St Martin-le-Grand

Map showing location of St Martin's Churchyard Dover 1844

Map showing location of St Martin’s Churchyard Dover 1844

Once upon a time the church of St Martin-le-Grand, which stood on the west side of the present day Market Square, was said to rival Canterbury Cathedral in size and stature. What remains of the ruins can be seen besides the steps leading to the Dover Discovery Centre. The church and the monastery, in which it stood, was dedicated to Saint Martin (circa 316-397), bishop of Tours, patron Saint of France and soldiers and for well over a thousand years, the patron Saint of Dover.

St Martin sharing his cloak with a beggar - Ceiling of the Court Room, Maison Dieu - former Town Hall. Alan Sencicle

St Martin sharing his cloak with a beggar – Ceiling of the Court Room, Maison Dieu – former Town Hall. Alan Sencicle

St Martin was the son of a Roman soldier from Szombathely, Hungary, converted to Christianity at the age of ten he too was in the Legions. On his discharge from the Roman army St Martin went to Poitiers, France and became a disciple of Saint Hilary (c300–c368). After spending time in Italy, he rejoined St Hilary and founded the first monastery in Gaul at Ligugé. In 371, St Martin was appointed Bishop of Tours, France, and established a monastery at Marmoutier. This became an important religious centre and St Martin continued his missionary work in Touraine and throughout Gaul with many miracles attributed to him. The miracle for which he is particularly remembered was the offering of half his cloak to a beggar at Amiens. Afterwards St Martin experienced a vision of Christ relating the charitable act to the angels. St Martin’s feast day – Martinmas – is 11 November and up until the mid-nineteenth century, this was celebrated with festivities and a fair in Dover.

Towards the end of the sixth century Æthelberht (560-616), King of Kent, gained supremacy over most of the Saxon kings ruling territories south of the Humber. He was married to Bertha of Kent (539–c612), the Christian daughter of Charibert I (517-567), king of a Frankish tribe and in 597AD, Æthelberht welcomed St Augustine (d 604), who brought Christianity to England. Æthelberht’s son, Eadbald (616-640), after initially abandoning Christianity, ordained twenty-two Secular Canons and founded a community ‘within the castle’ at Dover before he died.

St Martin-le-Grand - Summary table of the Lands held by the prebendaries - Lyons p62

St Martin-le-Grand – Summary table of the Lands held by the prebendaries – Lyons p62

The castle referred to has been shown to have been within the Roman Saxon Shore fort to the west of what is now Market Square. Over the following centuries from when the Roman’s left – or perhaps even before – the River Dour estuary had silted up creating land that is now the Market Square. In 691AD, Wihtred (c.670– 725), King of Kent, looked to St Martin before going into battle and following one particular victory ordered a purpose built monastery to be erected in the Saint’s honour for the Dover Canons.

Materials for the new monastery was brought by ships from the sea, according to 19th century writers, through Severus Gate, at the bottom of present day Bench Street, to the Westbrook quay that was possibly on alignment with present day King Street. Later, the King ordered a wall to be built across the seaward face of the former delta, by this time a flood plain between the Westbrook and Eastbrook of the River Dour, to protect the Canons from the sea robbers. The harbour, itself, was approached through the East Gate.

Following the Bapchild Royal Council of 697AD, the Canons were endowed with large grants of land – including at Buckland, Farthingloe, Guston, and St Margaret’s and after the Conquest (1066), Charlton. A separate Prior’s residence was built in the Farthingloe Valley – later Farthingloe Manor – and they were also given the lucrative tithe of the passage of the port of Dover. The Canons were subject only to God and the King and they could marry and have children. Rome ordained their lives and their duties included working amongst the people teaching them how to conduct their lives as well as religion. Excavation of the St Martin’s site, by Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit (KARU), shows that initially the monastery church was a small wooden single-cell structure with an altar-base at the east end.

In the late 7th century – circa 691AD – the church was greatly enlarged, using the same central axis but with a huge eastward extension. A century later, the floor of the church was re-laid and sealed with imitation red marble. Unfortunately, in the ninth century, fire seems to have destroyed much of the church but it was rebuilt keeping generally the same layout, but was possibly more impressive.

By that time Dover had become an important settlement and such a building programmes would have required skilled artisans such as masons, clerks, hewers, rough-masons, carpenters, well diggers, smiths and stone-porters. They were probably paid in both goods and money, with which they would have bought or bartered for goods from various stalls or booths in and about the area. Further, during the late Saxon period Dover had its own Mint and was the head of the Cinque Ports confederation providing a base for royal fleets in 1036, 1051 and 1066.

