St Cuthbert's Church stands within a walled enclosure set in the middle of the huge village green around which the village of Elsdon is built. It is said that the monks from the monastery at Lindisfarne rested here while carrying the coffin containing the remains of St Cuthbert to Durham after abandoning Lindisfarne in the face of Viking raids.
The first church on this site was probably built by Robert de Umfraville, Lord of Tours and Vian, who was a kinsman of William the Conqueror, shortly after he was appointed Lord of Redesdale in 1076. The earlier passage of St Cuthbert's remains must have left a significant impression on the local folk memory, because the location chosen for de Umfraville's church was, it is said, exactly where St Cuthbert's coffin and relics had been briefly placed just over two centuries earlier. It was fitting, therefore, that the church should be dedicated to St Cuthbert.
No part of the church you can see today has been dated back to the building of around 1080, though parts of the west end of the nave have been dated to the 1100s, and parts of the aisles to the 1200s.
Most experts agree that St Cuthbert's Church has had an unusually complex history, and this makes interpreting and dating its different elements less than straightforward. The best guess is that most of the building dates back to a major rebuild that took place in the 1300s. This resulted in the nave, the chancel and the transepts that you see today.
The main difference is that the church that emerged here in the 1300s would have been rather larger than today's church as it appears to have had much wider aisles on both sides of the nave. At the same time as the church was rebuilt, a "vicar's pele" or fortified tower to house the vicar, was built a little to the north. This was rebuilt in the 1500s and in this form it survives today.
It has been suggested that the rebuild of the church in the 1300s was needed because of damage caused by Scottish raiders at the time of the nearby Battle of Otterburn in 1388. This may be the case, but cross border incursions, in both directions, were so frequent in the 1300s and the two centuries that followed, that if the rebuild was promoted by battle damage, it could have been caused on any of a number of occasions (or, of course, on more than one).
St Cuthbert's appears to have taken its current form in the late 1500s or the early 1600s when the early broad aisles flanking the nave were narrowed significantly, and given very thick walls, presumably for defence. The bellcote was added in about 1720, and the church was restored twice in the following century, in 1837 and 1877. The porch was added during this period, and the chancel largely rebuilt.
The churchyard is home to a number of fascinating burial monuments of fairly early age, including some of the pictorial style more often found in Scotland than England. There are also two stone coffins standing on their ends against the west exterior wall of the church. Looking at the sheer bulk of these gives rise to the obvious question of how they were moved, with or without a body, to the place of burial, especially if you assume a stone lid of similar bulk.
Inside the church there is evidence of a number of medieval grave markers. Some have been left standing against internal walls, while others have been recorded as being built into the fabric of the church, including as the sills and lintels of windows. Perhaps the most striking monument on show in the church is the Elsdon Stone. This measures some 0.8m wide and 0.9m high and stands against the north wall of the interior of the church. This stone was unearthed in 1809 near the remains of the Roman fort at Bremenium, or High Rochester, some 7 miles north-west of Elsdon.
The stone originally marked the grave of a Roman officer, and is unique in Britain in that it sets out his whole career. The first few lines are illegible, but the rest reads (in translation from the original Latin): "To the divine Manes, of the prefect of the first cohort of the Augustan of the Lusitani, also of the second cohort of the Breuci, subcurator of the Flaminian Way and of the distribution of maintenance subcurator of public works. Julia Lucilla had this erected to her husband well deserving. He lived forty-eight years six months and five days." Some sources say that the stone was in memory of Rufinus, who commanded Bremenium fort, and that his wife Julia Lucilla was the daughter of a Roman senator.