Queen Ethelburga founds a church

Æthelburh, better known today by the Latinised form of her name Ethelburga, was the daughter of King Æthelberht I of Kent. It was Æthelberht who invited Pope Gregory in Rome to send a mission which, under the leadership of St Augustine, arrived in Canterbury in 597 AD. In the following decades, this led to the conversion of the English to Christianity, and acceptance of the authority of the Pope as Head of the Church in England, which only ended when King Henry VIII initiated the Reformation almost a thousand years later.


Ethelburga married King Edwin of Northumbria in 625, but when he was killed in battle in 633, she returned to Kent. After the end of Roman rule, few people could read or write and there are no contemporary written records in England surviving from this time. Much of what we know comes from a series of accounts called collectively the Kentish Royal Legend, the earliest version of which still surviving seems to have been written down about 100 years after Ethelburga lived. In the Kentish Royal Legend, it is said that Ethelburga’s brother King Eadbald gave her his estate at Lyminge where she founded what was later remembered as the first Christian community in England. 


The Rector of Lyminge from 1854 to 1896, Canon Robert Jenkins, believed that there might be evidence for Ethelburga’s church in the churchyard. Within a few years of his arrival in Lyminge, he had discovered the foundations of what appeared to be a stone church, lying under the path immediately south of the current standing church. However Jenkins was working before archaeology had developed as a science, his records were poor measured against the standard we expect today, and he imagined much more than he actually found. There was so much uncertainty that it was decided to re-examine the remains in a new dig during the summer of 2019, and we now know a lot more about what Canon Jenkins discovered.


Excavating 7th Century church in 2019Excavation of Queen Ethelburga’s church in 2019 (© Rob Baldwin)

The structure is a masonry building in two parts, a rectangular nave with a slightly narrower rounded eastern end, overall some 12.7m long internally by 5.4m across the nave and 4.3m across the apse. In style, the building is almost identical to the very small number of churches all dating to the 7th Century that are known from elsewhere in Kent and, in one case, from Essex. Two samples of mortar taken during the 2019 dig have now been analysed scientifically to provide a date for when it was built. Although both samples suggest a date falling within quite a wide range, the range for one sample centres around the time when Ethelburga was alive, while the other overlaps the first but has a centre point a little later. 


From these results, we can be reasonably confident that the church discovered by Canon Jenkins and re-examined in 2019 was standing by around 700.  Also, while nothing is certain, one of these sample test results shows that the church could have been built in the middle of the 7th Century.  It is thus possible that this church was built by Queen Ethelburga  and the recorded story could be true.  

Ethelburga’s mother was a princess from the Kingdom of the Franks in modern-day France, and so was Eadbald’s queen Emma, Ethelburga’s sister-in-law. Ethelburga herself sent her children to live at the court of King Dagobert in Paris. So we know from the records that there were strong links between the Kentish and Frankish royal families.  These links are given substance in the construction of the church. A fragment of column found in the 2019 dig shows that stone was imported from near Boulogne.  The stone walls were built with a very hard mortar made using crushed Roman brick, a technique that indicates the church was built by masons brought from the Continent, most likely from France. Everything points to the church being built by a wealthy patron, well-connected to the Frankish kingdom, who believed that the proper material in which to build a church was stone. We know that Ethelburga herself had witnessed the wooden church in York, where her husband was baptised, being rebuilt in stone for this very reason, and the person who had caused this to happen, Bishop Paulinus was her spiritual mentor.  When Ethelburga's husband King Edwin was killed, Paulinus had returned with her to Kent and had been made Bishop of Rochester. He was thus close by and could easily have directly influenced the kind of church Ethelburga built for herself. So, on current evidence, it is reasonable to accept that the church, whose outline is marked in the path south of the standing church near the porch, was built by Queen Ethelburga in the years after 633 when she was living on the estate given to her by her brother King Eadbald. A stone church built in a consciously Roman style was at the very forefront of ideas at the time and shows how well connected its patron was to contemporary continental thought stretching as far as Rome itself. The ability to mobilise the resources to create such a building indicates great wealth and power. One can believe that Ethelburga was a force to be reckoned with, and in this she was the forerunner and model for the many royal women who followed her, serving as abbesses running monasteries across England in the centuries before the Norman Conquest.

We know from the excavations on Tayne Field in 2012-15 that the timber halls found here were renewed a number of times and continued in use into the mid 7th Century. It is therefore quite likely that if Queen Ethelburga was living in Lyminge at this time, she and her household would have lived on Tayne Field where there was accommodation suitable for royalty. Ethelburga herself was a Christian and it is likely that her household was too. She probably brought with her aristocratic ladies who would have served as her companions, and they would all have worshipped in the church Ethelburga caused to be built a short walk away on the hill overlooking Tayne Field. This seems the best way to understand the later story that Ethelburga founded a Christian community in Lyminge.



Reconstruction of Ethelburga's church

Reconstruction of the interior of Queen Ethelburga’s church as it may have looked around 800 AD (© Dominic Andrews – Archaeoart.co.uk)


Excavations in and around the edge of the current churchyard have revealed traces of wooden buildings and activities that support the view that a monastic community was living close to Ethelburga’s church by around 700 AD. We also have a surviving charter from this time recording the grant of land by King Wihtred to the church of St Mary at Lyminge. We do not know, and may never know, whether this community had continued from the time of Ethelburga, or whether there was a break after Ethelburga died some time probably in the mid 7th Century. But we can be reasonably certain from a description in the 11th Century that Ethelburga was buried in her church in a side chapel (or “porticus”) on the north side of the church. This would mean that it extended into the area of the nave of the standing Norman church and the south wall of this later church ran across it. 



Porticus excavated in 2019Remains of a porticus on the north side of Queen Ethelburga's church, re-excavated in 2019.  It was once believed to be the site of her tomb but this is now thought unlikely (© Rob Baldwin)

Canon Jenkins thought he had located this burial porticus and that is why there is a white marble plaque set into the wall of the standing church recording exactly this. However, we now think that the structure Canon Jenkins found was too small to have held the tomb and it is more likely that the tomb was located in a second porticus further west in the area of the current porch. When we looked under the paving slabs of this porch in 2019, we found that if there had been any porticus there, the evidence had been dug away when the porch was built and there was nothing to prove its existence. However, a tantalising clue does come from the site plan drawn for Canon Jenkins to record his archaeological findings in the 1850s and 1860s. The drawn plan now in the Canterbury Cathedral Archive shows more detail than the plan he actually published. In particular, it shows that there was a patch of red concrete floor surviving inside the Norman church running beneath the Norman wall just to the west of the doorway leading from the porch. Because it was below the wall of the Norman church, this indicates that the floor was older than the Norman church, and the most obvious explanation is that it relates to Queen Ethelburga's church.  In this location, it would be north of the nave of that church, which would mean it can reasonably be interpreted as a fragment of the floor of the porticus that we think stood on this spot.  This is where we believe it is most likely Queen Ethelburga was buried, so it is possible that a fragment of her burial place does still survive.    


Reconstruction of Queen Ethelburga's tombReconstruction of Queen Ethelburga's tomb in the porticus, showing the red concrete floor, a fragment of which may still survive beneath the wall of the current Norman church (© Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture)

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