Bayeaux Tapestry showing the Burning of Dover. courtesy of Dover Museum

Bayeaux Tapestry showing the Burning of Dover. courtesy of Dover Museum

Following the Battle of Hastings (1066), William I’s (1066-1087) army marched along the coast razing villages and towns to the ground. This included Dover and the monastery of St Martin. He therefore ordered to new monastery to be built in a style similar to that of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. For a while, it is believed by some, that the new church was one of the more august monasteries in England and from excavations, it is known that the monastic buildings stretched far down what is now Bench Street and, eastwards, they reached the banks of the River Dour.

Even though the monastery was probably self-contained, it had a profound influence on town life and environs. Not least because the Canons’ land holdings was so extensive and they were the only Kentish landowners whose estates were not given to the warriors who came over with the Conqueror. Indeed, in the Domesday survey of 1086, the landholdings were treated separately under the heading, ‘Terra canonicorum S. Martini de Dovre.’

St Martin le Grand Ground Plan from C.R.Haines, Dover Priory. CUP 1930

St Martin le Grand Ground Plan from C.R.Haines, Dover Priory. CUP 1930

Within the monastery walls, there would have been the Chapter House – the administrative centre – domestic buildings such as the kitchens, bakery, buttery, pantries, refectory (dining room), storerooms, workshops, stables, infirmary, dormitory, and sleeping quarters for visitors. There would have been the library, cloisters and gardens for growing much of the Canons’ food although many of them would have had homes within the town.

It can only be conjectured as to what the magnificent church would have looked like. It is generally believed to be of a similar design to St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury. The transept has been estimated as 25-feet (7.6 metres) in depth, over which was probably a high central tower. From this, extending some 80-feet (24.4metres) was the choir and the north side of the Church, which started from the stub of what was once Market Street, was some 270-feet (82.3 metres) in length and the roof was held on high arches.

When built, at the east end were three apsidal chapels, one in the centre, and the others respectively facing the north-east and south-east. These chapels were dedicated to St Martin, St Nicholas and St John and later more chapels were added. The walls, inside the church, were probably plastered and white washed – to give light, as the windows would have been small. In keeping with the time, it would only have had the minimum of sculptural decoration.

Crypt of St Martin's Monastery, Bench Street 1836 drawn by Rev J Maule courtesy of Dover Museum

Crypt of St Martin’s Monastery, Bench Street 1836 drawn by Rev J Maule courtesy of Dover Museum

The crypt would have been a series of pillars leading to a curved roof that could take of the weight of the magnificent church above. The crypt under another part of the monastery still exists and drawings from the 19th century give an idea of how it would have looked. The outside walls of the church were dressed with Caen stone giving the edifice a magnificent appearance befitting a royal chapel – which it was.

There would have been a protective wall around the monastery and this probably became part of the later town walls, for a gate, which led to the Western Heights, was known as St Martin’s Gate. The dormitories, kitchens, and other departments were on the south side of the church and in the precincts, civil workshops were established specifically to meet the needs of the monastic life. Up until recently off Queen Street was Last Lane, where the Canons’ shoes were no doubt made.

The monastic life probably centred on hard physical work – growing their own food and livestock as well as building and repairing the structure. They would also have administered both spiritually and medically to the town’s folk and spent a good deal of time in scholarship and prayer. Their life was ruled by the ‘Great Bell,’ and was said to have been rung every three hours, day and night, to call the incumbents to prayer.

The monastery would have provided lodgings for travellers, especially as Dover is the shortest sea crossing to the Continent and the church was also the sanctuary for felons. Soon after a felon arrived, the mayor in his role saw them as coroner, who would interview the offender. The interview marked the start of the 40 days of sanctuary after which the felon had to leave the town by the ‘high road’ – London Road. If they did not comply and were caught, they would be punished by being thrown off Sharpness, now Shakespeare, Cliff (see Executions).

After God, the Canons were responsible to the King and although it would appear that they were not politically minded,  nationally there was a power struggle between York and Canterbury for supremacy. The struggle was long and bitter and in the end, Canterbury won with the Archbishop becoming the Head of the Roman church in England. Because of St Martin’s magnificence, it had always been seen by some in Canterbury as a threat. Once the Diocesan hierarchy had been established and the Dover Canons, who were not responsible to the Archbishop, were vulnerable.

Dover Priory Refectory now Dover College from Effingham Road. Alan Sencicle

Dover Priory Refectory now Dover College from Effingham Road. Alan Sencicle

In 1124, Archbishop William Corbeil (1123-1136) persuaded Henry I (1100-1135) that the Canons’ moral behaviour left a lot to be desired. The main thrust of his argument was that as the monastery was in the centre of a seafaring town and this had a detrimental influence on the Canons. The ploy worked and Corbeil was able to replace the Canons with monks of his own order. However, due to Corbeil’s rationale over the proximity to the port, his monks could not take over St Martin’s. So a new Priory, also dedicated to St Martin, was built. This opened in 1136 on land west of the Maison Dieu that was built nearly 70 years later.

