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Churches Committee
Kent Churches - Architectural & Historical Information

  St Nicholas Church, Rochester       TQ 7428 6854

ROCHESTER DIOCESE: HISTORICAL AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL SURVEY
Tim Tatton-Brown's Survey 1995

LOCATION: At about 30ft above O.D. in the centre of Rochester immediately N.W. of the cathedral nave.

DESCRIPTION: The earliest parochial altar of St Nicholas was from the late 11th century in the cathedral nave (probably at the east end of the north aisle). In origin the altar of St Nicholas may relate to the then well-known moving of the body of St Nicholas from Myra in southern Turkey to the new Norman church at Bari in Southern Italy in 1089.

The parochial altar remained in the cathedral nave until, in 1421, the parishioners were allowed to have a new church in the north-west corner of the cathedral's lay cemetery (they had apparently already started to build this church a few years earlier). It was finally consecrated on 18 December, 1423, and had a nave and two aisles and a short wide chancel.

By 1620 it was in very poor condition, and over the next few years it was substantially rebuilt, and reconsecrated on 24 September 1624. To this period belong the five-bay arcades inside the church (and the chancel arch) with Tuscan columns and pointed arches.

Glynne saw this church, unrestored, in the earlier 19th century, and described the 17th century `decorated tracery' in the windows. He also mentions that the chancel was `wholly modernised within, and the east window closed'. This must have been done a few years earlier. There was also a west gallery with an organ (1821), and a new nave ceiling. The east wall was apparently totally rebuilt in c.1861.

In 1860-62, the church was restored and reseated and repewed (a grant of 100 was given by the I.C.B.S., and 240 new seats were provided).

In 1963-4 the west end and aisles were screened off to form the diocesan offices, and in 1971 all the parishes in Rochester were united. The 1624 pulpit was also taken out at this time. The pews were removed in 1973, and the N.W. doorway became a display window in 1977.

The lowest parts of the walls (at plinth level) are apparently of the 15th century church, though all the upper walls seems to have been rebuilt in 1624. The windows, however, are of Bath stone and must all have been renewed in the 1860s, though presumably copying the 1624 tracery. The large west doorway must, however, be the 15th century doorway. It is of Ragstone and has a large square hood-mould with quatrefoils in the spandrels below. Immediately above this doorway is the inscription relating to the early 17th century rebuilding, and Dedication (dated 19 September 1624). The hood-mould immediately below it is in Portland stone, and was perhaps restored in 1624.

The only other major survival from the 15th century church is the north-west tower. This may not have been planned originally, as it appears to have been fitted into the north-west corner of the church. Also some of its detailing appears to be late 15th or early 16th century in date (the chequer work, for example), though this in part may be a repair, mentioned in a will of 1523.

The tower has an original Ragstone west doorway (2-centred hood-mould renewed in Portland) on the ground floor, and just inside it to the south is the original spiral stair-turret. This is now entered by a later doorway on the north-east, with the original south doorway blocked up. The original 15th century door does, however, still survive in situ
on its original hinges. At first stage level the tower has a Perpendicular window on the west (with square hood-mould), and below this is string course and an area of chequerwork. The top stage of the tower (belfry) has single-light Perpendicular windows on the north, west and east (under square hood-moulds), and this stage is more roughly built with knapped flint and ragstone rubble. There are side-alternate Ragstone quoins, and the parapet above this was rebuilt in the 19th century. On top of this is a c.18th century timber-framed cupola with an ogeed lead roof and a weather vane.

Inside the top stage of the tower there has been much repair in brick (?17th century) and a small now empty bell-frame for 3 bells (also probably of 17th century date, with 19th century repairs).

Little of the early 17th century church can now be seen, but at the west end of the north aisle part of the early 17th century roof (with wall bracket) can be seen in the modern offices.

BUILDING MATERIALS (Incl. old plaster, paintings, glass, tiles etc.): The fifteenth century church was made largely with Kentish Ragstone, cut into rough ashlar blocks. Dressings were also of Ragstone. A small amount of flint is also used, which is found in knapped courses and chequerwork in the upper part of the tower. The early 17th century rebuilding uses an oolitic limestone (source, as yet, not known) and some Portland stone, as well as brick in the tower.

Bathstone is used for all the 19th century dressings and tracery.

EXCEPTIONAL MONUMENTS IN CHURCH: Fine 15th century octagonal font with concave sides to bowl (and one letter of the word `CRISTIAN' on each face).

CHURCHYARD AND ENVIRONS:
Size & Shape: Rectangular area made under the castle walls, and across the filled up ditch, in 1624. Earlier burial had been in the lay-cemetery of the cathedral to the south and south-east (called Greenchurch How), and west of the cathedral.

Condition: Mown grass.

Boundary walls: Castle wall foundations to the west, and boundary walls north and south.

Earthworks: within: (The filled-in castle ditch.)

Building in churchyard or on boundary: -

Exceptional monuments: None - a few gravestones left, now up against the church walls or laid into the ground. This is the graveyard in which Charles Dickens wished to be buried.

Ecological potential: ?

HISTORICAL RECORD (where known):
Earliest ref. to church: Late 11th century, as altar in cathedral nave.

Late med. status: Vicarage. In 1549, the parish was united with that of St Clement, to the north-west.

Patron: The Bishop of Rochester; earlier it was disputed with the monks of the cathedral priory.

Other documentary sources: Hasted IV (1798), 155-161.
Test. Cant. (West Kent, 1906), 62-4, which mention the making of the `Rode lofte' (1502); the Lady Chapel (1523) and its reparation (1527). Also to the repair of the steeple (1523).

ARCHAEOLOGICAL RECORD
Finds from churchyard: The church and churchyard(s) all lie above the Roman levels of the city of Rochester

SURVIVAL OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL DEPOSITS:
Inside present church: Quite good, except where cut by burial vaults.

Outside present church: ?Good

RECENT DISTURBANCES/ALTERATIONS:
To structure: Major stonework repairs in 1973-4, costing 21,000. At the same time the pews were replaced by chairs.

ARCHAEOLOGICAL AND HISTORICAL ASSESSMENT:
The church and churchyard: A new church of c.1420-3 in the lay-cemetery of Rochester Cathedral priory, completely rebuilt in 1624, and again in 1860-2. The internal arcades and chancel arch are rare examples of early 17th century work in Kent.

The wider context: One of only a small number of completely new churches of the later Middle Ages in the diocese, though on a moderate scale.

REFERENCES: S R Glynne Notes on the Churches of Kent (1877), 318-9. (He visited in 1831, 1839 and 1853.

Guide book: By Ronald Dominey (1979) - a useful summary, but with no plan.

Plans and drawings: Petrie early 19th century view from S.W. (in the K.A.S. Library).

DATE VISITED: 5/6/95                                  REPORT BY: Tim Tatton-Brown

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