To many people, one rural church looks much like another. Here is St Lawrence (mentioned before in my post on Lord Fitt of Bell’s Hill) on a beautiful spring morning, set just above the Stour, off the old Roman road (now more prosaically known as the A28) leading from Ashford town centre to Canterbury.
In fact, parts of this church are older than most other churches. The lower part of this bell-tower (below), for example, and its hemidomed apse are likely to be Anglo-Saxon.
* © Guy de Valk
This remarkable door, dating from the twelfth century (blocked in during the mid-nineteenth century), bears early Norman ‘chip-carved’ stone around the arch, with beautiful ‘diaper work’ in the top, very similar to that at Canterbury Cathedral. Within the flint blocking, one can see crosses on square-ish stones: ‘pilgrims’ marks. All of these intricate architectural details are testament to the skill of local craftsmen. And people are evident in other parts of the building too.
For example, who was St Lawrence-the-Martyr? Well, right from the outset, it wasn’t looking good for Lawrence as he was said to be the son of two martyrs: St Orencio and St Paciencia. When Sixtus became Pope in 257, Lawrence was ordained as the youngest deacon ever to have been appointed. He was also nominated as head of all the other six deacons, thus making him ‘archdeacon of Rome’, principally in charge of the Church’s money and riches.
In August 258, the Emperor Valerian ordered that all churchmen should be put to death. Pope Sixtus was captured on 6th August and summarily executed. Then the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence hand over the Church’s riches. Lawrence was said to have requested three days to gather the wealth together. Instead, he worked fast to give away as much of the Church’s property as he could, to those most in need, in order that the authorities could not seize it. Lawrence then presented himself to the prefect.
When instructed to deliver the treasures of the Church, he presented the indigent, the blind and the crippled, declaring that they were the true treasures of the Church. You have to admire Lawrence … but it didn’t go down well. He was burnt to death on a grid-iron on 10th August. The ceiling of the chancel within this Godmersham church has a gorgeous grid-iron ceiling, to commemorate the manner of Lawrence’s death.
Finally (though there are a multitude of stories about the church building and its involvement in people’s lives), another thing that St Lawrence church is famous for is its Jane Austen connection. Jane’s brother owned the house next to the church and, indeed, he had inherited the manor of Godmersham. Jane and her sister, Cassandra, often visited their brother, Edward Knight, and they would have sat in the family pew here every Sunday. There is a touching memorial to Susanna Sackree, nursemaid to the Knight children, inside the church, on the north wall of the nave. It replicates the now eroded inscription on the outside of the church.
And there are letters in the Godmersham Heritage Centre archives from Elizabeth Knight (Jane and Cassandra’s neice) where you can hear the affection between all the women. First, Elizabeth complains that she’d asked Aunt Jane if she could write to Cassandra at the end of Jane’s letter to her “but she does not like it, so I won’t.” (One can imagine Jane being quite sharp with Elizabeth! Jane may have been sarcastically indiscreet about a member of the family in her letter – perhaps her sister-in-law (Elizabeth’s mother), whom she found tiresome). Then she recounts that “Sackree does not at all approve of Mary Doe and her nuts – on the score of propriety rather than health.” (The mind boggles …).
This observation was quickly followed by a promise to write again soon because “I suppose the Ashford ball will furnish something”: ‘something’ being gossip, no doubt.
So, a church can be a story about people’s lives down the ages, and their relation to place and to a building: in other words, their heritage. St Lawrence-the-Martyr in Godmersham, Ashford, does it beautifully.