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Kent Churches - Architectural & Historical Information

 St Mary Church, Minster in Thanet         TR 311 643

Tim Tatton-Brown's Survey 1996

LOCATION: Situated at only c.20 ft above O.D. on head brickearth (over Thanet sands). The Wantsum marshes are only c.100 yards to the south (beyond the railway), and the buildings of the Grange (Norman) are c.100 yards to the north-east.
DESCRIPTION: This is one of the largest and finest churches in Kent, and its site too is of great archaeological importance. There was almost certainly an early Kentish Royal vill here (and earlier a Roman villa), as it is very close to the large natural harbour (perhaps called Ebbsfleet) in the Wantsum channel behind the Stona Bank, where St. Augustine landed in 597. In c.A.D.670 the site became a monastery for Nuns and remained as such (though with interruptions in the 9th century), until finally destroyed by the Danes in 1011. The church and manor was given to St.Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury in c.1030, and it is very likely that a multi-phased Anglo-Saxon church underlies the present church, though no pre-Norman work seems to survive in the present building. It is, however, just possible that the early church was on the nearby Minster Court site, but the 1929-30 excavation of parts of the chapel there only uncovered an early-Norman apsidal chapel (see Archaeol. Journ, 86 (1930), 213-223 with plan).
   The Romanesque phases (ie 11th - 12th century ones) of the western arm of the church are very complicated, and probably cannot be fully sorted out without below-ground excavations. Perhaps the earliest part of the existing church, which may be of an Anglo-Saxon date (though no evidence for this is visible), is the walls of the eastern three bays of the nave. These ‘thin’ walls which were later pierced for arcades, could be part of the original nave c.37ft long by 22ft. wide internally. Blocked windows were apparently found in these walls in 1854. The early sanctuary must lie under the later crossing.
   The thicker-walled western two bays of the nave is almost certainly of an early Norman date, and has two (now blocked) single-splay windows in the north and south sides (the outside of the window can be seen on the north, and the inside of the window on the south). These windows were in the walls of the as-yet aisleless nave. In 1863 a five-foot wide north-south wall-foundation was found under the floor between the thin and thick-walled sections of the nave. The west wall of this extended nave, with a stair-turret in its south-west corner also probably survive, with slight pilasters on the north-west. The original quoins well all probably of caenstone.
   From the mid-12th century, with the population increasing rapidly, the nave walls were pierced for arcades and lean-to roofs were made over new north and south aisles. The process probably started in the eastern three bays of the south aisle, where the arcades are perhaps stylistacally earlier. The work continued on the north where the style is more of the earliest transitional architecture (c.1180s). The semicircular arches in the nave are only decorated (in a high Romanesque style) on the inner faces, because the outer faces would hardly be visible because of the lean-to roofs. This aisle building then continued westwards in the thicker-walled section, and was perhaps not completed until c.1200 in the south-west two bays. At the east end of the nave, the lowest sections of the engaged piers and the bases, for the 12th century chancel arch survive. The upper sections and capitals were replaced in the 13th century.
   In the later 12th century the western tower, of three main stages, was added, and a new higher tower-arch was put into the earlier west wall of the nave. Externally, the tower has angle-buttress on the west, with the two west-facing buttresses set back. The buttresses die out at the top of the second stage. The north and south buttresses and the north-west and south-west quoins all have Roman bricks for quoins in small sections lower down. This odd feature may relate to the lean-to aisle roofs (that on the north survived here until 1862), which probably continued west of the west wall of the nave proper. A fragment of the square bowl of a 12th century Purbeck Marble font lies on the south aisle floor.
   In the earlier 13th century, the whole of the eastern arm was magnificently rebuilt as a cruciform church, with a long (4 bay) chancel and deep transepts (of 2 bays). All was meant to have stone quadriparite vaults, but only the chancel originally got vaults (the transept vaults were put in in 1863). A whole series of large lancets light the eastern arm (though the main south transept window was replaced in the 14th century). Internally they are finely moulded (with extra shafts and mouldings in the eastern triplet), while externally they have rebates for wooden frames (all now gone). In the chancel, just below the upper string course, is a decorative band (on small squares) with quatrefoils and trefoils on it. This and other decorative features here can be closely compared with the remains of the enlarged refectory at Christ Church Priory, Canterbury, which was built from c.1226-33.
   In the north wall of the north transept is a fine contemporary tomb on the lid of which is an indent for a cross, and the remains of fixings for brass letters, which Weaver records as ICI GIST EDILE DE THORNE QUE FUST DAME DEL ESPINE. The front of the tomb-chest has indented trefoiled arches shallowly cut into the Purbeck marble sarcophagus, and the tomb is inserted into a wall niche with a hood-moulded arch over it.
   The south aisle and east part of the north aisle of the nave had their outer wall rebuilt, and raised so that fine new traceried windows could be inserted, in the early 14th century. Oddly the western part of the north aisle was not completed until 1863. The aisles also have a crenelled parapet.
   In the 15th century new crown-post roofs were built over the nave (of 6 bays), and crossing and transepts (the latter now concealed above the 1862-3 vaults). The top of the tower was rebuilt with a new timber spire (on a four-post structure - all destroyed in 1987), and crenellated parapet.
   The stair-turret has also perhaps been rebuilt at this time. Also the west porch was perhaps added at this time (demolished 1862). In the chancel a fine set of wooden stalls (10 on the north and 8 on the south - with a gap to the priests door) was put in c.1401-19 (the vicar of that date, ‘Johannes Curtys’ is named on them). Both the eastern and the western crossing arches have holes on their north and south sides for timber beams presumably to hold the rood and documented ‘Low Rood’. The large projecting north porch (stoup inside) was perhaps 16th century (demol.1862).
   As we have seen, the church was heavily restored by Ewan Christian in 1862-3 and refloored and pewed. The north aisle was completed, and all the doors (except the restored west one) were blocked and the porches removed. Flying buttresses were added to the chancel and the vaults were completed. The south vestry was built.
   The font was brought from Holy Cross, Canterbury, in 1974 (and font cover).

