Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:18 am
The Venerable Bede tells us that, in 597 AD (1425 years ago in 2022), St Augustine landed on the Isle of Thanet, in Kent, with some forty companions. Their purpose was to spread the news of eternal joy in heaven and an everlasting kingdom with the living and true God. In those days, the most powerful king in Britain – the Bretwalda – was Ethelbert of Kent, whose domains extended to the River Humber, the border between the north and south Angles. Ethelbert was an Anglo-Saxon pagan, but his wife, Queen Bertha, was a Frankish princess and a Christian. The King had given her a building, which Bede describes as an old church on the east side of Canterbury, the chief city of the realm. Bede says it had been built in Roman times, in honour of St Martin of Tours. Tours was where the princess had been brought up and, with her confessor Bishop Leodheard, she came to St Martin’s each day to pray. And it was St Martin’s that became Augustine’s prime place of worship too, until he founded nearby St Augustine’s Abbey and the adjacent Canterbury Cathedral. Augustine and his successors went on to reintroduce Christianity to southern England from this very spot, and the Roman Catholic faith ultimately dominated the entire British Isles until the Reformation in the 16th century. Today, St Martin’s, Canterbury Cathedral and the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey are all part of a World Heritage Site.
There are two delightful modern statues of King Ethelbert and Queen Bertha on Lady Wootton’s Green off Canterbury’s Broad Street. Tradition has it that Ethelbert was baptised in St Martin’s, in the font that is still there, and that Bertha was buried under the step to the church – which I assume means the doorway.
St Martin’s, Canterbury, is generally accepted as the oldest ecclesiastical building in Britain still used as a church. It could have been a renovated Roman building – whether it was a church is uncertain. The chancel does contain Roman materials, including the brick remains of a Roman tomb. Perhaps it was a mausoleum. There are also two blocked doorways, one of which may date to Queen Bertha’s time and the other later Saxon. The Saxons did not, as a rule, build in stone during this period – but that does not mean they did not re-use Roman masonry. The site of the church is on a slight hill where a natural spring rises, flowing into a drain in the road, North Holmes Road, outside. Maybe Queen Bertha’s Chapel began life as a temple dedicated to a local water deity; we shall probably never know.
The church was enlarged in the 7th century, extended in the 11th century and the tower was added in the 14th century. I doubt that Bertha or Augustine would recognise it now. Evidence of an old arch and Saxon windows can be seen in the west wall of the nave, which also includes Roman materials. There is also a leper’s window, low down on the north side of this wall. The entrance door is 13th century. Just inside the door is the extraordinary font. This is made of three elaborately carved stone tiers; the two lower tiers are Saxon work and the upper tier and lead lining are Norman.
Exhibited midway along the north wall of the nave is a replica of a 14th century Chrismatory. The original, found hidden in the nave roof in 1849, is in Canterbury Cathedral. The Chrismatory is a small brass box, about 6” (15 cm) long, which contains three pewter pots for the three kinds of consecrated oil used in the sacraments at Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Unction. For the benefit of fellow non-believers, ‘Holy Unction’ means anointing the dead or those close to death with oil. The three oils had to be kept separate, according to Archbishop Alfric (died 1005), “Ye ought to have three flasks ready for the three oils, for we dare not put them together in one oil vessel, because each of them is hallowed apart for a particular service”. Pre-Reformation Chrismatories are rare in Britain – there are only two in England, apparently.
In the church porch is a memorial to John Finch (1584-1660). Finch was a Canturbury MP and is buried near the altar. As Speaker of the House of Commons, he was famously physically held in his chair on 10 March 1629 by three fellow MPs – Sir John Eliot, Denzil Holles and Benjamin Valentine – while the Commons passed a number of motions against the King, Charles I. The Speaker has to be in the chair for motions to be passed. The King dissolved Parliament the same day and it did not meet again for 11 years. All part of the build up to the terrible Civil War of the 17th century.
St Martin’s Church is not open everyday – which the ABAB team discovered the hard way – and is manned by volunteers. On the (second) day of our visit, the volunteer was a lovely lady, an ex-teacher, whose husband was Captain of the Bells at the Cathedral. This interested Mrs Britain, who is something of a campanologist.
But what’s all this about Rupert the Bear? Well, the creator of Rupert Bear, Mary Tourtel, is buried in the graveyard at St Martin’s. Rupert and his pals having brought me considerable pleasure as a child, I wanted to pay my respects. Rupert Bear appeared as a comic strip in the Daily Express when it used to be a reasonably serious newspaper (rumour has it that he still does) and every Christmas produced a Rupert Bear Annual. You will find Rupert in the idyllic fictional village of Nutwood, where he lives happily with his mum and dad, getting into all manner of scrapes and adventures with his anthropomorphic animal chums.
Mary Tourtel (nee Caldwell, 1874-1948) was an accomplished professional illustrator whose husband, Herbert Bird Tourtel (1874-1931), worked for the Daily Express as Assistant Editor. The Express needed something to rival ‘Teddy Tail of the Daily Mail’ (a mouse), and so Herbert suggested Mary might give it some thought. She came up with Rupert Bear, who first appeared as ‘Little Lost Bear’ in the Express on Monday 8 November 1920. Herbert wrote the early stories, usually in verse. Mary continued drawing and writing the Rupert stories until 1935, when failing eyesight forced her to give up and hand the job to Alfred Bestall (1892-1986). Rupert went on to achieve great things, even (I am told) the dizzy heights of television shows and appearance in not one, but two, Paul McCartney videos. He is still with us; the 2022 Rupert Bear Annual is available from Amazon at £5.85 – even cheaper than one of A Bit About Britain’s books. Sadly, my collection of Rupert annuals disappeared long ago, leaving only happy memories. The picture of Rupert is by Ian Burt via Flickr.
Anyway, when asked the tricky question at the next pub quiz, “What does the oldest parish church still in use in England have in common with a children’s cartoon character?” – you now know the answer.
Herbert and Mary lie at rest together overlooking St Martin’s and the City of Canterbury beyond. They had no children and their grave is slightly unkempt and weed infested. In life, they loved to travel together, often by aeroplane, and lived for a while in Florence after Herbert’s early retirement. He died aged just 57 in a sanatorium in Germany. Mary lived a semi nomadic life for a time, but died in her home town of Canterbury of a brain tumor aged 74. And there they are.
Trees largely block the view there must have once been from the area around Mary and Herbert’s grave. Before the Reformation, the great Abbey of St Augustine could have been seen from here and, just beyond, the towering triumph of Canterbury’s Cathedral. Whether you believe or not, this is the spot from which a great religion took seed, flowered and spread through the whole British Isles. It is special, because it helped make us who we are. I like the fact that it is shared with the creator of Rupert.
For more details on St Martin’s and Canterbury’s other historic buildings, visit the excellent website set up by the late Stephen Bax.
There is more about Mary Tourtel on the Lambiek website.