Early Saxon Churches in Canterbury – St Pancras


St Pancras

The general pattern of Gregory’s mission strategy was for bishops and ecclesiastical personnel to work together with rulers and local authorities in bringing about the conversion of heathen subjects. By 601 Gregory had initiated his own correspondence with Aethelberht, now a convert to Christianity, and also with Queen Bertha the originator of the mission. The model of kingship that Gregory offered to King Aethelberht was that of Emperor Constantine who converted the Roman state from idol-worship to submission under Christ. Aethelberht was expected to follow suit. His queen, great-granddaughter of the first Frankish Christian king, Clovis I, would have reinforced the model of Aethelberht as Christian ruler. The unquestioned political and social model behind Gregory’s missionary enterprise was the long-established pattern of the coercive regime of the Roman Empire. However, once the full implications of the new situation that Augustine faced sank in, Gregory abandoned his instinctive Roman imperial strategy in favour of a more flexible approach that responded more sensitively to deeply held Anglo-Saxon convictions. (Markus: Gregory the Great, 82)

 Within Canterbury Augustine’s mission began amongst a small and diverse group of Christians gathered around St Martin’s church, including Queen Bertha and her entourage, Augustine’s own companions, and a few itinerant seafarers and traders from the Continent, and a remnant of the former British Church. The mission rapidly gained a foothold in the Anglo-Saxon court, but a broader basis was needed if it was to rise above the undertow of strong political currents that surged through the country during most of the seventh century. 



Augustine’s plan for Canterbury developed around the foundation of two monastic communities. Crucially, Aethelberht’s active and material support was given to both these projects – an urban basilica for the bishop, and a dynastic mausoleum for the king. As a monastery chapel would be built first before accommodation and other buildings Augustine’s companions remained at St Martin’s for possibly three or four years until the basilica and its priory were completed. At this stage the single community would have divided with Augustine, some of his monks and the Frankish clergy moving from St Martin’s to occupy Christ Church Priory. 

 The building of the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul (completed sometime after 604, and more likely after 610) meant that the monks, now under the supervision of Peter as their abbot, continued to live and worship at St Martin’s until the completion of the Abbey. As the site of the Abbey was only a short distance below St Martin’s, this was also a very convenient location for supervising the construction. 

 This was not the last occasion that St Martin’s played host to a monastic community. During the arch-episcopate of Dunstan (960-988), the archbishop granted a house and fourteen acres of land within the City to ‘St Martin and those who serve God there’, implying that the church was being served by a small community, endowed to live some form of community life. This community may have continued until the early thirteenth century. In 1326 the manor at St Martin’s was given to Christ Church Priory so that the monks might have a place of retreat in the clean air above the Stour valley mist.

 Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral and Priory, situated within the city walls, became the centre of an active apostolate through the ministry of the secular Frankish priests, so that Anglo-Saxons first heard the preaching of the Gospel through priests of the Frankish Church. (Gem: St Augustine’s Abbey, 20) The Cathedral was dedicated in June 602 or 603; its name is taken from the entablature of the façade of the Lateran Basilica in Rome: Christo Salvatori, Christ the Saviour. Like the Lateran Basilica Christ Church was not founded on an apostolic memory: there was no earlier church beneath its foundations, nor any tomb of a Christian apostle or martyr over which to build. 

 Bede records that Augustine, with the support of the king, restored an ancient church originally built by Roman believers for his cathedral and dedicated it to the name of the holy Saviour as Christ Church after the basilica in Rome. This is also repeated in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles; however excavations have provided no archaeological evidence of an earlier church beneath Augustine’s cathedral. 

 Augustine ‘established there a dwelling’, the archbishop’s palace, for himself and all his successors on the north side of the cathedral. (Bede: Ecclesiastical History, I.33)  Presumably this is what Bede referred to when he wrote that after the king’s baptism, ‘it was not long before he granted his teachers a place to settle in, suitable to their rank, in Canterbury, his chief city, and gave them possessions of various kinds for their needs.’  (Bede: Ecclesiastical History, I.26) 

 St Pancras Church

 Bede records that, after Aethelberht’s conversion to the faith and baptism at St Martin’s, Augustine and his companions received greater liberty to preach everywhere and to build or restore churches (Bede: Ecclesiastical History I.26). Was St Pancras church, dedicated to a second-century boy-martyr in Rome, one of these?  


The remains of this church in Canterbury are amongst the most striking of the ruins within the grounds of St Augustine’s Abbey. One of its surviving columns, made of limestone quarried from the Paris basin, is still in place. 


Thorn, a fourteenth century chronicler and Benedictine monk at St Augustine’s Abbey, recorded the oldest tradition relating to St Pancras church at the end of the fourteenth century. Thorn’s account below also adds some weight to the possibility that Aethelberht’s royal enclosure was adjacent to St Martin’s rather than within the walls of Canterbury:

There was not far from the city [of Canterbury] towards the east, as it were midway between the church of St. Martin and the walls of the city, a temple or idol-house where King Aethelberht according to the rites of his tribe was wont to pray, and with his nobles to sacrifice to his demons and not to God: which temple Augustine purged from the pollutions and filth of the Gentiles; and, having broken the image which was in it, changed it into a church, and dedicated it in the name of the martyr St. Pancras—and this was the first church dedicated by St. Augustine. There is still extant an altar in the southern porticus of the same church, at which the same Augustine was wont to celebrate, where formerly had stood the idol of the king—at which altar, while Augustine was celebrating mass for the first time, the devil, seeing himself driven out from the home which he had inhabited for long ages, tried to overturn from the foundations the aforesaid church: the marks of which are still apparent on the exterior eastern wall of the abovementioned porticus. (Routledge: Roman Foundations at St Pancras, 103)



These ‘devil’s marks’ were portrayed in an engraving, provided by Canon Routledge, dated 1784. Augustine’s relationship to the spiritual and miraculous has been considered above, so the issues that this raises will not be repeated here. In evangelistic terms, such an event would significantly enhance the standing of the missionaries amongst the Angli. A vague tradition believed that there was once a Romano-British church on the St Pancras site that, having fallen into decay, may have been partially restored by Aethelberht as a heathen temple.