One early 16th century bell (inscribed HOLY*MARY*PRAY*FOR*US) and four 17th century ones. The principal rubble materials are Thanet beds sandstone and water-rounded flints (?from the Stonar Bank)). Caen stone was used for the early dressings, and Caen and Reigate stone in the 13th century eastern arm (There is also half of a Reigate stone capital in the later 12th century nave north arcade. Ragstone is used for the 14th century aisle wall quoins. Bathstone was used for 19th century repairs, and Lepine stone for 1996 repairs. Some Roman bricks were reused in the lower quoins of the west tower.

Apart from the Thorne tomb in the north transept, there are some good post-medieval monuments, including Thomas Paramore’s monument (He died 1620) on the north aisle wall.

Size & Shape: Roughley rectangular area around church

Condition: Good with some fine trees.

Boundary walls: Modern brick

Building in churchyard or on boundary: 1937 lychgate to north-west, and 19th century school on northern boundary.
Exceptional monuments: Some large table tombs in churchyard. All gravestones now line the boundary or the sunken path to the west door.

Ecological potential: ?Yes.

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

Evidence of pre-Norman status (DB, DM, TR, etc): - Centre of very large manor of Minster in eastern half of Isle of Thanet, with chapels at Margate, Broadstairs, Ramsgate and Stonar attached.

Late med. status: Vicarage, appropriated c. 1128 to Abbey sacristy, and endowed by c.1275.

Patron: St Augustine’s Abbey till 1538: Then to crown, and on to the archbishop in 1548.

Other documentary sources: Hasted X (1800), 285-294. Testamenta Cantiana (East Kent, 1907), 220-3 in which a large number of lights are listed, including the image of St. Nicholas in the North Transept (called the Thorne Chancel), and the Rood and Low Rood (‘beam before the low cross,’ 1504 and 1525).

Reused materials: Roman brick in west tower.

Finds from churchyard: A skeleton in the churchyard had an early Anglo-Saxon glass beaker with it - found c.1849 (see Archaeol. J. iv,p.159).

Finds within 0.5km; Large Roman villa site not far to the north-east.

Inside present church: Good

Outside present church: Good.

To structure: Much stone repair in Lepine stone to chancel external dressings in October 1996. Spire blown off top of tower in Great Storm of 16th October 1987. It was replaced in 1989 (see notes by Richard Harris on original spire timbers). See notes in Arch. Cant. 108 1990), 277-9.

To graveyard: Large new extension to south of chancel made 1987-8.

Quinquennial inspection (date/architect): David Martin, 1992.

The church and churchyard: The exceptionally fine and large church may have fragments of an Anglo-Saxon church in the eastern part of the nave, which was lengthened to the west in the early Norman period. Aisles added in stages from the mid 12th century to c.1200. Also a western tower added. Very large new cruciform eastern arm, with vaulted chancel and transepts added c.1230. Aisle walls rebuilt in the 14th century and spire added to top of tower. New 15th century crown-post roofs over nave, transepts and crossing. Church heavily restored in 1862-3.

The wider context: One of a group of large churches in the Isle of Thanet with large daughter
‘chapels’ at Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate.

REFERENCES: - S. Glynne, Churches of Kent 1877), 32-33. Canon Scott Robertson ‘Minster church’ in Arch.Cant.12 (1878), 167-176, and Canon Jenkins. ‘St.Mary’s, Minister-in-Thanet, and St. Mildred, ‘Arch.Cant.12 (1878) 177-196. Also full list of vicars by T.S. Frampton in Arch. Cant.25 1902, 97-112. Very brief notes, and good measured plan in Archaeol. Journ. 86 (1930), 28-270 Indent on Thorne tomb recorded in A.G. Sadler, The indents of Lost Monumental brasses in Kent, Appendix (1980), 45-6.

Guide book: Quite good guide book, edited by J.C. Gilham (1987).
Photographs: Aerial view from south in Kent Churches 1954, 4
Church locked: Key: -

DATE VISITED: 22nd November 1996                              REPORT BY: Tim Tatton-Brown

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