubcastle.org.uk/st-lawrence

[2] See https://www.stratfordsubcastle.org.uk/avon-farm

[3] See https://www.stratfordsubcastle.org.uk/sweyn-forkbeard

[4] See https://www.stratfordsubcastle.org.uk/william-the-conqueror

[5] See https://www.stratfordsubcastle.org.uk/st-lawrence-church (a photo album of architectural features)

[6] See https://www.stratfordsubcastle.org.uk/old-sarum-landscapes-project

Kerry O’Connor

November 2021

Sources include:

Publications by David James of Stratford sub Castle; 

The Old Sarum Landscapes Project based at Southampton University; 

Dr Alex Langlands of Swansea University, both as part of the OSLP and in separate works; 

Musty, J. and Rahtz, P. A. 1964. The suburbs of Old Sarum. Wilts Archaeol + Nat History Magazine no. 59, pp 130-154;

The Victoria County History of the County of Wiltshire Vol 6 1962;

The Wiltshire Historic Environment Record;

The Friends of St Lawrence Newsletters.

Details available on request.