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St Stephen's Parish Church lies a little
way north of Canterbury, in the parish of Hackington which extends
two-thirds of the way north towards Whitstable, sandwiched between
the parishes of Blean and Sturry. The name of the parish seems to
mean the settlement among the hacks or thorn bushes, from a time
when the forest stretched from the Stour to the sea. The first
Anglo-Saxon church held here was very shortly after the Augustinian
landing in AD 597.
At first it is probable that one of the monks from
St Augustine's Abbey would come and preach here on a Sunday, erecting a
cross of wood or stone with a temporary shelter which the local people
would have encased in a wooden building roofed with thatch. This formed
the nave of the church, which they kept in repair, while the section
erected by the priest was the chancel which he or his monastery would
have maintained themselves.
The manor of Hackington was held by the monks of Christ
Church, but it wasn't until Thomas Becket's murder in 1170 that change came
to Hackington. Henry II and his new archbishop felt that the power of the
monks had become too great, as the result of the veneration which was paid
to the cathedral as the shrine of Becket, and Archbishop Baldwin (1184-1190)
decided to build a great church which would outrival the cathedral in its
beauty and power.
The old wooden church was pulled down to make way for
Baldwin's cathedral, which was to be dedicated to St Stephen. The monks of
Christ Church at last understood the plan and appealed to the pope, who
issued an order forbidding the work. After some years of delay, during which
both sides did their best to persuade the pope to adopt their point of view,
Baldwin gave up his idea and went with King Richard to the Holy Land to fight
against the Saracens.
The church that was finally built was the earliest version
today's far more modest building. The lower part of the tower and the nave are
probably survivors from this period. The windows and doors are a mixture of
Norman and slightly later Early English styles. In the chancel, Lady Lora, or
Loretta, was interred, wife of the earl of Leicester who died on the Crusades.
She came to St Stephen's to live as a hermit and minister to pilgrims on their
way to Canterbury. She died in 1219.
In the thirteenth century, the tower was strengthened by
adding buttresses after a local earthquake affected many church towers in the
region. It was also lowered, and the steeple removed, as the upper windows of
the tower show them to be much later than the lower ones. The church was greatly
restored during Elizabeth's reign, and again in the 1880s, to leave the present
attractive church building in place in the centre of a glade of ancient trees.