Why is Lyminge Parish Church important?

Lyminge church from north east

Lyminge Parish Church from the north east

The church at Lyminge sits on a chalk bluff overlooking the spring now known as St Eadburg’s Well that is one of the sources of the Nail Bourne.  The evidence of flint working found during the recent archaeological excavations shows that people were attracted to this area as early as perhaps 8-10,000 years ago.  A Bronze Age barrow has been found on Tayne Field, as well as other burials of a slightly later date.  Subsequently, Germanic settlers arrived in the area and there is evidence of settlement from the end of the 5th Century AD, less than 100 years after the end of direct Roman rule.  In the 6th and 7th Centuries, a royal estate was established on Tayne Field with a succession of magnificent feasting halls.

It was the presence of the royal estate that led to the arrival of Queen Æthelburh.  She was the sister of Eadbald, King of Kent.  When her husband Edwin King of Northumbria was killed in battle in AD 633 (or possibly 634), she returned to Kent.  At Lyminge, she is recorded as having created one of the first Christian communities in southern England.  This was less than 40 years after St Augustine had arrived with his mission from Rome, sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the pagan English.

Excavations by Dr Gabor Thomas of the University of Reading have demonstrated the presence of a monastic community south of the Parish Church from at least the end of the 7th Century.  You can read more about these excavations here .  The presence of this monastery and the feasting halls on Tayne Field make Lyminge a site of major significance because such finds are very rare.  But this is not all.  There are masonry remains to the south of the church that make Lyminge even more significant.

The Rector of Lyminge from 1854 was Canon Robert Jenkins.  Whether he came to Lyminge because he thought there were things to find, or whether, having arrived,  he was just curious is unknown.  But from the late 1850s, he undertook a series of excavations in and around the churchyard that uncovered what appeared to be an early church.  An illustration of some of what he found appears below.

The masonry structure excavated to the south of the present Parish Church, c 1860

Canon Jenkins went on to discover a number of walls and he imagined that these were all part of a single massive structure.  Unfortunately, the Canon did not write up his finds very well and this left a host of questions.  Moreover the walls he found were fragile and it was decided to cover them up again in 1929.  So we were left with many questions.  The surviving descriptions and illustrations suggested that we had in Lyminge one of the first masonry churches built in England since the end of the Roman occupation.  This is why Historic England, the national agency that protects the country’s heritage, described the site at Lyminge as of “outstanding importance”.  John Blair, Professor of Medieval History and Archaeology at the University of Oxford and author of ‘The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society’ wrote in support of our project saying that the structure found by Canon Jenkins is ‘among the most important early Anglo-Saxon church remains ever excavated in southern England’.   Our project was aimed at understanding exactly what Canon Jenkins found and identifying how old the structure actually is.  We knew it was early but not exactly how early.  You can read more about Canon Jenkins’ excavations here, and the results of our excavation in 2019 as part of this project are set out here.

To put this in context, the earliest parts of the current Parish Church date to around the time of the Norman Conquest.  There is debate about whether they are earlier or later, but they are around 1,000 years old.  The round-headed windows in the chancel are made of re-used Roman brick and this illustrates how the earliest standing masonry within the current church recycles material from older structures.  At the time the oldest parts of the present church were built, the earlier church found by Canon Jenkins was probably as old as the Spanish Armada is to us.

Lyminge chancel from north eastThe chancel at Lyminge

Lyminge chancel interior

The interior of the chancel showing the early windows capped with Roman brick

When we first began work on this project, we thought that the enigmatic niche in the south wall could be a remnant of Queen Æthelburh’s tomb. We have now substantially revised that view and you can read more about this in the account of the excavations given at the link above. The story of the church in Lyminge contains much misinformation and misunderstanding. You can read more about the erroneous dedication of the church and how Queen Æthelburh has been confused with St Eadburh here.

Lyminge church niche

The enigmatic niche in the south wall. 

The current parish church is itself a church of great significance and it is listed as Grade 1 by Historic England.  The remains discovered by Canon Jenkins make the site vastly more important because early stone churches are very, very rare.

You can read more about the significance of the whole church site in the Statement of Significance that was prepared in support of our project. The account of the excavations in 2019 will give you an insight into the history of the previous 400 years. We would also encourage you to come to the church itself to explore the interactive software we have now installed that explains how the church has developed through its whole 1,400 year history.

Interactive 3D software now installed in the north aisle of the Parish Church, showing an example screen visualising the roof detail of the 7th Century church (© Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture)