St Martha’s on the Hill

This page and those that link off it concern a big piece of work that I have been slowly but surely piecing together since 2007. Over the years I have shared some of the constituent ideas with one or two people but kept the bulk of it to myself until I had collected and synthesised the vast majority of the primary and secondary sources needed to give the most complete account of the subject matter. The SyAS Medieval Studies Forum ‘England: Before and After the Conquest’ meeting in March 2013 provided me at long last with a platform for presenting an overview of the key elements of this research to a wider audience. Despite a major technical let-down on the day, the presentation was generally well received and fulfilled my intention of it being a catalyst for others to offer comments and criticisms on some of the aspects I had perhaps not thought to give full consideration to. I now have the impetus to promote the research further and wider and most important of all to try and get it accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal (it’s to my lingering shame that I have been intending to achieve this last point for well over a year without ever following through on it).

St Marthas March 2013

So what on earth am I talking about? The heart of the project is the contention that the hill-top medieval church of St Martha’s south-east of Guildford (seen centre-frame in the above, slightly drab photo of mine – there’s no accounting for the weather in Surrey in early March) owes its existence to a notorious event in eleventh-century Anglo-Norman history; the arrest circa 1036 of the Ætheling Alfred, younger brother of the future King Edward the Confessor, and the murder/assault/enslavement of an unknown number of Norman men who had accompanied him on his journey across the Channel and into the English interior from the south coast. I believe the latter were the “martyrs” whose violent deaths caused the first church to be built on top of the hill and who were remembered by its original dedication, which over the course of the twelfth century underwent a malapropic transformation into St Martha. At the start of that century, a massive west tower was constructed, uniquely with a groin-vaulted ground floor chamber that almost certainly formed the setting of the martyrial cult. The scale and ambition of its design point to a patron of the first order, the most obvious and credible candidate for which is King Henry I (who just so happens to be my favourite medieval English monarch on account of his commissioning of so many innovative works of ecclesiastical architecture). While there are other explanations that can be offered for the existence of the church and its connection to martyrs unknown, none of these bind together the history, architecture and archaeology of St Martha’s Hill and its environs so well as the one outlined above.

As an opening offer for what I hope will become an intermittently updated set of pages in the vein of my now-dormant work on “seven ditches”, I have uploaded my PowerPoint presentation which would have accompanied my talk were it not for the incompatibility of old laptop and brand new external hard drive. Instead each slide is now accompanied by an explanatory paragraph which builds upon what I said in my talk as well as what was said by others in response to it. Future additions under this heading may include observations of some of the main sources of evidence, new discoveries and what they mean to my research, and perhaps the occasional justification for complete reversals in opinion on particular points. It’s taken me over five years to get to this point and I imagine it may take as long again for full publication of my research in the form I envisage it taking, so expect updates aplenty between now and then.

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One Response to St Martha’s on the Hill

  1. Pingback: 410-1066 CE: What should we call the period? | Surrey Medieval

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