This article appeared in the Spring 1969 (Issue #15) edition of the Kent Archaeological Review.
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The church of St Margaret, Darenth is one of the most interesting small village churches of West Kent. Situated on a steep knoll on the cast bank of the Darent, the church consists of a late Saxon nave with quoin stones of Roman tile, a large and unusual early Norman chancel, as well as a rare and beautiful font of Caen stone dating from the first half of the 12th century.
The great majority of Saxon churches were built of wood -- few were built of stone to survive both time and Norman re-building; Kent has 36 churches with accepted Saxon construction, ranking third after Norfolk (54) and Lincolnshire (47). (Taylor and Taylor, Anglo-Saxon Architecture, page 730). The flint Saxon nave of Darenth church originally measured 36 feet 9 inches by about 19 feet, with walls 19 inches thick and about 19 feet high. Of this nave, the north and west walls and part of the east wall remain today. No complete plan of the original Saxon church can be given; the usual two or three cell type, i.e. nave and sanctuary, or nave, chancel and sanctuary ending in an apse, was not universal in South-East England.
The re-use of Roman materials in the nave is evidenced by the 300 or more pieces of tile which can be counted in the exterior of the north and west walls today. In the north-west and north-east quoins double rows of tile averaging 11 inches by 16 inches can be seen. The characteristic Saxon "long and short" quoining (using alternate vertical and horizontal stones), is not used; recent re-pointing may conceal side-alternate quoining. Tile can also be seen at random in the exterior of the north wall, and in the west wall above the modern vestry, where remains of a criss-cross pattern can be seen. It has been suggested that this type of decoration may derive from Roman building forms, or from Saxon timber constructions, but equally "herring bone technique was used by Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Normans and later masons." (Op. Cit. page 13).
The Darenth Roman villa, half a mile to the south of the church, excavated in 1896 (Arch. Cant. XXII, p. 80), provided material not only for Darenth church, but also for the now vanished daughter chapel of St Margaret at Hilles. Although St Margaret's had begun to fall into ruin in the mid-sixteenth century "some portions" (Bagshaw -- Gazetteer and Directory of the County of Kent), remained in 1847, to completely disappear by 1896. Hasted noted, in the mid-eighteenth century, that only part of the steeple remained, and that "in the remains-there are many Roman bricks, and part of an arch is turned entirely with them." (History of Kent Volume 2, page 382). Likewise in Darenth church, a blocked Saxon double splayed round-headed window (above the present door and porch), is completely turned with Roman tile.
One must be wary of attributing too early a date to the Saxon portion of Darenth church. The earliest churches after the conversion of Kent in AD 597 were "ministers" supporting a community of evangelising monks, who ministered to a wide area; the secular church does not come into being much before the ninth century (Field Archaeology -- Ordnance Survey, 1963 page 115). "The beginnings of Christian worship in a district were usually marked by the setting up of a cross which became the site of services conducted by priests from a minster." (Op. Cit. p. 112). Perhaps the minster serving the Darenth community was associated with Shoreham. The later Deanery of Shoreham included Darenth in its 38 parishes, and was possibly an early creation since it was a peculiar, i.e. under the immediate jurisdiction of the Archbishop.
The Norman alterations to Darenth church in the years following 1066 added an unusually long chancel of two compartments to the Saxon nave, an early Norman eastern section and a later Norman western section. Probably the only other early chancel of this length in Kent is to be found in St Margaret's at Cliffe, Dover. (Kent Churches -- H R Pratt Boorman and V J Torr, page 86). The sanctuary vault and the splay of the windows on the cast wall confirm that the eastern section of the chancel was built soon after the Conquest. The space between the sanctuary roof and its vault, formerly lit by two blocked early Norman windows has been identified as either the normal space between vault and roof (Arch Cant. LXI, page 48), or as an upper chamber, as at Tickencote, Rutland, and Compton, Surrey. (Taylor and Taylor page 191).
To the late Norman period belongs the south wall of the chancel with indications of a blocked arcade, probably evidence of a chapel destroyed before the fourteenth century.
Alterations in the thirteenth century account for the early English consecration cross painted in reddish-brown and blue-grey below a blocked window on the north wall of the nave; alterations which included the much-rebuilt nave arcade and the addition of a plain and substantial tower. The chancel arch, the grotesque heads on two corbels of the nave arcade and the present door under the porch (replacing the blocked Norman doorway with its traces of carving on the exterior arch), belong to the fourteenth century. The church was completed in the fifteenth century with the re-building of the nave arcade, the making of the southern respond of the chancel arch furnished with a large squint through from the aisle to the chancel, the creation of one or two new windows, and the addition of the woodwork of the roofs. (Arch. Cant. LXI, 1948, page 49).
The present entrance to the church is on the unusual north side beside an earlier blocked Norman doorway. Possibly the Saxon entrance was in the west wall, and it is probable that the present doorway to the vestry occupies the site of an original west doorway replaced in Norman times by the blocked door in the north wall. (Taylor and Taylor, page 191.)
On the exterior cast wall, a delicate cross in knapped flint is to be seen on the chancel gable, similar to one in a similar position on the Eastwell church (near Ashford). As a result of war damage, the Eastwell cross has now disappeared. The Darenth cross and the two adjacent windows have been considered suspect (Arch. Cant. LXI, 1948, page 48), but they appear in an engraving in the Gentleman's Magazine for 1830.
The aisle was roofed by gabling it to the height of the nave; this method is fairly frequently to be seen in Kent churches, in place of raising the walls and creating a clerestory. Although the black marble pavement donated by the church's greatest benefactor has disappeared, the royal arms of Charles II bequeathed by Edmund Davenport remain on the south wall of the aisle, as do the possibly eighteenth century Ten Commandment painted on a board, and prefaced with the name of God in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English, on the south-east corner of the nave above the pulpit.
Plan reproduced from Taylor and Taylor; Anglo-Saxon Architecture by kind permission of the Cambridge University Press.