Saints Church, Birling
TQ 6803 6061
ROCHESTER DIOCESE: HISTORICAL AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL SURVEY
Tim Tatton-Brown's Survey 1996
LOCATION: At c. 110 feet above O.D. on a
Folkestone beds knoll at the north end of the village. Birling Place
lies ¾ mile to the north-west.
DESCRIPTION: A church is mentioned in Domesday Book (1086), and it is
probable that the nave of the present church, without its aisles, is
Norman. The only evidence for this, however, is one tufa block on the
south-west corner of the nave, and some detached (?reused) tufa blocks
in the west face of the south-west buttress to the south aisle.
In the early 14th century first one aisle, then the other, was rebuilt
with finely-tooled octagonal arcade piers of Kentish Ragstone. Above
them are moulded capitals (slightly different south and north) with
pointed arches over with double hollow chamfers. There are four bays
of arcading, but the arches are not exactly regularly spaced, and the
centre pier on the north is more elongated east-west, with an
indication that there might have been a narrow partition on its north
and south sides. There is also a slight scar opposite in the north
wall. The south side has a separate gabled roof (of plain rafters,
collars, braces and unmoulded tie-beams), and this is also perhaps
14th century. The aisle wall has three buttresses on the south, and at
its east end (possibly the chapel of St. James) is a double trefoiled
window. There is another in the south wall at the east end, with
piscina just east of it. All the other windows in the south aisle are
single trefoiled lights. The south doorway is also contemporary and
has a hoodmould over its 2-centred arch. The door and hinges may also
be original. Outside the door was a porch, but this was removed in the
The north aisle outer wall has a more complicated history. At its east
end, which may have been the Lady Chapel, two 2-light 15th century
windows (on the north and east) seem to have been inserted into the
14th century fabric. There is also a high lancet over the east window,
and a small blocked doorway (visible outside) in the north-east
corner. A long thin pilaster buttress on the outside of the north
wall, which slopes back into the wall, may have related to a later
15th century Rood stair. The west end of the aisle, which has an
external plinth seems certainly to have been rebuilt in the late 15th
or early 16th century, though the 2-light north window here appears to
be a reset 14th century one. The north doorway has pyramid stops, and
an early 14th century single-light trefoil-headed window above. It now
leads into a 19th century vestry. There is also perhaps an original
door here. The roof over the aisle has moulded beams and wall-plates,
and a partitioned off vestry at its west end. Also the ground level in
this aisle appears to have been lowered.
The west tower is a fine early 15th century ‘Kentish’ tower with a
crenellated parapet and pyramid roof. It contains 8 bells (three of
1631) set in a new (1987) iron frame. It has also had many of its find
Kentish ragstone dressings restored (also in 1986-7) with many new
stones. This has been an over-zealous restoration. On the south-east
side of the tower is a semi-octagonal stair-turret, which rises above
the tower-top, and has its own tiled octagonal roof. The tower has
diagonal western buttresses, and a square-headed western doorway with
pyramid stops (all the dressings of this doorway, and the tracery of
the Perpendicular windows above have recently - 1987 - been restored).
Under the tower arch was a gallery until 1866.
As has already been seen, the west end of the north aisle was probably
rebuilt in the later 15th century (there are a few red-bricks in the
walls), and at the east end of this aisle a north and a south window
seems to have been inserted, as well as possibly a Rood-stair. There
is also a 15th century Ragstone font (with 1853 cover).
There is no chancel arch, and a large wide early 16th century chancel.
This chancel must have been completely rebuilt in the 1520s by the
Nevill family after they had acquired the patronage of the church from
Bermondsey Abbey. On the south side are four square-headed early Tudor
2-light windows, and only the western one has Perpendicular tracery.
