Breedon on the Hill in Leicestershire is a beautiful area with some fascinating history, quaint old English pubs and the countryside all around is so beautiful with plenty of walking trails.
Apart from the Priory Church of St Mary’s and St Hardulphs being a lovely peaceful location on top of an iron age hill Fort with stunning views, it’s also the final resting place of an exiled King.
What is an Iron Age Fort
Imagine more than 2000 years ago a land before structured landscapes of patchwork fields, or of roads and brick houses as we see now. Way before the Roman invasion of AD 43. Before the major cities and towns as we know it, just Imagine small settlements on top of hills, strategically placed to be able to defend themselves.
Now that you’re back in time to the iron age, you could easily see why Breedon on the hill was a well placed settlement.
A hill-fort is a fortified refuge or defended settlement, they were located high above neighbouring plains, and used the dramatically high position for a military advantage.
They were designed to follow the contours of the natural hills they were built upon, and with the human addition of earthworks, ditches and defensive walls, they would have made any bands of roaming warriors think twice before trying to invade these armoured camps.
The largely quarried area has unfortunately destroyed a lot of the iron age form, to one side instead is a cliff. But this quarrying has also revealed much more than we would have discovered otherwise. The archaeology of this area was discovered.
This Iron Age Hill Fort can still be seen from the section behind the Priory Church and you can walk around the short section on a footpath there, it’s a beautiful view for miles around from that vantage point too. They would have been able to see any invasion coming towards them.
Archaeology finds from this location span just about the whole of British history. Breedon’s oldest relics are several stone axes that have a proposed date of around 3,000 BC. It is not surprising to discover that this strategic natural landmark was a habitat for early man. There is easy access to the river valleys of both the Soar and the Trent.
There is evidence of localised work on the rampart, which implies that the fort was always kept in good repair. During the archaeology digs they found two unfortunate souls whose skeletons were excavated in the boundary trench.
Breedon was a major producer of a distinctive pottery type, Ancaster-Breedon Ware during the Iron Age period. The same type that was also found at Burrough Hill, evidence of a possible trading route. Cereal was also produced at Breedon, proved by a find of around 20 corn grinders, this is an unusually high figure for any Iron Age site.
Another quite unique detail of the Breedon site is that the occupants may have also had a system of religion. Discovered on site was a rare, miniature bronze oval shield which archaeologists often associate with Iron Age religious enclosures.
The Priory Church of St Mary’s and St Hardulphs
This is an important church because of its unique Saxon carvings. In 675 a monastery was founded on the hill with Headda as the first Abbot.
The monastery is mentioned in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles and due to its importance various saints were also buried here. The land was given by Friduricus with the stipulation that Headda would be made the Abbot. Friduricus is a candidate for the four saints who are interred here, possibly in a now-buried crypt.
The hagiography of the Secgan Manuscript (On the resting places of the Saints) records the other three saints buried in Breedon-on-the-Hill are Anglo-Saxon saints Eardwulf of Northumbria, Beonna of Breedon and Cotta of Breedon.
The monastery fell into decline after the Danes ransacked the region including probably Breedon itself. But by 966-7 King Edgar (the first King of all England who ruled until 706 ) gave Bishop Aethelwold land which also included Breedon, and the monastery was either revived or re-founded at this time.
In 1066, the manor of Breedon was given by William the Conqueror to the de Ferrers family, who later became the Earls of Derby.
Breedon priory was founded as an Augustinian monastery in around 1120, on the site of the earlier Saxon Benedictine abbey of Holy Hill Monastery. The priory was a cell of Nostell Priory in Yorkshire and there seems to have been between three and five canons in residence at any one time, usually
The priory was sadly surrendered for dissolution in November 1539. It was later sold to Francis Shirley, head of the local manorial family, who were recusants. After the Dissolution, the eastern part of the priory with the formerly central tower was retained for parish use. The nave and other buildings were demolished. The church still shows signs of the presence of the original monastery if you look closer.
The church has been a Grade I listed building since 1962, which categorises it as a building of exceptional interest.
St Hardulf is thought to be the exiled king Eardwulf of Northumbria. The connection has been made by several historians. Supporting evidence comes from a 12th-century list of the burial places of saints compiled at Peterborough. This calls the Saint Hardulph to whom Breedon was dedicated “Hardulfus rex”—King Eardwulf—and states that he was buried at Breedon.
