We were very grateful to Amicia Oldfield, a trustee of the Dockyard Trust, for arranging for us to see this most impressive transformation of a building which had been a forlorn ruin for so many years.
Minster in Sheppey, St Mary and St Sexburga
What a venerable place! Sexburga, widow of King Ercombert of Kent, who died in 664, founded a nunnery here, of which she became abbess. The nuns’ church is the northern of the two conjoined buildings one sees here; the southern one, separated from the nuns’ church by an arcade, was the parish church. No doubt before the Reformation the nuns’ church was screened from the parish church to give the nuns privacy and prevent easy access. The nuns’ church had a chancel to the east, most of which was demolished after the dissolution of the priory in 1536, when the entire building became parochial. You can see the scar of this chancel outside.
Much of the nuns’ church is Anglo-Saxon, not of St Sexburga’s time but probably of the 8th or 9th century. Its nave measured about 50 feet by 26 feet. Its north wall is visible outside, with traces of two windows just east of the tower and its north-east corner or quoin embedded in the wall further east. In its south wall, inside and above the arcade between the two churches, two blocked windows with arches made of Roman tiles are visible. There were no aisles – Anglo Saxon churches did not have aisles. The chancel arch of the nuns’ church is 13th century and the one remaining bay of the chancel 14th century.
The parochial church is of the 13th century: there are three lancets in the east wall, two in the south wall amongst other, later, windows, and one left from a trio in the west wall with a circular window above. The fine south doorway is also of the early 13th century. The arcade between the two churches is of the 13th century, too, with octagonal piers (and one round one). The arch between the chancels is 14th century.
In the early 16th century, the priory began a massive new west tower, of which only the first stage was built before the Reformation intervened. It was evidently for shared use because there are separate staircases from the nuns’ and parish churches. After 1536 it was capped with a timber, tile-covered belfry.
There is not much in the way of fittings. Best is the rood screen in the nuns’ church, which is of much the same date – late 14th century – as that at Harty. There is also a simple Perpendicular font with a nice Jacobean cover.
Monument to Sir Robert de Shurland
The monuments are another matter. The earliest is a 13th century coffin lid with relief cross propped up against a wall in the nuns’ chancel. The grandest is that to Sir Robert de Shurland in the parochial nave. His effigy lies, legs crossed, his head resting on his helmet, under a big canopy with exquisite heads, and dates from about 1325. The head of his horse is carved next to his effigy, a most unusual conceit. There are more-or-less contemporary effigies of another cross-legged knight and of a lady, and a mid-15th century knight in the nuns’ chancel, which had been buried in the churchyard and was dug up in 1833. It is somewhat damaged. Also in the nuns’ chancel is William Cheyne who died in 1487, again in armour and under an arch. His effigy is of alabaster. Between the two chancels is the armoured figure of Sir Thomas Cheyne, who died in 1559. Several of these monuments are not in their original positions: the Cheyne monuments were originally in a separate family chapel. Others were no doubt further east in more prestigious positions the nuns’ chancel. It is clear that the priory was a favoured place of burial for the medieval aristocracy of north Kent.
The priory buildings must have been north of the nuns’ church, round a cloister. Nothing survives apart from the late medieval priory gatehouse, west of the church, which gave access to the precinct.