The Story of St. Mary and St. Hardulph Church


A Cradle of our Faith

Written and illustrated by Brian C. J. Williams, A.T.D., M.Phil

View Breedon Hill Map Click here for a map of Breedon Hill


I first wrote this guide book to celebrate the 1,300th anniversary of foundation in 1975. Since then further research, discovery and revised thinking has resulted in this updated publication which a site like Breedon will always need and deserve. Like so many things in our lives it cannot give all the answers, - there are mysteries and enigmatic issues especially about the Saxon monastery and its carvings. Debate can like our tides roll back and forth over - is this particular stone early or late Saxon? Is that a carving of the Virgin or not? - and so on. Pray let us always be flexible and open to reason and who knows what in the future may unlock a little more of our past in this - a cradle of Faith. Brian Williams, 1996.

Some Early Mentions

BRIUDUN, c 7th. century Anglo Saxon Chronicle.

The name derives from BRE - Old British or Welsh word meaning 'a hill' joined onto 'dun' in old Anglo Saxon meaning also 'the hill'. The origin therefore is a simple name given in the two great ancient languages of the realm - in a land of hills. 'The hill' implies as the history will support - the hill of special significance.

Burton in 1622 wrote:

Bredon in the Hundred of West Gascote, upon the very edge of Darbyshire, standing upon a very high steepe hill, yeelding every way a very pleasant prospect.

Throsby in 1790 wrote:

Breedon hill stands on the very edge of Derbyshire; on it formerly stood the village which is now seated at its base. It would make a fat alderman puff and blow to gain the top for a turtle dinner. Hence you see the Peek Hills in Derbyshire, Nottingham, Wollaton Hall, Charley forest and many intervening objects.

John Nichols, 1804.

Bredon - is situated at the foot of an exceedingly high steep limestone rock, yielding every way a most delightful prospect. On the summit of this hill the church stands eminently elevated, commanding an immense circle of country, and is itself a very noble feature to all parts around it.-Several small fragments of ancient sculpture, supposed to have been taken from the older church, are led into the walls-.

In the Beginning

The hill of Breedon situated two miles south of the River Trent in North West Leicestershire is a 122m upthrust of Carboniferous Limestone. It is really a mixture of dolomite and limestone rich in places with fossils. The dolomite is a yellow-pink stone mixed with the grey limestone and stained a deeper tone by the red surface clay giving the striking colour to the bared quarry face one sees approaching from the north and east.

Geologists still argue the reasons why and how this hill was thrust up at some unknown time, having previously been formed some 300 million years ago as the bed of an ancient sea together with seven small outcrops nearby - full of sea fossils (Figure 1).

Figure 1 - Fossil. Bellerophon shell sample of the numerous types in Breedon Hill

How early in time man took any real interest in the hill is not known but a polished stone axe head (Figure 2) of the new stone age or early bronze period, some 3,000 years old, was found in the building of the St. Hardulph School and Community Centre. It is now in Leicester Museum.

Figure 2 - The polished stone axe head and how it might have been used

The Iron Age pottery finds on the hill give evidence of occupation which by the 1st. century B.C. culminated in an impressive defence ditch and bank with an inturned entrance on the west side enclosing some 23 acres of the hilltop. The earthwork seems first to have been strengthened by a timber revetment and palisade - replaced later by a stone wall. Excavations have revealed hut circles up to 14.3m in diameter, saddle querns, hammer stones, pottery and other items suggesting occupation into the 1st. century A.D. Half these earthworks and faces have now, like the hill itself, disappeared in quarrying. Some ditch and bankwork of the defence system may still be seen west of the churchyard and beyond the boundary wall. Traditionally Breedon's earthworks have been known locally as 'the bulwarks'.

Roman occupation and settlement probably saw the depopulation of the hill - at least as a fortified settlement with the development of villa and estate systems. Evidence of a Roman/native settlement probably belonging to a villa estate has come to light less than a mile south of the hill. Scattered pottery of the period may suggest others nearby. Occasional fragments have been found on Breedon Hill. This leads to the possibility, not yet proven, that such a striking hill as this may have had a small Roman British Temple of shrine erected within its banks as has frequently occurred elsewhere. The Celtic Mind often associated prominent natural features with spiritual and supernatural forces and Breedon would have every evidence of man's past hand on it.

