The Story of St. Mary and St. Hardulph Church
The Golden Age - The Early Middle Ages
Christianity had existed in late Roman Britain from the 4th. century but had presumably been driven ever westward by Anglo Saxon conquests.
By the turn of the 7th. century Breedon lay in the land of the Tomseti, bordering the kingdom of the Middle Angles to the east. Both soon become part of the powerful kingdom of Mercia with its important southern centre by the River Trent - at Repton, 7 miles west of Breedon. Between 626 and 654 King Penda, one of the most powerful warriors of his day, ruled. He was also a staunch follower of the old gods of northern Europe. Evidence for these old beliefs often survive in place and field names. Breedon has a Thunderbush Meadow and Thunderbush Flat, etc. Thunder refers to Thunor or Thor, son of Odin, chief of the gods, having the fifth day of the week named after him. By this time Christianity had re-established itself in the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Northumbria - coming via Ireland to Iona and on to Lindisfarne. In the South and East, St. Augustines mission from Rome in 596 had gradually spread the faith to the Anglo Saxon kingdoms there.
In 653 Peada, son of King Penda, married Elfleda, daughter of King Oswy of Northumbria, on the understanding that he became a Christian and was baptised by Finan, Bishop of Lindisfarne. They returned with four priests - Cedd, Adda, Betti and Diuma. Penda ruled over southern Mercia under his father which became subject to this first Christian mission. In 654 King Penda was killed and Peada became the first Christian king of all Mercia. Reigning for only one year he combined with his father in law King Oswy to establish a monastery dedicated to St. Peter at Medehamstede (Peterborough). His brother Wulfhere succeeded him and continued this work. His sister Kyneburga also founded and became abbess of another monastery at Castor nearby.
In 675/6 Aethelred, third son of Penda, became king, ruling till 704 when he himself became a monk dying in 716. At the outset he saw the completion and dedication of St. Peter's, Medehamstede and dedicated further lands to it. Breedon heads this list as recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. The land itself according to another charter (listed in Birch's- Cartularium Saxonioum) was given by a powerful patron called Friduricus - 'for the foundation of a monastery to further spread Christianity - with Hedda a priest of Medehamstede to be appointed as first abbot.' Friduricus granted further lands to Hedda in 'Hrepingas' - almost certainly Repton where another monastery was to be established - probably soon after. King Aethelred granted yet further land to Breedon in 'Cedenan ac' - an unknown place now. The name could mean 'Cadda's Oak' thought to be possibly in the Charnwood Forest - very visible from Breedon's hilltop. (The Cademan Hills, Charley or even Copt Oak could be suggestive areas here).
This monastery at Breedon established in the very heartland of Mercia on its former fortified hilltop was certainly well endowed and undoubtedly played a highly influential roll in over a century of powerful expansion making this kingdom the most dominant in the country.
Hedda the first abbot quickly made Breedon important enough to establish related foundations. Hedda is also believed to have dedicated St. Guthlacs church at Crowland (St. Guthlac had originally been a monk at Repton). Hedda became in 691 the second Bishop of Lichfield that had been founded by St. Chad in 669. Breedon would then have been in the diocese of Lichfield that also included Leicester until it had its more permanent separate Bishopric from 737.
Breedon's importance is again noted in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle and also by the Venerable Bede when in 731, Tatwin a priest here was made Archbishop of Canterbury, - dying in 794 - the same year as Bede. Among his abilities he was a writer of poetic riddles - a popular pastime of the age for people to guess the object described. Here is a sample by Tatwin -
Marvellous is my fate, which I now relate to you,
For my strength lies in two arms.
I have great confidence that I can grasp with gaping jaws
Unalarmed by anything hard, rough or hot:
With jaws gaping fearlessly I try to seize all things.
(What is it? - answer: A pair of Tongs).
Breedon is again mentioned in 844 when King Berhtwulf granted special privileges to Abbot Eanmund - for his monastery at Breodune in exchange for certain lands they held elsewhere. Many notable people of their day were probably buried at Breedon. Hugh Candidus a monk and chronicler at Peterborough in the early 12th. century recorded - presumably from records now lost - that St. Aerdulfus rex, St. Cotta, St. Benna and St. Fretheric were all buried at Breedon. Their lives are unknown to us now but altars in the monastic church may have been dedicated to them and possibly made Breedon a source of pilgrimage. Names vary greatly over centuries and surviving documents. The first name suggest a king made saint and could just be a variation on St. Hardulph - part of Breedons dedication. St. Frethoric may be the Friduricus who gave the land for the foundation in 675. Could a Saxon crypt 'shrine' exist like the famous one at nearby Repton? Evidence of steps now under the east end altar flooring where noticed early in this century but never investigated.
