Monday 11 December 2017

The fifth- to sixth-century British church in the forum at Lincoln: a brief discussion

The aim of the following brief note is simply to bring wider attention to the post-Roman British apsidal church in the centre of the Roman forum of the former Late Roman provincial capital of Lincoln. A variety of dates have been proposed over the years, but a recent reconsideration of all the available evidence, including a Bayesian modelling of the radiocarbon data from the cemetery, indicates that the timber apsidal church almost certainly dates from the fifth to sixth centuries and had been demolished to make way for a cemetery by c. AD 600. The following discussion is based primarily on the analyses of the evidence found in my Britons and Anglo-Saxons and an earlier article, with additions and expansion as required.(1)

The sequence of buildings at St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln, showing their relationship to the Roman forum. Image: Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, 2012, fig, 12, copyright English Heritage.

Although the former Romano-British provincial capital of Lincoln (Lindum Colonia, British Lindon,*Lindocolonia) has produced little to no evidence for a pre-seventh-century 'Anglo-Saxon' cultural presence, there are nonetheless strong indications of activity in the city from the post-Roman period. In particular, a complex sequence of east–west orientated burials and two timber buildings were excavated from the St Paul-in-the-Bail site here—at the centre of Lincoln's former Roman forum—in the 1970s. One of these buildings is now generally agreed to have been an apsidal timber church and it cuts the foundations of an earlier structure which belonged to the same building tradition, had the same orientation, and potentially had the same function too.(2) The apsidal church is in turn overlain by complex sequence of inhumation burials, some of which cut the wall-line of the church or cut post-church layers from within its walls.(3)

The question of the date of this timber apsidal church—capable of holding around 100 worshippers—has been the subject of considerable discussion ever since its discovery, with initial reports suggesting that it could be the documented seventh-century church constructed in Lincoln by Paulinus sometime around AD 630.(4) However, there are significant issues with this idea, even before we look at the radiocarbon dating of the post-church cemetery and its implications, not least that the seventh-century church of Paulinus at Lincoln mentioned by Bede in c. 731 was still standing in his day and is clearly stated by him to have been made of stone, not wood. Likewise, the fact that the apsidal church in the forum appears to be the second in a sequence of two buildings is a further significant potential impediment to accepting it as Paulinus's church.(5) An alternative proposition is that we have here a sequence of very late and post-Roman British churches, located in the centre of the forum courtyard and orientated with reasonable precision to follow the alignment of the forum itself, with the proximity of the unexcavated west ends of the churches to the western portico of the forum implying that they were designed to be entered from between its columns. Certainly, this positioning and alignment of the buildings and their apparent relationship with the forum's western portico has been seen as highly suggestive of a late/post-Roman British origin, and it has been moreover argued that such an origin might well be supported by, for example, the building style/plan of the churches and the recovery of a coin of Arcadius (388–402) from beneath a metalled surface within the walls of the structures.(6)

Reconstruction of the fifth- to sixth-century apsidal church at St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln, located in the centre of the Roman forum and entered from the western portico. Image: Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, 2012, fig. 13, by David Vale/SLHA.

Perhaps the most telling evidence for a pre-seventh-century date for the apsidal church, however, comes from the radiocarbon dates of the graves excavated at the St Paul-in-the-Bail site. One of the most important of these appears to be a foundation deposit for the apsidal timber church, and this has a medial date of cal AD 441 within a likely date range from the very late fourth to the mid–late sixth century, which is certainly suggestive.(7) Even more important are the burials from the graveyard stage of the site, which Brian Gilmour has argued almost certainly only began after the demolition of the apsidal church had taken place, with three of the earliest of these moreover either cutting the wall-line of the apsidal church or cutting stratigraphically post-church layers from its interior.(8) Although the radiocarbon results from these graves have often been used individually (and occasionally rather dubiously) in arguments about the dating of the church, recent Bayesian modelling of the radiocarbon dates of these burials has now put things on a much sounder footing. The three burials that cut the walls and interior post-church levels together indicate that there is a very high probability (>85%) that the apsidal church was demolished before AD 600, given their relationship with this structure, and if the graveyard stage as a whole postdates this church, as it is indeed believed to, then an end to the church sequence before c. 600 becomes even more likely on the basis of the Bayesian modelling (c. 95%), although the available evidence would still just allow for a demolition as late as the early seventh century.(9)

