Visit to Breedon on the Hill

Leader: Peter Liddle

On Sunday 17th June members of Thurcaston and Cropston Local History Society visited Breedon-on-the Hill for a very interesting guided tour of St Mary and St Hardulph’s church with Peter Liddle (former County Archaeologist).

Location: The village of Breedon-on-the-Hill (the name means hill in 3 languages: Celtic – bree; Saxon – don; and English - hill) is in fact at the foot of the hill, the church of St Mary and St Hardulph stands alone on top surrounded by its churchyard.  The hill has been quarried over the centuries but extensively since the 1940’s, losing much archaeological evidence of what was originally an Iron Age Hill fort. Some artifacts uncovered by the bulldozers were saved by the quarry owner, but no archaeological survey was done. Many bodies were also unearthed which may have been mid-late Anglo Saxon burials.

History: This important Anglo-Saxon religious site was created around 675-691 AD.  Within a couple of generations the Vikings arrived reaching the neighbouring monastery of Repton by 873.  There is no documentary evidence of what happened at Breedon-on-the-Hill but it is likely it was plundered like many other religious sites.  The monastery may have been re-founded in the 10th century following the end of Viking rule.  By the 1120’s there were Augustinian Canons here (never more than about five) and it became a small priory under the auspices of Nostell Priory.  The Priory was dissolved along with Nostell during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539.  Later, part was sold to the Shirleys of Staunton Harold who wanted it to bury their family dead.

Exterior architecture: The church today is half the size as it once was and marks showing the roof lines of former buildings can be seen on the tower. There is no architectural evidence of the original Saxon buildings but Norman doors, 13th century lancet windows and later windows from the 15th century re-fenestration can be seen.  There is no sign of earlier cloisters, dormitories or the nave, and because of the surrounding graveyard no excavations can be carried out, however ground-probing radar would probably be able to provide some clues.

Interior: The jewel of the church is the Anglo-Saxon sculptures and carvings.  There are long sections of wall frieze depicting vine scrolls, birds and beasts.  There is also a series of panels showing human figures and a lion known as the Anglian Beast.   We were able to go into the tower to see the Breedon Angel possibly the earliest known carving of an angel in England.  The church also contains the family mausoleum of the Shirleys, and the dark and heavily carved Shirley family pew dated 1627.