The passing of Roman power opened in the 5th. century the 'dark age' struggle for control between the British or Celtic peoples and the incoming Angles and Saxons.

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.

Who was St. Hardulph?

Breedon church is unique in this dedication. It is one of those names like a small handful of others in the country for which little more is known than a persons reputation causing their inclusion in a church dedication. St. Mary has been a popular dedication from early times - to lay claim to a saint that had some local connection or association as well would of course give an added sense of elevation and importance to the monastery.

A pamphlet in a book dated 1541 by the Hon. Mr. Justice Joyce makes reference to the life of St. Modwen - Burton on Trent parish church is dedicated to St. Mary and St. Modwen - yet another little known saint.

The text refers to 'St. Hardulche in a place named Bredon. He herde tell Modwens holy lyvnge and went oft to her and bore books of holy Sayntes lyves.'

The fragment speaks of the saint having a little cell in a cliff a little from Trent which sounds remarkably like the anchorite cave or 'Anchor church' near Ingleby. The text further relates how two maidens or nuns were saved from drowning in the Trent in attempting to obtain a book Hardulche or Hardulph had forgotten to take to Modwen. She reputedly lived on Andressey Island in the river near Burton bridge. When this was is uncertain since up to five saints had the name Modwen or Modwenna whose lives have become confused over time - but range from the 6th. to 9th. century. The name Modwen is of Celtic type suggesting Hardulph belongs to the early period - perhaps even before the monastery on Breedon was founded in 675.

Could St. Hardulph have been 'Sanctus Aerdulfus rex' recorded by Hugh Candidus in the 12th. century as being buried at Breedon? The name suggests a king later made a saint - by no means an uncommon event in Anglo Saxon times. (Note Castle Donington nearby to St. Edward king and martyr). He could well have been an early king in the midland area whose name is lost in documents that survive. To speculate on similar names later in the Anglo Saxon period must make one wary of how names can be re-used. For instance a king of Northumbria called Haerdulf invaded Mercia in 801 and murdered Prince Alkmund - a church in Derby being later dedicated to St. Alkmund. It is hardly likely Breedon would have added an unwelcome raider to their dedication, and even less likely that he was ever buried there. Unless archaeology ever produces an answer - we shall probably never know who he really was.

After the Conquest - The Later Middle Ages

After the Norman Conquest in 1066 Breedon, together with Wilson, Tonge and the now lost village site nearby of Anderchyrch were among the 34 villages granted by William The Conqueror to Robert de Ferrers later to be come 1st Earl of Derby. At an unknown date but probably between 1109 and 1122 Robert de Ferrers gave the Parish Church (in all possibility the remains of the ancient Saxon Minister Church) of St. Mary and Hardulph to the Augustinian Priory of St. Oswald at Nostell in Yorkshire. The endowment consisted of Breedon Church, the chapels of Worthington and Staunton Harold with 4 virgates of land and other property in Breedon Parish. Revenues were also given from Stapleford (Leics.), West Leake (Notts.), Crakemarsh (Staffs.), Hethcote (Derbyshire peak) and later lands at Coleorton. An interesting grant also made to the Priory was the market of Breedon which was situated on the hilltop itself although now quarried away. The 18th. century enclosure map locates it with the name 'Marketstead'.

By 1122 the prior and five canons from the mother house at Nostell were established here and either built cast of the existing old parish church or restored the eastern part of the existing buildings for their own use. This is to say the part of the church of Breedon as we now know it being only part of a much longer building extending westward.

They built their cloister and other domestic quarters probably around a quadrangle on the north side of the present church (see the blocked door at the west end of the north aisle). All these former buildings, of course, begin to explain the various roof pitch marked on three sides of the present tower. Breedon church today is less than half the church it was. The little priory foundation established at Breedon was always to remain small and dependent on Nostell. The mother priory remained entirely responsible for the canons sent to live at Breedon whose number never exceeded 5.