All told, then, by far the most credible scenario—strongly supported by the radiocarbon dating and Bayesian modelling—is that we do indeed have here a sequence of two British churches set up in a significant area of the city (in the centre of the Roman forum and probably entered from its western portico), with the earlier structure rebuilt at some point perhaps around the mid–late fifth century into a larger apsidal church capable of holding around 100 worshippers, which then continued in use into the sixth century before being demolished by c. AD 600.(10) Such a sequence of very late and post-Roman churches not only makes best sense of all of the available evidence from the St Paul-in-the-Bail site, including the recent reassessment of the dating evidence, but it would also have a plausible context within late and post-Roman Britain. After all, just about the only sin that Gildas does not accuse his fellow sixth-century Britons of is paganism, indicating that he considered them to be Christians, albeit sinful ones, and Roman Lincoln moreover is known to have had its own bishop from the early fourth century, when Adelphius, Bishop of Lincoln, was sent to the Council of Arles in 314.(11) In this context, it is also worth noting that other evidence does exist for a partial survival of Romano-British Christianity in at least some areas of early medieval lowland Britain, including the numerous eccles place-names that occur right the way across to East Anglia and Kent, the apparent British cult of an unknown St Sixtus encountered by St Augustine in south-eastern England in c. 600, and Steven Bassett's case for there having been post-Roman British bishops in places such as Gloucester and Lichfield before there were Anglo-Saxon ones installed.(12)

A sequence of fifth- to sixth-century British churches in the centre of the Roman forum at Lincoln would likewise seem to have a very good local and regional context too. First, Lincoln itself seems to have remained economically vital into the very late Roman era, with not only good evidence for continuing specialist industry, cohesive central organization, considerable population and a thriving market at Lincoln right into the very late fourth century, but also indications of both continued urban activity into the early fifth century and the operation of the Romano-British pottery industry here at least partway through the fifth century, as was discussed in a previous post.(13) Second, and most importantly, there is now a reasonably substantial body of evidence to suggest that the former Roman provincial capital at Lincoln actually retained its centrality into the post-Roman period, becoming the focus of a British polity known as *Lindēs (from British-Latin Lindenses), as has been discussed at length elsewhere. This polity would eventually become the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Lindissi/Lindsey (a name which derives from Late British *Lindēs), but as a British political territory it is now thought likely to have survived right through the fifth century and at least some way into the sixth.(14) Needless to say, this is a point of considerable significance in the present context.

The Roman Mint Wall, Lincoln. This is the surviving portion of the basilica wall immediately to the north of the St Paul-in-the-Bail site; it originally stood nine metres high. It has been argued that the forum area must have remained open and maintained, with graves from the post-church inhumation cemetery marked, right through into the tenth century, when a small stone church was then built around what would seem to be one of the most important of the inhumation graves here (a late sixth- or seventh-century cist grave containing the only grave gift recovered from the whole cemetery, a Late Celtic hanging-bowl). In this light, one credible interpretation is that after the apsidal church was demolished, significant activity—be it ecclesiastical or secular—continued in this part of Lincoln, focused on the former large basilica that formed the north of the forum: certainly, this would explain not only the significant surviving elements of the basilica here, but also the presence of the graveyard in the forum (image © copyright Richard Croft, via Geograph, CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Roman well in Lincoln's forum, located immediately to the east of the fifth- to sixth-century apsidal church and possibly used as its baptistery; the well remained in use until the seventeenth century (image © copyright Tiger, via Geograph, CC BY-SA 2.0).


