Excavating Queen Ethelburga’s Church

Aerial view of the east end of the 7th Century church with the nave extending towards the top of the picture

Following a decade of successful archaeological excavations in Lyminge led by Dr Gabor Thomas of the University of Reading, the project known as Pathways to the Past: Exploring the legacy of Ethelburga  was devised in 2017 with a view to exploring the masonry structure known to exist to the south of the standing Norman Parish Church.  This structure was first excavated in the 1850s by the then Rector Canon Jenkins.  Jenkins believed this was the church founded by Queen Ethelburga, which he dated to AD 633, and if it was a church of this date, it would be an extremely rare and important site.  However, there were many problems with what he recorded and the way he interpreted his discoveries.  Moreover, as the structure was reburied in 1929, it was not possible to say for certain what he had found.  There was certainly value in re-examining the site.


The masonry structure discovered by Canon Jenkins c1861

Canon Jenkins thought that he had uncovered a single aisle of what he imagined was a grand three-aisled basilican church.  He published his views in Archaeologia Cantiana, the journal of the Kent Archaeological Society (KAS), in 1874, and on the published plan, he showed the walls he said he found, and also those he imagined were there, based on a symmetrical structure.  What our excavation in 2019 revealed was that only a limited amount of what Jenkins actually recorded was true.  We already had a suggestion that he had been economical with the truth from looking at the excavations in the Memorial Garden west of the tower.  These remains had been plotted on a plan of the churchyard drawn in 1915 and this plan showed clearly that the walls found in the Memorial Garden were not aligned with the walls to the south of the Norman church.  This was different from the way it had been drawn on Jenkins’ plan of 1874.  So we were prepared to be sceptical.


Plan of the 11th Century church at Lyminge, with excavated 7th Century church alongside and Canon Jenkins’ projection of the whole structure, from Archaeologia Cantiana IX, 1874

The dig in 2019 revealed that Jenkins had probably been correct in identifying the building he found as a church of the mid 7th Century.  But it was much simpler than he envisaged, comprising just two elements: a rectangular nave and an apsidal (curved) east end, in total some 13.4 metres long by 5.3 metres at its widest.  We were very fortunate to discover a single fragment of the west wall.  This had been cut on three sides by much later graves that had been dug through it, but one face survived so we were certain this was the west end.  This was so small a fragment that it had been missed by Jenkins.  Thus we now know the precise dimensions of the building. 

Reconstruction of the 7th Century church from the touchscreen software now accessible in the church (©Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture)

The actual 7th Century church was not the completely unparalleled grand structure imagined by Canon Jenkins but instead a small, simple building of the same style as known from other sites in Kent.  The style is entirely consistent with it being a church built in the middle years of the 7th Century.  We found no evidence for any of the walls imagined by Jenkins, and there was no evidence even for some of the walls he said he found.  It is clear Jenkins’ records must be used with caution.

The church was built using a distinctive pink lime mortar, the colour coming from the inclusion of crushed Roman brick.  This inclusion made the mortar extremely hard, an effect that was increased by the fact that the brick was not just crushed but finely powdered.  The masons who made it knew their job very well.  This in turn suggests that resources were brought in from Continental Europe, most probably from the Kingdom of the Franks just across the Channel, since it is highly unlikely that the knowledge of such building techniques existed in Kent or anywhere else in England at that time.  These were building techniques first developed by the Romans, but this was not a Roman building, and no evidence of a Roman structure has yet been found anywhere in Lyminge.  The Roman bricks and coins found during the dig could all have come from elsewhere and are not in themselves evidence for people living in the immediate area in the Roman period up to AD 400.

Reconstruction of the interior of the 7th century church at Lyminge, Kent c800 (© Dominic Andrews – www,archaeoart.co.uk)

A further indication of Frankish assistance is the presence of stone from Marquise near Boulogne.  It was already known that the church built probably after 669 at Reculver on the north Kent coast used stone from Marquise.  The two columns that formed the arcade that divided the nave from the east end still survive and are preserved in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.  A fragment of a column of identical diameter was discovered during our dig and this too was made of stone from Marquise.  It is now on display in the church.  So we know that the church was built with help from Continental Europe.  Can we say anything about who built the church?