The Bishops of Norwich and St David’s came to Dover to dedicate the new Priory but before the ceremony took place the Benedictine monks of Canterbury swooped into Dover in the most ungodly fashion. They were not objecting to the Dover Canons being kicked out but over the Order that was replacing them. The two Bishops beat a hasty retreat and, it was said, Archbishop Corbeil was so distressed that he died eleven days later!

The Priory immediately assumed control of all the parochial rights and dues that belonged to St Martin-le-Grand and in 1139, the latter was officially reduced in status. Further, besides depriving the grand monastery of income the incumbent in charge was to be an archpriest. However, in 1174, Richard of Dover Priory was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, a position he held until his death ten years later.

During his incumbency, it appears that St Martin’s status as the senior church in Dover after the Priory was ratified. This meant that the priests of Dover’s other churches were not allowed to start their mass until the Great Bell of St Martin’s was rung. Some of these priests were also the incumbents of St Nicholas and St John the Baptist that was still part of St Martin’s. It is written that in 1447 the rector of St Peter and Paul Church, Charlton was John Goldsmith who was also the rector of St John the Baptist parish church, ‘under the roof of St Martin-le-Grand.’ Further, money continued to be bequeathed to St Martin’s for repairs and also chapels with fine altars were continued to be erected. These included Our Lady Undercroft and St John of Byrlyngton.

Maison Dieu circa 1830

Maison Dieu circa 1830

In 1203, Hubert de Burgh, Constable of Dover Castle, established the Maison Dieu. At the time the building was probably little more than one substantial hall with a kitchen and living quarters attached for the Master and brethren, including sisters, who ‘practiced hospitality to all strangers’ – hence reference to it as a ‘hospital’. In 1220, Thomas Becket’s (1118-1170) tomb at Canterbury was moved and Henry III (1216-1272) showed great reverence towards him.

This escalated the number of pilgrims going to Canterbury increasing the demands on the Maison Dieu and giving reason to believe that St Martin’s was utilised until stables, bakery, brewery and further accommodation was built. On 11 July 1227, Henry III dedicated the Maison Dieu. Five days before, on 6 July, he granted the lucrative tithe of the passage of the port Dover, which had once been in the possession of St. Martin’s, to the Maison Dieu.

Before the demise of St Martin’s the fair dedicated to the Saint, had been held in the precincts. Following the demise, a regular market was held and St Martin’s Great Bell was rung to at the start, at the time, ‘foreigners’ (none Dovorians) were allowed to open their stalls and when the market closed. The Bell was also rung when important announcements were made and to give warning of attack from the sea and other emergencies.

St Martin-le-Grand - in the 18th Century - Dover Museum

St Martin-le-Grand – in the 18th Century – Dover Museum

The annual fair held on 11 November – St Martin’s Day, was given a Royal Grant about 1160. Over time, the duration of the fair increased but during the 19th century it went into decline and in 1847, was officially abolished. In the fair’s heyday, people came from miles around and there was much merrymaking. At some point, a Market Cross was erected, demolished during the Wars of the Roses but replaced in 1479.

In 1511 representatives of William Wareham the Archbishop of Canterbury, undertook a Visitation. They found St. Martin’s steeple to be in a poor state of repair and that the Churchwardens of St John’s chapel had abandoned services. Their report added that, ‘the revenue was so small that no honest Priest could stay in the church.

The Reformation, beginning in 1529, saw the destruction of St Martin’s. The bells were given to St Mary’s and St James’ Churches; the clock and seats to St Mary’s; a pyx, used for the Eucharist, and six silver bells weighing 52½ ounces were sold for £13. 2s 6d (£13.12½p). This was to pay the town’s debts to wealthy inhabitants such as Thomas Allen and Thomas Bredgate. Everything else was sold and the money received increased the town’s coffers by £29 7s (£29.35p).

St Martin's Cemetery entance, once the central Apse, c 1950s. Courtesy of Dover Library

St Martin’s Cemetery entance, once the central Apse, c 1950s. Courtesy of Dover Library

The three great altars along with the altars in the various chapels were pulled down in 1549 and retaining the name of St Martin the nave, of the once great Church, was dug up. The central apse became the entrance to St Martin’s graveyard used by St Mary’s church until it was demolished in 1970. Materials from the Church walls were used to repair the town’s defences and gates. The land, probably through the Henry VIII (1509-1547) or/and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), fell into private hands. Albeit, in 1540, the Corporation took full possession of the land, letting out sites to raise revenue. The properties that were subsequently built incorporated what remained of the Church and monastery.

