Kent is a fine county for those of us who are interested in parish churches. Kent can offer good churches of every age, has especially fine buildings of the 12th and 13th centuries and a wealth of fittings, stained glass and monuments. The aim of this short essay is to point to the best parish churches in Kent, judged by architecture or the quality of their contents.
Variations across the County
There are marked differences between churches in the east of the county and those of the south and west as a result of geology – and therefore building stones – and social and economic development. The 12th century saw a great wave of church building in east Kent, especially around Canterbury, and many of these buildings can still be seen. The churches of the south and west, particularly in the Weald, are predominantly of the later medieval period. The best of Kent’s perpendicular churches are found here. Churches in the west of the county are more likely to have been restored and embellished in the 19th century, when proximity to London and its wealth had an effect.
St Nicholas, Sevenoaks - a ragstone church
The appearance of all of these buildings has been affected by geology. Three native building stones predominate, together with one French import. All across the north and east of the county, churches are usually built of flint, easily obtainable from the chalk of the North Downs.
Holy Innocents, Adisham - flint
South of the Downs, Kentish ragstone is the building stone of choice, quarried in the Chart Hills, south of Maidstone. Along the south-west fringe of the county and in the west, Wealden sandstone is almost always used, which is of a warmer and more appealing colour than the cooler tones of flint and ragstone. Both sandstone and ragstone can be carved for use as window tracery, mouldings, capitals etc. Flint, obviously, cannot and therefore Caen stone – a fine, cream-coloured limestone – was widely imported from Normandy for use in flint churches where cut or decorative stone was needed. Tufa, a hard limestone quarried from the beds of streams, was also much favoured by Norman builders (seen, for instance, at West Farleigh). Dark brown ironstone is found in a few places, for instance Rolvenden and Ightham; and chalk blocks are used internally at Bicknor.
St Laurence, Hawkhurst - sandstone
Timber is also important, mainly of course for roofs. There is only one timber-framed church in Kent, at Fairfield on Walland Marsh and this was encased in brick in the 18th century. But there are important timber towers and porches.
There is a handful of remarkably early churches surviving in Kent. Most notable is St Martin, Canterbury, whose nave is of 7th century date. St Martin’s may be the oldest church still in use in England. Reculver also dates from the 7th century, though it was largely dismantled in the early nineteenth and its most prominent feature now is the remarkable Norman twin-towered façade which is such a landmark on the north Kent coast. St Mary-in-Castro, which lies within Dover Castle, is a grand, if rather heavily restored, late Anglo-Saxon church. There are also important pre-Conquest remains at Lyminge, Lydd and a few other churches.
Reculver, St Mary - west front
Norman architecture is well seen in numerous churches. The grandest 12th century parish churches in Kent are St Margaret’s at Cliffe, New Romney, St Nicholas at Wade and Brook. But none is more impressive than the much smaller but highly decorated village churches at Barfrestone and Patrixbourne, both south-east of Canterbury. The former vies with Kilpeck in Herefordshire to be regarded as the finest small twelfth century parish church in England. Many of the small Norman churches which scatter the North Downs survive in an unaltered state; in other cases, Norman fabric is still present in churches which have been extensively rebuilt, for instance the very grand 11th century chancel at Tonbridge.
St Mary, Patrixbourne - chancel
The 13th and 14th centuries
Kent can show a handful of 13th and 14th century churches which are of exceptional quality. Pre-eminent are Stone, near Dartford, built by the same masons who worked on Henry III’s rebuilding of Westminster Abbey; and the chancel at Hythe, which has a fully developed three-storey elevation internally – arcade, triforium and clerestory – unusual in a parish church. Woodchurch has a sublimely beautiful 13th century interior, as have Westwell, with its stone chancel screen and vaulted chancel, and Minster in Thanet.
St Mary, Westwell - interior
The grand churches at Cliffe (near Rochester) and Chartham straddle the 13th and 14th centuries, the latter being the best place to see so-called ‘Kentish tracery’ in the chancel windows. Fully developed Decorated churches can be seen at Ivychurch, Rolvenden and Hawkhurst, together with the smaller but rather charming Elmsted.
St George, Ivychurch - exterior
The late medieval period
The most splendid late medieval church in the county is All Saints, Maidstone (which is also Kent’s largest parish church), rebuilt by Archbishop Courtenay of Canterbury in the early 15th century. Other fine 15th and 16th century buildings are at Cranbrook, Ashford, Goudhurst and Shoreham.
St Dunstan, Cranbrook - exterior
The late medieval fashion for lavish towers and porches did not have much impact in Kent. The only outstanding parish tower is at Tenterden, though there are stately if rather plain towers at Harrietsham, Charing, Biddenden, Egerton and a few other places. A handful of towers and some porches are of timber, the extraordinary structure at Brookland being the best of the former and High Halden and Shoreham the latter.