Canon Routledge’s conclusion, after examining the site and archaeological evidence in the 1880s, was that:

 I would picture to myself a small Roman church, possibly with other buildings adjacent. These would fall into partial ruin after the evacuation of Britain. One portion of these ruins (perhaps the southern porticus) might be restored by Aethelberht as a heathen temple, which St.Augustine would purify from pollution and consecrate to Christian worship. He would also take in the remaining site of the destroyed Roman church, using the original materials, and re-erect a building there to provide for his numerous converts. (Routledge: Roman Foundations, 107) (Wds 101)

However there is no clear evidence of a former Romano-British church on this site. The earliest Anglo-Saxon churches in Canterbury are evidently so Roman in the manner of their construction – the recycling Roman brick, tile and stone, using Roman mortar types and flooring materials of broken tiles mixed with mortar – that a very strong archaeological argument would be required to show that these were, in fact, Roman-period rather than post-sixth century structures. (Williams: Archaeology of Kent, 239) This is reinforced by the discovery that the walls in the building of St Pancras in the seventh century were of reused Roman brick, adopting the same general technique applied in the building of The Abbey chapel. (Gem: St Augustine’s Abbey, 101)

A stronger case can be made for viewing the earliest building of St Pancras church as a second-generation construction, to be placed in time between the building of the Abbey Chapel (c. 613), and a third generation of churches represented by the Reculver church (c. 669). This is more convincing than arguing that St Pancras is a late Roman church, or even that it was Bertha’s chapel. Reused tile brick appears in both phases and its construction is comparable to those of the early walls of the church of Saint Peter and St Paul. While there is no reliable documentary evidence for dating the founding of this church, the cult of Pancras, fostered by Pope Honorius I (625-638), who built a new basilica over the martyr’s shrine in Rome, may have been influential. If this were the case, the later date for such a construction reduces the possibility even further that St Pancras was part of Augustine’s own building programme around Canterbury. 

While it is difficult to make the case for St Pancras as an early Romano-British church, or even as a later church built by Augustine, the missionaries do seem to have followed Pope Gregory’s direction for dealing with pagan shrines, and rededicated a shrine that was already there – probably a wood and thatch structure – for Christian use. Pope Gregory’s instructions to Augustine on how to deal with pagan shrines were:

I have decided after long deliberation about the English people, namely that the idol temples of that race should by no means be destroyed, but only the idols in them. For if the shrines are well built, it is essential that they should be changed from the worship of devils to the service of the true God.  When the people see that the shrines are not destroyed they will be able to banish error from their hearts and be more ready to come to the places they are familiar with, but now recognising that and worshipping the true God.  (Bede: Ecclesiastical History I.30)

If it is the case that Augustine dealt with Aethelberht’s reputed shrine in the manner that Gregory advised, then the survival of a former pagan shrine on what later became the site of St Pancras church was the first clear example on English soil of the Pope’s reconsidered mission-and-pastoral-strategy for the conversion of a pagan people. If this interpretation corresponds to the historical events, then the chapel dedicated to St Pancras was built after Augustine’s death, re-using rubble from former Romano-British structures, possibly in the second quarter of the seventh century, and as part of a growing monastic complex on the St Augustine’s Abbey site.

It would have been contrary to Gregory’s counsel to demolish a shrine so closely associated with the king at such an early stage, and to build a church in its place. It seems more likely that after Aethelberht’s baptism, instead of building a church over the pagan site as Routledge imagined, Augustine had followed Gregory’s instructions, cleansed the shrine, and celebrated mass in this small structure. Within their first twelve months in Canterbury, Augustine had both extended the Queen’s chapel of St Martin into a larger church to accommodate the growing number of new converts who followed their king and were baptised, and consecrated the king’s shrine for Christian use. 

 Augustine’s practice, following Gregory’s instructions for the treatment of temples and idols (as at the site of St Pancras church mentioned above), was to provide Christian centres from which evangelisation could take place, rather than to encourage individual, wandering preachers without a secure base. (Gem: St Augustine’s Abbey, 22) The chief resources for building such a secure base were the monasteries themselves. By the mid-fifth century, British patrons had already begun founding rural monastic communities in western Britain. By the late sixth century, preaching and baptising in the east of England also fell, not to secular (diocesan) clergy, but to the monks, living communal celibate lives under a monastic rule. 



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Rob retired in 2014 from his post of Director of Licensed Ministries in Canterbury Diocese. His current interests are: leading programmes in missional leadership, writing, research, painting and travel. He is a founder member of a 'new monastic' community, the Companions of Augustine of Canterbury, drawing on the inspiration of Augustine's mission to England in 597.