We are just back from the first expedition of 2020 to the Isle of Thanet – the most easterly point of Kent to the east of Canterbury and North of Dover. This is the place where the legendary Saxon mercenaries Hengist and Horsa first served Vortigen the King of the British in the fifth century CE (AD). Hengist wrote to his friends in Gaul saying the women are beautiful and the men weak. The living is easy. Hengist and Horsa rebelled against Vortigen and in 473 Vortigen fled from the English like fire to London and the first Saxon Kingdom was established.
The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, who converted to Christianity in 313, declared himself Emperor at York. The Saxons were pagans and evidence of Christianity in the post Roman period is slight. In 595 Augustine was the prior of a monastery in Rome when Pope Gregory the Great chose him to lead a mission to Britain to Christianize King Æthelberht and his Kingdom of Kent from Anglo-Saxon paganism. Kent was probably chosen because Æthelberht had married a Christian princess, Bertha, daughter of Charibert I the King of Paris, who was expected to exert some influence over her husband. Before reaching Kent, the missionaries had considered turning back, but Gregory urged them on, and in 597, Augustine landed on the Isle of Thanet and proceeded to Æthelberht's main town of Canterbury.
St Martin, Canterbury, the oldest Church in England
This Church was the private chapel of the Frankish Queen Bertha of Kent and was a renovation of a Roman building.
Saxon Font used to baptise the Saxon King Æthelberht of Kent,
Augustine established an abbey just outside the Roman City on the site of an Anglo-Saxon temple. Two separate chapels were built which were later joined by the construction of a circular tower, called a “rotunda” by English Heritage. Curious.
Round towers are a particular characteristic of churches in East Anglia and here we have one of the earliest church towers in England which is in fact a round tower.
At St Mary sub Castro at Dover Castle there is a so called Roman Lighthouse immediately next to it which is a circular tower.
There are about 280 Churches with Saxon fabric in England although many more are claimed. The usual explanation is that Saxon Churches were constructed in timber and then replaced with stone buildings. In reality the situation is more complicated because of the difficulties in dating Saxon stone churches which are often not obvious. Saxon churches are usually identified by the presence of:
· Herringbone masonry
· Particular window types
· Particular types of quoins
· Tall doors
A few years ago I was asked for my opinion on the date of a church in Boxford, Berkshire which was being dated to the Saxon period by the local history society. I said that the fabric they were calling long and short work clearly was not long and short work and therefore not Saxon. A year or so later an early window was found which had wood preserved which was dated by dendro-chronology to be indeed Saxon.
I have long been fascinated by the measurement of time and the concept of the perception of time. In our busy world, dominated by precise time and timetables, it is difficult to imagine how people conceived time in the past. It is only recently, since 1848, that we have had standardised precise time in Britain. Time is measured with reference to the movement of the sun, day and night, and the moon – months. The problem is how to divide the time unit of a day when there are no uniform fixed points.
Shadow clocks or sun dials are known from ancient Egypt at around 1500 BC. The Roman writer Vitruvius lists sun dials in his book De architectura. Sun dials are rare in Roman Britain.
Sun dials work because the position of the sun determines where a shadow will fall and how long the shadow is. The difficulty is that the position of the sun in the sky varies with the time of year and the latitude. There is also the difficulty that the sun does not shine at night or on a cloudy day.
Sun dials are a common feature on Parish Churches, so far I have recognised about a thousand. They are broadly divided into to two types, scratch dials and dials which have a fixed gnomon (the thing that casts the actual shadow).
On this trip we were treated to a range of sundials from a group of nine around a single door to an elaborate Gororgian example and a modern stainless steel one.
Whitfield Village Green
Conventional wisdom is that medieval dials are so called scratch dials and consist of a central hole in which a gnomon could be placed – a twig, stick or finger would do, a surrounding circle and a series of scratched lines at 15o intervals representing the duo-decimal (base 12 as used today with there being 24 hours in the day). The dials would indicate the time in order that a bell could be rung to summon people to services.
It has been suggested that by the time of the reformation scratch dials had become obsolete.
Mechanical clocks are known from the 13th century but were not common until much later. It is therefore surprising that not every Norman or medieval church has a scratch dial, indeed only a small proportion do, about 10%. The common explanation is they have weathered away, or otherwise been removed.
This on the face of it sounds reasonable, but does it bear scrutiny? I have seen a scratch dial on a north wall, so it must have been moved to there. Different rock types weather at different rates so the survival of sun dials should be related to rock type. If this is the case then the survival should be localised which is not really the case.
The holes for the gnomons are relatively deep, say 10mm, so it is unlikely that most stone would have eroded this much without it being obvious. There are also a few cases where the presence of a scratch dial is recorded in the listing description which I have not found. The listing descriptions for churches are now 70 years old, and limestone has weathered greatly since then due to acid rain. Another line of research is to look at churches with pilgrim crosses and similar preserved.
I cannot find any published explanation for why some churches have more than one scratch dial. At Patrixbourne I counted nine, with an additional one by the priest’s door.
This is something I will be researching once I have put photographs of the remaining 1,300 churches on my website.
The clarity of these dials varies so date and weathering may be a factor.
From the Reformation onwards elaborate decorative dials with a fixed gnomon become more common. They did have the purpose of allowing mechanical clocks to be checked because these were unreliable until relatively recently (C19).
We stayed in St Johns Cottages in Sandwich, originally almshouses. Sandwich is one of the so called Cinque Ports and is two miles from the sea. It is reputed to be the place of the Roman invasion of Britain in AD43. The name suggests it was a port in the Saxon period. The town was sacked by the French in 1457 and the town was rebuilt. There are a surprising number of medieval buildings surviving. St Mary’s Church shows evidence of damage due to an earthquake.
The cottages are one up one down – now a very rare type of house.
This is the Commandery, or Preceptory, of the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, commonly known as the Knights Hospitallar. After the dissolution of the monasteries it became a farmhouse.
At Knowlton there was a monument to two sons of the Commander of the Fleet St John Narbrough of Charles II navy who died in 1707 in a shipwreck, which depicted a Stuart Warship. Their father in law was Queen Anne’s Admiral of the fleet and was also drowned in the same shipwreck.