A short history of St Mary's Kemsing

The original east window, moved to the south wall by Sir Ninian Comper
The west window from 1911
The window in the north aisle, re-assembled from broken pieces of a previous window
Two-light window depicting Thomas and Richard, given in memory of Rev Skarratt

The following talk was given by Janet Eaton to the Friends of St Mary's Kemsing in January 2012. It tells a brief history of the church building of St Mary's Kemsing, using its various stained glass windows to shape the story. It is reproduced here by permission.

There is evidence of Roman occupation in the village of Kemsing, and by the time of the end of Roman influence all of the ruling class were mainly Christian. So there may well have been some form of Christian chapel in the village from this time onwards. However there is documentary evidence that there was a Church on this site prior to 820AD. This would fit in with the progression of Christianity through Kent after St. Augustine’s landing in AD 597. Pope Gregory had sent the monk Augustine to England to evangelise the island. Augustine visited the king of Kent who agreed it would be politically valuable to have continental support, and so became Christian. In 601, Gregory sent the monk Mellitus to assist. They were instructed to smash all pagan idols and expropriate pagan temples for Christian use.

In the story of the village, it is known that Christianity was of importance because St. Edith was born in the village in 961 in a convent on the site of what is now The Box House, and the location of the village Church, on the present site, would fit in with this very neatly.

The archaeological survey of the Church which shows that the earliest stones of the current building date from about the year 1060, in south wall. here. The wall is about 2/3 feet thick, wider at the bottom than the top.

First of all, why are there windows in Church at all? Well, one reason is obvious, i.e. to let light into the Church from a time when of course there was no electricity. With particular regard to coloured glass this was to reinforce what would have originally been on the walls of the Church – pictures to depict the bible stories to common folk who could not read.

Working clockwise and starting with the east-facing window in the chancel.

In the east wall there is the magnificent Comper window which dates from 1902. This glass was installed by Rev. Skarratt in memory of his Mother Mary Ellen Skarratt. The inscription reads ‘To the sacred memory of the best of Mothers, Mary Ellen Skarratt who died 2nd June 1902. To accommodate this glass, the original east widow was moved to its present location. Sir Ninian Comper was an enthusiast for all things connected with the Eastern Churches and all his designs reflect this fact. It follows the tradition of showing Christ in glory rather than Christ on the cross, and Comper used his own theme by making his Christ beardless, very unusual in any stained glass, and also shown on the cross above the rood screen.  Apparently this was the first time Ninian Comper had designed a figure of Christ to be beardless and when he re-visited the Church in 1958, he was still delighted with his design. He is shown flanked by his Mother and St. John the Baptist and surrounded by a Mandela with the heads of angels and the emblems of the four evangelists, St. Matthew (a man with wings), St. Mark (a winged lion) St. Luke (a winged ox) and St. John (an eagle). In the tracery at the top are the hand of God and the dove of the Holy Spirit and over their figures their initials M & J. In the lower panels a choir of Kings and Priests are singing of the court of heaven led by King David. Each holds a flower, a rose or a lily. Angels in blue on a gold ground are chanting Te Deum Laudamus.  Apparently when he re-visited Kemsing in 1958, Comper disliked the face and was going to change it as he felt it was too weak, but he did not carry this out.

The second oldest piece of glass in the Church is next in the Chancel – the St. Anne window which dates from approx. 1370. It is thought to show the figure of St. Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read, but there are apparently 3 people in the window. It has been speculated that the third figure could have been St. Edith, but we do not know. Mr Andrew Rudebeck, an amateur authority on stained glass considers that the glass could be the work of William Burgh and could be of more theoretical value than the Madonna Roundel because the artist is known. It could possibly have been commissioned by Sir William Fiennes in memory of his mother Joan Say. She died in 1378, and the window could possibly have been put in between 1399 and 1402. Whoever it was, they must have been wealthy and with some religious feeling. It should be noted that the quarrels are original and were copied when Sir Ninian Comper undertook some restoration work to the Madonna Roundel in the 1900’s. He also copied these quarrels when installing a window in the Church at Selworthy in Hampshire, where he designed a St. Anne window on similar lines to the one here.

In 1874 Kemsing once more became a separate Parish with its own Vicar, the Revd.  George Bridges Lewis.  The Vicar’s vestry was erected in 1878 and the next work seems to have been the installation of the three light window which is now in the south wall of the Chancel, but was originally the east window of the Church, and was given to the Church by the Rev. Bridges Lewis. (See picture 1, at the top of this page.) He paid Dixon and Vesey £100 to erect it at that time. It was moved to its current location in 1902 when Sir Ninian Comper designed the window which is now the east window of the Church. The theme of this window is the crucifixion, and is carried out in what has been described as ‘Germanic 16th century gruesomeness softened to English tastes’. One interesting feature of this window which we can’t actually see are the words written in pencil ‘AD1902 (referring of course to the date when the window was moved to its current location)  Burknall & Comper architects, 35 Old Queen Street Westminster. H.A. Bernard Smith Decorator, 5 Staple Inn, Holborn E. Gibbs, E. Hayles, A. Birney, A Henderson, craftsmen’. This of course actually refers to the decorative work carried out in the Chancel, but is interesting to note. A. Henderson was obviously a local man as he and his wife are buried in the churchyard. Bernard Smith was Comper’s nephew and did most of the glass painting.