Tradition says that the church at Lyminge was built by Queen Ethelburga, daughter of King Æthelberht, first Christian King of Kent and wife of King Edwin of Northumbria.  Under her influence, Edwin was converted to Christianity, but following his death in battle in 633, she returned to Kent where her brother King Eadbald gave her the royal estate at Lyminge.  Almost certainly, this was the estate centred on the feasting halls discovered on Tayne Field in 2012. 

6th/7th Century halls under excavation on Tayne Field in 2012 (© University of Reading)

The group of records in which this story is preserved is now known as the Kentish Royal Legend.  Although it could be older, the earliest known version of this can be dated from internal detail to the period 732-48, so about a century after the time of Ethelburga.  In later versions of the Kentish Royal Legend, it is said that she founded the first Christian community in England.  This would not have been a monastery of the kind that developed in the later medieval period after the Norman Conquest.  Lyminge was no Fountains or Glastonbury Abbey.  But it is conceivable that what we have in the Kentish Royal Legend is a genuine memory of Ethelburga living at Lyminge with a practising Christian household, worshipping at a church that she had caused to be built close by, and where she was subsequently buried. 

We are using a new analytical technique to seek to date the mortar used in the church uncovered in 2019.  This may give us an absolute date, but whether it will be precise enough to confirm that the church could have been built by Ethelburga remains to be seen.  If we accept that King Edwin was killed as recorded in October 633, it seems unlikely that Ethelburga would have arrived in Kent until late 633 at the earliest, even if she came by sea.  As it was late in the year, and sailing would have been dangerous, it is conceivable some of the journey may have been by land, so she may not have arrived until 634.  Even if she was granted the estate and came to Lyminge soon after her arrival, it would have taken time to bring together the resources to build the church.  Whether Ethelburga herself formed the vision for her church is unknown, but if she did, this could have led her to approach her cousin King Dagobert of the Franks for help.  One can imagine that the church under Ethelburga’s direction would not have been built until the late 630s at the earliest, possibly even in the 640s.  The archaeology as it stands is not inconsistent with this, although neither does it prove that this is what happened.  A date from the mortar may help to pinpoint when the church was built, but we will have to wait for this.

In the meantime, we have used the information we do have to re-imagine what the church at Lyminge would have looked like.  We know that it was plastered because we have fragments of white and reddish-pink painted plaster.  The church is likely to have been plastered white on the outside.  Inside, it is quite possible that the walls were plastered white and then painted decoration was applied.  Evidence from continental churches and from manuscripts suggests that there is likely to have been rich geometric and figurative decoration, with images from the Bible.  In our reconstruction, we have imagined a design over the arcade incorporating a figure of Ethelburga herself literally presenting her church to Christ enthroned in majesty, witnessed by Pope Gregory.  It was Gregory who promoted the mission in 597 that resulted in the conversion to Christianity of Ethelburga’s father Æthelberht.  We have no way of knowing if such images were there, but we thought this was quite likely and this mirrors similar images found in other churches of the same and slightly later date.  It was much more difficult to imagine what other images there might have been, and thus we have left the walls largely blank.  This does not mean we think they were not decorated.  Rather, it is just too difficult to imagine what was there.  Moreover, it is also possible that the walls were not painted but hung instead with large embroidered panels.  This just goes to show how difficult it is to reconstruct buildings when there is such little evidence to work with.

Page of the Vespasian Psalter, made in southern England in the second quarter of the 8th Century, showing painted decoration around an arch (© Wikimedia Commons)

Even the position of the altar is problematic.  There is a lot of evidence to indicate that in the early period when this church was built, it was normal for the altar to be at the east end of the nave in front of the arcade that separated the nave from the space beyond.  East of the nave was a space reserved for priests, who would sit on a low bench round the curve of the apse.  However, this practice did not last, and later altars tended to move eastwards as the east end came to be regarded as the holiest space in a church.  Thus it is possible that the altar was in the nave during Ethelburga’s lifetime, but it was moved to the east end into what became the chancel at a later date.  Our reconstructions of the church interior illustrate both situations.

