St. Mary's in Castro (Saxon Church at Dover) - Sarah Woodbury

St. Mary’s in Castro (Saxon Church at Dover)

We talked about Dover Castle last season, but it’s worth revisiting, in large part for the same reason we devoted a video to it before: the long history of occupation. Specifically, in regards to the Saxons, Dover was one of the first places William the Conqueror conquered—and thankfully, he left the original Saxon church intact for us to visit to this day and, according to English Heritage, is the ‘largest and finest Saxon building in Kent’.

The first record of the church at Dover is around 630 AD, when the records talk about a church built within the castle, which is where it gets its name Saint Mary in Castro. This is in the time of Eadbald, son of Æthelberht, the first Saxon king to convert to Christianity. Credence is given to the idea that the structure we see today is this original location because of the Saxon burials that surround it, which also date to the 600s.

In 597, St. Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory I to England to convert the Saxons to Christianity. Augustine landed in eastern Kent, and soon managed to convert Æthelberht, who gave him land in Canterbury. Æthelberht made Kent the dominant force in England during his reign, but his son’s ascension to the throne was viewed initially as a significant setback for the growth of the church, since he did not convert to Christianity for at least a year, and perhaps for as many as eight years after he became king. He was ultimately converted but then at the insistence of the church had to separate from his first wife, who had been his stepmother.

In 1000 AD, the church was rebuilt. As it is next to a Roman lighthouse, some of the Roman stones and tiles can be still be seen in the church fabric, particularly in the window, and Roman flint and tile from is used throughout the church’s walls. The church door arch is the earliest to survive in any standing church in England.

The church and tower were surrounded by a great earthwork, initially dating to the 11th century, and perhaps begun in an emergency in response to foreign raids or William himself, since it cuts through the Saxon cemetery.

Starting in the 1200s, the Roman lighthouse was turned into a belltower, and 3 bells were cast in Canterbury and a walkway was built to connect the tower to the church.

St. Mary in Castro is used to this day, serving the army and the local people, and is the church of the Dover garrison.

Next week we’ll be talking about one of the oldest Saxon monasteries in England, Lindisfarne, the home of Cuthbert, the patron saint of Northumbria.

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