Canterbury Archeological Trust

St.Margaret's Church
Paul Bennett

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Excavations by the Trust in advance of the construction of 'a new interpretation centre' have recently been completed. The excavation, financed by the Wolfson Foundation and supervised by Mr Alan Ward, was considerably assisted by our Manpower Services Commission Community Programme team.

Picture of excavation

The earliest levels uncovered belong to the Roman public baths, a large portion of which was revealed prior to the construction of the Marlowe Arcade. The north-west end of this large building complex, located under the church, consisted of a portico with tessellated pavement fronting onto a principal Roman street. The portico gave onto a number of unheated rooms and an impressive plunge bath with stone-paved floor. An earlier phase bath-house with different disposition of rooms (more fully understood during excavations under the Marlowe Arcade) was identified in the church area. An impressive masonry built drain designed to take 'foul water' from the early phase baths was located under the plunge bath floor. This drain was backfilled when the plunge bath was constructed in the early third century. The demolition deposits sealing the latest Roman levels contained many box-flue tiles. The presence of these deposits undoubtedly derived from the collapsed walls of the late Roman baths, suggests that the second phase cold rooms and plunge bath were located in an area of the bath-house formerly occupied by heated rooms.

Sealing the surface of the latest Roman floors, particularly the stone paving of the plunge bath, was a deposit of water-borne silt which yielded pottery, metalworking waste and a large number of late Roman coins. These finds indicate a phase of 'squatter' occupation within the abandoned shell of the bath-house in the late fourth or early fifth century. A thick layer of dark loam mixed with considerable deposits of demolition debris from the decaying walls of the bath-house developed over the north-west end of the building complex during successive centuries until the first stone church was built on the site in the twelfth century.

A brief phase of Anglo-Saxon activity in the area was attested by a number of rubbish pits found cutting the post Roman 'abandonment' and demolition levels. These features may be associated with a postulated street market that developed in this area in the later Anglo-Saxon period. No trace of an Anglo-Saxon church was found.

The earliest documentary reference to the church appears in a Christchurch rental of 1153-67 in which land held by William, Priest of Bourne, is described as being 'opposite St Margaret's Church on a corner near the garden of Benedict the Priest'. Ceramic evidence from the excavation suggests a possible foundation date in the twelfth century, a date supported by the survival of the original mid-twelfth century west door of the church (heavily restored, but fine example of its type) . Elements of the earliest church were exposed during the course of the excavation. The north and south walls of the early church were located inside the body of the existing church. The original east end of the church probably extended under present St Margaret's Street. The interior of the early church was divided into a nave with north and south aisles defined by arcade foundations. Despite severe disturbance by later features, particularly burial vaults, isolated 'islands' of intact church floor survived. The earliest floors, walls and arcade bases bore traces of an intense fire, which may have destroyed the church in the mid twelfth century. The church was probably rebuilt at this time; the principal walls refurbished, new arcade foundations built, a bell tower was probably constructed at the west end of the south aisle and masonry 'benches' built against the west wall of the nave and north aisle.

A sequence of laminated beaten earth, clay and mortar floors developed within the body of the church throughout the next five centuries. A considerable number of inhumation burials survived within the church. The excavation policy was to disturb no burials and in every case the inhumations were recorded and covered up. Only two burials were of late medieval date, the remaining inhumations were post medieval. Numerous brick family vaults dating from the late sixteenth century onward were exposed. Three complete medieval storage jars were located during the excavation. Two, sealed beneath floor levels in the south-west tower dated to c.1300-1350. and the third, located north of the tower, dated to c.1425-75. These pots may have originally contained 'heart-burials'.

The church was extensively altered in the late fourteenth century. The west wall of the original building was retained and the north and south walls rebuilt further out. Despite restoration in 1850, typical late medieval details survive in the arcades, which were reconstructed at the time. The aisles originally had sloping roofs and a blocked doorway survives in the first stage of the tower which led onto the roof of the south aisle. Only four bays of the crown-post nave roof survive, this originally extended beyond the existing chancel arch. There were chapels at the east end of each aisle: the altar of Our Lady in the north aisle and St. John the Baptist in the south. Following the Reformation the chapels were removed and the east end of the north aisle became the Prerogative Court of the Archbishop for the Archdeaconry of Canterbury.

The sequence of beaten earth and clay floors in the body of the church were probably sealed over by stone paving In the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century when the first of many brick-built vaults were constructed. Many of the vaults were originally covered by ledger slabs, and some of the deceased were recorded on fine mural monuments, including Sir George Newman (died 1627) and the famous Canterbury historian and compiler of the first Anglo-Saxon dictionary, William Somner (died 1669).

In 1791, a faculty was obtained to pull down the east end of the church to widen the street and improve access to the nearby Fountain Inn. A considerable quantity of reused stone, including many architectural fragments from the original east end of the church, were recorded in the foundations of the eighteenth century chancel building.

The church was extensively 'refurbished' by Sir G.G. Scott in 1850. The rebuilt east end was 'masked', the aisle walls heightened and given pitched roof with gable ends, an external spiral stair was added to the tower, a new vestry was built (extended in the early twentieth century), new fittings were inserted in the body of the church (including central heating with underfloor ducts), many monuments were repositioned and the stone floor was completely rearranged.

Considerable documentary evidence survives for the history of the church from the mid twelfth century onwards. With the completion of the excavation, a thorough study of these documents will immeasurably add to our knowledge of St Margaret's Church, one of Canterbury's principal parish churches standing at the heart of the medieval town.

See this place today Click on the logo to see this place today.   The information on this page is Copyright © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd. 1986 Reproduced with permission.
The text and pictures were taken from Canterbury's Archaeology 1985/1986, The 10th Annual Report of Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd.

Peter Collinson Last change: 18th November 2018