The 'Lantern of Kent'
A brief history of St Mary's
A visit to St Mary’s has led many people to describe their experience as having found a hidden treasure, although on their arrival, first impressions of the church may be disappointing. The church is listed as one of the finest in Kent and yet it has a rather uninspiring exterior. St Mary’s is, however, a reflection of the ages through which it has stood.
During the later Saxon period of history, Stone appears in a number of important documents. Archbishop Dunstan (959 – 988) records that Aelfege gave land at Littlebrook to the Church. After a dispute following Aelfege’s death the Manor of Littlebrook was finally restored to Rochester cathedral. In 991, Stone, as part of North Kent, was ransacked by the invading Danes led by King Ethelred II, and the parish suffered terrible damage.
By 995 AD King Ethelred II decided to restore relationships with the Bishop of Rochester, Godwyn, so he gave Stantune (Stone) and Littlebrook to the Church of St Andrew in Rochester. Noted in the gift was a church in the Manor of Stone which implies that there has been a parish church here since very early times and that until 995 AD Stone had been a Royal Manor of some value.
It appears likely that a parish church was in existence in Stone as early as 970AD. The Domesday Monachororum, compiled around 1070 by Bishop Gundulf, records the churches in each diocese and it is widely accepted as a copy of an existing list of Saxon churches. One name recorded is that of St Mary the Virgin, Stone.
During the Norman conquest Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, seized Stone but it was once again restored to the Diocese by Archbishop Lanfranc (1070 – 1107). The value of the Manor of Stone is detailed in the Domesday book, complied around 1084 and its entry appears under the Hundred of Axstane. At this time Stone only had a small population of around 100 - 150 persons (not counting women and children) but the assessment of the Manor shows that its value was considerable.
During the early medieval period, the Bishops of Rochester used Stone as a convenient half way house between Rochester and London. The Bishop’s palace is said to have been rebuilt between 1185 and 1214 after the former Stone Manor house, which stood to the west side of the current entrance to the church, had been destroyed by fire.
It is suspected that due to the Manor’s close links with the bishops of Rochester during this time, the earlier church may have been of some size and importance. Physical evidence of the earlier church is scarce and one 19th Century document suggested that the oldest remains of the Saxon church are under the tower. In the exterior of the present 13th Century building there is great use of Tufa blocks, providing strong evidence that the previous church on the site was substantial and not solely constructed of wood. Re-used Tufa blocks can be seen in the walls of the Nave and the Aisles, and it is known that these were used widely in both the Roman and Saxon periods. Tufa was extensively used for buildings including early parts of Rochester cathedral, Holy Trinity church in Dartford, and St Paulinus at Crayford, until it’s supply was exhausted around 1115 AD.
St Mary’s is an impressive example of Early English church architecture but it is not clear who paid for it to be built. In view of the small population in the parish at the time, it seems unlikely that the parish could fund such a fine building. It is probable that pilgrims passing along Watling Street, following the murder of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury in 1170, provided the impetus for the work.
Who undertook the 13th Century work is unclear but the quality, scale and similarity to that seen in Westminster Abbey has led most writers to suggest that the same stone masons constructed both buildings. The building work was undertaken during the bishopric of Lawrence de Martin, Bishop of Rochester between 1251 and 1274, and a former chaplain to Henry III. Lawrence de Martin was a resident at the House at Stone during this time and his direct financial patronage for the work is suspected by many writers.
Internally, a great deal of the interior of St Mary’s has remained unchanged since its construction in the 13th Century although it is apparent that there have been major periods of additional building work. Extension and alteration work took place in the 14th , 15th and 17th Centuries, and then substantial repairs were necessary following a lightening strike in 1638 and the subsequent fire which destroyed the spire, melted the bells and burnt out the roof of the Nave and aisles.
An engraving from Edward Cresy's book of 1838-9 entitled ‘illustrations of Stone church, Kent’
Architects Cresy and Street carried out substantial work on St Mary’s during this period. Views of the church showing the surviving medieval fabric at that time are recorded in the drawings made by Edward Cresy and printed by the Topgraphical Society in 1840. The book entitled ‘illustrations of Stone church, Kent’ is an invaluable work as it was compiled between 1838 and 1839, before restoration work was undertaken by Street. It highlights the differences between the building’s condition before and after the 1860’s restoration. Street’s book Archaeologica Cantinana Volume III shows how important he believed Stone Church to be and his drastic restoration work was clearly based on scholarly evidence of its original condition. However, in his pursuit to restore the 13th Century interior, he did destroy 15th and 17th Century fabric, but so strongly did he feel about St Mary’s that he waived his fee for his part in the work.
No medieval glass had survived in the windows and most of the present stained glass windows, depicting the Miracles of Christ, the Parables of Christ and Christ’s Passion, was inserted in the windows during the latter half of the 1800’s, mainly as memorials and gifts.
This account gives a brief flavour of the history of this beautiful church. A fuller account is to be found in 'A guide to the History of St Mary the Virgin, Stone', available at a small cost to all visitors. We look forward to seeing you soon!
Little work was undertaken during the 20th Century although the top of the tower stairway was restored, and electric lighting and heating was installed.
At the time of writing, maintenance of the ancient church of St Mary the Virgin, Stone, continues to be a constant battle against the ravages of time and atmospheric pollution which continue to attack the stonework from both the inside and outside of the building. It continues, however, to be a valued, loved and welcoming parish church for the now heavily populated area that surrounds it and its congregation have recently added their contribution to mark its passage into and beyond the 21st Century by commissioning and installing a new stained glass window, depicting it's patron saint, St Mary the Virgin.
Engraving of the chancel in 1840