Equally difficult were other physical aspects like the height of the roof, and the material from which the roof and floor were made.  The height has been derived from the proportions of other buildings which still survive, most notably St Peter’s-on-the-Wall at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex.  This suggests that the church at Lyminge was a tall, narrow building with a lofty roof.  We debated the roofing material for a long time and eventually concluded that as the pitch was likely to have been steep, as at Bradwell, this created limited options.  A steep pitch precluded clay tiles, since peg tiles were not in use at this time.  Roman style tiles were not nailed and required a shallow pitch.  We have no good evidence for wooden shingles in Roman Britain let alone in the early medieval period, so shingles seem unlikely.  Thatch seems improbable given the elaboration of the rest of the building and the expense incurred building in stone.  We concluded that lead was the most likely material, since it would have been readily available from ruined Roman buildings locally and could be easily worked.  We also know that lead was used in buildings of this and later date, so it is a reasonable guess.  It may be significant that Lyminge Parish Church still has a lead roof on the nave, unlike most medieval churches in the area where the roofs are normally of peg tile.  Perhaps the lead has been recycled more than once.   

St Peter’s-on-the-Wall, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex from the south west

We found no evidence at all for the floor.  The building itself survives only at foundation level.  So as with the roof, we can only guess how the church was floored based on what is most likely.  We think, given the Continental building methods seen in what does survive, that the floor would have been equally characteristic.  We know that one of the 7th Century halls on Tayne Field had a red concrete floor, made of a material invented by the Romans known as opus signinum.  It is credible that the floor of the church was made of this material too.

Returning to Canon Jenkins and his excavations in the 1850s, his main motivation was to discover the tomb of Queen Ethelburga.  He had discovered a description of this tomb written in a manuscript in the 1090s by a Flemish monk called Goscelin de St Bertin, who was at this time working at St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury.  You can read more about the dispute between St Augustine’s and the Priory of St Gregory over the relics from Lyminge here.  What is relevant to the present discussion is that Goscelin says that the Christian community founded by Ethelburga was a more significant monument to her than her actual tomb, which he goes on to say ‘lies in a north porticus (a form of side chapel) by the south wall of the church under a vault’

Jenkins himself realized the significance of this statement, which only makes sense if one imagines that Ethelburga was buried in a porticus on the north side of one building that lay to the south of another church.  This precisely fits the relationship of the 7th Century church excavated in 2019 to the Norman church that stands today.  Moreover we know that the current parish church was built sometime after the 1060s, because the corners (or ‘quoins’) of the nave and chancel are reinforced with stone imported from the quarry at Quarr on the Isle of Wight, which was first exploited only in the Norman period.  So this tells us that for a period, the two churches were standing side by side.

Based on this description, Canon Jenkins thought he had struck gold when he uncovered the remains of a structure on the north side of the 7th Century church that could reasonably be interpreted as a porticus.  Unquestioningly, he decided this was the location of the tomb of Ethelburga, although he himself was not responsible for the marble plaque that is now in the wall above this spot.  This was placed here when the site was back-filled in 1929.

The porticus showing the stub of west wall in line with the hole under the porch at the top of the picture

Ninety years later, we are not so sure that this porticus could have been used for burial.  There is a small stub of wall at right angles to the nave up against the current porch that seems likely to be the remains of the west wall of this porticus.  If this is so, the porticus is much too small to have contained a full length tomb, so it seems most likely that this structure was a sacristy, used to house the holy vessels and other materials used in the Mass.  If we take Goscelin’s description at face value, it seems more likely that Ethelburga’s tomb lay in a second porticus alongside and to the west of the sacristy.  This is how we have imagined it in the reconstructions of the church that we commissioned (see above) and that are accessible through the touchscreen in the church.  However, we cannot prove this.  During the excavation, we took up the flagstones in the porch to investigate the archaeology underneath.  It is just as well we did because they were laid over a void, supported in part by badly rusted metal struts.  One stone, which was not supported at all, was fractured in two places.  The only reason it had not fallen into the void was that the oblique fractures prevented the stone from dropping.  A further break could have brought catastrophic failure of the stone.  Fortunately, we discovered this in time, and the stones are now supported by three tons of sand that were used to fill the void at the end of the dig.

Reconstruction of Queen Ethelburga’s tomb from the touchscreen software now accessible in the church (©Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture)

We had hoped to find evidence for the burial porticus under the porch.  Sadly, the work to construct the entrance threshold to the south door had caused the wall of the 7th Century church to be cut away.  If there had been a porticus wall here, it was destroyed centuries ago.  However, Goscelin is thought to be a reliable witness and thus we believe there is good reason to think that Ethelburga’s tomb lay in the area of the south door of the present church.  This is probably where she was buried up to 1085 when her remains were dug up and taken to St Gregory’s Priory in Canterbury.

