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Kent Churches - Architectural & Historical Information

 St George's Church, Benenden         TQ8033

Tim Tatton-Brown's Survey 1994

LOCATION: Situated on a hilltop at about 340 ft. above O.D. on Wadhurst Clay. Quarry wood is about mile to the west (on Ashdown Beds - no doubt the local stone source). There is a green to the north; it was enlarged in the later 19th century.

DESCRIPTION: Unfortunately this church was struck by lightning on 30 December 1672, and the great timber steeple on the north-west caught fire, and in a few hours the steeple and church had burnt down (see contemporary account in Scott Robertson - op.cit. below). It was rebuilt in the late 17th century with a semi-classical interior, but all of this was swept away in a major restoration by David Brandon in 1862. All the internal arcades, the chancel arch and many of the windows were completely reconstructed at this time, so it is only possible to work out mostly later phases in the outer walls, including the late medieval phases.
   The earliest visible masonry is probably in the west wall of the nave, and side-alternate quoins for the south-west corner of the unaisled nave can be seen high up above a latter pilaster buttress beside the south-east corner of the tower. These may be of a 13th century date.
   There was also perhaps a 13th century chancel on the site of the present choir with its east wall under the sanctuary step. The lower part of a diagonal buttress for the north-east corner of this earlier east wall was uncovered in September 1988 outside the present sanctuary north wall, as well as a small fragment of a south-east buttress foundation.
   No other 13th century remains are visible, and it is clear that the church was greatly enlarged in the later medieval period. Of these enlargements the external walls at the north-east corner (Holy Trinity Chapel) and the south-west corner (south porch and west end of south aisle) are probably the earliest, and perhaps date from the 14th century. Rubble ironstone masonry is used for the walls and there is a chamfered plinth which is plain on the north-east side, suggesting an earlier date than the concave chamfers used in all the other plinth tops. Most of the windows have been restored, but the three Perpendicular windows on the north side of the Holy Trinity Chapel (which have square hood-moulds) may be early 15th century in date.
   The south porch has had a later doorway put into its outer wall, but may also be late 14th - early 15th century in date, and links with the south wall of the south aisle beyond. The eastern part of the south wall of the south aisle was rebuilt in 1861-2, but is probably on an earlier wall line of the very late Middle Ages. The earlier south aisle wall perhaps ran east from the north-east corner of the south porch.
   The north porch, with its fine octopartite ribbed vault, probably dates from the later 15th century, but the north doorway to the church inside is probably earlier (perhaps early 14th century). It has convex and concave mouldings and pyramid stops. The porch itself, and the neighbouring areas of aisle walls are made of coursed ashlar of Ashdown Beds or Tunbridge Wells sandstone on a plinth, though there are areas of 19th century Bathstone repairs.
   Outside the north-west corner of the church there was once a very tall (said to be 134 feet high) timber-framed bell-tower and spire, which may have been similar to that surviving at High Halden Church. It was destroyed, as we have seen, in December 1672.
   The best documentary evidence for building work at the church is for the rebuilding of the south-east (Lady) chapel. This is probably being made in c.1474-7 (see evidence from wills below). The outer walls and windows (with concave internal jambs) and associated spiral staircase for the rood-loft still survive. They have coursed sandstone ashlar walls and a plinth.
   The extended chancel (sanctuary) has similar sandstone ashlar walls and windows, but is on a Kentish Ragstone plinth. However, at the south-east external corner, one can see that the Lady Chapel north-east corner butts up against the sanctuary, which must therefore date from a little before the 1470s.
   The tower was rebuilt after the disaster of 1672, and we are told that it was not finished until 1715 (there was apparently this date on the west doorway before it was renewed in 1861). The tower arch is still the classical one in its sides (it had a gallery over it), but has a new 1861-2 pointed arch over it. The main rebuilding of the church was done in 1673-8, and new semi-classical arcades were put in.
   David Brandon's major restoration took place in 1861-3, and completely new arcades and chancel arch (and arches into the chapels) were put in. Many windows were renewed and the south aisle wall was rebuilt over a boiler house. All the crenellated parapets were also renewed, as were all the roofs. Many new fittings (pulpit, font, pews, etc.) were put in.
   The bells were returned and hung in a new metal frame in 1971.

BUILDING MATERIALS: (Incl. old plaster, paintings, glass, tiles etc.): Ironstone rubble with some sandstone, was used for the earlier walling, while the latest medieval work is of Ashdown or Tunbridge Wells sandstone ashlar. Kentish Rag is used for the eastern plinth, and sandstone ashlar for the late 17th - 18th century tower. Bathstone was introduced for the 1861-2 restoration.

EXCEPTIONAL MONUMENTS IN CHURCH: Admiral of the Fleet, Sir John Norris (late 18th century) on the south wall of the Lady Chapel.

Size: Large rectangular area around church with major extension downhill on the south and south-east (all grazed by sheep).

Condition: Good.

Earthworks: within: Slight terracing down at old churchyard boundary.

Exceptional monuments: Many fine headstones (and bodystones)

Ecological potential: Yes

HISTORICAL RECORD (where known):
Earliest ref. to church: Domesday Book

Late med. status: Vicarage; it was appropriated to Combwell Priory in the 14th century.

Patron: Granted by the Archbishop to Combwell Priory c.1215. Then at dissolution to the Crown, and in c. 1543 to the owner of the nearby Hemsted Manor.

Other documentary sources: Hasted VII (1798), 181-3. Test.Cant. (E. Kent, 1907), 16-17 mentions, `the making of Old Lady Chapel' (1474) and `the new work of the Chancel of the B.V.M.' (1477), the altar of the Holy Trinity on the north side (1477), also many lights and the south porch (to be repainted 1487), and an altar of St Stephen (in 1487).

Previous archaeological work (published\unpublished): Two small trenches on north and south sides of the chancel recorded by Mrs C Lebon.

Inside present church: Good, except where there are vaults and boiler room under south aisle.

Quinquennial inspection (date\architect): MAY 1989/A STOCKER

The church and churchyard: A fine large hilltop church in the High Weald, but the later medieval church is only a shell, much rebuilt after a fire in late 1672. The large tower is a late 17th century/early 18th century one, replacing an entirely timber-framed steeple. The sanctuary was extended in the mid-15th century, and the south-east (Lady) chapel was rebuilt in the 1470s. The vaulted north porch is of similar date, while the south porch and north-east (Holy Trinity) chapel are a little earlier.

The church was completely restored with new arcades, roofs and fittings in 1861-2.

The wider context: One of a small number of churches having a later medieval timber-framed steeple, like High Halden.

REFERENCES: Canon Scott Robertson, `Detached Campanile of Benenden Church' Arch.Cant.32 (1897), 45-8.

Guide Book: Useful summary with plan - by Mrs C Lebon.

Plans and early drawings: View by Petrie from S.E. in 1809. Drawings of the church before 1861, and Brandon's plans, etc., are with Earl of Cranbrook's papers in the Suffolk Records Office (Ipswich).

DATE VISITED: 23rd3 April 1994                             REPORT BY: Tim Tatton-Brown

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