In 1223 Nostell presented Prior Gervase to Breedon who proceeded to try and make the priory independent. His eventual failure led to his resignation in 1244. It should be noted in fairness to Nostell that Breedon Canons were allowed to participate in the affairs of Nostell.

The architecture of the present church suggests that the upper part of the tower and the general fabric of the eastern priory part of Breedon Church was extensively re-modelled in the style of the 13th. century with its lancet windows extending to more decorative styles and the vaulted aisles added. In 1253 a valuable piece (relic) was entrusted to the prior and convent of Breedon for 8 years by one Robert de Alevton which had formerly belonged to Edward the Confessor.

In 1330 the prior and convent of Nostell obtained from Edward III permission to change their annual fair at Breedon from one to five days.

In 1441 Bishop Alnwich visited Breedon to find the priory in debt and the church and priory buildings dilapidated. He suspended one of the 3 canons for failing to appear before him. A few years later another canon found himself in jail awaiting trial in Leicester.

By 1518 Breedon Parish Church - that is the nave and the porch - were dilapidated, but the responsibility for this probably rested with the parishioners and not the canons of the priory attachment.

As far as can be seen no Prior of Breedon ever held the cure of souls in the Parish Church to which it was attached which had its own separate priest for the parish.

By 1535 the income to the Priory was stated to be £24.10.4d. The value of the vicarage £6.13.4d. By then the Priory was occupied apparently only by the Prior. The priory was surrendered with Nostell's other possessions in November, 1539 - the net yearly value of the Priory lands then stated to be £32.4.7d. Thus Breedon's parishioners found themselves with their ancient but dilapidated Parish Church the now deserted Priory Church, east of the central tower, and its attendant buildings.

Breedon from Isley Breedon on the Hill from Isley Walton, Leicestershire. Brian C. J. Williams 1974

To The Present

Almost perhaps to them in answer to a prayer, another great local family stepped onto the scene in the form of Francis Shirley, Esq. of Staunton who purchased the Priory Church from King Henry VIII after the monastic suppression, as a burial place for himself and his successors. The parishioners saw an opportunity here and made a petition that the Priory Church should also serve as their Parish Church since their own 'being then almost ruinated'. This included the former central tower and the eastern aisled chancel now surviving as the present church. Also mentioned was the south porch with the room over it (the present vestry) to be used for a public school. All this was granted and the former Parish Church to the west of the tower that may have been in part the ancient Saxon Minster Church was pulled down. Carved Saxon stones set in its wails were reported by Nichols to have been removed from it and built into the south porch where they remained until 1937 when they were removed and lead encased inside the present church. An 18th. century engraving shows the surviving north wall of the ancient Parish Church still attached though ruinous to the tower.

In it are two round arched openings and a pillar cluster. The same engraving also appears to show three men gathering the stones to take elsewhere (perhaps many a local barn and house may have them). What carved stones or building rivalled perhaps the oldest in the Midlands, we lost at this time, we shall probably never know - at the time the parishioners probably had justification.

Francis Shirley took over the present north aisle for his family mortuary - hence the monuments behind the iron grille work (detailed in the following perambulation).

At the end of the 18th. century Breedon nearly lost the Priory Church that now survives. In a brief dated January, l2th. 1784 it is stated the Parish Church of Breton, a large ancient structure, was in a very ruinous state and condition; in particular the wails and the roof of the north and south aisles, and the tower of the church, in such a state as to cause their being speedily taken down, and other parts of the church in general much out of repair; and that although the inhabitants had, within the last end years, laid out and expended above £340 in repairing thereof, yet the same were in such great danger of falling that the inhabitants were afraid of assembling therein for the worship of Almighty God; and, in consequence thereof, divine service had not been performed therein for several months past ...

The estimated cost of £3,340 for rebuilding forwarded by the architect, Joseph Wyatt was not raised but the building was 'substantially repaired' leaving the essential surviving fabric of the tower and priory church as we see it today.

Further restorations to the fabric took place in the 19th. and in the 20th. century.