Tag Archives: Pope Gregory the Great

St Martin’s Church, Canterbury

IMG_4594It was fortunate that, when St Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory the Great in 596, landing probably in Ebbsfleet in 597, to bring Christianity back to England, there was already an established church just outside the city. It meant that his arrival was not met with hostility as could have been the case. The reason for this place of worship was because the King, Æthelbert, had married a Christian Frankish princess, Bertha. Æthelbert restored and gave his wife an existing small Roman building for church services – it was possibly a mortuary chapel. Bertha came from near Tours, in France; two centuries before her birth, St Martin had been bishop there, and so the church for the queen was dedicated to this French saint. The tower at the west end of St Martin’s is shown here and was added in the fourteenth century.


IMG_4559In Bede’s ‘A History of the English Church and People’ he wrote about the church for St Augustine and his followers: On the east side of the city there was an old church in honour of St Martin, built during the Roman occupation of Britain, where the queen, who was a Christian, was accustomed to pray. Here they first began to assemble, to sing psalms, celebrate mass, to preach and to baptise, until the king was converted to the faith and gave them greater freedom to preach and to build and restore churches everywhere*. This round arched narrow doorway, now blocked up, was constricted in the Saxon period; it could perhaps have been the queen’s door; not it contains a modern statue of Bertha.


IMG_4577Although the church has been restored, the long, narrow Roman bricks are very much in evidence. These are in the chancel, but some Roman bricks were re-used in the seventh century to extend the church and build the nave, thus giving a larger space for the worshippers. This was the first Anglo-Saxon building to use bricks and stone with mortar; after the Romans left, buildings were constructed from wood. The Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Ruin’ is about the remaining stone buildings from the Romans having been built by ‘giants’ such was their awe at the sizes of buildings and the way in which they were constructed.


IMG_4560Inside the church, looking to the west wall, the construction of the nave with brick and stone can be seen clearly. Some of the stone is limestone from Paris. There are three narrow arched windows (the one on the right is clearest) which have since been bricked up and covered by the tower.





IMG_4562The font was thought to be from when the nave was built, and if so, it would have been used to baptise Æthelbert when he converted to Christianity, but it has been found to be later. In fact it was a well head from Canterbury Cathedral cloisters; the arched Norman decoration is particularly fine.





IMG_4589There is a squint, low in the west wall, and angled towards the chancel. Those who were forbidden from entering the church and so remained outside, such as lepers, could nevertheless peer through the squint and follow the mass being celebrated. It is rather low on the ground, though, and is unlikely to be a comfortable experience!





IMG_4581The piscina is also from the Norman period as the font, and was where the water used to wash the plate and cup used for the mass was poured away.

When St Augustine and his followers, about 40 in all, arrived in Kent it is likely that they landed first at Ebbsfleet; this settlement was then on a spur of land projecting south out from the island of Thanet into the Wantsum Channel. King Æthelbert ordered them to stay where they were and then agreed to meet them, however he knew that Christians dealt in magic – perhaps he was aware of the story of Samson destroying a building single handedly – and so he met them outside in the open air. Bede records this meeting as: They came … bearing as their standard a silver cross and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a panel. They chanted litanies and uttered prayers to the Lord for the eternal salvation both of themselves and those to whom they had come. It must have looked pretty impressive, and no doubt with the encouragement of Bertha, the king allowed the contingent to travel on to Canterbury without any hassle, and then to have the use of St Martin’s Church for their services.

The church is now on the list of World Heritage Sites alongside Canterbury Cathedral, and a visit is highly recommended.