I did quite a few blogposts last year about the possible survival of ancient pagan ways into the Christian Middle Ages and beyond, with a special focus on British conditions. The general consensus these days is to minimize or deny such connections and continuities, and in general I sympathize with that view. But I am open to being convinced, and a recent case raises some intriguing possibilities.
The continuity argument suggests that British people maintained their veneration for the same sacred sites through repeated conquests, conversions, and relocations, and that continued through Christian times. The problem, for advocates as well as critics, is finding hard evidence. Now, though, look at a story from Shropshire, in the English West Midlands, not far from the Welsh border. Archaeologists were investigating a church site at Sutton, near Shrewsbury, and more important, the area immediately surrounding that church. Earlier investigations had turned up Mesolithic and Bronze Age remains.
Back then archaeologists discovered burial mounds and cremations, slots for standing stones and two rows of Neolithic post holes and a ditch, known as a cursus, which they interpreted as processional walkway. It was aligned east to west, extending towards the current late 12th/early 13th century church. The recent archaeological dig now shows that the prehistoric site extends to a larger area to the west of the church and that the building is built directly on top of both a previous Anglo-Saxon church and prehistoric structures. The current 10–metre long church itself was discovered to have originally been three times longer and to have once had transepts.
In the medieval foundations, archaeologists found remains of a standing wooden post that was incorporated into the church building, presumably because it was regarded as special or even sacred. They guessed it was Anglo-Saxon, but radio-carbon dates showed it was far, far earlier – to be precise, 2033 BC, in the era of the pyramids.
Other significant finds from the archaeological dig include a carved Saxon stone from an archway, the remains of what is thought to be an Anglo-Saxon apse, a prehistoric worked flint and a Neolithic stone counting disc. Some unusual animal burials were found, but these are thought to be Medieval and have yet to be dated. …
In summary, then:
It appears the current Medieval church is built over the site of an ancient pagan burial ground that’s been in use from the late Neolithic period through to Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, Anglo-Saxon and through to today.
This all makes Sutton the oldest sacred site in Britain that is still in use. (Other churches have those prehistoric roots, but they are not still functioning). And that continuity is at least four thousand years.
Reports of the Sutton dig don’t say much about the historical context, so let me fill that in, as it is actually highly relevant. As a known Christian site, Sutton dates to the late seventh century, when it was given to the Anglo-Saxon St. Milburga. In this western area, though, it is highly likely that Sutton was an older Celtic Christian place, a church or monastery. Significantly, the western location on the Welsh border makes it probable that a site passed from Christian Celtic hands to Christian Anglo-Saxon, without going through an age of pagan neglect or destruction. You would be less likely to find such a continuity to the east, in an Anglo-Saxon heartland like East Anglia.
Under the name of Pengwern, Shrewsbury itself was another major center of that Christian Welsh kingdom, which gained importance as Viroconium declined. The fall of Pengwern to the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh century is commemorated in some of the very earliest surviving Welsh poetry, such as the elegy (marwnad) for the last native king of the region, Cynddylan.
There must have been Celtic bishops in residence, likely from the fourth century through the mid-seventh.
Whatever the exact historical sequence, the compact Wroxeter/Shrewsbury area was a key political/ecclesiastical region, and Sutton stands right in the heart of it. It must have been a vital religious center in the post-Roman era. Conceivably, that followed on from a period as a major Cornovian ritual site for – how many centuries beforehand?
So the question arises. At various transition points, including around the conversion to Christianity, people reused ancient pagan sits and buildings. So what did they do with the old pagan ways, rituals and customs associated with those places? Did they keep them up discreetly in private; did they Christianize them in some form; or did they forget them more or less overnight? If there was continuity, how long did that continue? We would love to know.
I offer one analogy, which may or may not be relevant. When white people discovered the vast mound settlements of the American heartland, they naturally asked local Indian people about them. Those Indians assured the questioners that they knew nothing about those mounds and remains, they must have been built long ago by some mysterious race. Those Indians then went away and did what they had always done in keeping the old ritual sites alive. Of course, they were not going to tell the truth to the invaders and occupiers. I wonder if early Brits and Europeans were just as discreet when they faced questions about old pagan sites and customs from inquisitive scholars and clerics. Nothing to do with us! Never heard of them! Now go away and leave us be.
By the way, Sutton church in pre-Reformation times was dedicated to St. John the Baptist, whose feast falls on June 24. As I have written before, St. John’s Eve (June 23) was in medieval times a spectacular Midsummer celebration marked by fire rituals. All over Europe, that commemoration inherited a lot of pagan-seeming customs and ideas from an older world.