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The History of Kent

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St Mary in Castro - Dover Castle

St Mary in Castro, or St Mary de Castro, is a church in the grounds of Dover Castle. It is a heavily restored Saxon structure, built next to a Roman lighthouse which became the church bell-tower. St Mary serves the local population and is the church of the Dover Garrison.

The Romans built forts here in c. 130AD and c. 270AD, and the town had fortifications from many eras since. The Romans also built two pharoses on the Eastern and Western Heights above the gap in the cliffs. St Mary in Castro is on the Eastern Heights.

There are records of a church being built within the castle by Eadbald of Kent in the 630s. However, it is unclear whether this means within the Saxon burgh (usually dated to later than 630) on the Eastern Heights, or within the ruins of old Roman fortifications in the valley. The large, late-Saxon cemetery around the present church does suggest the existence of a c.600 church, but not definitively.

Tiles from the octagonal Roman pharos were reused in the Saxon church.
Whether or not it had a predecessor, the present Saxon church was built on the Eastern Heights around the 9th Century. It is immediately adjacent to the surviving eastern pharos, which was used as a source of spolia: Roman tiles can be still be seen in the church fabric, particularly in the window arches (usually of stone), and flint and tile from the pharos is used throughout the church's walls. The plinth that projects out from beneath the church and on which it stands, however, is of new stone. The church is cruciform with a central tower the same width as the nave but broader than the chancel and transepts. The nave has no aisles. The door arch is the earliest to survive in any standing church in England.

The Early English vault and the altar recess in the nave's southeast corner of the nave were probably both added to the existing church at the end of the twelfth century. As part of his building works at the castle, in 1226 Henry III instructed that the church be repaired and twenty-one years later ordered the making of three altars and images, for and of St. Edmund, St. Adrian and St. Edward, along with an image of St. John the Evangelist.

A new stage was added to the four surviving Roman stages (out of a possible original eight) of the pharos to turn it into a bell tower, together with a short passage to connect it to the church. In 1252, three bells were cast at Canterbury to be hung in the pharos. In 1342-3, three bells were sold out of St Mary in Castro to another St Mary's church, in the nearby village of Lower Hardres, for at least �4. They were replaced in 1345 by two newly cast bells, weighing 4266 lb and 1078 lb, and costing £15 18s. 5d.. Between 1426 and 1437, works on the pharos cost �176 11s. 11d, and included five new stone windows in the medieval stage, which may have been rebuilt.

Other works on the church included repainting between 1324 and 1334 by John of Maidstone. The latter work was by Sir Edward Poynings, who may well have been deputising for Prince Henry, then the Castle's Constable.

From 1555 to 1557 the church was walled up as it was unsafe due to lack of repairs, though nineteen years later recommendations were made to repair the chancel in stone, glaze (or reglaze) the windows and provide seats for men to hear divine service. It took another six years, but in 1582, fourteen small chairs were, at last, bought. Public worship then lasted until 1690, though burials of troops from the garrison in the surrounding churchyard continued for some time after that.

The remaining ruin was turned into a storehouse and cooperage in 1780, but a further collapse in 1801 led to its becoming a coal store by 1808, and thus it remained until 1860. That year began the first of two Victorian restorations. The first lasted until 1862 and was carried out by George Gilbert Scott, and the second restoration for only a year in 1888, by William Butterfield. Butterfield's restoration completed the tower and added mosaic work in the nave and a vestry, but was generally held to be less sympathetic than the first by Scott.

Today Saint Mary in Castro is still a thriving church serving the Army and local people, and is the Dover Garrison Church. The Dover Castle Statutes of 1267 on display in Saint Mary in Castro offer a fascinating insight into life in Dover Castle during the medieval age. The Statutes demand order and discipline from the guards, with heavy penalties imposed on any who swear or brawl; they lay-out explicit plans for ceremonies, religious or otherwise, and the ringing of bells; and they detail procedures for deaths, festivals.

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