|Faversham Stone Chapel in ruins|
In a field in Kent the ruins of an ancient building of uncertain origin lies. It is called Faversham Stone Chapel, or alternately Stone-next-Faversham, and was known as the Church of Our Lady of Elverton – or Our Lady of Elwarton – from the 7th century until the 16th century, when it was abandoned after falling into a state of disrepair. The building was not, however, forgotten. From the 18th century onwards it became the occasional subject of archeological interest because it was clear that this was no ordinary church for, as Hasted pointed out in 1798, within the ruins of the Stone Chapel there are:
“a number of Roman bricks … interspersed among the flints and in the midst of the south wall of it, there is a separate piece of a Roman building about a rod in length, and near three feet high, composed of two rows of Roman tiles, of about fourteen inches square each, and on them are laid small stones levelled but of no regular size or shape, for about a foot high, and then tiles again, and so on alternately.”
|Roman brickwork within Faversham Stone Chapel|
The presence of Roman masonry was thought to be too exciting to be true for some subsequent archeologists, excavating in 1874/1875 and then again (by a different team) in 1926, who proclaimed that the building was from the early medieval period and of purely Saxon origin. A 1967 excavation convincingly disproved this assessment as it became clear that the church had indeed incorporated the structure of an earlier Roman building. The question was, and still is, what kind of Roman building?
English Heritage states that Faversham Stone Chapel is the ruins of a small Anglo-Saxon and medieval chapel and is:
“the only Christian building in England to incorporate within its fabric the remains of a 4th century Romano-British pagan mausoleum.”
A tourism website for Faversham states that Faversham Stone Chapel:
“is a unique church building, the only one in England known to incorporate the remains of a pagan shrine or mausoleum …The size and nature of the foundations revealed during the  excavation suggest this was a mausoleum. The building was windowless with a barrel vaulted roof and a stout door with megalithic stone frame.”
|The interior of Faversham Chapel|
The final sentence of this quote is curious – whether or not the building had windows or not is surely unknowable and based purely on an assumption that the original Roman structure was a mausoleum. To me this seems odd. It seems somehow incongruous that a church would be built over a mausoleum – unless it housed the remains of a renowned Christian. All things are possible and perhaps this was the case. However, Dr Wilkinson, who led a 2005 archeological dig of the area (with the assistance of History Today magazine, Friends of the British Museum and the Kent Archeological Field School) came to a different conclusion:
“The upstanding building known as Stone Chapel … has most recently been considered to be of original Roman build, and more particularly the remains of a Romano-Celtic mausoleum. A chronology of previous archaeological investigations and [an] examination of their conclusions … suggests that this interpretation is incorrect …
Our work has shown that the Roman buildings were part of a Romano-Celtic temple complex probably rebuilt in the 6th and 7th centuries as a Christian church and subsequently enlarged in the Saxon and medieval periods making the site unique in Britain.”
This view accords with known history, for in 601 Pope Gregory the Great wrote to Abbot Mellitus (who would subsequently become the third Archbishop of Canterbury) stating that:
“the temples (fana) of the idols among that people ought not to be destroyed at all, but the idols themselves, which are inside them, should be destroyed. Let water be blessed and sprinkled in the same temples, and let altars be constructed and relics placed there. For if those temples have been well constructed, it is necessary that they should be changed from the cult of demons to the worship of the true God, so that, while that race sees itself that its temples are not being destroyed, it may remove error from its people’s hearts, and by knowing and adoring the true God, they may come together in their customary places in a more friendly manner. And because they are accustomed to killing many oxen (boves) while sacriﬁcing to their demons, some solemn rites should be changed for them over this matter. So on the day of the dedication, or the festivals of the holy martyrs, whose relics are placed there, they should make huts for themselves around those churches that have been converted from shrines, with branches of trees, and they should celebrate the festival with religious feasting. Do not let them sacriﬁce animals to the devil, but let them slaughter animals for eating in praise of God . . . It is doubtless impossible to cut out from their stubborn minds everything at once . . . Thus the Lord made himself known to the Israelites in Egypt; yet he preserved in his own worship the forms of sacriﬁce which they were accustomed to offer to the devil and commanded them to kill animals when sacriﬁcing to him (Leviticus 17: 1–9). He thereby changed their hearts . . . yet since the people were offering them to the true God and not to idols, they were not the same sacriﬁces.”
|Interior of the Pantheon |
by G P Pannini (1732)
In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Bede asserted that the King of Kent (King Æthelberht – a Christian convert) gave license to Christians to build and restore churches throughout the realm. This same King had also been urged by the Pope to destroy Pagan idols. If the Pope’s advice to Abbot Mellitus was adhered to then this building of churches would have included reusing or rebuilding over Pagan temples, while destroying the so called idols within them. Certainly this would be in keeping with the known 7th century practice on the continent of converting certain Pagan temples (most notably the Pantheon) into churches.
