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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Excavations at Faversham.
by Sir Mortimer Wheeler.

A 3-entry table follows showing the items excavated.
Number Description Number of days
1 Outsize medieval abbey 55 days
1 Belgic ditch-system (part of) 9 days
1 Roman villa (part of) 10 days

And all in the middle of winter, amidst 'sub-freezing temperature and bitter coastal winds.' Not bad going, if it be added that a sensible report, complete with plans, sections and 273 small finds (including potsherds), was published three years later.

It need scarcely be explained that this was a rescue-dig, carried out with dash and devotion against the clock and incidentally at minimum expense. The total cost, which included the extensive use of heavy machinery, was 1,164, provided by the often admirable and always hard-pressed Ministry of Public Building and Works. To all concerned great credit is due, but above all to Mr Brian Philp himself and his colleagues of the Reculver Excavation Group, who quickly rallied their skills and sinews to the emergency and broke its back (and no doubt theirs).

But why was this important operation deferred until it became so desperately urgent? There are probably a hundred reasons, including the absence of any surface remains of the great church; of the whole monastic complex, only a small part of the outer gatehouse and two barns remained to encourage foresight. As for the Belgae and the Romans, safe insofar as their former presence may be expected on any habitable waterside ground in Kent, they were a wholly unlooked-for complication of the problem. To set against this, almost all their presumably stratified top-hamper had been mechanically removed before their existence was realised. To that extent the labour of the rescuers in terms of time was appreciably reduced.

The Cluniac (but actually independent) Abbey of Faversham was founded in 1147 by King Stephen, for his soul's very necessary protection and for that of Queen Matilda and their son Eustace (et al.), and its first Abbot arrived from the Cluniac house of Bermondsey with twelve monks in 1148. As excavation has now shown, they or rather their unknown master-mason proceeded forthwith to lay down the wide chalk foundations of a church no less than 361 feet in length with an unusually semi-detached cloister about 120 feet square and the usual surrounding buildings. The long east end terminated in three parallel apsidal chapels, a feature which, as Mr Philp observes, was already archaic by the middle of the 12th century. This feature, combined with the loosely knit but ambitious character of the whole plan, is consistent with the employment of an elderly master-mason stretched beyond capacity by royal ambition at the end of the phase of stagnation which marked the Stephen episode.

Question at once arises, how much of this overblown scheme was ever carried above foundation-level? Much of it may be suspected to have remained a mere architectural blueprint, laid down no doubt with all speed for the approval of royal eyes (it is noted that Queen Matilda observed the work from St Augustine's Abbey at Canterbury). But one thing at least is certain: the eastern arm, with traditional priority, was substantially complete by 1152 when Matilda was buried in the Abbey, to be followed in 1153 by her son Eustace and in 1154 by Stephen himself. The two main royal grave-pits, thoroughly plundered at the Reformation, are identified beyond reasonable question side by side in the retro-quire which no doubt, as at Westminster, constituted the royal chapel. The tumbled filling of these pits contained mortar, well-carved 12th century freestone and painted plaster, obviously remains of the former shrine or shrines overhead.

Of the rest of the original lay-out, there is no evidence that the cloister and frater ever rose above ground-level, and before long there was a drastic reduction in the whole scale of the Abbey. The cast end was retracted by nearly 60 feet and the final apsidal chapels replaced by the now conventional straight end. To match, the apsidal chapels of the transepts were likewise squared off; and the line of the west front, which as likely as not had never raised its head, was set back more than 30 (surely not '18') feet. These and other drastic curtailments, which suddenly reduced the Abbey to a second-rate establishment, are associated by Mr Philp with the lapse in 1209 of an annual grant of 100 which the Abbey had received since 1158. He may be right, but I should much prefer to regard the general collapse as an immediate sequel to Stephen's death, when his vaunted mortuary establishment, like all his works, must have fallen pretty suddenly from grace. Incidentally, at the risk of appearing churlish where there is so much cause for gratitude, I would urge that the sequence at the west end needs another look. Nevertheless, the Philp plan is a very welcome addition to our 12th century series, and I cannot help reflecting how gratified the late A W Clapham would have been to see it.

Of the nearby Belgic ditches, already much damaged, little more need be said than that they were nevertheless worth their nine days. In the absence of domestic details we must be grateful that the toiling peasantry had broken enough of their pottery to suggest a date within the earlier half of the 1st century AD. The adjacent villa-block, also badly scraped, was nevertheless skilfully subdivided by the excavators into four structural periods. It was a characteristic example of the small-farmer or farm-bailiff residence which, with modifications and additions, was long a familiar object of the Romano-British countryside.

Again I would beg to be allowed to congratulate Mr Philp and his faithfuls upon an arduous and indeed splendid piece of rescue work.

Excavations at Faversham, 1965; by Brian Philp. First Research report of the Kent Archaeological Research Groups' Council, 1968. Available from: The Council for Kentish Archaeology, 1 Denmark Road, Bromley, Kent, price 40 shillings (post free).

This article, which is of particular interest to the many diggers from all parts of Kent who took part in the excavation, is reprinted from Current Archaeology by kind permission of the editor and Sir Mortimer Wheeler.

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