Uncovering the history of the church in Lyminge

In 1853, the advowson (the right to appoint the Rector) of Lyminge was bought by George Jenkins, a barrister in the Middle Temple in London.  Early the following year, his brother, the Reverend Robert Charles Jenkins, vicar of Christ Church in Turnham Green, Chiswick ( a new church only completed in 1843) moved to Lyminge with his wife, 5 sons and 3 daughters.  Two further sons and two daughters were born after the move to Lyminge.  Five of his sons were to pre-decease him in various parts of the Empire, and four of them are still commemorated on memorial tablets in the chancel.

Rev RC Jenkins

Robert Charles Jenkins, 1815-96, Rector of Lyminge 1854-96 and Canon of Canterbury Cathedral

The church at Lyminge was very different from Christ Church, Chiswick.  The church of St Mary and St Eadburg, Lyminge was an ancient structure much of which dated to around the time of the Norman Conquest.  Jenkins would have known that a church is recorded at Lyminge in the Domesday Book, the great survey of England commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1086.  If he didn’t know before he arrived, he would have soon found out that it was in poor repair.

St Mary and St Eadburg from Jenkins 1859

Parish Church, Lyminge, an engraving that is first known from Canon Jenkins’ book ‘Some account of the church of St Mary and St Eadburg, Lyminge‘, published in 1859.  Judging from the clothing of the workman, the engraving may be older than this 

It is possible that the plaster on the interior walls of the church was already falling off.  At any rate, Jenkins removed the plaster entirely and created the rather unusual interior that we see today, with bare stonework.  When taking off the plaster, he uncovered the small round-headed windows in the chancel and the south wall of the nave that he recognised as early, relating to the original phase of construction.  These were unblocked, creating the rather strange array of windows of different periods that we now have in the church.  He also seems to have found the blocked door in the north wall of the chancel, although he did not open it up and put it back into use.

It is unclear how much work Jenkins did investigating the interior of the church but he detected evidence of what he thought might have been an early tower in the north aisle, and an early vestry to the north of the chancel.  The fragment of carved foliage embedded in the south wall of the chancel is apparently 12th Century and relates to no other surviving work in the church.  It may have been put in its current position by Jenkins.  The south wall is a palimpsest of different building phases which are very difficult to disentangle.  We would know very little of this had the plaster not been removed, so we have to be grateful to Canon Jenkins that he wished to put these features on display, and he did not cover them back up again with fresh plaster.

Lyminge church c1870

Interior of the Parish Church, Lyminge c1870

Basic repairs carried out inside the church created a functional interior with what appears to be a brick floor.  The heating system is likely to have been introduced around this time, and possibly the pews also, two of which still survive in the tower.  The church used to have a west gallery inserted in the tower.  The debate about the role of west galleries, and the part the village band took in church services is explored in Thomas Hardy’s delightful novel Under the Greenwood Tree.  It appears that Jenkins followed the fashion of the time, eliminating the village band from services, demolishing the gallery and installing an organ, which is visible in the north aisle to the left of the picture above.

As an antiquarian, Jenkins was well aware that the historical record identified Lyminge as an early Anglo-Saxon monastery, founded by Queen Æthelburh, more commonly known by the latinised version of her name Ethelburga.  Æthelburh is recorded by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731, as a daughter of King Æthelberht I of Kent, who around 625 married King Edwin of Northumbria.  Following his death in battle in 633, she returned to Kent.  Another set of records, known as the Kentish Royal Legend, surviving only in late manuscripts, indicates that Ætheburh was given the estate at Lyminge by her brother King Eadbald, where she founded a monastery and was buried.  A description of her tomb written in the 1090s describes it as “a prominent and majestic monument, in the north porticus, by the south wall of the church, under an arch”.  A porticus is a kind of side chapel, created specifically in Anglo-Saxon churches to contain burials, typically important burials of royalty or saints (who were often royalty as well).  He therefore first started looking for the tomb by the flying buttress at the east end of the chancel, and initially thought he had found it beneath the arch of the buttress amongst a mass of what he thought was Roman-period concrete.

The buttress c1859

The buttress at the east end of the chancel of the Parish Church, Lyminge, c1859 

However, Jenkins carried on digging and revised his views when he encountered walls of what he realised was an early structure built to the south of the standing church to either side of the existing porch.  He quickly realised that this made sense of the enigmatic description from the 1090s.  How could a ‘north porticus‘ be ‘by the south wall of the church‘?  This was easily explained if there were two structures, an earlier church with the porticus on its north wall, which projected against the south wall of another church alongside.  What Jenkins thought was this porticus has now been uncovered in the new excavations, and it does appear to be part of the original build, since it contains the same pink mortar (deriving from the crushed Roman brick mixed in) that is found throughout the early church.

