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Greensted Church: The world’s oldest surviving wooden church and the oldest timber building in Europe

Goran Blazeski

St Andrew’s Church in the village of Greensted-Juxta-Ongar, near Chipping Ongar in Essex, England, is an ancient place of worship and one of the prettiest churches in England. More commonly known as Greensted Church, it was built of timber shortly before the Norman invasion, and it is widely acknowledged as the oldest surviving wooden church in the world and the oldest timber building in Europe.

Greensted Church a fully functioning church and it is open daily for everyone who wants to visit it or to attend the regular Sunday services.

There are many old wooden churches in Scandinavia similar to the Greensted Church in Essex, so a team of academics from the University of Oslo asked for permission to test the timbers back in 1960. They believed that the oldest surviving wooden church was in Scandinavia and wanted to prove their claims by taking timber samples for a laboratory analysis.

St Andrew’s Church from the southwest  Photo Credit

St Andrew’s Church from the southwest Photo Credit

 

Nave from north of St Andrew’s Church, Greensted, in the civil parish of Ongar, Essex, England  Photo Credit

Nave from north of St Andrew’s Church, Greensted, in the civil parish of Ongar, Essex, England Photo Credit

 

 

 

The less photographed northern side of this famous Anglo-Saxon church. The unusual vertical split oak log construction can be seen clearly  Photo Credit

The less photographed northern side of this famous Anglo-Saxon church. The unusual vertical split oak log construction can be seen clearly Photo Credit

 

Nave south door decorative iron hinge of St Andrew’s Church  Photo Credit

Nave south door decorative iron hinge of St Andrew’s Church Photo Credit

The church was a temporary resting place of King Edmund, the first patron saint of England, whose body was kept there overnight in 1013, on its way to Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk.

Excavations, undertaken in the chancel in 1960, showed that the first church was built here in the 7th century, around the time when St. Cedd, an Anglo-Saxon monk, and bishop, began his work in the conversion of the East Saxons to Christianity.

The delegation was welcomed by the Greensted community, and they were allowed to take timber samples for analysis. Their plan didn’t work out, and once they finished the laboratory analysis, they had to admit that Greensted Church predated all of their churches and was founded in the first half of the 11th century.

A stained glass window depicting St Edmund, visible inside the church  Photo Credit

A stained glass window depicting St Edmund, visible inside the church Photo Credit

 

Chancel south door of St Andrew’s Church  Photo Credit

Chancel south door of St Andrew’s Church Photo Credit

 

Nave and south porch roofs of St Andrew’s Church  Photo Credit

Nave and south porch roofs of St Andrew’s Church Photo Credit

 

The north wall and part of the west wall of the nave; the notch, low down on the 7th trunk along from the corner, may either be a “leper’s squint,” or a Saxon window

The north wall and part of the west wall of the nave; the notch, low down on the 7th trunk along from the corner, may either be a “leper’s squint,” or a Saxon window

Throughout the centuries, the church was extended, repaired and restored by Saxon, Norman, Tudor and Victorian builders

The wooden walls of the nave which are made from Oaktreeree trunks are the only remaining parts of the original Saxon structure, while the tower is a later addition, most probably from the 17th century.

However, most of the church that we see today was built during the Tudor period. The roof is a Tudor replacement, and it was during this period that the chancel was rebuilt in brick and thatch.

The 3 Tudor dormer windows, which were placed on both sides of the nave roof, were replaced with six windows during the Reconstruction work by the Victorians in the 19th century. A detailed brickwork to the building and the wooden porch were also added during this period, and a local woodworker named James Barlow carved the spandrels and crafted the eagle lectern.

 

St Andrew’s parish church, Greensted, in the civil parish of Ongar, Essex, England, seen from the northwest  Photo Credit

St Andrew’s parish church, Greensted, in the civil parish of Ongar, Essex, England, seen from the northwest Photo Credit

 

St Andrew, Greensted, Essex- Churchyard  Photo Credit

St Andrew, Greensted, Essex- Churchyard Photo Credit

In the first half of the 19th century, the Dorset farmers known as the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’ were granted farm tenancies in High Laver and Greensted. On June 20th, 1839, one of them, James Brine, married Elizabeth Standfield, daughter of another of the martyrs at Greensted Church. The church remains as one of the most popular wedding venues.

Read another story from us: The Morlaix staircase displayed at the V&A Museum was once a part of a 16th-century timber-framed house in Morlaix, France

There are war graves of three soldiers of World War I and an airman of World War II in the courtyard of the church. However, the oldest grave is that of an unknown 12th century Crusader on the right of the porch.