The cut-away nave wall under the porch with no sign of a second porticus surviving

Our work has also shed light on the strange recess in the wall of the parish church to the west of the porch.  Writers in the 20th Century have often suggested that this might be connected with the shrine of St Ethelburga, perhaps forming some kind of squint through which the tomb could be viewed from inside the parish church.  This argument supposed that the recess was once open at the back right through the wall and that the tomb was located in a porticus a little to the west of where we now believe it to have been.  The reason we no longer believe this recess was anything to do with a tomb is because we now believe it was made by Canon Jenkins himself. 

The enigmatic recess to the west of the porch with the large stone in the base

The first clue to the recess possibly being relatively modern lay in the fact that Canon Jenkins does not ever mention it.  He drew attention, for example, to the recess he found near the chancel arch of the standing Parish Church made of re-used Roman brick that is now used as an aumbry.  He discovered this when removing the medieval and later plaster from the walls in the 1850s.  He also uncovered the round headed windows that were the original windows of the nave and chancel, and the blocked doorway in the north wall of the chancel.  If the recess on the outside of the south wall was an original medieval feature, and it is certainly arched with re-used Roman brick so to that extent it is of antiquarian interest, it is inconceivable that he would not have mentioned it at some time in his writings.  He does not do so. 

What Jenkins does mention is the large stone in the base of the recess.  In his early field notes, he marked this as a threshold stone, believing that the north wall of the 7th Century church lay underneath the south wall of the Norman church.  Later he changed his mind, and drew attention to the statement recorded by Goscelin that there was no inscription on the gravestone of Queen Ethelburga.  Indeed, Goscelin’s description, already noted above, suggests that the grave was extremely simple, and the grave stone probably was a simple flat undecorated stone.  So we now think that Jenkins had his workmen burrow into the wall of the church to expose the surface and reveal whether or not there was an inscription.  Convinced it was the gravestone, he then put it on display where it lay, tidying up the hole hacked in the wall.  The reason he said nothing about the recess was because he knew it was not an old feature or anything needing explanation.  He may too have felt just a little guilty about hacking a hole in the wall of his ancient church, even if in search of Ethelburga’s grave stone!  Though we have rightly been sceptical of a lot of Canon Jenkins’ conclusions, it is certainly true that this stone is unusual, and it is indeed the kind of stone that could have been used as a grave slab.  It is also feasible that it was removed from Ethelburga’s tomb at about the time that the nave of the Norman church was being built, so it could have been built into the wall at that time.  We cannot prove it, but this is one of the Canon’s romantic stories that might just be true.

The final chapter in the story of Ethelburga’s church has been revealed by the burials that took place within it.  Jenkins did not disturb the interior of the building, simply exposing the outline of the walls and not digging down very far.  He therefore did not find the burials that had been cut into the interior, some of which had actually cut into the stonework, misleading Jenkins into believing there were niches of some kind on the interior of the church.  We now know they were just part of much later grave cuts.  In the sequence of graves examined in the east end of the church, many of which cut into each other, we were able to see that burial had taken place over a period of time, with later graves showing little respect for earlier ones.  The lowest and thus the earliest fortunately contained pottery of the early 13th Century.  This grave cut into the stonework, suggesting that the gravediggers did not know it was there.  So this tells us that by the early 1200s, the 7th Century church had been demolished and forgotten.  Goscelin tells us it was still standing in 1085.  So we can speculate that it was probably demolished very soon afterwards, probably in the early 1100s, and over the following century, it simply passed from memory.  

Early 13th Century burial cutting the footings of the east end of the 7th Century church

The excavations in 2019 did not reveal only walls of the 7th Century church.  We followed the line of the path around the south side of the tower and in so doing uncovered a stub of wall running roughly parallel to the west end of the 7th Century church.  As we were limited to excavating just the line of the path, we were able to investigate very little of this wall, but we could see that it continued underneath the Memorial Garden.  It was similar in style to the 7th Century church, but the mortar was different, yellow rather than pink, so it was clearly a separate structure.  We may get an absolute date for this mortar from scientific analysis, but in the meantime, all we can say is that we appear to have another structure built perhaps a little later than the first church, but probably in line with it.

The mysterious wall fragment west of Ethelburga’s church

Lines of churches are not unusual on ecclesiastical sites built between the 7th and 11th Centuries.  At this time, it seems to have been common practice to expand church capacity by creating new church buildings, often in a line.  This is quite different from practice in the later Middle Ages when it was much more common to expand an existing building with new chapels and aisles.  So what might this second building have been?

