St. Peter’s Church in the centre of Dover

Early 16th century map of Dover. St Peter's Church can be seen on the north side of Market Square. Ian Cook

Early 16th century map of Dover. St Peter’s Church can be seen on the north side of Market Square. Ian Cook

On the north side of Market Square, in medieval times, stood Dover’s parish church of St. Peter. Its churchyard is believed to have covered the ground from the east of present day Cannon Street to Castle Street and along Church Street to St. Marys churchyard. Present day Dickens corner is approximate the site of the Church’s altar.

It is difficult to ascertain exactly when the Blessed St Peter of Dover, to give the Church its full name, was built. It was probably erected towards the end of the 11th century, soon after the monastery of St Martin-le-Grand’s magnificent church was completed.  St Peter’s rectorate patronage was in the hands of the king and the Church first came under St Martin’s. However, when St Martin’s Priory superseded St Martin-le-Grand in 1136, it came under that house.

The first reference of St Peter’s is dated 26 April 1342 and refers to the Church using the dedicated name. In the 16th year of Edward III’s reign (1327-1377), court records show that the forge of William Kenartone adjoined the churchyard. By 1367, the Church had superseded St Martin’s as the centre of civic life with the elections for both Mayors of Dover and Members of Parliament being held there.

From the Church tower the curfew bell, which gave order to the town life, was rung. The bell summoned residents to work in the morning, to their mid-day meal and to their beds at night. A different peal was rung for the hailing the election of a new mayor or representatives to Parliament and yet another announced the assembling of the magistrates.

When sea raiders threatened the town the curfew bell and the Great bell of St Martin’s were rung – the latter taking the lead. The same order applied when a great personage was passing through the town, and national events such as the monarch’s birthday or death. Nonetheless, curfew and the ringing of the bell bringing order lasted until the 19th century although fishermen were exempt from the outset.

Of interest is the proximity of the sea and the River Dour to the location of St Peter’s Church – St Peter was a fisherman. The church at Temple Ewell, near the source of the Dour, is dedicated to St Peter, so is the church at River while Charlton church is dedicated to St Peter and St Paul. The Church at Buckland was dedicated to St Andrew – St Peter’s brother, who likewise was a fisherman. In addition, is that within St Peter’s, Dover there was a chapel dedicated to St Roch who is the patron saint of the sick and especially the plague. There was also a chapel dedicated to St Roch in St Martin of Tours Church, Guston!

St Mary's Church 1849

St Mary’s Church 1849

There is little doubt that by the beginning of the 15th century the town had become an important religious centre. Within the town walls was the church of St Martin – still taking up what is now the west part of Market Square. To the north, before the start of what is now Biggin Street – and at that time the town wall –  was St Mary’s Church. In between was St Peter’s and outside the walls were St. Martins Priory, the Maison Dieu Hospital and the Church of St. James.

During the Reformation (1529-1536), except for St Peter’s church, Dover’s churches were sealed by order of Henry VIII (1509-1547). The town’s folk successfully petitioned for St Mary’s to be  reopened and used as a parish church. In 1555, the Curfew bell was moved there. A Visitation eleven years later decreed, ‘that the parishioners of St Peter’s …should be admonished to resort to the church of St Mary’s henceforth ward, as if they were parishioners of St Mary’s until the Church of St Peter’s was repaired.’

This evidently did not go down well with all the St Peter’s parishioners for three years later it was reported that John Knapp had refused to go to St Mary’s. When Thomas Pepper, Mayor of Dover in 1559,1563, 1565 and 1567, died about 1575, having written his Will out a year before, he stated that he was to be buried in St Peter’s churchyard. Albeit, the last recorded burial there was in 1572. Elections were officially transferred to St Mary’s in 1581 and the last one was reported to have taken place in St Peter’s in 1585.

Elizabeth I. Dover Museum

Elizabeth I. Dover Museum

The Mayor and Jurats successfully petitioned Elizabeth I (1558-1603) to sell lead from St Peter’s roof and use the money to improve the harbour. In 1579, Mayor Thomas Allyn, accepted £20 for the lead from the Church to be used for harbour repairs. At the time the Mayor was responsible for looking after the town’s coffers along with the Chamberlain and the repairs were started. They were finished by May 1584, and payment was asked for. However, when pressured former Mayor Allyn panicked and skipped town – he had misappropriated the money!

Dover archives tell us that Elizabeth I, in 1590, gave authority for the sale of St Peter’s together with its land and again the money was to be used for harbour repairs.  This time the money was to augment a national tax on shipping that had been instituted to pay for extensive new harbour works. Mostly completed by 1595 the works created three great docks, as shown in the map above. The Pent, Little Paradise and the Great Paradise that, for the present time, form the basis of today’s modern Western Docks. The Pent became Wellington Dock and the Great Paradise became the Granville Dock and Tidal harbour – these are now under threat to be filled in to create a lorry park.