19 Jul porticus

The ‘north porticus by the south wall of the church’ 

Jenkins had uncovered much of the church by 1861 when a report was published in a periodical called Collectanea Antiqua, produced privately by the antiquarian Charles Roach-Smith.  We still have letters written by Jenkins to Roach-Smith showing how he shared details of his discoveries.

Lyminge excavations c1861

View of the excavation from Collectanea Antiqua vol V, 1861

Jenkins explored further beyond the boundary wall of the churchyard in the meadow to the west, then known as Abbots Green.  The northern portion of this meadow was incorporated into the churchyard in the 1860s, but the remainder, where the War Memorial now stands,  was still meadow until after the First World War.

Abbot's Green Lyminge 1890

Abbots Green, c1890

Relying upon the description of the church in an early charter as a ‘basilica’, Jenkins formulated the idea that the church at Lyminge was a great building similar to late Roman basilicas in Italy.  By the time he had finished digging in and around the churchyard, Jenkins had identified what he thought was an elaborate three-aisled structure.  This was drawn up and published in a plan in Archaelogia Cantiana, the journal of the Kent Archaeological Society in 1876.

Canon Jenkins Plan of the church 1875

Plan of Lyminge Parish Church including conjectural reconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon church (Jenkins, 1876)

The solid lines in the plan are the walls that Jenkins says he found in the ground.  The outlines are where he conjectured that there were walls.  Because of graves, he was not able to dig in much of this area to prove the case one way or the other.  However, his main argument for this very elaborate reconstruction was that he had found an apse at the western end of the church and from this he imagined a broadly symmetrical building.

There were two problems with this reconstruction.  Firstly, there is no other surviving building from Anglo-Saxon England remotely like this.  All the churches of this time that do still remain were very small.  Secondly, Jenkins was not strictly accurate with what he recorded.  An example of this has been revealed already by the current archaeological excavation where we can now see that the chancel of the church is stepped and it is narrower than the nave.  This would have made Jenkins’ reconstruction more difficult, so he ignored it on his plan.

18 Jul chancel from south

The chancel from the south, showing the stepped walls where the nave is wider

More seriously, the western end of the structure that Jenkins called the Atrium is drawn on his plan as in line with the nave and chancel of the church.  However, when this was re-investigated in 1991, it was found to be on a south east/north west alignment.  Moreover the stonework appeared very different and much later than the structure by the south porch.  We now think this was a later free-standing building, possibly a tower, dating to perhaps just before the Norman Conquest.  This would make it some 400 years later than the church we are now uncovering.

Memorial Garden David Holman (1)

The possible tower, re-examined in 1991 before the Memorial Garden was created (© David Holman)

There is one further hint uncovered in the current excavation that the site may be very different from what Jenkins imagined.  The structure either side of the porch seems to have extended as far as the finds tray in the picture below.  The stub of wall towards the bottom of the picture is made from a different yellowy mortar, and is clearly part of a separate structure.  It is just possible that this is a fragment of another church built in axial alignment with the original church, as is found on other sites such as at St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury.  The original church by the porch seems to be a single build and is very small, hardly sufficient for a monastic community.  It is just possible, therefore, that another church was built to the west, preserving the original church as a mausoleum or mortuary chapel for Queen Æthelburh.  Currently, this is very speculative, and it will be interesting to see if this possibility gathers any further supporting evidence as the dig progresses.

18 Jul west end

The west end of the original Anglo-Saxon church and the fragment of wall further west

We are very grateful to Canon Jenkins for his discoveries in the churchyard.  Without him, we probably would not know about these structures, and would not now be excavating them.  From the records he left, we thought he had found a very early Anglo-Saxon church dating to the first generation of the conversion to Christianity in the 7th Century, or very soon after.  We still think this.  But what is becoming very clear is that many of Canon Jenkins’ ideas were fanciful.  Currently we do not believe that there was a massive church on the scale he projected.  But if we can find evidence for the church to date to the 7th Century, this will still make the church at Lyminge a very rare and special site.  Already, we think there is enough evidence to show that we do indeed have a significant and internationally-important memorial for Canon Robert Charles Jenkins, theologian and antiquarian, and Rector of Lyminge for 42 years until his death in 1896.  Without his pioneering work, it is most unlikely that we would be in the position we are now in, sharing details of our excavation with you, because almost certainly we would not even know that the Anglo-Saxon church was there.