To the North of St Martin’s Hill
This is the oldest church in England that has been used continuously as a church since at least the 6th century and possibly since the 4th century under the Romans, as there is much Roman material in its walls.
The church sits on the hill overlooking both St Augustine’s Abbey and also the Cathedral (Image 1). This is quite appropriate as together they form the Canterbury World Heritage Site (UNESCO) recording the coming of Christianity to England in AD597.
The church is thought to have been a Roman mortuary chapel before AD400, as the area has produced many Roman burial sites and the Roman road into Canterbury from the Roman port of Richborough passed close by. In the early 8th century Bede wrote in his History that it was here that Queen Bertha went to pray. There are several walls that date from at least her time (Image 2). It was in this church that traditionally Augustine baptized King Ethelbert.
What to see:
- The chancel is the oldest part of the church as evidenced by the many Roman bricks in the south wall (image 3) and a blocked square headed doorway which originally led to a tiny porch, now lost. Foundations to it were found during an excavation in the late 19th century (image 4)
- The nave – this part of the building dates from the time of Queen Bertha. After the restoration of the nineteenth century when the walls were stripped of their plaster Caen limestone blocks in the walls as well as re-used Roman bricks can now be seen. See also the Saxon windows, high up on the tower wall, which can be clearly seen (image 5). Two blocked doorways on the side walls are also on view.
- The very fine 900 year old font (image 6) is thought to have come from the Cathedral, but the stone rings of which it is made up seem to have got muddled up in the move.
- The huge tablet set on the wall in the tower to Sir John Finch (d.1660) the Speaker of the House of Commons who had to be held down in his seat to get the Petition of Rights passed.
- In the churchyard are buried many prominent citizens including Cathedral Deans Alford and Payne Smith as well as the city’s most famous artist Thomas Sidney Cooper and also his pupil, Mary Tourtel, the creator of Rupert Bear and Walter Couzens is also buried here.
- The outside of the south wall is built mostly of Roman bricks (image 7) and the shallow buttresses are typical of Saxon work.
Update as of November 2023: “Historic England” considers St Martin’s Church to be the oldest building in England.
Access: open 11.00 to 3.00pm Wednesday to Sunday each week. Check the St Martin’s Church website to confirm latest opening times.
Sources: Taylor (2001); Newman (1983)