top of page
IMG_4937.JPG

The Church of St. Mary's

was the centre of religious and social life for centuries. On 30 March 1851 , whilst the Rev. Charles Parkin was vicar, it was estimated that 330 parishoners attended the Sunday morning service. On the the same day 480 faithful filled Lenham church for the afternoon service. ( see: National Archives Ref: HO 129/59/21)

The story of St. Mary's is told in the church guide, which is widely available in the village. On these pages we will only add new information about the church as it emerges in the course of research and digitalisation. 

For more information please click the blue button  

 

or go to 

the Len Valley Benefice website

https://www.lvb.org.uk/welcome.htm

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. Religious non-conformism was often a rebellion against the existing hierarchical order, against undeserved privileges and was often direct political in the same way as the established church was.  There was a chapel in Lenham Heath and also 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

 

 

or by visiting https://www.pathwayschurch.org.uk/news/farewell-to-the-lenham-urc.

church-hol-club-2_1_orig.jpg

                                                                                   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. [1]

Churchyard.png

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). [2]

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 .[3]

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 Judgement Day as coming from the East.

The next popular location was the south side.

Weighing the souls.png

This splendid 14th century wall painting on the south wall depicts the Archangel Michael weighing the souls of the dead, thus deciding whose allowed to enter heaven 

Burials normally started close to the south wall of the church ,and the ground towards the south boundary was slowly used up. When the boundary was reached, they simply started using the area close to the church wall again. The re-use of the same ground was possible because most people were buried in simple shrouds and no stone memorials were put up to mark the grave. Well before the term ‘ecologically friendly’ was invented, burials used to be just that. It was the 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. Visitors to most old churches don’t  step ‘in’ but ‘down’ as can be observed in Lenham.

The priest would have received he body under the lychgate, from where it would have have been taken into the churchyard through the porch ( normally the south side of the church,but  in Lenham on he north)

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 Michael 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.

 

 

 

Grave monuments

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' [4].

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.

[1] 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

[2] https://vleweb.ccn.ac.uk/constructionweb/gothic/layout/section3.htm

[3] ‘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

[4] https://vleweb.ccn.ac.uk/constructionweb/gothic/layout/section3.htm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

bottom of page