Hidden East Anglia:
The Puddingstone Track: Deconstructed
Unconvincing Evidence: the 'pagan' stones
1. The churches, the puddingstones, and the Track:
In 1954 the prehistorian, geologist, and twice former president of the Essex Field Club, Samuel Hazzledine Warren, published in the 'Essex Naturalist' an article entitled 'The Conglomerate Track'.1 This consisted of 'comments', as he termed it, about the first two papers by the Rudges concerning their discovery. He was far from convinced about the Puddingstone Track's physical existence, chiefly from a geological and practical standpoint. A few months later - and without mentioning Warren by name - Dr. Rudge published in response an article he called 'The Statistical Evidence for a Conglomerate Alignment in Essex'.2
Although Rudge countered some of Warren's points in a section he titled 'The Random Distribution of Puddingstone', he ignored many others, and chose instead to pronounce on something that Warren never even mentioned. In 'The Evidence of the Pagan Stones', he tried to emphasise the antiquity of his Track by claiming that "No less than 16 of the boulders of the alignment are incorporated in the fabric, or lie in the vicinity of, a pre-Conquest church." He actually concluded the article by saying that "Weighed upon the evidence of these 'pagan' stones alone, leading for more than 100 miles from one Saxon church to another, the conclusion that this is a man-made alignment is open to no alternative explanation, for it cannot be denied that these stones had some special significance not accorded to other boulders."
Those 16 churches were, in order from north to south along the Track: Heacham, Snettisham, Ingoldisthorpe, Cranwich, Thurston, Chelsworth, Fordham, Marks Tey, Fairstead, Great Leighs, Broomfield, Beauchamp Roding, Magdalen Laver, Epping Upland, Chesham and Bradenham. It should however be pointed out that only three of those have features that some have suggested might be pre-Conquest. It's quite possible that some or all stand on the site of an earlier Saxon church - but there is no evidence either archaeological or documentary to prove it.
Most of these should never have been included on the Track in the first place:
· At Ingoldisthorpe and Cranwich, the stones are not conglomerates, but pebble-free local carstone.
· At Thurston, the 'monolith' in the churchyard is a block of flint rubble and worked masonry from when the church collapsed in the 19th century.
· At Chelsworth, Fordham and Bradenham the boulders were plain sandstone.
· The churches at Marks Tey, Fairstead and Great Leighs all have multiple lumps of ferruginous conglomerate used in their fabric, refuting Rudge's own thesis of the single 'pagan' stone standing out from all others, which should "not be confused with stones and boulders employed in general construction."
· The Beauchamp Roding stone is a sarsen with virtually no pebbles in it.
· Epping Upland only had a 'fragment' of puddingstone in the churchyard, which Rudge slipped in his pocket and took home with him.
In any case, Rudge later dropped 9 of those 16 from the 'final version' of his Track. Two more 'pagan' stones were cited at other times: at the chapel in Stonor Park, and just outside the churchyard at Little Livermere. The latter was also afterwards discarded.
Once those dropped from the Track are excluded, along with those that fail Rudge's own criteria, only four sites remain - which is hardly convincing evidence of anything. The stones at Broomfield, Magdalen Laver, Chesham and Stonor are dealt with in detail in the 'Along the Track: county by county' listing. Although it might be reasonably suspected, none of those churches have a proven pre-Conquest origin.
1. S. Hazzledine Warren: 'The Conglomerate Track' in 'Essex Naturalist' Vol.29, Part 3 (1954), p.176-7.
2. E.A. Rudge: 'The Statistical Evidence for a Conglomerate Alignment in Essex' in 'Essex Naturalist' Vol.29, Part 4 (1954), p.178-86.
2. The letters of Pope Gregory:
The basis for Rudge's belief in the age and significance of the boulders is stated in his first paper about the Track: "The occurrence of some of its stones in the walls of ancient churches emphasises its antiquity, for it is on record that among the exhortations of the Church of Rome in its earliest days was that of Pope Gregory of AD600 to his missionaries, directing the incorporation of pagan stones into the fabric of the primitive churches".1 Two years later he virtually repeated this line, saying that Gregory "instructed his missionaries by letter, in AD601, to avoid destroying the pagan stones, but to incorporate them in the fabric of the new church".2 And again in 1957, Rudge's wife Lilian wrote that: "Pope Gregory the Great gave instructions to his missionaries to Saxon Britain that wherever they found the pagan stones they were not to destroy them, but to incorporate them in the foundations of the Christian churches".3
However, this is simply not true. Gregory's letter doesn't mention stones at all, nor does he direct incorporation of anything into either the fabric or the foundations of any building.
