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The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

History of St Martins of Tours - Canterbury

The date of the existing building is a source of never-ending controversy, as it contains many features attributable either to Roman or to Saxon architecture. While whatever may be thought of its possible connection with Christian soldiers of the Roman army, or with St. Martin of Tours, there can be no doubt that it was the oratory of Queen Bertha and her chaplain, Bishop Liudhard, as well as the scene of St. Augustine's preaching, and the Baptism of King Ethelbert. In a short sketch of this kind, it is impossible to enter into controversial details.

The first mention of the Church is the statement by the Venerable Bede, written within 100 years of the death of St. Augustine. It reads: 'There was, on the East side of the City, a Church dedicated in honour of St. Martin; built of old while the Romans were still inhabiting Britain.' Bede does not state if it was used for Christian worship in Roman times, or if it was a pagan temple converted to Christian use at a later date.

The curtain of history is not again lifted until about the year 580AD.
Aethelberht, the King of Kent, married Bertha, the daughter of Charbert, King of the Franks, who reigned in Paris. Bertha was a Christian and as Aethelberht was a heathen, it was stipulated that Bertha be allowed to practice the Christian faith. Bertha was accompanied to England by her chaplain, Bishop Liudhard, and it was to this Church, rebuilt on the Roman ruin and dedicated in honour of St. Martin of Tours, that they came to worship.

We now jump to the year 597AD, and the landing in Kent of St. Augustine and his companions, bringing the Christian message. With the King's permission, it was to St. Martin's that they went, and again to quote the words of Bede, 'to meet, to sing, to pray, to say mass, to preach, and to baptise'.

Soon the first fruits of this mission began to appear in the conversion and baptism of the King. We know the ceremony took place on the Feast of Pentecost, 2nd June 597AD, but nothing else. Tradition says it was at St. Martin's and in part of the existing font, but it is tradition, and at that we must leave it.

After the death of St. Augustine, the Church relapses into a period of comparative obscurity. It is mentioned in a Saxon charter of 867AD, and it gave its name to two Suffragan Bishops of St. Martin's in 1032 and 1052. The Church is a peculiar [which means it is independent of the Archdeacon] and so remains exempt from the jurisdiction of the Archdeacon of Canterbury. By this, we are deprived of much valuable information usually found in the Archidiaconal Registers. We do, however, find entries in the years 1511 and 1552. Many items of interest are gathered from numerous wills between the years 1402 and 1598. The list of Rectors is complete from the year 1314. The benefice was united with the parish of St. Paul in 1681. The patronage of the living is in the hands of the Archbishop. The Registers date from 1662, but contain nothing of historical interest, just the bare narration of Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths.


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