Canterbury is know for its central place in British Christianity,…
Up and down the land there are literally thousands of churches, in fact over 37,500.
St Martin’s church at Canterbury holds an extremely important place in Britain’s Christian history and it’s easy to forget just how significant the church remains in the Christian world.
Firstly, it’s the oldest extant* church in Britain, it’s also the first church founded in England and the oldest church in the entire English speaking world, so to say it’s significant would be something of an understatement.
Although the Celts in Britain had widely converted to Christianity by the 3rd and 4th centuries, the post-Roman invasion by Angles, Saxons and Jutes meant that pagan religions were returning to dominance, certainly as Kent was one of the counties bearing the brunt of these invasions, Christianity was being to relegated to the native Celts. To stem this ongoing pagan invasion Pope Gregory the Great despatched a mission to England with the purpose of converting the invaders to Christianity. He sent Augustine who departed from Rome in May 595, but he became so daunted by the task that he returned to Rome in July, begging permission to abandon the mission. After being made an abbot, he was instructed to complete the task originally given to him.
Left: Inside St. Martin’s, the lower end in fact. It’s fairly basic inside, but you have to be awed by the history and significant visitors to which this humble church has been privy, including a Saxon king and St. Augustine.
Middle: The font for performing baptisms. It’s said that king Aethelberht was baptised here in 597. The font has been constructed out of a well head from the Cathedral cloisters.
Right: It’s a well-trodden path and you’ll walk in King Aethelberht and St. Augustine’s footsteps, taking you back beyond fourteen centuries of English Christian history.
In early 597 Augustine landed on the Isle of Thanet. He made his way to Canterbury, meeting up with the Saxon (and pagan) King Aethelberht and his wife Bertha. Bertha was already a Christian, being the daughter of the King of Paris, and it’s known that she used St Martin’s Church as her private chapel for worship before Augustine’s arrival in England. King Aethelberht was later baptised in this church.
It’s interesting to note that the Venerable Bede said of St. Martin’s church that it had been in use since the late Roman period, although it had subsequently fallen into disuse. Undoubtedly it would have seen both Celtic and Roman worshippers meaning that in reality the church is most likely to be even older than the stated year of Augustine’s arrival in 597AD.
Augustine, with the help of Queen Bertha, managed to get King Aethelberht to agree to the allocation of land and subsequent construction of an abbey (later to be known as St. Augustine’s Abbey).
The church itself, as with most churches, is an amalgam of construction through the ages, although it’s easy to spot the Roman bricks used in parts of the building. If you visit, there’s information within the church that tells you exactly where the earliest part of the church is located.
If you’re a church lover, St. Martin’s Church must go onto your wish list of most historic churches visited.
(extant* – in continuous use)