1.     Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 400–650 (Lincoln, 2012), pp. 65–9, 82–3 (based on my PhD thesis), and Green, 'The British kingdom of Lindsey', Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, 56 (2008), 1–43 at pp. 18–23, supported recently by J. Hines & A. Bayliss (eds.), Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: A Chronological Framework, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33 (London, 2013), pp. 549, 550.
2.     See, for example, K. Steane, The Archaeology of the Upper City and Adjacent Suburbs (Oxford, 2006), especially p. 192; M. J. Jones, 'St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln: Britain in Europe?', in K. Painter (ed.), Churches Built in Ancient Times: Recent Studies in Early Christian Archaeology (London, 1994), pp. 325–47 at pp. 328–30 and fig. 5; M. J. Jones, 'The Colonia era: archaeological account', in D. Stocker (ed.), City  by the Pool (Oxford, 2003), at pp. 127–9, 137; M. J. Jones, Roman Lincoln: Conquest, Colony and Capital (Stroud, 2002), p. 127; Green, 'British kingdom of Lindsey', pp. 18–23; Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 65–9, 82–3; pace B. Gilmour, 'Sub-Roman or Saxon, pagan or Christian: who was buried in the early cemetery at St-Paul-in-the Bail, Lincoln?', in L. Gilmour (ed.), Pagans and Christians – from Antiquity to the Middle Ages (Oxford, 2007), pp. 229–56.
3.     Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, p. 65; Steane, The Archaeology of the Upper City and Adjacent Suburbs, especially pp. 160–1; Gilmour, 'Sub-Roman or Saxon', pp. 249, 252.
4.     See especially Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Lincolnshire (Lincoln, 1998), pp. 226–30, for a championing of this theory, but beware his use of the radiocarbon data, which stretches it to the very utmost limits and beyond; this dating is also supported, far more tentatively, in A. G. Vince, 'Lincoln in the early medieval era, between the 5th and 9th centuries: the archaeological account', in D. Stocker (ed.), The City by the Pool. Assessing the Archaeology of the City of Lincoln (Oxford, 2003), pp. 147-151.
5.     For criticisms of Sawyer's theory, see further Green, 'British kingdom of Lindsey', especially pp. 19–20 at fn. 85; Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 65–9, 82. It should be noted that Alan Vince acknowledges that the theory of a seventh-century origin for the apsidal church requires both a degree of special pleading and doesn't account for the first building on the site, which Vince would (somewhat bizarrely given that the alternative interpretation of the whole site) have as a late Roman or post-Roman British church: Vince, 'Lincoln in the early medieval era', pp. 149, 150–1, and see further below.
6.     Green, 'British kingdom of Lindsey', pp. 19–20; Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, p. 65; M. J. Jones, 'St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln: Britain in Europe?', in K. Painter (ed.), Churches Built in Ancient Times: Recent Studies in Early Christian Archaeology (London, 1994), pp. 325–47; K. Steane, 'St Paul-in-the-Bail – a dated sequence?', Lincoln Archaeology, 3 (1990–1), 28–31; M. J. Jones, 'The Colonia era: archaeological account', in D. Stocker (ed.), City  by the Pool (Oxford, 2003), pp. 127–9, 137; M. J. Jones, Roman Lincoln: Conquest, Colony and Capital (Stroud, 2002), pp. 127–9; B. Eagles, 'Lindsey', in S. Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London, 1989), p. 207.
7.     Sample number 34, see B. Gilmour, 'Sub-Roman or Saxon', in L. Gilmour (ed.), Pagans and Christians (Oxford, 2007), pp. 229–56 at pp. 247–9, 252; Steane, Archaeology of the Upper City, pp. 157, 210; Jones, 'St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln: Britain in Europe?', pp. 332–3, 344; Jones, 'The Colonia era: archaeological account', p. 129.
8.     Sample numbers 30, 29 and 26, see Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 65–6; Steane, Archaeology of the Upper City, especially pp. 160–1, 210; Gilmour, 'Sub-Roman or Saxon', pp. 248–50, 252–3. See also Jones, 'St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln', pp. 332, 344; Steane, ‘St Paul-in-the-Bail – a Dated Sequence?’, pp. 30–1.
