Anchor Church Caves: Anglo-Saxon Home and Oldest House in Britain?

Archaeologists conducting a survey of a previously overlooked cave dwelling in Derbyshire have concluded that the sandstone caves were actually an Anglo-Saxon home way back in the 9th century. They’ve even gone so far as to announce that the cave could have been home to the exiled King Eardwulf.

Thomas Smith painting of aristocrats picnicking by the Anchor Church Caves. The new study has concluded that these were once an Anglo-Saxon home. ( Public domain )

From 18th Century Folly to Anglo-Saxon House

The artificial sandstone rock caves located near Ingleby, cut into a cliff overlooking a River Trent tributary, have historically been remembered as an 18th century folly, a term to describe a usually costly, but decorative, construction that was created for no purpose other than to provide pleasure. In the 18th century the Burdett family enlarged the caves, adding a door, in order to hold picnics there for their guests in the grounds of Foremarke Hall.

According to the Derbyshire Historic Environment Record , “it became the favorite retreat of Sir Robert Burdett, who had it fitted up so that he and his friends could dine within its cool, and romantic cells.”

Inside, the cave is made up of four cells, accessed through an arched doorway, and visitors can enjoy fabulous views of the surrounding countryside.

Archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Institute of the Royal Agricultural University (RAU) recently joined forces to survey of the Anchor Church Caves in the English county of Derbyshire, listed as a grade II building. The results of this new study have been published in the Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society .

In a press release, Edmund Simons, the lead researcher of the project, explained that their “findings demonstrate that this odd little rock-cut building in Derbyshire is more likely from the 9th century than from the 18th century as everyone had originally thought.” But how exactly did the caves transform from 18th century follies to a medieval Anglo-Saxon home?

Pillar within a Saxon crypt at Repton Church which shows striking similarities in architectural style to the Anglo-Saxon home at the Anchor Church Caves. (Mark Horton / RAU)

Evidence of the Anchor Church Caves Being an Anglo-Saxon Home

The team conducted a detailed survey of the ancient cave dwelling in order to reach their conclusions. An analysis of the narrow doorways and windows of the Anchor Church Caves determined that they are similar in style to Saxon architecture. There is also a rock-cut pillar within the caves which resembles one that can be found in a Saxon crypt in nearby Repton.

According to CNN, the “researchers are analyzing more than 170 cave houses as part of a wider project.” In the case of the Anchor Church Caves, the team used several different methods to reach their Anglo-Saxon home conclusions, including the study of the architectural features, a drone survey and detailed measurements.

They have therefore managed to reconstruct the original floor plan, made up of three rooms, and an east-facing chapel or oratory that includes three apses. “This makes it probably the oldest intact domestic interior in the UK – with doors, floor, roof, windows etc.,” highlighted Simons. When discussing the cave houses being explored within the project, he announced that the team had identified “more than 20 other sites in the West Midlands that could date from as early as the 5th century.”

The interior of the caves was once used as an Anglo-Saxon home, although the doors and pillars were widened in the 18th century to allow ladies to pass wearing their wide dresses. (Edmund Simons / RAU)

The interior of the caves was once used as an Anglo-Saxon home, although the doors and pillars were widened in the 18th century to allow ladies to pass wearing their wide dresses. (Edmund Simons / RAU)

Anglo-Saxon Home to a Hermit-King

While there is little documentary evidence related to the Anchor Church Caves, locals have historically suspected the site was once a hermitage. In fact, according to folklore, the caves have historically been connected to Saint Hardulph. A 16th century text made reference to these beliefs, with the phrase: “that time Saint Hardulph has a cell in a cliff a little from the Trent.”

Saint Hardulph has been identified as being none other than King Eardwulf, King of Northumbria between 796 to 806. This was a confusing and violent time in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria for which few historic records remain. The unfortunate king is said to have been deposed, after which he visited Pope Leo III and Charles the Great, before spending the rest of his life in exile in the Kingdom of Mercia, which covered modern-day central England. Eardwulf was buried only 5 miles away from the caves, at Breedon on the Hill.

“It was not unusual for deposed or retired royalty to take up a take up a religious life during this period, gaining sanctity and in some cases canonization,” explained Simons. “Living in a cave as a hermit would have been one way this could have been achieved.” Based on the architectural evidence and these connections with Eardwulf, the team concluded that the Anchor Church Caves could have been renovated in order to become the Anglo-Saxon home for the medieval king.

This would make these caves unique as a forgotten remnant of a bygone era. “There’s nowhere else really where you can walk into somewhere where somebody ate and slept and prayed and lived,” stressed Simons in a CNN interview. Another RAU archaeologist, Mark Horton agreed. “It is extraordinary that domestic buildings over 1,200 years old survive in plain sight, unrecognized by historians, antiquarians and archaeologists.” They are planning to conduct additional dating tests at the Anchor Church Caves in the hope of confirming their conclusions.

Top image: Image of the exterior of the Anchor Church Caves in Derbyshire, believed to have been first used as an Anglo-Saxon home. Source: Edmund Simons / RAU

By Cecilia Bogaard

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