Friday, 22 October 2010

St. Mary, Minster-in-Thanet

     No narrative of this monumental parish church can rightly commence without first recounting the legend of Minster's original Abbey, founded in the year 669 AD.  The manor was held by the Saxon King of Kent, Egbert.  His two nephews were his heirs, and the suggestion was put to him by one of his thanes, Thunnor, that they would try to usurp his throne.  Thunnor suggested that it would be better to do away with them, and offered to take care of it himself.  Egbert agreed but, after the deed was done, was filled with remorse.  He asked the Archbishop of Canterbury how he could atone for the murders, and was told to found an abbey for the boys' sister, Ermenburga, Queen of Mercia.  Egbert complied, and asked her how much land she would need.  She replied that she would need as much land as her pet hind could cover in one run.  The animal was let loose but Thunnor, in an attempt to scare it off, rode across its path and, according to legend, was lost when the earth opened up and swallowed him.  The spot where this is said to have happened is a pit on the hill above the village of Eastry which, to this day, is known as "Thunnor's Leap."

Minster Abbey
      Ermenburga's abbey was built at Minster, and she took the religious name of Domneva, first Abbess of Minster.  Her daughter, Mildred, succeeded her, becoming the most famous local saint after Augustine, and is still regarded today as the Patron Saint of Thanet.

     St. Mary's today is the grand result of a gradual rebuilding of an earlier Saxon church, the remains of which may be seen in the square south-east turret, and the reused Roman tiles in the quoins low down in the tower.  The work began in 1150 with the Norman tower, north and south transepts, and nave with aisles; and ended in 1230 with the Early English chancel.  Unfortunately, the original spire was brought down in the Great Storm of October 1987, and replaced with one of those awful ribbed spires encountered earlier in this journal at Elham.  Many of the ledger stones that paved the gangway between the pews have been moved outside and flank the churchyard path, presumably effected during the restorations of 1861-3, or later in the 1970's.

     The church houses a set of eighteen 15th century choir stalls, with misericords, and an ancient muniment chest.  Some say that it was William the Conqueror's treasure chest, or, that it was brought to Minster full of rations for Cromwell's troops.  Syms remarks that it is "certainly old enough for either flight of fancy."  Whatever, it seems an appropriately ancient relic to be found in this fine church, whose genesis can be traced back to the 7th century - and the dark days of yore.


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