Canterbury, St Martin
Canterbury, St Martin
St Martin's can claim to be the oldest church in England; certainly it is the oldest still in regular use. St Augustine set up a church here when he arrived in Kent in 597 AD to convert the inhabitants to Christianity. St Martins thus forms part of the Canterbury World Heritage Site, along with Canterbury Cathedral and St Augustine's Abbey. Unlike those other two historic attractions, St Martin's remains unknown to most visitors to Canterbury, and that's a real shame, for it is a lovely historic building.
It seems highly probable that St Martins predates the arrival of St Augustine in 597. At that time Kent was ruled by King AEthelbert, who had married a Frankish princess named Bertha. Bertha was already Christian, and when she came to Kent she brought her private chaplain. She worshipped in an existing Roman [Christian] church. From the description of that Roman church it seems likely that it was the building that is now St Martins.

The oldest parts of St Martins are certainly built of Roman brick, but whether these are part of an early Roman structure, or simply reused by Bertha, or Augustine and his successors, we do not know for sure.

Parts of the chancel are almost certainly Roman, but the style of some brickwork may be 7th century. A blocked doorway in the south wall of the chancel is 7th century work, as is round-headed doorway nearby. Is the chancel Roman, or does it simply reuse old Roman bricks?

The nave is butressed in a way that suggests early Saxon work, and there are blocked windows in the west wall of the nave that are certainly Saxon. A relative newcomer amid all this ancient building is the chancel arch, which is Perpendicular Gothic.

The font is an absolute delight; it is a huge Norman tub, decorated in wonderfully intricate carvings of interlocking circles and arcading. It is built of Caen stone, highly prized by medieval builders.

There are several excellent brasses, and in the west tower is a huge memorial tablet to Sir John Finch (d. 1660). Finch is famous as the Speaker of the House of Commons who had to be held down in his chair to enable Parliament to pass the Petition of Right in 1628, limiting royal power.

St Martins is regularly open to visitors, and it is well worth a stroll from the historic core of Canterbury to see this historic old church.