Lenham Parish also has a long and interesting history of religious non-conformism, involving 'radical' preachers preaching in the square and residents emigrating to Holland and the United States in search of of religious freedom. There was also a a 'chapel', the much loved United Reformed Church which since has given way to a small housing development (Tolhurst Place). You can find the story of this place of worship by clicking the blue button
The Church of St. Mary's
was the centre of religious and social life for centuries. The story of St. Mary's is told in the church guide, which is widely available in the village.
For more information please press the button
or go to
the Len Valley Benefice website
Image courtesy of Jenny Needham
A churchyard through the ages
In 2020, when the Covid pandemic made social interaction so much more difficult, it was noticeable that many more people left the tarmac path on their walk through the churchyard and explored other parts, which are normally only visited by grazing sheep. Using the churchyard for other purposes than visiting a specific grave has always been part of churchyard culture.
The churchyard…a communal space
Churchyards were not only places where the dead were buried, often in unmarked, graves, they were also places where village folk gathered, a piece of ground open to all. There were children playing, chapmen (pedlars) selling their goods, business transactions being made, and debts paid. Edward Hasted reports that land was given to the Manor of Lenham in the time of Edward I and Edward II on condition that every year they pay one custard in the churchyard of Lenham. 
There were efforts to stop these ‘less religious activities such as archery, ball games, wrestling and even cock-fighting’ but they ‘continued to take place in the churchyards, as well as fairs and markets, particularly those held on saints' (or holy days). 
In Lenham, the holy day on which there was a ‘feast’ was ‘The Feast day of St. Augustine’. A lot of confusion is caused by the fact that medieval liturgical documents do not distinguish between Augustine of Canterbury and Augustine of Hippo, a fourth-century saint. The latter had his feast day on the 28th of August (the date of his death).
However, the abbot of St. Augustine, Canterbury was the Lord of the Manor of Lenham. Therefore, we can assume that the people of Lenham venerated the life and work of St. Augustine of Canterbury and would have celebrated some time between September 8 and September 13 .
Some authorities objected to the fairs, (e.g., the Statute of Winchester 1285), on the grounds that the noise disturbed the holy services. Nevertheless, the practice continued.
The churchyard…a burial place
It was only from the 15th century onwards that wealthier people were able to buy plots in churchyards, leading to a gradual decline in their wider social use.
The favourite location for burials was the east side of the church, because Christian teaching sees the coming of Christ on Judgment Day as coming from the East.
The next most popular location was the south side. ‘Burials normally started close to the south wall of the church, and the ground toward the south boundary was gradually used up. When the boundary was reached, they simply started using the area close to the church wall again. It was this re-use of the same space, over and over again, that accounts for the level of the churchyard frequently being higher than the floor of the church, as can be observed in Lenham. The priest would have received the body under the lychgate, from where it would have been taken into the church through the porch (normally the south side of the church but in Lenham the north) .(2]
After the service, the body would have been taken out through the door below a wall painting on the south side of the church. The 14th Century wall painting above this door shows the Archangel Gabriel weighing the souls of the dead and separating them to be sent to heaven or hell. There could not be a more appropriate painting!
In the wall painting the person whose soul is being weighed is fortunate. The devil, sitting in the left weighing pan, is lighter than the figure on the right. Therefore, the balancing bar tips to the right: the soul will go to heaven.
Medieval people were superstitious and the dark, cold. north side
of the churchyard was considered not to be the most propitious side for
entering heaven. It sometimes remained unconsecrated and was often
reserved for paupers and criminals. It seems likely that this
was also the case in Lenham in the early medieval period, when
superstition was rife. These beliefs changed over time. In the 19th century,
for example, this side of St. Mary’s was considered the most prestigious, as
churchgoers would pass the graves before entering the church,
a practice similar to that of the Romans, who placed their most
prestigious graves next to the main street leading into the city or town.
We can safely assume that the East and South sides of the churchyard are the oldest areas and the majority of graves are here. It is, therefore, at first glance, surprising to find that there are relatively few monuments on the east and south sides of the church.
One explanation could be that stones were moved or removed in modern times. We have not found any records that this happened. The normal practice is to line up any moved stones against the churchyard wall but this is not the case in Lenham.
We think it is likely that the grave monuments were removed while the churchyard was still in use, and it was time to make space for new burials.
Prior to the 19th. century, people were buried in shrouds and ‘monuments were formerly of wood, commonly two posts with a plank between them bearing the inscription. They were known as grave-boards, but also as grave-rails, bed-heads, or, in the Home Counties, leaping boards; few have survived today. From the late seventeenth century the use of stone increased, the memorial being carved by both professional stonemasons and amateurs' .
Until coffins and headstones came into fashion, it was much easier to re-use the ground after, say, 100 years. Clearing the ground for new burials became a more difficult task once there were headstones and coffins, Consequently, it could well be that the ground on the south and east sides of St. Mary’s was cleared in 1896 in order to start ‘afresh’, as had been done for centuries, when the problem of hitting coffins and remains became such an issue that it was then decided to close the churchyard.
However, we don’t really know for certain and any theory remains speculative. Since 1961, the churchyard has been under the care of Lenham Parish Council.
 If you have any information about this strange form of payment, please let us know! see: Edward Hasted, 'Parishes: Lenham', in The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 5 (Canterbury, 1798), pp. 415-445. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-kent/vol5/pp415-445 [accessed 28 March 2021].https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Tombstones_and_Pre-1841_Censuses_as_Sources_for_British_Family_History
 ‘King Henry I of England granted St. Augustine's Abbey a six-day fair around the date on which Augustine's relics were translated to his new shrine, from 8 September through 13 September’ see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustine_of_Canterbury#Death_and_legacy
When clicking the blue tiles, you will be taken to a
Record of Inscriptions on Gravestones in the Churchyard of
St. Mary's in Lenham
which were legible at the time of recording
between 2017 and 2021.
The stones were recorded by members of Lenham Heritage Society: Steve Finnis, Amy Myers, Colin Moffat,
Henny Shotter, Richard Thomas, Annette Tomarken
Finding your way around the churchyard
When entering the churchyard via the lychgate, the rows and grave numbers run from the left of the path to the enclosing wall.
The area to the east and south of the church, which is enclosed by a livestock fence, is entered via a field gate to the right of the path. The rows here start with row 50.