9.     On the results of the Bayesian modelling, see Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 400–650 (Lincoln, 2012), pp. 65–7, 83 (fn. 37), supported recently by J. Hines & A. Bayliss (eds.), Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: A Chronological Framework, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33 (London, 2013), pp. 549, 550; as I note in Britons and Anglo-Saxons, my thanks are due here to Alex Bayliss, the Head of Scientific Dating at English Heritage, both for constructing a Bayesian model and for her analysis and advice with regard to the radiocarbon dates and chronology of this site.
10.     Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 400–650 (Lincoln, 2012), pp. 65–9, 82–3; J. Hines & A. Bayliss (eds.), Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: A Chronological Framework, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33 (London, 2013), pp. 549, 550. Incidentally, it should be noted here that Gilmour's variant theory on St Paul-in-the-Bail (outlined in his 2007 paper 'Sub-Roman or Saxon'), which posits a mid-sixth-century de novo start for the church-stage of the site, is not discussed in the present post, as it both does not seem to have been widely adopted and—as was noted in Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, p. 82, and Green, 'British kingdom of Lindsey', p. 20, fn. 86—can be considered significantly less plausible than the scenario outlined here, lacking an obvious context and, moreover, seeming to be largely contradicted by the Bayesian modelling of the site.
11.     Green, 'British kingdom of Lindsey', p. 21; Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 25, 67; and see further Jones, 'St Paul in the Bail, Lincoln: Britain in Europe?'; Jones, 'Colonia era: archaeological account', pp. 127–9, 137; A. C. Thomas, Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500 (London, 1981), p. 197; K. Leahy, The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Lindsey (Stroud, 2007), p. 117.
12.     For eccles names, see for example K. Cameron, 'Eccles in English place-names', in K. Cameron (ed.), Place-Name Evidence for the Anglo-Saxon Invasion and Scandinavian Settlements (Nottingham, 1987), pp. 1–7; P. Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature in Western England, 600–800 (Cambridge, 1990), p. 80; C. Hough, 'Eccles in English and Scottish place-names', in E. Quinton (ed.), The Church in English Place-Names (Nottingham, 2009), pp. 109–24. For St Augustine and the British St Sixtus, see N. P. Brooks, The Early History of the Church of Canterbury (London, 1984), p. 20; P. Schaff (ed.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, Volume XIII Gregory the Great, Ephraim Syrus, Aphrahat (Edinburgh, 1898), p. 77. On British bishops, see for example S. Bassett, 'Church and diocese in the West Midlands', in J. Blair and R. Sharpe (eds.), Pastoral Care Before the Parish (London, 1992), pp. 13–40; S. Bassett, 'Medieval ecclesiastical organisation in the vicinity of Wroxeter and its British antecedents', Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 145 (1992), 1–28; B. Yorke, 'Lindsey: the lost kingdom found?', in A. Vince (ed.), Pre-Viking Lindsey (Lincoln 1993), pp. 141–50 at p. 145; Jones, ‘Colonia era: archaeological account’, p. 137. See also S. Bangert, 'Menas ampullae: a case study of long-distance contacts', in A. Harris (ed.), Incipient Globalization? Long-Distance Contacts in the Sixth Century (Oxford, 2007), pp. 27–33.
13.     On late fourth- and fifth-century Lincoln, see, for example, K. Dobney et al, Of Butchers and Breeds: Report on vertebrate remains from various sites in the City of Lincoln (Lincoln, 1996), pp. 2–4, 57–61; K. Dobney et al, ‘Down, but not out: biological evidence for complex economic organization in Lincoln in the late 4th century’, Antiquity, 72 (1998), 417–24; Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 25–7. On the evidence for a degree of continuity in the pottery industry here into the fifth-century and possibly even slightly beyond, see Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons, pp. 111–12, and Green, 'British kingdom of Lindsey', pp. 23–4, and the expanded discussion in Green, 'Romano-British pottery in the fifth- to sixth-century Lincoln region', blog post, 12 June 2016, online at
14.     The case is fully developed in Green, 'The British kingdom of Lindsey', Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, 56 (2008), 1–43, and Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 400–650 (Lincoln, 2012).

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