Thomas Dawkes was one of the major tenants until he started working for the council and acquired land of his own in King Street. About 1558, the site was then let to Antony Burton, whose contract included burying the poor in St Martin’s cemetery ‘from time to time as often as required.’ It would appear that the Corporation had offices in what had been the Church and monastery buildings. Further, following the demise of the Maison Dieu, they had taken over the lucrative tithe of the passage of the port Dover! In the council minutes of that time it states that, the revenue is ‘deposited in a common chest and held in the Church of St Martin of Dover.’

Court/Council Hall Market Square, ruins of St Martin-le-Grand can be seen behind the building on the right, 1788. Dover Museum

Court/Council Hall Market Square, ruins of St Martin-le-Grand can be seen behind the building on the right, 1788. Dover Museum

In 1605, the council built a magnificent, for the time, Court /Council/Guildhall in what is now the Market Square. Shortly afterwards James Hugessen, a local merchant adventurer, claimed that the land belonged to him and presented credentials to this effect! The town’s attorney, Thomas Attwell, accepted them and the Corporation had to admit their mistake. James Hugessen, as an act of goodwill, made a deed of gift of the land to the council on the understanding that out of the rents earned £3 yearly was to be equally divided annually and paid to six poor widows of the town.

Thirteen years later, in 1618, the council voted to use stones, ‘out of the walls of the decayed Church of St Martin,’ to build a bridge to the beach, over the River Dour. Known as Buggin’s bridge it remained the main thoroughfare from the town to the seafront until 1737. As for the great old church, although the east end remained standing, the site became known and used as ‘St Martin’s quarry.’

 St Martin-le-Grand ruins by William Burgess. Dover Museum

St Martin-le-Grand ruins by William Burgess. Dover Museum

Much of the east end of the church was demolished in 1818 but in 1826, the King / Bench Streets road-widening scheme revealed, what was believed to be part of one of St Martin’s under-crofts or crypts. In 1845, the archaeologist, Rev Plumpetre, described what remained of the monastery and nearly twenty years later William Batcheller wrote that some of the mossy ruins still ‘overtop adjoining premises, and in the Market Square may still be seen the fragment of the north transept wall.’

During excavations for the foundation of the houses fronting the entrance to Market Lane in 1859-60, several chalk coffins were found. They were in arched chalk niches and nearby were a large number of small Roman coins. Following a devastating fire on the west side of Market Square in 1863, the remains of the western apsidal chapel of the choir was exposed but was then demolished for new buildings. In July 1875, the Kent Archaeological Society undertook a survey and reported that relics of the north aisle of the choir, the groined roof of the western bay of the aisle, the north-east pier of the tower and chancel-arch – with the triforium arch passage, were still standing.

St Martin-le-Grand ruins 1892. Dover Museum

St Martin-le-Grand ruins 1892. Dover Museum

By the mid 19th century, the Gorley’s owned much of the land on the west side of Market Square including what was left of St Martin’s Church. Susan Gorely, who lived in Ladywell where her late husband had his building business, died in 1880. Henry Hart, who had an outfitting business in the town from the 1820s, bought the some of the land and built an emporium on the site in 1892. During the demolition of an old cottage, two chalk coffins were found; one was that of a priest and contained a pewter chalice and paten. It was believed that they were from the thirteenth century. At the same time, the north chancel of St Martin’s church was revealed.

During World War II (1939-1945), bombing and shelling devastated the west side of Market Square. Rescuers reported that ancient stonework, believed to be associated with St Martin-le-Grand, had been revealed. In 1955 worked started on the building that became National Westminster Bank on the north-west corner of Market Square and a mass of flint masonry towering, 30-feet or so above the pavement was exposed to view.

Plaque on the outside wall of NatWest bank, Market Square, dedicated to St Martin-le-Grand. Alan Sencicle

Plaque on the outside wall of NatWest bank, Market Square, dedicated to St Martin-le-Grand. Alan Sencicle

Although subsequently demolished, in honour to the great Church, part of a plan was set in the new marble flooring of the Bank. Sadly, for a long time this was covered with carpeting and more recently, I have been told by the Bank, the floor has been re-laid during a major refurbishment. Nonetheless, outside, at pavement level, are flints from the Church set in the wall with a plaque of explanation.

Ruins of St Martin-le Grand besides the steps leading to the Dover Discovery Centre. LS April 2012

Ruins of St Martin-le-Grand besides the steps leading to the Dover Discovery Centre. LS April 2012

What is left of St Martin-le-Grand, by the steps leading to the Dover Discovery Centre in the Market Square, received Schedule Ancient Monument Consent in 1993.

  • Presented: 27 May 2014



Martinmas Parade 2014. Clare Smith - Dover Arts Development

Martinmas Parade 2014. Clare Smith – Dover Arts Development

This year – 2014 – the ancient Martinmas Parade was reintroduced in conjunction with the  Dover Arts Development.





About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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