We do know that a new building is likely to have been built at Lyminge around 800.  By 804, the relics of St Eadburg, third abbess of the abbey at Minster-in-Thanet had been translated from Minster to Lyminge, as this is recorded in a charter of that date.  It is inconceivable that these relics would not have been housed in a shrine, as at this time the relics of a holy person became saintly through the process of translation (moving them from the original place of burial) followed by elevation (placing them in a shrine above the ground).  It would have been quite normal for this shrine to have been in a new church specially constructed for the purpose.  It is possible this fragment of wall is all that remains of the church of the shrine of St Eadburg.

Reconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon monastery in Lyminge, Kent c800, showing the shrine of St Eadburg to the west (left) of Queen Ethelburga’s church (© Dominic Andrews – http://www.archaeoart.co.uk)

We know the shrine was still standing around 1000 because around that date, a holy biography (or “hagiography”) is believed to have been commissioned by Ælfric the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The manuscript of The Life and Miracles of St Eadburg still survives in the library of Hereford Cathedral, and it records a number of miracles situated in and around the saint’s shrine at Lyminge.  It is improbable that the hagiography would have been written at this time if it were not supporting and promoting an active cult of St Eadburg at Lyminge.  A further corroboration for the existence of the shrine is the statement by Ralph, priest at Lyminge, that is quoted by Goscelin de St Bertin.  In the same work already mentioned above, Goscelin quotes Ralph directly saying he himself took the holy bones of St Eadburg from her tomb.  In one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, there is a record of the translation of her remains to Canterbury in 1085, and her feast day was inserted into the calendar used for managing the liturgy in Canterbury Cathedral around this time.  So we can be confident that the shrine in Lyminge was redundant by the end of the 11th Century and it may then have been demolished at the same time as Queen Ethelburga’s church, just as the new Parish Church was completed alongside.  It is now possible to see a visualization of this first phase (as well as later phases) of the Norman church using the touch screen that is now part of the archaeological display in the north aisle of the standing Parish Church.

There were further finds during August 2019 to the west along the line of the path to the War Memorial.  A new hard surface was due to be laid here for the first time, so the line of the new path was excavated.  Around the Memorial itself, pits and post holes indicated that wooden structures had existed in this area, and pottery sealed in the bottom showed that these structures were of the same date as the 8th-9th Century monastery buildings found at the top of Court Lodge Green and in the churchyard extension in 2008-09.  It seems quite likely, therefore, that the monastery extended across the whole of the hillside, (see the reconstruction painting above) and it is possible that the monastic enclosure is still visible in the line of the High Street, Well Road and Rectory Lane, continuing along the field boundaries to the south of the Old Rectory and west of Court Lodge Green.

8th/9th Century features by the War Memorial

To the east of the 8th-9th Century material, substantial masonry foundations were uncovered, with some fragments of deep red painted wall plaster.  In such a narrow trench, it was difficult to make much of this, but the structure was later than the monastery and probably dated to the later middle ages.  As such, it can reasonably be attributed to the complex of buildings that comprised the residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury that once stood in this area.  We know that it was standing in the 13th Century, and some of it was demolished in the 14th Century.  Whether parts of this structure survived to form Court Lodge, marked on Thomas Hill’s map of Lyminge of 1685, or whether this was an entirely new structure is currently unclear.  We did not find any decorated floor tiles or carved masonry that Canon Jenkins reported finding, and his finds are now lost, so it is very difficult at the moment to say much about this structure.  However, it does suggest significant church investment in the Lyminge estate during the later medieval period, and also underlines the point that the manor of Lyminge did not come under secular control until the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid 16th Century. 

The probable remains of the residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury

Work is still continuing to analyse the results of the excavation of 2019.  However, we can say that it was overwhelmingly successful, clarifying the identity of the structure discovered by Canon Jenkins in the 1850s.  He may have fantasised massively about the physical scale of the building he found, but it is nonetheless extremely important.  Whether it was built as early as the 630s or 640s we still don’t know, nor can we say for certain that it was built by Queen Ethelburga.  It appears to be 7th Century, so it could have been.  It is possible that we will in due course get absolute dates from analysis of the mortar that confirm the position one way or the other.  In the meantime, we have added substantially to our knowledge of the church site and have tantalizing glimpses of structures that may be part of the shrine of St Eadburg, of monastic buildings built around the same time as the shrine, and of the later archiepiscopal residence.