Anglo-Saxon cave dwelling identified in Derbyshire

It may be ‘the only intact domestic building to have survived from the Saxon period.’

An archaeological survey of a sandstone rock-cut cave in south Derbyshire has revealed the site to be a near-complete, likely 9th-century, Anglo-Saxon dwelling that may have once been home to royalty.

Drone image showing the cave site cut into a cliff in south Derbyshire overlooking a tributary of the River Trent. Image: Mark Horton/RAU.

The Grade II-listed Anchor Church Caves had long been considered to be 18th-century follies.

However, a recent study carried out by archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology and the Royal Agricultural University’s (RAU) Cultural Heritage Institute has revealed the caves are far older. The findings have been published in the Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society.

The team used drone surveys and analysed the architectural details to reconstruct the original plan of three rooms and an easterly-facing oratory (or chapel) with three apses.

The interior shows doors and pillars which survived structural modifications in the 18th-century when the caves became an aristocratic party venue. Image: Edmund Simons/RAU.

They discovered the narrow doorways and windows of the rooms closely resembled Saxon architecture, and noted similarities between a pillar in the cave and those stood in a Saxon crypt at the nearby village of Repton.

‘Our 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,’ said Edmund Simons, project leader and research fellow at the RAU. ‘This makes it probably the oldest intact domestic interior in the UK’ and ‘the only intact domestic building to have survived from the Saxon period.’

Pillars in the Saxon crypt at Repton Church, and the burial place of King Wiglaf of Mercia, which shows similarities to the Anchor Church Caves. Image: Mark Horton/RAU.

During the Middle Ages, caves were often inhabited by hermits and anchorites seeking a life of devout humility.

Local folklore has long associated the Anchor Church Caves with Saint Hardulph. Further evidence for this association exists in a fragment from a 16th-century manuscript that states ‘Saint Hardulph has a cell in a cliff a little from the Trent’.

Modern scholarship has identified Hardulph as King Eardwulf, who was deposed as king of Northumbria in AD 806 and spent the last years of his life in exile.

According to Mr Simons: ‘The architectural similarities with Saxon buildings, and the documented association with Hardulph/Eardwulf, make a convincing case that these caves were constructed, or enlarged, to house the exiled king.’

Dating analysis is now planned to corroborate the architectural findings.

Look out for a further in-depth report on the discovery in Current Archaeology #379.