Kent Archaeological Review extract

Early Church Discovered at Herne.
by Brian Philp and Harold Gough.

During January 1976 part of the floor of the large and imposing parish church situated in the centre of the village of Herne, near Herne Bay, suddenly collapsed. The Vicar and Rural Dean of Reculver, the Rev D J Bretherton, consulted his architect and builder who both advised that remedial work would be needed. Knowing that any such work might encounter and destroy archaeological deposits of importance the vicar immediately sought archaeological advice. He invited the writers, responsible for the major programme of work at Reculver for many years (Roman fort and Saxon church), to carry out a rescue-excavation through the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit. This was carried out in February and March, with the full support of the parishoners of Herne, with significant results.

THE EXCAVATION by Brian Philp.

The tiled floor of the Lady Chapel, put down in the 19th century, was found to have collapsed in several places over the filling of numerous early graves. This floor had been bedded on a thin layer of sandy loam and it incorporated nine major memorial slabs moved from different parts of the church. The slabs, some carrying the oldest brasses in the church, were moved by the Victorian builders in creating a special 'Milles' chapel in the north chantry. Another almost complete memorial slab was found only inches below the Victorian floor where it had been discarded. It showed clear signs of having had brasses attached. Its similarity to adjacent stones suggest that it had originally been on a 15th or 16th century tomb.

On the extreme east side of the chapel a second floor was found in situ just below the Victorian tiles. It was built of large square, orange-coloured tiles, about 24 centimetres square, such as still cover some of the other parts of the church. These tiles probably date from the 16th or 17th centuries. The loose grave-fills were then carefully excavated at selected points. In general natural brickearth was found just 1.20 metres beneath the present floor, although where cut by graves it was located at about 1.50 metres. The disturbed soil in the grave-fillings contained fragments of brick and floor-tiles of medieval and later date. Of special interest were four very worn floor tiles with printed patterns (Figure 1), probably made at nearby Tyler Hill, in the 13th or 14th centuries. These must have been incorporated into the floor of the chapel, thus giving evidence of a third floor. See Footnote [1]

By far the most important discovery was a massive chalk foundation cut down into the underlying brickearth and buried beneath all the floors. This clearly formed part of an unknown, much earlier structure on the site of the north aisle (Figure 2). It formed a great D-shape, having a broad north-south cross-wall underneath the present screen and a curving wall forming an apsidal chapel on its east side. Both elements were clearly of one build with alternating courses of stone and rammed chalk (Figure 3). Although badly cut by graves the apsidal wall survived in four vital places including the two junctions with the cross-wall. The apse wall was generally 0.75 metres wide and 1.15 metres. below the floor, whilst the cross-wall foundation was at least 1.00 metre wide. No trace of any superstructure survived, but a thin skin of mortar was evidence of it having been robbed away. The chalk foundation thus enclosed a chapel about 4m. wide and 3.50 metres deep, but if the walls of the superstructure were somewhat narrower than the actual foundations and allowing for the thickness of the cross-wall then the original chapel could have been 4.30 metres wide and 5.00 metres deep.

DRAWING: Medieval floor tiles found in Herne Church.

Figure 1. Medieval floor tiles found in Herne Church. Drawn by John Willson.

Of particular importance was the fact that the cross-wall foundations did not project southwards beyond the line of the apse, but shared a common external face with it. Whilst only a small part of this critical area was available it does seem that the presumed nave was the same overall width as the chapel. The later pier at this point respected this external face though surprisingly its own foundations were only about 0.80 metres deep and this made it certain that no earlier southward extension had existed.


There can be no doubt at all that this exciting new discovery is part of a much earlier church on the site of St Martin's. The newly discovered apse undoubtedly formed part of an early chapel, almost certainly the chancel itself. This should have had a corresponding nave on its west side to create a standard two-cell structure.

What then is the date of this new structure? The absence of stratified archaeological material makes exact dating difficult. Very clearly it antedates the north aisle which was built over it in the 14th century. The structural implications must be considered. Firstly, the apse was a form used in the very early group of Saxon churches, largely Kentish in distribution, built in the 7th century AD. These include St Augustines (say AD 630), Rochester (AD 604), Lyminge (AD 633), Bradwell (AD 655) and Reculver (AD 669). The most notable of these is at Reculver only three miles from Herne itself. In general these have larger apses than that just found at Herne and in addition triple arcaded arches and side porticus seem constant features. The arcades could anyway not have survived at Herne though just possibly more work might pick up foundations of the side porticus. See Footnote [2]

Secondly, the apse could relate to a small church or chapel built in late-Saxon or Norman times. Although the squared chancel was then preferred many examples of apsidal ends are known even as late as the 12th century. An obvious late use of such chapels in the area occurs at Faversham where the great monastic church of King Stephen (started AD 1147) had seven apsidal chapels, three deep ones at the end of the quire arm and four on the transept arms broadly similar in size to those at Herne. Indeed the method of construction at Faversham, alternating layers of chalk and stone, matches exactly the method at Herne and could imply a similar date. See Footnote [3] See Footnote [4]

Two further pieces of evidence must also be considered. The late-11th century Domesday Monachorum records a "monasterium aet Hyman" (Reference 5) and if this has been correctly identified with the present village of Herne then this implies the presence of a late-Saxon church on the site. In addition several fragments of decorated Romanesque masonry can be seen re-used in the walls of the present church and this implies building work of some sort in the Norman period.