The next window is the one over the pulpit, the frame of which dates to the 14th Century.  This window replaced a simpler originally plain design. The original window was put in in  1881 by Mrs Margaret Smith of Heaverham in memory of her brother George Turner who farmed there. He is now commemorated on the wall tablet in the north aisle. This new glass was designed by Henry Wilson of Platt who also designed the plaque behind the font and the Collet tombs in the churchyard. The subject is the transfiguration with the figure of Christ flanked by Elijah and Moses. It has been said that the faces of these figures in fact represent well-know people of the day and that of Elijah being Sir William Hicks Beach, a politician. It was erected by Dame Antonia Collet of St. Clere in memory of her husband Sir Mark Wilks Collet who died on April 25th 1905. Designed by H. Wilson, Vitrairius C.W. Whall. (i.e. glass maker).

The next window, in the south wall, is the Madonna Roundel of 1220 whose restoration was carried out last year. This window has importance in the history not only of this Church but also of stained glass in the whole country. It has been beautifully restored and after this conservation work, it should last happily in its place for another 800 years. However, there is no record of how this piece found its way to our Church, who paid for it, who installed it etc. It would be wonderful to know more about it.

Over the south door is a small round headed window opening, often thought to be Saxon, but nowadays dated more to the 17th Century from the outside brickwork, although it could have been adapted from an earlier Saxon portal. The glass represents St. Edith as a Saxon Princess richly clothed and crowned, but carrying a crucifix rather than her usual sheaf of corn. In the border you can see the initials S & E, and was presented to the Church by Mr W. E. A.  Schank in memory of his sister Edith. He was a friend of the man who was by this time the Vicar, the Rev. Thomas Carleton Skarratt. The design was by one of the artists who worked for James Powell and Sons, later the Whitefriars Glass Company. Many famous artists of the day worked for this Company including Burne Jones, Ford Maddox Brown, Poynter, William Morris and Albert Moone. It might have been possible to trace the actual artist of this window as all the Company records were placed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, however the records for 1892/3 have been lost so we shall never know.

Another case of replacing existing glass is the west window. (See picture 2 at the top of this page.) This had held a simple design of lozenges within a coloured border, possibly provided by Rev. Blackhall of Seal shortly before the two parishes were divided in 1870. It was replaced in 1911 by a design again of Sir Ninian Comper  and shows the figures of an Archangel and the Virgin Mary in an Annunciation theme, with a small Madonna and child, and was donated by the sisters of the Rev. Skarratt in memory of their brother. This window is in a 14th Century frame. An interesting feature is that the angel has one green wing and is the only piece of glass in the Church which is signed with Ninian Comper’s glass etched signature a strawberry leaf.

On the west wall of the north aisle is the most recent piece of stained glass put in in 1935 showing St. Edith by Douglas Strachan of Edinburgh and given in memory of Dame Antonia Collet and Dame Nina Collet (the wife of Sir Mark Collet). The frame is original to the old north wall of the nave and was moved to this position when the north aisle wqas constructed in1891. The panel describes the life and virtues of St. Edith. The centre light shows St. Edith blessing a sick man, on the left is St. George representing courage on the right the Madonna and child representing gentleness and with a lamb at the foot. Below St. Edith are two figures of women at the well whilst at the top are three scenes ‘Edgar returns to Wilton’, Edgar and Wulfrith (her parents) at the profession of Edith, and Edith and Wulfrith come to Wilton. In the tracery above are the emblems of St. Edith, a fount of water and a sheaf of corn. The arms of the Collet family are also shown.

We then turn around and look at one of the smallest pieces of stained glass in the Church, in the west end of the north aisle is a small window inserted during the building of the north aisle to have plain glass to give light to this corner of the Church. However this small glass lozenge depicts the arms of Archbishop Benson. It was presented to the Church by Monsignor Hugh Benson, the Archbishop’s son who had been a curate at Kemsing from May 1897 to June 1898 lodging with Carleton Skarratt. He later became a very well-known Catholic priest but sadly died aged only 43.

We move next onto the jumble of glass in the north wall. (See picture 3 at the top of this page.) This would originally have been installed in the  old north aisle and was demolished in 1826 by the Churchwardens of the time against the wishes of the then Vicar. When the north aisle was added in 1891 this jumble of glass was excavated and restored into this window as we see at present. It seems to be a crucifixion scene and it could be that the red and brown fragments depict the cloak of a Roman centurion who was at the scene. The image at the top of the window is thought to be of John the Baptist. Experts seem now to have decided that this stained glass is the work of the same artist who did the St. Anne window. One similarity is that the hands are very similar i.e. badly painted and if you notice closely, each figure has 5 fingers rather than 4 and a thumb!

Another piece of glass, again given in memory of the Rev. Skarratt, is the two light window in the north aisle depicting St. Thomas and St. Richard and given by his friends. (See picture 4 at the top of this page.)

We are very fortunate to have three windows which appear to be over 600 years old. However, we then seem to have a fairly fallow time for particular decoration in the Church. It could be that there were other glass windows which could have been taken out in previous restorations or indeed knocked out by other enthusiastic Churchwardens perhaps during the reformation – we just don’t know, but of course we do know that from the fifteenth century onwards that the main Church in the Parish was at Seal where the Vicar lived, and Kemsing was left in the hands of Curates. There are memorials in Church which date from this interim period so it is possible that there was other glass, too.

Links with St Edith

At the last AGM, links with churches dedicated to St Edith were discussed. A map showing these churches can be found below.