The wall is in quasi-checker work, and has a hollow-chamfered plinth,
which also goes round a diagonal (south-east) buttress and along the
east wall. Here there is a large six-light window (also without
tracery and perhaps with original ferromenta) that Hasted says
contained glass with the arms of Sir George Nevill, Lord Bergavenney,
‘within the garter’ (He was a knight of the garter from 1514, and
was buried here in 1535). There is also a small round-headed window in
the east gable, with red bricks around it, but the wall and window had
to be repaired after 1942 bomb damage. The very plain north wall of
the chancel contains large Rag and ironstone blocks in quasi-checker
pattern. It has no plinth and only one window (at the extreme western
end), but also a north doorway from it into a 19th century vestry. Was
there an earlier larger vestry?
The chancel has a moulded flat ceiling (painted in 1963), and the
earlier steep-pitched roof was replaced in c.1828 with a
low-pitched slate covered roof. At about the same time the Nevill
family burial vault was rebuilt under the eastern third of the
chancel. It has a cast-iron cover to the entry steps, and there are
two early 19th century niches on either side of the sanctuary, with
air-vents to the vault beneath. The family pews in the chancel, and
the other fittings and memorials were put there in the mid-19th
century. (Two fire helms from the chancel are now in ‘safekeeping’).
BUILDING MATERIALS: c.):
The principle rubble materials are local Ragstone and ironstone, with
Ragstone dressings. A few perhaps reused tufa blocks from the early
church are in the west wall, and some red brick is used in the early
16th century work.
Some Caenstone (?for restoration) and cement repairs.
EXCEPTIONAL MONUMENTS IN CHURCH: -
Various 19th century Nevill monuments in the church, especially in the
chancel (with early 19th century burial vault below it). Royal Arms of
1700 above south doorway.
CHURCHYARD AND ENVIRONS:
Size & Shape: Large irregular area around the church with a steep
drop to the north, west and south. It has been much extended to the
north- east. There is a very good plan of the whole churchyard (with
all known graves surveyed on it) hanging in the Church. Enlarged in
the 19th century from small graveyard around the church. Very steep
slope on the east side, down to the road (Horn Street)
Boundary walls: Ragstone walls retaining sunken lanes on north and
Building in churchyard or on boundary: 1987 Lychgate to the
Exceptional monuments: Some good headstones.
Ecological potential: Yes.
HISTORICAL RECORD (where known):
Earliest ref. to church: Domesday Book.
Late med. status: Vicarage.
Patron: Given by the Lord of Birling manor to Bermondsey Abbey in
1168. It was appropriated soon afterwards. After the Dissolution (by c.1530)
to Lord Abergavenny (Nevill formerly) till 1959.
Other documentary sources: Hasted IV (1798), 485 - 8.
Testamenta Cantiana (W.Kent, 1906), 5, mentions: Repair to one
window on the south side of the church (1501). Also altars of ‘Our
Lady in the chapel’ (1516) and ‘To be buried by side of Chaunsell
of Birlyng at the hede of Saynt James aulter’ 1523).
Reused materials: A few reused Roman bricks, and tufa blocks in S.W.
corner of south aisle.
SURVIVAL OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL DEPOSITS:
Inside present church: ? Good, though there is a large vault under the
chancel, and the floor level of the north aisle appears to have been
Outside present church: ? Good.
To structure: The tower was very heavily restored with many new
dressings, and a new iron bellframe on a reinforced concrete ringbeam
ARCHAEOLOGICAL AND HISTORICAL ASSESSMENT:
The church and churchyard: A few tufa blocks perhaps from the Norman
nave west quoins, but otherwise the earliest visible fabric are the
14th century nave aisles and arcades. Early 15th century west tower.
West end of north aisle rebuilt in c. 1500, and possibly a Rood
stair made on the north side. Chancel completely rebuilt in the 1520s
by the Nevill family.
The wider context: One of a small group with a rebuilt (by an
important patron) early 16th century chancel.
Guide Book: Leaflet (Revised) 1989 Anon.
Photographs: Photo of font and font cover in Kent Churches 1954,
127 (cover made 1853).
Plans & early drawings: Petrie 1807 view of church from S.E.,
showing steep-pitched roof over chancel. Also a porch on the south
side of the church.
REPORT BY: Tim Tatton-Brown