There are certain difficulties, nonetheless with the conclusion that Faversham Stone Chapel was a Romano-Celtic temple. As Dr Wilkinson pointed out:
“The layout of the upstanding ‘Roman’ building … as it survives at Stone Chapel is not the usual layout of a Romano-Celtic temple. The west doorway is on the wrong side for a pagan religious building but on the more usual side for a Christian religious building.
The internal altar is out of place for a pagan temple but probably correct for a Christian church.”
|A Romano-Celtic temple as imagined |
by P Dunn (for English Heritage)
When we recall that the building was effectively rebuilt in the 7th century, over a Roman building that was already 100s of years old at this point and perhaps in a state of disrepair and consequent malleability, these incongruous features are perhaps not so incongruous at all. Furthermore, not all Roman temples faced east (though most did) – for example, we know that the Pantheon faces north.
Dr Wilkinson goes on to state that:
“The topographic layout of the complex, the perimeter wall, the buildings not aligned to each other are the norm for a Romano-Celtic temple layout as seen on hundreds of sites across northern Europe …
The overall plan revealed by investigation and excavation is in keeping with similar precinct configurations surrounding Romano-Celtic temple sites found throughout northern Europe.”
Being now nearly completely convinced that the Roman structure within Faversham Stone Chapel was a Romano-Celtic temple one’s curiosity about this Roman structure is not slaked. To learn more I draw from a description of Romano-Celtic temples on the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum website, as follows:
|Romano-Celtic temples as imagined|
on web.rgzm.de (2012)
“Their distribution has a predominately southern bias, with concentrations in the south east and the south west [of England] being quite common both in town and country. These were first analysed by R. G. Collingwood … who describes them as being ‘a high, square or rectangular shrine surrounded on all sides by a portico or veranda.’. The inner shrine, or cella, commonly measured between 3.65 and 6.10m square, while the outer wall, which enclosed the ambulatory measured, externally, between 10.67 and 22.86m square. The cella would have stood higher than the surrounding enclosure wall and was lighted from windows high in the walls. The room was not intended to hold a congregation but was intended to be the focus for the ritual and to house the image of the god itself. In front of the cella, and within the area of the portico, would have stood the altar, necessary for sacrifices, along with subsidiary altars, provided by the worshippers, who, as a body, could be addressed in the enclosure or temenos … Simpler forms consist of round, rectangular or polygonal structures, while the more complex forms comprise concentric rectangular, polygonal or circular walls, with the inner cella being bounded by a portico of similar shape.”
This suggests that the original Roman structure, if it was a temple, did have windows after all. If this was the case it is possible that through some of these windows people may have thrown coins and other offerings, as well as rolled up sheets of lead requesting a particular favour from the temple’s designated God. At the very least we do know that temples were places for showing reverence, and making offerings, to a particular God, and that they could also function as a centre for healing and pilgrimage. The Roman structure within Faversham Stone Chapel could have been for any one (or all) of these things.
Statuette of a Romano-Celtic mother
Goddess, 2nd C (British Museum)
Further conjecture suggests that possibly the temple was built in honour of a mother Goddess for a:
“piece of pipe-clay figurine, which was … found in Stone Chapel Field, was identified … as part of the wicker-work chair on which sits a mother-goddess holding two infants to her breasts. These figurines. which are known from less than forty sites in Britain, were imported from the continent up to about 200 AD.”
If this were so the mother Goddess revered was likely to have been strongly associated with fertility – given the ancient and enduring agricultural nature of Kent.
It seems perhaps logical that a Pagan temple in honour of a mother Goddess would subsequently be rebuilt and renamed in honour of the Virgin Mary (“Our Lady of Elverton / Elwarton”), who is surely the closest Christian equivalent to a Pagan mother Goddess.
It is worth mentioning that the presence of three dog burials, buried during an uncertain era, in the Faversham Stone Chapel field may indicate that the Roman structure was associated with the cult of Orpheus (dogs being associated with Orpheus in Romano-Britain) – although they may well have been buried on church grounds by dog loving church goers during a subsequent (medieval) period.
We can only guess at the precise use of the original Roman structure – it may well have been a mausoleum, or even a temple Mausoleum in honour of deceased ancestors (such as has been found at Lullingstone), or a Romano-Celtic temple (the latter conclusion being the most convincing in my opinion, though I concede I am a dilettante when it comes to both history and archeology). Whatever the case, and perhaps because it is so uncertain, Faversham Stone Chapel holds me in her fascination.
- S. D. Church “Paganism in conversion-age Anglo-Saxon England” (2008) The Historical Association and Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Oxford. Sourced from eastanglia.academia.edu (2012)
- J A Rose of the Faversham Archaeological Research Group, cited on the Council for Kentish Archaeology website at cka.moon-demon.co.uk (2012)
- English Heritage at english-heritage.org.uk (2012)
- Kent Archaeological Field School at www.kafs.co.uk/pdf/stone-chapel.pdf (2012)
- faversham.org (2012)
- Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum website at web.rgzm.de (2012)
- archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com.au (2012)