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The Church of England in Tenterden
ST. MILDRED'S     +     ST. MICHAEL'S     +     ST. JOHN'S

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St. Mildred's

 

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History of Anglican Churches in Tenterden

 

The history of Tenterden itself is lost in time, as is the origin of St. Mildred’s church. Perhaps all that can be said with any confidence is that the story of the town and the story of St. Mildred’s are bound together with each other, with the story of pre-conquest Kent, with the story of Christianity in Kent, and with the story of the ancient Kentish royal house.

 

Tenet-wara-den (the den of the Thanet folk) was the Wealden area used by the abbey of Minster-in-Thanet for Autumn pig-forage (acorns and beech mast to fatten the pigs for Winter). That abbey was founded by Domne Aefa (“the lady Aebba”?) of the Kentish royal family, and either she herself or her daughter, St. Mildred, was the first abbess. This is within the first century after the arrival in Canterbury of St. Augustine’s mission from Rome. Mildred’s holy reputation was an international one, and there can be no doubt that a church in her name was here from some point in the eighth to tenth centuries. The reign of Canute is the latest possible period and it was almost certainly much earlier. However, we have no record of any incumbent before 1180, and the oldest perceptible fabric of the church is of about that time too.

 

When you stand in the middle of St. Mildred’s, you see a large building reflecting the prosperity of the town in the later middle ages. The north arcade of the chancel is probably around 1200, but most of the chancel, nave, and aisles is work of the 13th to 15th centuries. The fine wagon-vault ceiling of the nave has been variously stated to be 14th or 15th century (with some Victorian additions). The tower of the church, a prominent Kentish landmark, was probably built by architect Thomas Stanley. This major building work was undertaken in the middle of the 15th century, at the height of Tenterden’s prosperity, it being no coincidence that the town gained a charter and Cinque Port status in support of Rye, at about the same time.

 

The town’s prosperity was reflected also in the presence of important shipbuilding yards at both Reading Street and Smallhythe, both on the tidal River Rother at that time. The settlement at Smallhythe was sufficiently large to gain its own chapel sometime in the middle ages, but we know nothing of that building, though it was probably dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Smallhythe itself was burnt in a huge fire in 1514, and we know that rebuilding of the chapel began virtually straight away. The current church of St. John the Baptist is a beautiful example of a brick-built Tudor church, box-like (so with an excellent acoustic). It has, during its history, had varying levels of dependence or independence from the town church of St. Mildred.

 

By the middle of the 19th century, the population was growing fast, and attitudes to worship were changing too. St. Mildred’s lost its box pews, and had the organ moved to its present position. A new church was planned for the hamlet of Boresisle at the northern end of Tenterden, the neat and small Gothic revival church being dedicated to St. Michael and All Angels. Two consequences were, firstly, the acquisition by Kent of another prominent landmark – the graceful spire, and secondly, the name Boresisle fell out of usage and the hamlet itself has ever since been known as “St. Michael’s”.

 

I do feel it important to append to this account of the Anglican church buildings a brief comment on the other churches of the town. There was always a Roman Catholic presence here, but after the Reformation, there was no church building until the Catholic priest in Tenterden, Canon Currie began, in the 1930s, a determined attempt to put that right, culminating in the building of St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic church in Ashford Road.

 

The history of “non-conformity” in Tenterden is a major and extensive one. Within a few decades of the development around the 1370s, by John Wyclife at Oxford, of the doctrines later known as “Lollardy”, there were significant numbers of people in Tenterden who ascribed to doctrines regarded as unorthodox. Moreover, following the Reformation of the 1540s to 1560s, there were many who rejected not only Roman ways, but were unhappy with the English church. We know that Tenterden families joined the 17th century exodus to the New World (notably to Massachusetts), and Tenterden acquired its first “non-conformist” chapel around 1700, that building now being the Unitarian church in Ashford Road, and one of Tenterden’s most interesting ancient relics. The nineteenth century saw the building of the Methodist church at West Cross, and two of the three Baptist churches – Zion in the High Street, and the Strict Baptist Jireh Chapel at St. Michael’s. Trinity Baptist in Ashford Road was built in 1928.

 

Those interested to pursue their enquiries further will find a guide in St. Mildred’s, and there is much information in standard texts of Kent history and architecture.