Friday, June 21, 2024

‘Earliest English church’ dating from around 600AD identified in Kent

A ruined chapel in Canterbury is the earliest English church and the only one that was commissioned, consecrated and used by St Augustine, the “Apostle to the English”, according to new dating. 

The analysis by archaeologist Professor Ken Dark, of King’s College London, draws on technical surveys and findings from over a century of excavations at St Augustine’s Abbey.

Dark argues that the chapel of St Pancras, on the abbey site, does not date from the late Roman period around the 4th or early 5th centuries, or, alternatively, from the mid to late 7th century, as previously claimed by scholars. Instead, he believes it was built between the arrival of St Augustine in Kent in 597AD and his death in 604.  

If he is correct, this modest building at the English Heritage site outside the old city walls, is one of the most important sites in British ecclesiastical history and the remote ancestor of every English parish church. St Augustine, a monk from Rome, was sent to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Kent by Pope Gregory the Great on a mission to convert the pagan king Æthelberht and ruling elite. This was intended as a catalyst for the wider conversions of Anglo-Saxons that followed.  

A 19th-century depiction of St Augustine of Canterbury preaching to King Æthelberht of Kent. Image: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Christianity had been introduced to Britain centuries earlier, in Roman times. After the end of Roman rule, around 410AD, the religion survived in some regions, especially in western Britain. However, paganism was predominant in the Anglo-Saxon territories of the east. In Dark’s analysis, the church of St Pancras was hastily built early in St Augustine’s mission as the monks’ first base of operations in reclaiming these lands —  spiritually at least — for Rome.  

The chapel lies at the east of the abbey site and is the best preserved of three early churches there. Dark said that, despite the original building’s simple basilica design, resembling Roman churches, it could not be Roman because it was laid out according to a grid system characteristic of Anglo-Saxon church-building. Moreover, excavations suggest that most of the abbey site was marginal land during Roman times and used for rubbish dumps.

On the other hand, Dark said the fact that the building was not on the same alignment as the other two churches on the abbey site — those of St Peter and St Paul and St Mary — indicated that it must predate them. 

He explained: “Alignments are a real characteristic of Anglo-Saxon churches and monasteries and you don’t get them diverging from the alignment. Once the alignment is set, that’s it. So if a church had been built on the present St Augustine site after St Peter and St Paul, it would have been aligned with it. But, interestingly, the original building at St Pancras, though it’s not aligned with St Peter and St Paul, cannot be late Roman because it’s laid out according to a system of measurement that is found very widely across Anglo-Saxon churches of the 7th century and introduced at or after 597.” 

Dark said textual evidence indicated that work started on St Peter and St Paul in 609 and written sources and similarities in construction suggested that both St Peter and St Paul and St Mary dated from around the same period in the early 7th century. His analysis of the three buildings’ structures utilises previously unpublished geophysical and photogrammetric surveys of the site made for English Heritage.  

“It is uniquely representative of a pivotal moment in British history”

Professor Ken Dark

He suggests that St Augustine and his monks may have initially worshipped at St Martin’s Church, on a hilltop nearby, which he interprets as having been a late Roman mausoleum that was used as a church by St Bertha, Æthelberht’s Frankish Christian queen, before the arrival of the mission. Bertha’s use of St Martin’s is consistent with the account by Bede, the 8th-century Northumbrian chronicler.  

In Dark’s view, the missionaries would soon have built their own church — later known as the church of St Pancras — which could hold a larger congregation. This consisted of a rectilinear room of 12.9m × 8.1m, with a curved apse at one end.

He said: “It looks like they decided to come down and build the original St Pancras church, which was a very simple building that seems as if it was hastily put up. It is brick, but reused Roman brick, and it has the simplest basilican plan that you could have for a Christian church in the first millennium. It has a clay floor, not a mortar floor and we know they could make mortar because the walls are mortared. It’s the sort of structure you can imagine someone constructing extremely quickly.” 

St Martin’s Church, Canterbury, is of Roman origin, according to Professor Dark. © Ken Dark

In due course, he believes, the community outgrew this structure and built the larger and grander church of St Peter and St Paul. The archaeology indicates that St Pancras fell derelict for a period before it was restored and extended later in the 7th and 8th centuries. This would be consistent with later recognition of the old building’s significance. The restored church has striking additions such as a triple arcade at the junction of the chancel and the apse.  

Dark said that remains of an early church of St Augustine’s mission probably lay buried beneath Canterbury Cathedral, as tradition has it, but there was currently no archaeological evidence for this building. Before his identification of the church of St Pancras as the earliest English church, contenders for the title included the cathedral and the abbey site’s church of St Peter and St Paul.  

In his paper, in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association, Dark concludes: “If one accepts this dating and interpretation of Period One, St Pancras is the earliest post-Roman church visible in England today, the earliest ‘Anglo-Saxon’ church yet known, the earliest part of St Augustine’s Abbey and the only visible building both consecrated and used by Augustine himself. As such, it is uniquely representative of a pivotal moment in British history, one of the most historically important standing buildings in England and a visible testament to the origins of both the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Church and of English ecclesiastical architecture.” 

He said: “If so, it must by definition, as the earliest Anglo-Saxon church building, lie at the very start of the architectural process that gives you the modern English parish church. We all, whether we are Christians or not, live with the architectural heritage of that building, albeit at a very great remove.” 

The top image shows the runs of St Pancras chapel at the St Augustine’s Abbey site, Canterbury. Photo: Shutterstock.

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