Anchor Church in Derbyshire
The sandstone cave that was once thought to be only an 18th-century folly used as a venue for parties has now been discovered to be a near-complete Anglo-Anglo-Saxon dwelling, dating from the early 9th century.
Archaeologists from the Royal Agricultural University’s (RAU) newly-formed Cultural Heritage Institute, working with colleagues from Wessex Archaeology, conducted a detailed survey of the grade II listed Anchor Church Caves between Foremark and Ingleby in south Derbyshire.
This dwelling is possibly the oldest known domestic interior in the UK, with signs of Anglo-Saxon doors and rock cut pillars, complete with windows. But what makes this Anglo-Saxon dwelling even more fascinating is that it is highly likely to been lived in by a king who probably became a Saint in his own lifetime.
“Using detailed measurements, a drone survey, and a study of architectural details, it was possible to reconstruct the original plan of three rooms and easterly facing oratory, or chapel, with three apses.”
In an exert from a 16th century printed book it states that at “that time Saint Hardulph has a cell in a cliff a little from the Trent” and local folklore identifies these caves as those Hardulph occupied. Modern scholarship identifies Hardulph with King Eardwulf who was deposed as king of Northumbria in 806.
According to a pamphlet by Hon. Justice Joyce dated 1541 which makes reference to the life of St. Modwen. (Burton on Trent parish church is dedicated to St. Mary and St. Modwen) yet another little known saint. The text refers to ‘St. Hardulche in a place named Bredon. He herde tell Modwens holy lyvnge and went oft to her and bore books of holy Sayntes lyves.’
The fragment speaks of the saint having a little cell in a cliff a little from Trent which sounds remarkably like the anchorite cave or ‘Anchor church’ near Ingleby. The text tells of how two maidens or nuns were saved from drowning in the Trent in attempting to obtain a book Hardulche or Hardulph had forgotten to take to Modwen
Saint Hardulph died around 830 AD and was buried at Breedon on the Hill in Leicestershire, just five miles from the caves.
It is also believed that some of the surviving sculpture in the Church of St Mary and St Hardulph at Breedon on the hill in Leicestershire which was founded as a monastery in the seventh century, came from his shrine.
If you were wondering, it was not unusual for a deposed or retired royalty to take up a religious life during this period, gaining sanctity and in some cases canonisation.
Although the former king who would have been living as a hermit in a way, in the cave dwelling, St Hardulph would most likely had disciples with him at this time and would have been revered as holy, probably as a saint in his own lifetime.
Walks and location at Breedon on the hill
There is some really nice walking routes in and around Breedon on the hill in Leicestershire, and if you park in the village, we park at the village green, you are sure to come access some good old English pubs including The Holly Bush which is a traditional country pub (Free House) dating back to the 16th century.
We like to walk up to St Mary’s and St Hardulphs Church and sit a while on a bench to admire the stunning countryside views before taking a circuit behind the Priory Church along what remains of the Iron Age Hill Fort and take a steady walk back down into the lovely historic village the church is sign posted from the village green and you will see The Holly Bush pub on route.
This very short little walk is just enough for our old dog Max. The post code for the Church is DE73 8AJ 9f you want to visit directly, but some parking is available in the village and the walk is nice, but a little steep in places.
Breedon on the hill Beacon
At the Priory Church there is a beacon that was first lit on July 3 2002 in celebration of the Queen’s golden jubilee. Its second lighting was October 21 2005 to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. The last event it was lit for was July 4 2012 in celebration of the Queen’s diamond jubilee.
There is also some interesting walking or cycling routes on the Cloud Trail, sign posted clearly from the main road at Breedon on the hill.
Anchor Church walk
One walk in particular takes a lovely sweep around towards the River Trent and towards Anchor Church. The walk starts at a bend in the road at Ingleby.
There’s parking nearby on laybys and you can reach the area using the post code for the local pub, John Thompson Inn and Brewery Ingleby, Derby DE73 7HW.
The signposted walk is just along the road from the pub. The village is a lovely peaceful place so if considering a visit please be careful and considerate.
The Anchor Church walk is easily followed once you’ve crossed the roadside stile. It is probably 2 miles there and the same back.
It isn’t very accessible unless you’re OK getting over stiles and navigating rough paths and nettles but the views are beautiful and the cave dwelling is fascinating.
A new favourite walk for us as a family.