From the available evidence three possibilities arise:

  1. That the apse and cross-wall represent a small Saxon church of the Reculver-type of the 7th century, which was added to in Norman and later times.
  2. That this represents a late-Saxon church (say 10th century), the 'monasterium' of the Monachorum, added to in Norman and later times.
  3. That this represents a Norman church, to which the decorated fragments and typical foundations directly relate, which replaced the late-Saxon 'monasterium' church which may have been somewhat superficial or even timber-framed.

Whatever the case it can now be seen that the early church, almost certainly with single apse and short nave (perhaps 10m. long) stood on the site of the present north aisle. Allowing for a short (say 5 metres) subsequent extension at the west end to allow for the undue length, a great three-stage tower was Figure 3. Section through early chalk foundation underlying Lady Chapel floor. added in the early-14th century. Not long after this, whilst the early church still stood, an extensive nave, south aisle and chancel were built to substantially create much of the fine church that survives today. The final phase of this same scheme seems to have been the building of the north arcade and the north aisle which then necessitated the removal of the earlier church.

DRAWING: Section through early chalk foundation underlying Lady Chapel floor.

Figure 3. Section through early chalk foundation underlying Lady Chapel floor.

DRAWING: Plan of St Martin's Church, Herne.

Figure 2. St Martin's Church, Herne. Plan showing earlier structure underlying Lady Chapel floor. Drawn by John Willson.


Footnote 1.

Philp, B J KAR Number 36 (1974), page 175. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 2.

Taylor, H M Arch. Jnl. Vol CXXVI(1969), page 192. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 3.

Taylor, H M and Taylor, J Anglo-Saxon Architecture (1965). Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 4.

Philp, BJ Excavations at Faversham 1965 (1968), page 12. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 5.

Victoria County Histories, Kent. Vol. III (1932), page 257. Return to the paragraph.


Thanks are due first and foremost to the Rev D J Bretherton for his quick action in getting archaeological help before the builders began their work. Next to Mrs Bretherton, Mrs Martin and Mrs L O'Brien and Messrs S T Allen, J Booth, R Bull, P Cable, R Gates, F Horton, L O'Brien, J Wilkins and Major R Gillyat who greatly assisted the excavations in February and March. Next to members of the full-time team Peter Keller, Keith Nicol and Tony Emms who worked under the supervision of Mr.John Willson, of Herne Bay, who also completed the drawings for publication.


The eastern end of the North Aisle of St Martin's Church, Herne, is enclosed by a late 15th or early 16th century open screen to form the Lady Chapel.

The name "Lady Chapel" is a shorthand term for a chapel whose principal altar is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and the reason for this particular dedication may be seen in the fact that a Chantry was founded in her honour in the middle of the 14th century. This Chantry survived until the reign of Edward VI and its location in this N E chapel is confirmed by the 'squint' or slanted aperture through the wall between it and the sanctuary, by which the chantry chaplain could watch the parish priest celebrating Mass at the High Altar and so synchronise his own service.

As seen today the Chapel shows an evolution eastwards; of the two windows on the north side, that to the west continues the early 14th century decorated range of the aisle; the other is in a different idiom and lacks the external hood-mould and thus perhaps reflects the founding of the Chantry between 1350-1360. The two east windows are Late Perpendicular and suggest a remodelling at around 1500, roughly contemporary with the erection of the present screen.

While there seems to be no physical description of the Chantry Chapel during its 150 years existence, there are numerous references to it among the wills of the parishioners.

In 1401, Thomas Regeweye asked to be buried at the door of the chancel of Blessed Mary, and in 1476 Joan, wife of William Manston, made a similar request. Vincent Paramore, in 1526, left 6s.8d. (33p) to the reparation of the church walls about Our Lady's Chapel, suggesting that the Perpendicular reconstruction work was still being paid for!

John Percivall of Faversham, in 1522, left 20 mares (13.67) for a priest to chant in the church at Herne, at St John's Altar for one year, and at Our Lady's Altar for another year. There are other references to an altar, and a Chancel, of St John the Baptist, in wills from 1459 onwards, and there is a local tradition that this North Chancel in fact contained both altars. Two parishioners who specified St John's Chancel as their burial place were William Philipp (1459) and his son, William (1470), It may be no coincidence, therefore, that the beautiful brass of Christina Phelip (1470), who was sister-in-law of the one, and aunt of the other, is now in the centre of the Lady Chapel. She was the wife of Sir Matthew Phelip, a goldsmith, who was Lord Mayor of London in 1463-4, and provided some of the jewels for the coronation of Edward IV's queen. He too was apparently buried in the chapel, but no monument has survived.

Another brass in the Lady Chapel is that of John Sea (1604/5) with his two wives; his will requested burial "in the chaunsell comonlye called Saint Johns Chaunsell right before the pewe wherein I use to sitt". His son, Edward Sea, in 1616 refers to "the north Chancell of the parish church of Hearne wher my Antientors have been laied".

These references support the view that the north chancel had the double dedication, and while we can trace the 'migrations' of many of the grave-slabs about the church at vatious times, there is no evidence that the brasses of Christina Phelip or John Sea were ever anywhere else. A relief showing the Baptism of Christ, erected in the east gable of the chapel in 1892, maintains this link with St John.

The other brasses now in the chapel have mostly been brought from other parts of the church, notably the armoured figure of Peter Halle hand in hand with his wife (circa 1430).

Finally, in the 19th century, the numerous and substantial monuments of the Mulles family were also gathered here, and the chapel was restored as a memorial to George John Milles, 5th Baron Sondes, a noted benefactor to the Church and Parish.

Close Window
Accessed this page via search engine or bookmark? Full K A R Index here.