To place this into context: in 597AD a prior named Augustine (soon to become a bishop) landed in England at the head of a mission from Pope Gregory the First. The intent was to convert to Christianity the pagan Saxon king of Kent, Æthelberht - whose wife Bertha was already Christian - then the rest of southern Britain. By 601AD thousands (including Æthelberht) had been converted, but there was pagan resistance in Kent, with the king forced to rely on encouragement and patronage to aid in the conversion. In that year, towards the end of June, a second mission was sent, including an abbot named Mellitus (who years later became Archbishop of Canterbury.) Mellitus carried with him at least 18 letters from Gregory (the Epistles), three of which were intended for Augustine, Æthelberht, and Bertha. That addressed to the king will crop up again later.
On July 18th 601 - only a few weeks after Mellitus had left for England, the Pope sent an additional letter (Epistle 11.56) to intercept him as he passed through Gaul, which reads in part: "Cum ergo Deus omnipotens vos ad reventissimum virum fratrem nostrum Augustinum episcopum perduxerit, dicite ei quid diu mecum de cause Anglorum cogitans tractavi, vedelicet, quia fana idolorum destrui in eadam gente minime debeant, sed ipsa, quae in eis sunt, idola destruantur".
This translates as: "And when Almighty God brings you to our most reverend brother and bishop Augustine, tell him that for a long while I have been considering the case of the Angles. It is clear that the shrines of idols [fana idolorum] in that land should not be destroyed, but rather that the idols that are in them should be".4
It goes on to suggest that holy water should be "sprinkled in these shrines, and altars constructed, and relics deposited, because, as long as these shrines are well built, it is necessary that they should be transformed from the cult of demons to the service of the true God." Pope Gregory's reasoning was that "when the people themselves see that these shrines were not destroyed, they will lay aside the error of their heart, and knowing and adoring the true God, they will ﬂock with more familiarity to the places to which they are accustomed.”
Firstly, it should be noted that there is no word about stones of any kind. Secondly, the Pope's letter has been taken by many (if not most) writers to mean that this was a directive from 'on high' that all pagan sites of worship were to be converted into Christian churches - and that as a consequence, 'many' churches must be built on those ancient sacred sites. Despite considerable inference, speculation and assumption there is, however, very little evidence that this was ever a widespread practice.
The content of Gregory's letters, as well as much of our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon conversion, comes from the writings of a Northumbrian monk known as the Venerable Bede. His work 'The Ecclesiastical History of the English People' was completed c.731AD, more than 125 years after the death of Augustine. While Bede mentions many occasions where an old Roman era church or church site was reused, Sarah Semple points out that "The adoption of prehistoric sites by the Christian Church is entirely absent as a comparable theme in Bede's narrative of the English conversion".5 Given that Bede himself records the destruction of two 'pagan shrines' early in the 7th century by those newly-converted, there is a definite suggestion "that Gregory's instructions to his missionaries were not necessarily followed by Anglo-Saxon authorities themselves".6
In point of fact, rather than a directive or papal policy, the letter to Mellitus reads more as a set of suggestions, especially considering its final line: "Mention this to our brother the bishop [Augustine], that he may dispose of the matter as he sees fit according to the conditions of time and place." Rather than "I, the Pope, command that this be done", it says in effect, "Float the idea, and let Augustine do what he thinks best."
1. E.A. & E.L. Rudge: 'Evidence for a Neolithic Trackway in Essex' in 'Essex Naturalist' Vol.28, part 4 (March 1950), p.180.
2. E.A. & E.L. Rudge: 'A Stone Age Trade Route in East Anglia' in 'Discovery' Vol.13, No.7 (July 1952), p.207.
3. Lilian Rudge: 'The Mystery of the Puddingstone Track' in 'Essex Countryside' Vol.5, No.19 (Spring 1957), p.99.
4. Joseph Stevenson: 'Venerabilis Bedæ: Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum' (English Historical Society, 1838), p.79.
5. Sarah Semple: 'Perceptions of the Prehistoric in Anglo-Saxon England' (Oxford University Press, 2013), p.136.
6. Flora Spiegel: 'The tabernacula of Gregory the Great...' in 'Anglo-Saxon England' Vol.36 (Cambridge University Press, 2007), p.6.
3. Shrines and idols:
The specific words used in Gregory's letter should be noted: 'fana idolorum' - 'shrines of idols'. 'Fana' is the plural of the Latin word 'fanum', a general term meaning temple, shrine, sacred space etc. So the idol would be housed within the space or structure. Clearer context for these words is gained from another letter by the Pope, which was mentioned earlier as among the 18 carried by Mellitus when he left for England. This letter (Epistle 11.37) was intended for King Æthelberht himself, and is dated June 22nd 601, i.e. a few days before Mellitus' departure, and less than a month before the letter discussed above.
