All Saints Parish Church stands close to the centre of the town of Rothbury in Northumberland. It is an attractive church comprising a nave, chancel and transepts, with a tower at the western end. To all intents and purposes, it looks very much like any number of other attractive Victorian churches that sprang up the length and breadth of the country.
Appearances, however, can be deceptive. Yes, much of All Saints Church was rebuilt between 1847 and 1850, and the tower, the nave, the aisles and all but the east walls of the transepts date back to this period, even if the architect drew for his inspiration on the style of the 1300s. The identity of the architect involved is a matter of some debate. One usually impeccable source (Pevsner) lists Anthony Salvin as the architect, while others, including English Heritage, say that it was a Mr G. Pickering.
Not all of what you see today dates from the late 1840s. The chancel of All Saints was built in the 1200s, as were the east walls of the transepts. The arcade on the north side of the chancel was built in the late 1300s, while the chancel vestries were added in 1887.
The Pevsner Buildings of England Guide to Northumberland describes the rebuilding of the church in the late 1840s as "a tragedy", as it appears to have been preceded by the complete demolition of a pre-Conquest (i.e. Anglo-Saxon) tower which had previously stood at the western end of the church. All that remains of the original tower, and the nave of the older church, which presumably was either contemporary with the tower (which would have made it pre-Conquest) or with the chancel (which would have dated it to the 1200s), are a few pieces of decorated stonework which, with some medieval graveslabs, have been set into the interior walls of the porch.
When you start looking, it turns out that it is not just the identity of the architect who rebuilt All Saints Church which is the subject of debate and disagreement between experts. There is even more debate about what originally stood here. The most commonly held belief is that the pre-Conquest tower demolished in the 1840s would originally have stood between two churches, one extending to the east of it (i.e. under the area of the church you see today) and the other extending to the west (i.e. out under Church Street and possibly beyond). A similar arrangement is known to have existed at Jarrow.
A second theory is that the early church formed part of a monastic community, and the monastic buildings extended to the west (and, presumably, to the south) of the pre-Conquest tower. Both theories seem to be based on a dowsing survey of the area to the west of the existing church in the 1980s. The findings of this were challenged by limited architectural work along the line of a new sewer trench dug in 2006, which found no evidence of any ecclesiastical buildings, though traces of a lime kiln were found. What this seems to mean in practice is that the jury is still out on whether there was a second church or monastic buildings extending west of the pre-Conquest tower, but it seems much less likely than was once thought to be the case.
What does seem clear, however, is that there was a pre-Conquest church on the site of All Saints Church, and it seems very reasonable to conclude that in one form or another this existed as far back as the early 800s (or late 700s, again depending on your source). The evidence for this supposition can be found in the church in the shape of the font. The bowl of the font carries the large date of 1664, and replaced one damaged in the Civil War. The base of the font, however, is altogether older. This started life some time around 800 as the shaft of a beautifully carved Anglo-Saxon cross. Parts of the head of the cross were unearthed during the work in the 1840s and can now be seen in a museum in Newcastle.
It is thought that this may be the earliest stone cross to have been found anywhere in England, and it seems likely that it originally stood outside a very significant church, probably built from wood in about 800. This church was probably replaced in stone before the Norman conquest, and then (also probably) replaced again, except for the tower, which was retained, in the 1200s. And then all but the chancel and east walls of the transepts was replaced yet again in the late 1840s.
In effect, what you see today is a Victorian church with a medieval chancel and an Anglo-Saxon font base. With its dark wood ceilings and white walls, All Saints has a very spacious, comfortable feel. The chancel arch is fitted with a beautiful wooden chancel screen topped off with a cross and this gives access to the chancel beyond. Here you find some superbly carved stalls. The south transept is home to a chapel dedicated to the memory of the men of Rothbury who gave their lives in the two world wars.
You might hope for evidence of All Saints' great antiquity in the graveyard, but as already noted, what medieval graveslabs there were appear to have been moved into the porch, presumably during the rebuild of the late 1840s. There are nonetheless some interesting monuments in the graveyard, including some with unusual raised lettering. The separate graveyard across Church Street is the last resting place of Rothbury's most notable resident, 1st Lord Armstrong of Cragside.