St Augustine, Brookland - tower
There was not much church building in Kent after the Reformation until the Victorian age. 16th and 17th century buildings are rare – not much more than the curious brick church of 1625 at Groombridge, the rebuilding of Chiddingstone after a fire in 1624 and, best, the late 17th century church of Charles the Martyr at Tunbridge Wells, with plaster ceilings worthy of a City church. The 18th century has more to offer, principally the magnificent church of 1744 at Mereworth, the chancel at Wye of 1706 and George Dance’s rebuilding of the nave at Faversham of 1755. The tower at Faversham has an extraordinary and rather beautiful openwork spire of the 1790s. From the end of the Georgian era St George’s, Ramsgate is a spectacular Regency building.
St Lawrence, Mereworth - interior
The Victorian age
Kent is not as rich in Victorian churches as neighbouring Sussex but there are, nevertheless, some fine buildings worth seeing. The most important is undoubtedly St Augustine, Ramsgate, a Roman Catholic church built for himself by AWN Pugin next to his house, the Grange. Kilndown, by Anthony Salvin is unremarkable but its interior was the first church in England to be fitted out on Cambridge Camden Society principles and is artistically very important and impressive. Ewan Christian’s very first church at Hildenborough has an impressive interior of a quality he was rarely to achieve again, though Holy Trinity, Folkestone also shows what he could do when working for a rich patron; there are good, typical, churches by James Brooks at Dover and Northfleet and by EW Pugin at Kingsdown; Butterfield is well seen in his rebuilding of Godmersham, as is Blackburne at Ospringe. From the end of the century, the best building is Chiddingstone Causeway, JF Bentley’s only Anglican work and a delightful essay in the Arts and Crafts taste. These are just the highlights: most of the coastal towns have Victorian churches worth visiting, as do Tunbridge Wells, and the London fringes – Beckenham, Bromley, Bexley, Chislehurst and Sidcup.
St Augustine, Ramsgate - exterior
The 20th century
The 20th century has little to offer. Only Giles Gilbert Scott’s and Maguire and Murray’s Roman Catholic churches at, respectively, Northfleet and Tunbridge Wells are worth mentioning, together with Peter Bosanquet’s church at Wigmore, near Gillingham. The best 20th century church in Kent is not a parish church but Maguire and Murray’s 1960s convent church at West Malling.
Churches with particularly good collections of furnishings are Graveney and Higham (medieval), Chiddingstone (17th/18th centuries), Brookland, Old Romney, Stelling and Fairfield (18th century), Kilndown, Kingsdown, Boughton Malherbe and St Augustine’s Ramsgate (19th century) and Holy Trinty, Folkestone (early 20th century).
Aesthetically, the best Kent fonts are Norman – the spectacular carved stone examples at Harrietsham, Newenden and St Martin’s, Canterbury and the fine lead font at Brookland. There are numerous plain arcaded fonts of local marbles from the 13th century, such as that at Biddenden. Farningham has a Seven Sacrament font, one of only a few outside East Anglia; and there are a number of handsome perpendicular fonts, such as those at St Clement’s, Sandwich, Newchurch and Egerton. Queenborough’s font, which is dated 1610, has an extraordinary relief of the now-vanished castle which stood in the village. There are 18th century fonts in several churches, notably Mereworth and West Malling and many 19th century examples, of which that at Ridley might be singled out on account of its great size in so humble a church.
St John, Harrietsham - font
Pulpits and lecterns
Medieval pulpits and lecterns are rare survivals in Kent: Higham has one of England’s few 14th century pulpits and Detling a magnificent 15th century wooden lectern, thought to have come from Boxley Abbey. There are many later pulpits of fine quality, of which the best are Lenham (Jacobean), Meopham (late 17th century, from St Margaret’s, Westminster), Trottiscliffe (late 18th century, from Westminster Abbey) and Wrotham (Victorian).
St Peter & St Paul, Trottiscliffe - pulpit
As for other furnishings and fittings, the stone chancel screens at Westwell and Capel-le-Ferne are outstanding: of medieval wooden screens, the best are at Eastchurch, Leeds, Shoreham and Lullingstone. Wickhambreaux has an unusual 18th century screen. Notable chancel furnishings include the 12th century reredos at Adisham (probably from Canterbury Cathedral), medieval stalls at Ulcombe, Barming, Ivychurch, Herne and Wingham, sedilia at Faversham, Cobham and Waltham, and flamboyant Jacobean altar rails at Mersham. There are a number of impressive organ cases: perhaps the most notable is the case at Shoreham, built to house the choir organ originally given by George II to Westminster Abbey on the occasion of his coronation.