Pope Gregory had evidently heard back from Augustine that Æthelberht was perhaps not doing all he could to assist in the conversion, so tried to give him encouragement, support and guidance. The key part of this letter urges the king: "Make haste to extend the Christian faith to the people under your care, multiply the zeal of your rectitude in their conversion, reproach the cult of idols, overturn the buildings of the shrines, build up the practices of your subjects in great purity of life by exhorting, by terrifying, by enticing, by reforming, and by demonstrating examples of good works."
In the original Latin, this reads: "Christianam fidem in populis tibi subditis extendere festina, zelum rectitudinis tuae in eorum conuersione multiplica, idolorum cultus insequere, fanorum aedificia euerte, subditorum mores ex magna uitae munditia, exhortando, terrendo, blandiendo, corrigendo, et boni operis exempla monstrando aedifica".1
It's hard to reconcile the direction to Æthelberht to "reproach the cult of idols, overturn the buildings of the shrines" with the Pope's advice to Augustine a few weeks later to repurpose the shrines but destroy the idols. Most scholars see it as a direct countermand as the result of a change of heart. Professor of Theology George Demacopoulos has attempted to interpret it as a 'clarification' of Gregory's pastoral strategy - although I would find this more convincing if both letters had been sent to the king. The same author, however, does point out that "in neither letter are the fana, the shrines, to be destroyed, just their buildings (aediﬁcia) and their idols (idola), which could be taken to mean that Gregory thought that the fana were acceptable as long as they were purged of buildings and/or idols".2
The concept of idols within shrines within buildings brings the subject back to Dr. Rudge and his 'pagan' stones. A lone puddingstone could not be considered as either a building or a shrine/temple, it could only have been the idol - which would have been destroyed if the missionaries had faithfully carried out Gregory's instructions.
The extent of Gregory's actual knowledge of Anglo-Saxon pagan practices and their places of worship is unknown. If he thought they might be "well built" enough to become churches, it may be that his only frame of reference was the stone-built shrines of Rome and the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, even today little is known of what a Saxon shrine or temple might have looked like.
Despite a handful of excavated sites in England being interpreted in that way by some - such as building D2 at Yeavering - as Richard Morris remarks: "not one site or structure which can be incontrovertibly claimed as a pagan shrine, sanctuary or temple has yet been found".3 A study by Flora Spiegel concluded that "several hundred years of archaeological excavation have not produced a single example of an Anglo-Saxon church built over the foundations of any pre-Christian structure, let alone one confidently identified as a temple building".4
Many instances are known where the Saxons buried their dead on existing Roman or pre-Roman sites, but these were almost exclusively earthworks of some kind, and unlikely to have also been scenes of worship. Later Anglo-Saxon writings of monastic origin hint at purely outdoor worship of (or at) stones, trees, wells, carved posts etc. without giving any specifics. But, "there are few pre-Conquest references in England to animate or inhabited stones, to their veneration, or indeed to the felling of sacred stones by Christian saints".5
It has been posited by many that the Old English words hearg and wēoh - both meaning some variant of temple, shrine, sanctuary, idol etc - when encountered in Anglo-Saxon charters and place-names, denote a pagan cultic site. If Pope Gregory's 'policy of conversion' had been rigorously followed, an early church on each site might be expected. But Richard Morris has observed that, in England "There are about twenty-seven names of locatable places which incorporate words of the 'heathen sanctuary' type. Eight of them possess medieval churches." In addition, "Places which incorporate names of Old English gods also total about twenty, only five of which have churches today".6 No object of stone, wood or any other material has yet been identified that could have been a Saxon idol.
1. Joseph Stevenson: 'Venerabilis Bedæ: Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum' (English Historical Society, 1838), p.76-7.
2. George Demacopoulos: 'Gregory the Great and the Pagan Shrines of Kent' in 'Journal of Late Antiquity' Vol.1, No.2 (2008), p.368.
3. Richard Morris: 'Churches in the Landscape' (Dent & Sons, 1989), p.62.
4. Flora Spiegel: 'The tabernacula of Gregory the Great...' in 'Anglo-Saxon England' Vol.36 (Cambridge University Press, 2007), p.6.
