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Christianity in Tonbridge - The early years

The Beginning

St. Peter It can be assumed that the Saxons settled quickly in Tonbridge as it was very suitable for such a settlement.  The river would have provided a good means of transport for communication and trade.  There would have been ample timber for building because of the vast forests in the area.  Assuming that there was settlement, the spiritual needs of the community would have been met with a simple wooden chapel and a resident or visiting monk.

Preaching may have taken place in the open air next to a wooden or stone cross which marked the preaching place.  It is probable that the present church of St. Peter and St. Paul stands on the site where the cross would have stood.  There is also some evidence that a Saxon church stood on the site.  However, in the early 12th Century a small Norman church was built (see right, photo by Keith Halstead). 

The Priory

The Priory of St. Mary Magdalen was founded by Richard de Clare of Tonbridge Castle in 1124.  It became the home of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, the Black Canons (so called because of their black robes) who had settled in Tonbridge by 1253.  These popular monks went out preaching and were welcomed everywhere they went in Tonbridge and elsewhere.  The original Priory was burnt down in 1337.  The new replacement building had a chapter house, dormitory, refectory, church, vestry and library.

When it became known of the imminent suppression of the Priory in 1523, the people of Tonbridge wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury in protest although Wolsey offered to establish a grammar school in Tonbridge.  In a letter to William Whetnal and other people of the town, Archbishop Warham invited them to meet him in Maidstone to present their views on the matter.  The choice laid before them was a "free school of grammar at Tonbridge for 40 scholars, men's children from those parts and they afterwards to be promoted to Oxford, having exhibition for their findings at the school there or else to have continuance of the Priory there as it hath been in time past."
(Extract from Letters to Cromwell and others on the Suppression of Monasteries by G. H. Cook.)

Despite the wishes of the majority of the people of Tonbridge, the Priory was suppressed.  The doors of St. Mary Magdalen were closed by the last Prior Tomlyn on 8th February 1525.  At the time of the suppression there were eight canons at the Priory.

Tonbridge did not get the promised grammar school.  However, in 1553 Andrew Judd, a local citizen and skinner, gave land and houses to the Skinners' Company for a free Grammar School, now known as "Tonbridge School".

The last fragment of the ruined Priory disappeared when the railway came to Tonbridge.  Excavations for the railway goods yard in 1934 uncovered a monk's skeleton.  It was not preserved.  Today, apart from a few coffin lids which are in the castle, there is nothing left of the Priory in Tonbridge.

Tonbridge Martyrs

Like other towns in Kent, Tonbridge had its martyrs during the reign of Queen Mary.

In 1555, Margery Polley who was a widow from Pembury, was tried before the Bishop of Rochester and condemned for heresy to be burnt.  The Sheriff escorted her to Tonbridge via Dartford.  At Tonbridge, she bravely gave her life for her Protestant convictions.  A memorial to her can be found on the Green in Pembury, in the form of a trough for horses and cattle with a smaller one underneath for dogs.  As in the picture, it is now planted with flowers.

Memorial to Margery Polley

The inscription reads, "To the Memory of Margery Polley of Pembury who suffered Martyrdom at Tonbridge A.D. 1555."

Another martyr was Joan Beach, a widow from Tonbridge.  She was condemned to the stake by the same Bishop and was burnt in the Cathedral City of Rochester on April 1st, 1556.  Joan Beach accepted that the Holy Catholic Church was her mother church, but believed that only the Father in Heaven was her Father.  It was for this reason that the Bishop of Rochester saw fit to condemn her.  It all sounds very harsh today.

The story continues...

This is the first of four articles giving an overview of the development of Christianity and churches in Tonbridge.
The next section covers the 18th & 19th Centuries.

Main content and research © 2000 L. M. Simms and TOUCH 2000 / Tonbridge United Churches
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