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Archaeologists identify first purpose-built place of Christian worship

23 September 2022

Historic England Photo Library

The medieval ruins of the Chapel of St Pancras in Canterbury. New archaeological research has revealed that, though now ruinous, it is the oldest surviving church in England

The medieval ruins of the Chapel of St Pancras in Canterbury. New archaeological research has revealed that, though now ruinous, it is the oldest surv...

ARCHAEOLOGISTS have identified what is believed to be the oldest surviving church in England. It is thought to be the first purpose-built place of Christian worship constructed in Anglo-Saxon England.

The new evidence strongly suggests that the church — the chapel of St Pancras, in Canterbury — was built and consecrated in about 600 by St Augustine, head of the 597 papal mission to Kent, and was subsequently used by him.

New research, by Professor Ken Dark, of King’s College, London, pinpoints the exact place where Augustine officially re-established public Christian worship in what is now eastern and southern England, after a largely pagan interlude of up to 150 years. It was one of the most important events in the whole of English history.

Christianity, throughout most of what is now England, evolved out of that papally initiated mission; it is probable that even the design of the initial purpose-built Anglo-Saxon church became a prototype for most subsequent English churches.

The Christian faith in Britain had originally been established in Roman times (particularly in the fourth century); but much, perhaps most, of that initial tradition was destroyed by the arrival and expansion of the Germanic pagan Anglo-Saxons in the fifth and sixth centuries.

“The newly evaluated archaeological evidence from St Pancras’s, Canterbury, for the first time pinpoints where Christian public worship was officially first re-established after a period of pagan domination. It marks the official relaunch of Christianity in what would become England,” Professor Dark said. He has been reassessing early Christian archaeological material from that city.

Augustine’s decision to build St Pancras’s, in about 600, was the culmination of a long political and religious process, which had started almost a century earlier.

In 508, the Frankish (French) king Clovis l converted to Christianity. His royal successors remained Christians, and, in 580, his granddaughter, a Christian Frankish princess, Bertha, married the ruler of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Kent, the pagan King Aethelberht (literally the “noble bright/shining” one).

That marriage created an opportunity for the papacy to try to convert England’s pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to Christianity. So, in the early 590s, through Bertha, Pope Gregory l started to establish contact with King Aethelberht.

The Pope’s diplomatic efforts bore fruit in 595, when he finally persuaded the King to allow him to send a papal mission to Kent. About 18 months later, Augustine arrived in that kingdom as the first Archbishop of Canterbury. He rapidly began to hold private Christian religious services in the queen’s tiny personal chapel (dedicated to the French saint, St Martin). But those services were attended by only Queen Bertha and a few of her close, mostly Frankish, associates. It had probably been constructed in Roman times (perhaps as a funerary mausoleum, but almost certainly not as a church).

Kent was of great strategic geopolitical importance to the papacy, because King Aethelberht.was Anglo-Saxon England’s leading monarch. He held (or was later perceived to have held) the title of bretwalda (in Anglo-Saxon, “general [i.e. countrywide] ruler”).

Professor Dark’s identification of St Pancras’s as Anglo-Saxon England’s first purpose-built place of Christian worship sheds new light on the way in which the papacy began the process of reconverting what is now England to Christianity.

When the Pope’s representative, Augustine, arrived in Kent in 597, the only official place of Christian worship appears to have been Queen Bertha’s tiny 20-square-metre private chapel. Its size meant that only about a dozen people could worship there.

Augustine seems to have decided, perhaps almost immediately, to construct a much larger purpose-built church near to it. The archaeological evidence suggests that this new purpose-built structure was built in such a hurry that the architecture itself was relatively unsophisticated, and that speed was so important that they did not even install a proper floor (just beaten earth).That relatively primitive new-build edifice was nevertheless almost six times the size of the Queen’s private place of worship, and was the first Anglo-Saxon building in which normal Christian congregational worship could take place.

The evidence seems to suggest that the papacy’s reintroduction of Christianity into Kent was so successful that, probably within a decade, Augustine and his colleagues had to take a decision to build a much larger church just 90 metres away, to accommodate increasing numbers of missionary monks and new converts. That building (dedicated to St Peter and St Paul) was three times the size of St Pancras’s, and would have been able to accommodate more than 200 worshippers.

As soon as the new, much larger and more sophisticated church was constructed (in 609 A.D.), its predecessor, St Pancras’s, seems to have been abandoned, and was renovated and rebuilt half a century or more later.

The choice of location of Bertha’s private chapel (St Martin’s) and the churches of St Pancras and Saints Peter and Paul sheds light on the crucial political relationship between the Kentish crown and newly re-established Christianity.

Almost certainly, Bertha’s private chapel would have been very near her and her husband’s royal residence, which appears to have been located perhaps about 400 metres outside the walls of the ruined and abandoned Roman city of Canterbury (Durovernum Cantiacorum).

St Augustine and his colleagues would almost certainly have preferred to have established the epicentre of their mission in the heart of the old Roman city, because the papacy saw itself as the inheritor of the Roman Empire, and saw Roman cities as symbolising that iconic imperial past and the concept of Romanitas (what they perceived as civilisation).

But Augustine’s wish to set up shop inside the walls of the abandoned Roman city — for him, the local symbol of Romanitas — seem to have been trumped by the political necessity to be as close as possible to the royal residence (and to Bertha and her husband). It was therefore probably not for another 40 or more years (long after King Aethelberht and St Augustine had died) that the main base of the Archbishop of Canterbury was finally moved to a newly built mega-church in the heart of the ruined Roman city: the first Canterbury Cathedral.

Before the new research, most modern scholarship had held that St Pancras had been constructed after the time of St Augustine, but Professor Dark’s reassessment of the archaeological data demonstrates that it was constructed between 597 and 609 (probably about 600).

The Professor’s new date for the church (the first to be based on a full examination of the archaeological evidence) is based on four main pieces of evidence: St Pancras’s substantially different alignment (in relation to the adjacent churches on the site); the unsophisticated nature of the building; the fact that it appears to have been built in a hurry; and the fact that it was abandoned (probably because it was replaced, in 609, by the much larger Church of St Peter and St Paul).

The ruins of St Pancras now form part of the English-Heritage-administered St Augustine’s Abbey complex, which is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Professor Dark’s research, published in the current edition of the Journal of the British Archaeological Association, may change the way that historians understand the initial sequence of events through which the conversion of England to Christianity first unfolded.

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