5. Sarah Semple: 'Perceptions of the Prehistoric in Anglo-Saxon England' (Oxford University Press, 2013), p.69.
6. Morris: op cit, p.65-6.
4. A pragmatic view:
Much could be written on the general hypothesis that early churches were built on ancient 'sacred sites', but I'll try to restrict myself here to the specific subject of stones, and puddingstones in particular. Those that allegedly formed the Puddingstone Track were of course believed by Dr. Rudge to have been set in place during Neolithic (or even earlier) times. However, there is no evidence that the Anglo-Saxons worshipped at, or held any particular reverence for, prehistoric stone monuments - not that any of the boulders of the Track could be regarded as 'megaliths'. Nor is there corroboration for Rudge's assertions that "the cult of the puddingstone was very widespread among prehistoric peoples",1 and that "the Saxons adopted these mysterious boulders into their own pagan worship".2
The great majority of churches throughout the conversion era - and for long afterward - would have been small, and made of timber. The Anglo-Saxons historically were not renowned for building in stone. Indeed, timbrian - from which the word timber is derived - was their verb for 'to build'. A boulder of any size, puddingstone or otherwise, could not have been incorporated into the fabric of a wooden church. Nor would it serve any purpose in a foundational sense. The earliest churches were of the 'earth-fast' type i.e. the supporting posts were driven straight into the earth, while the walls rested in a narrow trench. A development of this was where the base of the walls sat on a horizontal 'sill' of wood. Such was the case at St. Andrew's at Greensted in Essex, the oldest surviving timber church in England (and possibly the world.) The nave of vertical oak 'staves' was thought to date to around 845AD, but tree-ring analysis in 1995 showed that the trees from which it is made were felled in the period c.1063-c.1100.3 A limited excavation in 1960 revealed two stages of an earlier church beneath it, the first being 'earth-fast', the second having a horizontal sill, possibly dating to the 7th century. There are no boulders or other possible pre-Christian features associated with St. Andrew's.
Even with early stone churches, foundation trenches were often surprisingly shallow, as little as 15cm deep. These were usually filled with layers of flints or small stones set in loam or mortar. Large boulders would serve no purpose. Only in more sizable constructions with wider and deeper trenches would larger stones be used, with voids filled by gravel or other small rubble. In any case, although Dr. Rudge liked to describe some of his 'pagan' stones as being 'in the foundations', this isn't strictly true. Put simply, if they were, he wouldn't have been able to see them without excavation. More usually, they tend to be just above ground level, in the lower wall courses, or act as supports beneath a buttress.
The positions of a few allegedly 'pagan' stones, such as at Broomfield, are definitely intriguing. Warwick Rodwell noted that "A small but not insignificant number of early medieval churches have large, rough boulders incorporated as 'foundation stones' at ground level, at one or more corners; these stones project in two directions and would have presented an obstruction to the masons who were trying to establish quoin positions and wall-face lines. If the boulders were below ground, they could logically be regarded as solid pads upon which to found the quoins [e.g. at Magdalen Laver], but at least some of these stones were meant to be visible: see, for example, the two sarsen-stones projecting from the eastern corners of the chancel at Great Bardfield (Essex). It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that their incorporation was symbolic".4
But there may be other factors that need to be taken into account. Some of these stones also occur in the fabric of much later churches, or in walls that were rebuilt, or under the buttresses of porches that were added in the 14th and 15th centuries. At those late dates, there would have been no need to demonstrate symbolically the Church's defeat of paganism, nor would there have been any lingering reverence for such stones. In addition, the presence of a puddingstone, sarsen, or other glacial erratic boulder is only noteworthy because of its juxtaposition with the actual church. For all anyone knows, they may also have been a feature of many secular buildings - but in most parishes, the church is frequently the oldest structure to have survived.
While it's possible that some might be an indicator of religious worship in antiquity, or that there was an element of superstition in their use, there seems to be no compelling evidence, and it's likely that we will never know. My own view leans toward a more pragmatic scenario, suspecting that medieval masons and their local workmen simply made use of stone that was free, easily available, and eminently suitable to support or complement the structure they were building. The odd positioning of the "not insignificant number" may nevertheless prove worthy of further study.
1. E.A. Rudge: 'Further Observations on the Conglomerate Track' in 'Essex Naturalist' Vol.29, part 4 (1955), p.256.
2. Anon (info from Rudge): 'Pudding-stones' in 'East Anglian Magazine' Vol.11, No.5 (Jan.1952), p.246.
3. I. Tyers: 'Tree-Ring Analysis of Timbers from the Stave Church at Greensted, Essex' (Sheffield Dendrochronology Laboratory, 1995.)
4. Warwick Rodwell: 'The Archaeology of Churches' (Amberley Publishing, 2012), p.104.