St Botolph, Lullingstone - screen
There are good medieval doors at Staplehurst, Hartley and Higham and fine chests at Rainham, Saltwood and Harty. Medieval nave seating is very rare but 18th century box pews are happily still common: Old and New Romney, Baddlesmere and Brookland all have complete sets. The two spectacular elevated private pews at Rolvenden and West Peckham are well worth seeing. There are outstanding carved wooden Royal Arms at West Malling and Cranbrook and most Romney Marsh churches retain painted arms, some of them entertaining examples of folk art.
St Dunstan, Cranbrook - Royal Arms
Kent has more funeral hatchments than any other county: there are large collections at Margate, Ightham, Otford, Tonbridge and West Peckham.
Stained and painted glass
The best medieval glass is found in churches in the east of the county, later glass is best seen in west Kent. 12th and 13th century glass related to that at Canterbury Cathedral can be seen at Nackington, Doddington and Westwell. From the late 13th and early 14th centuries there is good glass at Chartham, Willesborough and, especially, an outstanding heraldic window at Selling. Stowting has the best collection of late medieval glass, with other worthwhile examples at Sandhurst, Nettlestead and Wormshill.
St Mary, Selling - east window
Mereworth has splendid heraldic glass of the 16th to the 18th centuries and Lullingstone two windows of 18th century painted glass by William Peckitt of York. Otherwise, apart from imported Continental glass, for instance at Bishopsbourne, Cranbrook, Patrixbourne and Temple Ewell, there is little post-medieval stained or painted glass to be found before the Victorian age.
19th century glass
Many churches, especially in west Kent, have fine collections of 19th century glass. Good examples are All Saints Maidstone, Faversham, Wrotham, Seal, St Nicholas at Sevenoaks and Edenbridge. Farningham has a window of the 1832 by Charles Winston, pioneer of the revived interest in medieval stained glass in the 19th century. Higham has two sumptuous windows of the 1860s by Heaton, Butler and Bayne and Wrotham one by Lavers and Barraud. Kingsdown has a complete scheme by Hardman. Speldhurst is glazed with pre-Raphaelite glass by William Morris and his circle, including several magnificent windows by Burne-Jones, as is Langton Green.
St Mary, Higham – chancel south window
The 20th and 21st centuries
The 20th century has much to offer. The highlights are the very good collections at Kemsing, which includes windows by Christopher Whall, Douglas Strachan and Ninian Comper, and at St Dunstan, Canterbury, which has glass by William Aikman, Lawrence Lee and John Hayward; a scintillating Art Nouveau window at Wickhambreaux by Arild Rosenkrantz; von Glehn’s German expressionist east window at Chiddingstone Causeway; windows by Patrick Reyntiens at Marden, John Piper at Lamberhurst, Thomas Freeth at Beckenham and, of course, a complete glazing scheme at Tudeley, unique in England, by Marc Chagall.
St Michael, Marden - east window
Good glass from the last 20 years can be found at Ash next Sandwich (John Corley), Boughton Aluph and Godmersham (both Leonie Seliger), Edenbridge (Caroline Benyon), Ightham (David Griffiths), and at Staple (Buffy Tucker).
Wall and ceiling paintings
Many fragmentary wall paintings survive from the early medieval period. Capel, near Tonbridge, has an extensive scheme of 13th century painting and there is a well-preserved series of similar date in the chancel at Brook. Other churches with worthwhile medieval paintings are Faversham, Brookland, Ulcombe, Selling and Newington near Sittingbourne. Queenborough’s ceiling has early 18th century paintings of an angel and cherubs disporting themselves between clouds. Frinsted has fine Victorian wall paintings and both Luddesdown and Holy Trinity, Folkestone have fine Victorian ceiling paintings. The sgraffito decoration of 1880 covering the nave at Shipbourne ought to be mentioned here, though not strictly painting.
St Dunstan, Frinsted - wall painting
Kent is one of England’s richest counties for church monuments. From the medieval period there are numbers of grave markers decorated with foliated crosses and many chest tombs, some with effigies. Fordwich has an extraordinary shrine-like chest tomb of the 12th century, an exceptionally early date. The best effigies are at Ash next Sandwich, Egerton, Ightham, Mereworth, Minster-in-Sheppey, Lullingstone, St Peter, Sandwich and the wooden Culpeper effigies at Goudhurst. The very grand monument to John Wotton at All Saints, Maidstone should also be mentioned, though it has no effigy.
St Mary, Fordwich – Norman tomb chest
Brasses are more numerous in Kent than in any other county. The outstanding series – perhaps the best in Europe – is at Cobham. The Septvans brass at Chartham is one of the finest early brasses in England. There are notable early brasses of priests at Horsmonden and Woodchurch and others of secular subjects at Biddenden, Graveney, Hever (including one of the best 16th century brasses in England to Thomas Boleyn, Ann’s father), Minster-in-Sheppey, Ightham and Wrotham.