The last rector of St Peter’s church was Rev John Grey and he is listed as holding the incumbency in 1611. A Master Golder eventually demolished the Church and Church Street was extended to Market Square. The present day path from Church Street to Cannon Street, by St Mary’s Church, roughly defines the boundary between what were St Peter’s and St Mary’s churchyards. The latter came into use as a burial ground after St Peter’s ceased to exist.

Market Square north c1880 the shops existing then had developed from a mansion that had been built on the site in the 17th century. Dover Museum

Market Square north c1880 the shops existing then had developed from a mansion that had been built on the site in the 17th century. Dover Museum

Following the demise of St Peter’s Church, the City of Antwerp Hotel was built on the corner of Market Square and Cannon Street, which was on part of the site. The hotel stables were on the northeast side of Market Square, where the Castle Street junction is today but were demolished and rebuilt to provide access to that Street. A grand mansion facing Market Square had been built between the Antwerp Hotel and the stables. However, the mansion was said to be haunted by the ghost of William de la Pole’s (1396- 1450) body looking for his head!

The mansion was later converted into shops, which kept a number of the external features of the mansion. Nineteenth century local historian, John Bavington Jones in his book Perambulation of the Town, Port, and Fortress of Dover, tells us that, ‘The internal oak beams were massive and in some rooms there was traces of fireplaces and other work of the Jacobean period, indicating apartments fit for a man of wealth and position.’ These were demolished in 1905 to make way for Lloyd’s bank

Fleur de Lis Plaques, above door of the Torchlight Homeless Drop in Centre, Church Street. One had R and B inscribed the other appears to E and R inscribed. Alan Sencicle 2009

Fleur de Lis Plaques, above door of the Torchlight Homeless Drop in Centre, Church Street. One had R and B inscribed the other appears to E and R inscribed. Alan Sencicle 2009

Excavations in 1810, 1893, 1905-08 of the area where St. Peter’s Church once stood, all revealed foundations of the old church and it is probably from one of these digs that the tile above the present day Torchlight doorway in Church Street, was found. The building is set back between 5 and 8 Church Street where two shield shaped plaques can be seen. One has what appears to be a fleur-de-lis and is inscribed with the initials ‘R’ and ‘B’. The other, badly corroded, may have had the initials ‘E’ and ‘R’ inscribed.

During the 1810 excavations, a chalk casket was found, inside which was a skull believed to have belonged to the ill-fated Duke of Suffolk – William de la Pole! On 2 May 1450, he was decapitated off Dover and his headless body dumped on Dover beach. The body was taken to Wingfield, Suffolk to be buried and it was said that his head was brought to St Peter‘s Church. My book, Haunted Dover, recounts the whole story.

Anglo Saxon Grave Slab found under the foundations of St Peter's Church in 1810 now in Dover Museum. LS 2014

Anglo Saxon Grave Slab found under the foundations of St Peter’s Church in 1810 now in Dover Museum. LS 2014

The foundations of St Peter’s church were also revealed during the excavation and the base of a pillar resting on two large fragments of stone, one on top of the other was found. After removal, when the two pieces formed an entire monumental slab, with a cross and an Anglo-Saxon or runic inscription on the cross. This has been translated as Gisilheard‘ and the stone is now on display in Dover Museum. It has been mounted such that the runes are the right way round. Of interest, although runes are hardly found in Kent some dating before AD650 were found in Dover on the back of one the disc brooches during the excavations of the Buckland Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

The major excavations took place between 1905-1908 in order to build Lloyds Bank and adjacent buildings. Up until that time the corner of Market Square and Church Street was called ‘Peter’s Corner’. A small pillar was unearthed that these days form the capital of the Font in St Mary’s Church. The excavations also uncovered large quantity bones.

The eminent anatomist, Dr Frederick Gymer Parsons (1863-1943), examined the bones and reported that about 500 were from oxen, sheep and horses. Amongst them were the remains of an antler, possibly belonging to a red deer. There were also the bones of about 26 individuals, more male than female. This was possibly because in the Middle Ages, Dover was an active seaport as well as a religious centre and therefore there was likely to be more men than women.

Market Square north side showing Lloyds Bank and Dicken's Corner, where the Church of St Peter once stood. Alan Sencicle

Market Square north side showing Lloyds Bank and Dicken’s Corner, where the Church of St Peter once stood. Alan Sencicle

Most of the human skulls had white, sound, and regular teeth but were greatly worn, possibly, due to eating coarsely ground grain and tough, badly cooked, meat. The bones showed that, overall, the people had died in the prime of life without long standing ailments. This Dr Parsons’ suggested, was because the time between when infections where caught and death was short – which would explain why in St Peter’s church, St Roch was venerated.

Another reason given by Dr Parson, was that, ‘old records show that there were few more turbulent places than the Cinque Ports, and probably many of these men were killed in some brawl or another.’ The exhumed skeletons were first buried in St Martin’s Cemetery that stood at the top of Market Street until 1970. They were then re-interred in Charlton Cemetery

  • Presented:
  • 30 August 2014




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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