Wooden Church May Not Be World’s Oldest : History: English town’s claim to fame may not date back to 845 after all. However, St. Andrew’s is still Europe’s oldest wooden building.


At the tiny timber church of St. Andrew’s in Greensted, they’re planning to rewrite the guidebook.

St. Andrew’s had been famous as the oldest wooden church in the world, dating from 845, but scientists have concluded that it was built more than two centuries later.

The researchers also have cast doubt on the church’s claim to have given temporary sanctuary to the body of St. Edmund, a 9th-century king of East Anglia and later patron saint of England, on its journey north for final burial.


It remains, however, unquestionably the oldest wooden building in Europe, a century or more ahead of the stave churches of Scandinavia.

The scientists say tests on the split oak trunks used to build the nave show they were felled in 1070--57 years after the saint’s last journey.

“The St. Edmund thing may be a complete myth,” said Ian Tyers, a dendrochronologist who has spent the last eight years dating buildings in this part of southeastern England.

“And I’m pretty unhappy saying it is the oldest wooden church--some Japanese temples may be older.”

Tyers used a hollow drill bit to cut small core sections from the nave timbers. This revealed the rings created as the trees added a new outer layer each year. By measuring the distance between the rings, dendrochronologists can work out how old a tree is.

They can also work out the time when the tree was cut by correlating the size of the rings with weather records--fat rings with wet years, narrow rings with dry.

The Rev. Tom Gardiner, the vicar of St. Andrew’s, is unbowed.

“Greensted remains the oldest wooden building in Europe,” he said. “People are still coming here because they regard it as a place of pilgrimage.”

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, a 13th-century manuscript, says St. Edmund’s body spent a night at a wooden church in what was then known as “Greenstede,” or “green place,” he said.

That event was said to be in 1013, when Edmund had been dead 143 years and his bones were being moved from London to Beodricesworth, known for centuries now as Bury St. Edmunds.

In the 1960s, a group of Danish archeologists found evidence of an earlier wooden church under the present chancel floor, Gardiner said. This is believed to date from 654, when a Saxon monk named St. Cedd won converts in the area.

Every year, about 8,000 tourists come to Greensted, 45 miles northeast of London. Their purchases of guidebooks, dish towels and stationery bring in vital revenue for the church, which currently needs $16,000 to repair its tower.

Gardiner plans to amend the guidebook, which sells for $1.60 at the back of the church, to reflect the latest findings.

Tyers agrees the church is Europe’s oldest wooden building. Its closest rivals, 30 wooden churches in northern Scandinavia, were built in the 12th and 13th centuries, he said.

“This church is the only one of many to remain--and now we want to know how it survived,” said Tyers, who will publish his findings next year.

It may simply have been overlooked when other, more prosperous, local churches were rebuilt in stone, he said.

The nave, built out of split logs set upright, is the oldest part of the present church. Its original thatch roof has been replaced by tiles.

Signs of the church’s Norman inheritance include a piscina, a basin used for washing Communion vessels, in the corner of the chancel.

The chancel was built in the early 16th century; a high tower with pointed roof followed in the 17th century.

In the 1830s, Victorian restorers shortened the nave’s timbers because the base had rotted, removed ancient plaster from the log walls and added stained glass windows.

St. Edmund’s connection with the church, even if only a legend, will endure.

A medieval painting in the church shows a beatific St. Edmund, who was scourged, shot with arrows, then beheaded by the Danes in 870.

On a beam is an engraving of the wolf that, according to legend, retrieved Edmund’s severed head from a thicket.

Sunday attendance at St. Andrew’s is steady at about 60 people, a healthy level for a country church.

“People have been worshiping here for 1,300 years,” said organist Mary Hillman. “Nothing stops that.”