St Peter, Ightham - brass to Richard Clement
The 16th and 17th centuries
There are grand monuments across the county to Elizabethan and Jacobean gentry. The Brooke monument, again at Cobham, is one of the best because of its refinement. Others include those at Chevening, West Malling, Goudhurst, Wateringbury, Ashford, Tenterden, Otterden and Lynsted. The latter two churches have beautiful monuments by the sculptor Epiphanius Evesham. At Chilham and Wingham there are fine monuments by Nicholas Stone and at Ightham and Hollingbourne by Edward Marshall (there is also a large brass by Marshall at East Sutton).
Later in the 17th century the outstanding monument is that to the Oxinden family at Wingham, probably by Grinling Gibbons and Arnold Quellin. A second Gibbons monument is at Knowlton.
St Mary, Wingham - Oxinden family monument
A curiosity are the cast iron grave slabs at Cowden produced by the Wealden iron industry, possibly unique in Kent (though there are many more examples in Sussex).
The 18th century
From the 18th century there is a huge range of monuments of which the finest are those at Goudhurst (sculptor Francis Bird), Chartham (Rysbrack), Tonbridge (Roubiliac), Shoreham, Lullingstone, Otford and Shadoxhurst (all by Henry Cheere) and Eastry (John Bacon the elder). But the most extraordinary 18th century monument in the county must be that of 1712 to Sir Henry Furnese at Waldershare, sculptor Thomas Green of Camberwell, which is so large as to fill entirely the north chapel of the church.
St Peter & St Paul, Shadoxhurst - Sir Charles Molloy
The 19th century
There are great numbers of 19th century monuments, most of them of little artistic account. The exceptions are two by Francis Chantrey, at Chevening and Chilham and the exquisite monument of 1835 at Linton to Lord Brome by EH Baily. The practice of commemoration through monuments within churches began to die out in the later 19th century: commemoration is now much more likely to be through stained glass or the donation of fittings.
St Nicholas, Linton - Lord Brome
The risk of a catalogue of this kind is that while it may identify the finest buildings, it may miss those churches which attract because of the beauty of their situation or the charm of the building or its contents. Kent has many churches of this kind, not all of which are great art but which are memorable nonetheless and therefore let us end by mentioning some of these.
St Thomas Becket, Fairfield - exterior
What visitor will forget the marshland churches at Fairfield or Old Romney, perfect without and within; or Stone, perched above the surrounding worked-out chalk pits near Dartford; or whitewashed Fawkham, remote amongst trees and yet so near to the M25; or Stelling, with its amazing auditory interior full of box pews focussed on the pulpit rather than the altar; or Lullingstone, which sits like a casket on the lawn of the big house; or Boughton Monchelsea with an amazing view across the Weald from its churchyard on the crest of the Chart Hills? There are many others: we hope that our readers will be inspired to go to seek them out.
St Mary, Stelling - interior
Essential to understanding our church buildings are the Pevsner Buildings of England series covering Kent: North East and East, and West and the Weald, by our member John Newman. The boroughs subsumed into London, (but for FKC purposes still in Kent), Bromley & Bexley, are in London 2: South, by Bridget Cherry.
The Churches of Kent by Sir Stephen Glynne: published in 1877 but including details of churches visited from 1829 onwards, so with descriptions prior to Victorian restorations.
County Churches; Kent by Francis Grayling: 1913, arranged alphabetically in two handy pocket- sized volumes with notes on restorations.
The Victorian Churches of Kent by Roger Homam: 1984, describes the buildings, the religious mission and its many deviations, plus a Gazetteer of 1200 churches, of which about 700 survive.
Kent Country Churches by James Antony Syms: 1986, followed by Kent Country Churches Continued, 1987 and Kent Country Churches Concluded, 1989. Sketches of each church by the author with short descriptions of buildings.
Exploring Kent Churches by John Vigar: 1985, an exploration by topical feature, followed by: Kent Churches 1995 and Churches of Kent 2022, arranged alphabetically. See also John’s excellent website with a photograph of each church and description, plus information from the 1851 census.
Church Life in Kent; being Church Court Records of the Canterbury Diocese 1559-1565 by Arthur Willis, 1975: a dip into life as lived immediately after the accession of Elizabeth I, showing the court dealing with: conflict resulting from changes in religious practice; problems with the clergy; with laymen; and the disciplining of private lives. This includes: not attending church; talking in church, playing with a dog in church; card playing, dancing and haunting alehouses in time of Divine Service; brawling, blaspheming and slandering. Also there are accusations of witchcraft, necromancy, incest, adultery, bigamy, and common whoremongering. As the defunct News of the World used to claim “all human life is here”.
And for those who want detailed information by parish: The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent by Edward Hasted: 1797-1801; the 12 Volume set (EP Reprint, 1972) is the most accessible. Contains information on every parish, including incumbents, patrons, etc. general descriptions.