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Churches of the British Isles

Gallery: Churches of Kent

by Peter Kessler, 19 July 2009. Updated 7 October 2019

Medway Part 1: Rochester Cathedral

Rochester Cathedral in Kent

Rochester Cathedral is located close to the River Medway, in the shadow of the town's medieval castle. The Church of St Andrew the Apostle was the very first church here, built in AD 604, just seven years after Christianity was first introduced into Kent. It was about the same time as Bishop Milletus consecrated the original St Paul's Church in London (which was controlled by Essex). St Andrew's was built near to the former fortified Roman crossing of the Medway.

Main doors of Rochester Cathedral in Kent

St Andrew's was a college for a small number of secular canons under Justus, bishop of Rochester in AD 604, but very little is known about its history. Its influence in Kent seems to have been limited. It remained relatively poor, despite its considerable landed estates. In the ninth and tenth centuries it suffered at the hands of the Danes, and apparently by 1075, when it was handed over to Bishop Odo of Bayeux by William the Conquer, it seems to have been destitute.

Stained glass windows in Rochester Cathedral in Kent

In 1083, Archbishop Lanfranc visited Rochester and instituted twenty-two Benedictine monks, making full provision for them. Together with Gundulf, bishop of Rochester, he began the rebuilding the church and monastery buildings, creating a new church building to the east of the original so as not to disturb services. The nave (shown here) is the closest we can get to that rebuild. There was an upsurge in donations when a Scottish pilgrim was murdered in the town.

The nave of Rochester Cathedral in Kent

The Reformation came in 1539, and a new charter of 20 June 1541 set up a cathedral church which was to be run by a dean and six canons regular of the newly established Church of England. Although it was one of the smaller Norman cathedrals, Rochester remained an important centre for worship, as well as being the mother church for its diocese which even today stretches west to Bromley (now in London) and south to the villages around Tonbridge.

Stained glass windows in Rochester Cathedral in Kent

Many post-Reformation dedications were made, such as the mosaic below this window: 'To the glory of God and in memory of the officers, NCOs and men of the Royal Engineers. The late Bengal Engineers and the Bengal Madras and Bombay Sappers and Miners who died for Queen and country, some in Afghanistan during the campaigns of 1838-42 and of 1878-80, one in the Waziri Expedition of 1881 and for others in South Africa in... the [campaigns] of 1878-81.

The organ in Rochester Cathedral in Kent

The earliest parts of the organ which overlooks the north transept date back to Samuel Green's 1791 original. Enlarged in 1835, further changes were made in 1865 and 1870, and five years later the organ was moved into the current case which was designed by Gilbert Scott. After nearly ten years of persuasion, a new organ was built in 1905 and fifty years later a very colourful upgrade was made which included electrifying some functions, but this was rebuilt in 1989.

The crypt under Rochester Cathedral in Kent

Beneath the quire transept is the crypt, with two bays surviving from the original Norman construction. Shown here are the plain-arched western bays - the surviving part of Gundulf's work, unadorned by later rebuilds, lying underneath his original presbytery. To the east (to the right), the Early English crypt (1180-1260) stretches away to a separate chapel which is dedicated to Ithamar, the Saxon bishop. Many fragments of medieval ceiling paintings also survive.

Rochester Cathedral in Kent

Behind the transept is the quire itself. The solid walls to north and south (right and left here) were a distinctive feature of Gundulf's quire. They are still there underneath the Early English arches and plaster, added when the quire was rebuilt after the second big fire in 1179. The quire stalls contain remnants of those put in around 1227, now the oldest surviving stalls in Britain. The striking pattern on the walls of the 1350s was reapplied in the nineteenth century.

Ruins at Rochester Cathedral in Kent

The south porch leads to the Cloister Garth. Here, Gundulf established the monastic community. Bishop Ernulf (1114-1124) erected further buildings, including a chapter house, and it is this which lies in ruins today, only the arches surviving. The chapter house suffered badly in the first big fire of 1137 when the monks were forced to live elsewhere for a time. At the Dissolution, Henry VIII planned a royal palace in the monastic buildings, but this was soon abandoned.

Rochester Cathedral in Kent

The squat Norman nave contrasts dramatically with the tall, narrow Gothic arches of the crossing. In 1889, maintenance work uncovered the foundations of the original Saxon cathedral under the west end. They were about 1.5 metres in depth, while the remainder of the walls were 70cms thick. Those walls were made of stone and Roman brick, and ended in a rounded apse. This building was swept away by changes brought about by the Norman conquest.

Eight photos on this page by P L Kessler, one kindly contributed by Sam Weller via the 'History Files: Churches of the British Isles' Flickr group, and two originally published on Lynne's 'Echoes of the Past' blog and reproduced here with permission.



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