What Breedon looked like then needs some imagination blended with the evidence. The monastery lay on its hilltop encircled by the renovated iron Age bulwarks and ditches, topped by a wall or timber palisade. This acted as a 'precinct wall' that surrounded most monastic sites. The main entrance through this wall was on the west side - presenting the visitor with the west front of the great monastery church just a little inside. This probably incorporated that part of the church pulled down in the 16th. century, and marked by the roof pitch lines on the west side of the church tower. John Nichols in the 18th. century records the tradition that some of the 'saxon' carvings were taken from it and built into the porch and inside the present remaining part of the church. The church and its chapels would be greatly enriched by carved friezes both inside and out, - the remains of which we still have today. They reflect a great cultural crossroad of the age between Celtic and Northumbrian origins in the north and west, - and influences even from far off Byzantium in the east, coupled with designs of pure Mercian origin. Their inspiration is almost certainly derived from the great illuminated books of the age. Parallels can be drawn with the Lindisfarne Gospels (British Museum), St. Chad's Gospels (Lichfield), Book of Cerne (Cambridge Univ. Lib.), Codex Aureus (Stockholm Royal Lib.) and many others. In the age of Mercian supremacy under King Offa - 755 to 795, Anglo Saxon manuscripts, needlework and jeweller found tremendous demand on the continent. Some of it would almost certainly have been produced at Breedon. A beautiful buckle or book clasp fragment with inlaid enamels also found here is now in Leicester Museum (see Figure 3).
|Figure 3 - Sketch of the book clasp? Now in Leicester Museum, - found in the 1975 excavations. Made of bronze, nearly 8 cm long. Its key pattern is likely early Christian Irish or Celtic work and is inlaid with enamels of red, yellow and blue.
Scattered within Breedons hilltop enclosure would also be other buildings of the monastery including the monks cells. One such cell discovered east of the church measured 3m x 5.5m internally with a 0.9m x 3m enclosed end - possibly the monks sleeping quarters is now lost by quarrying. Extensive burials nearby may represent the monastic cemetery containing tall well boned people of both sexes set out in rows. This suggests the monastery was a mixed house of monks and nuns, - a popular practice in the Anglo Saxon period. Nearby Repton is actually recorded as a mixed house in this period.
Later in the 9th. century Mercian power went into decline with ever increasing raids by the Danes or Norsemen. In 874 the Danish army or 'host' who were still pagan advancing from the north, wintered at Repton on their planned conquest of Anglo Saxon kingdoms. The Bishop of Leicester fled south to Dorchester on Thames. Burhed the King of Mercia was subjected and later expelled. One imagines the monks at Breedon also fled and what they left would have been looted. Total destruction though is uncertain. Fragments of carved crosses of the late 9th. or 10th. century after the Danes had become Christian - now located in the north aisle testify that the church if not the monastery was active again. Also a charter of 966-7 records a grant by King Edgar (King of all England now) to Bishop Aethelwold (Bishop of Winchester), for the 'ecclesia at Breadone' of certain lands in Wilson, Diseworth and 'Aetheredes Dun'. The last place is uncertain but it may be the lost village of Anderchyrch, like the other places - close to Breedon. Now Bishop Aethelwold was one of the great monastic revivalists of his day and refounded Ely and Peterborough and founded Thorney Abbey amongst his many reforming activities. It is more than likely the Breedon monastery was revived or refounded at this time and indeed some of the Saxon figure sculptures are thought to have parallels with illuminated work of this period notably the 'Benediction of St. Aethelwold' (British Library).
In the land grants mentioned above it may also be significant that Diseworth has the core of a late Saxon church surviving, the other places may once also have had offshoot churches also - as the name Anderchyrch suggests. How well Breedon's ecclesiastical site was to weather the turbulent century up to the Norman conquest is not known but the church itself in all probability survived.