St Mary the Virgin Church, Minster-in-Thanet, Kent
Minster-in-Thanet, also known as simply Minster, contains a few surprises belying its small size and fairly far-out location from the nearby larger towns of Ramsgate and Sandwich. Not only does it contain the fantastic Norman church of St Mary, but also Minster Abbey - a Benedictine priory, once a medieval dependency of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, built out of the original Anglo-Saxon grange, although little of the original fabric remains. The current priory was settled by refugees of 1930s Germany, and is thus an international daughter community of Eichstätt in Bavaria. Perhaps more interestingly, the priory is in the possession of a relic of St Mildred, the first abbess of Minster, which was in the care of a church in Deventer in the Netherlands since the Protestant Reformation. The town has a fascinating connection to the Anglo-Saxons and their control over Kent; the next abbess after St Mildred was Edburga, herself a saint and the daughter of King Centwine and Queen Engyth of Wessex. The last abbess, Leofruna, was captured by the Danes in 1011, and the abbey was abandoned, with St Mary downgraded to a simple parish church.
St Mary however, is not just a simple parish church. The majority of its fabric is indeed Norman, however the structure has a number of problems which stem from the older Anglo-Saxon work. The nave dates to around 1150, and contains an impressive five bays. The ceiling of the crossing is an ancient chalk block vaulting - a rare and grand feature for a simple parish church! The chancel, which may be even older than the nave - although not by much - was built in the Early English style, with its fantastic flying buttresses on the south side added by Ewan Christian in the 1860s. Christian carried out the restoration of the church, and added a large south vestry to the chancel, as well as windows in the south aisle modelled after those in Sturry.
The tower is Late Norman, although along with its stair-turret it is locally said to be of Saxon origin. Both are at least partly built of Caen stone, with Roman tiles reused as quoins. The tower is topped off with a lovely recessed lead-covered spire seen for a few miles around the low countryside; the spire was reconstructed in 1987 after the Great Storm. Two high-set windows in the north and south of the west bays are now blocked, and do not align with the arcade arches; it is very possible they belonged to an early 12th-century extension of the once-aisleless nave. Architectural historian John Newman talks endlessly about the church’s beautiful pillars, arches and bays. St Mary is indeed a fantastic and beautiful church, with a wonderful atmosphere both around the churchyard and inside.