Sacristy of St. Helen's Church - Cliffe History

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Remains of the Medieval Sacristy of St. Helen's Church

By PJ Tester
Arch. Cant. Vol. XCVI

This church has been fully described in two   articles in previous volumes of Arch. Cant. The earlier, by the Rev. I.G. Lloyd, appeared in   vol. xi (1877), and the second, accompanied by a   plan, by A.R. Martin, in vol. xli (1929). Both   these writers drew attention to evidence of   there having been a small building attached to   the north side of the fourteenth-century chancel   towards its east end, identified as a chapel or   sacristy. The evidence consists of two small   arched niches, one in the north (outer) face of   the chancel, and the other in the east side of   the second buttress from the end, these having   been at one time internal features. Martin   considered the former to have been a piscina and   the other possibly a holy water stoup. Between   the two buttresses the treatment of the chancel   wall is dissimilar from the decorative coursed   ragstone and flint facing of the rest of the   fourteenth-century work, being of random rubble,   and Martin considered this as indicative of its   being a survival of an earlier chancel and that   possibly the vanished building was pulled down   when the chancel was rebuilt in the fourteenth   century or soon after. Inside the chancel, a   doorway — now blocked — has fourteenth-century   mouldings and formerly communicated with the   destroyed building. On the outside the rough   rubble blocking of the opening is very apparent.

In 1978, the Rev. S.P. Gray, Rector of Cliffe,   requested our Society to carry out excavations   to ascertain the nature of the destroyed   building, and in May 1979 a small group of our   Members opened two wide trenches to reveal the   features shown in the accompanying plan (Fig.   1). Unfortunately, the presence of a strip of   concrete-set cobbling now runs at ground level   round this part of the church, constructed   recently to prevent surface water penetrate the   base of the walls, and we were consequently not   able to dig close to the chancel. Northward of   this obstruction, however, we uncovered   fragmentary remains of two ragstone walls and   the wide chalk foundation of the north wall with   two diagonal buttresses. It is thus possible to   state that the building measured internally 14   ft. from east to west and slightly over 9 ft. in   width, allowing for a slight setting back of the   north wall on its foundations.

Parallel with the east end there was a wall, 1   ft. thick, plastered on its west face and neatly   squared at the north end. The cobbled surface   prevented a full examination of this feature   which had apparently disintegrated at a point 2   ft. 6 in. from its northern extremity, but it   almost certainly formed the front of an altar,   the outline of which is restored conjecturally   on the plan. If the wall was free-standing with   a space between it and the end of the building,   as seems probable, the mensa or top slab of the   altar may have rested at the rear on a ledge or   corbels.
Immediately adjoining is the   small niche in the north face of the chancel,   interpreted as a piscina. A careful search   failed, however, to discover a drain-hole in its   very eroded base, but in view of the   disintegrated nature of the stonework this   negative evidence cannot be stressed.
Reference has already been made to the blocked   doorway form giving access from the chancel, and   this is shown in a photo accompanying Martin’s   article in 1929. As he noted, the blocking at   the north end descends some distance below the   internal cill, so it may be assumed that steps   existed in the thickness of the wall. From our   observations it is concluded that the floor of   the sacristy was about 3 ft. lower than that of   the chancel. When the sacristy was demolished   and the opening blocked, an extension of the   earlier string-course along this side of the   chancel was inserted, this now being in a very   eroded condition, whereas elsewhere the   stonework of the string-course has been renewed   in modern restoration. The fact that this insertion was   not continued eastward of the blocking may be   explained by the fact that to do so would have   involved the labour of cutting into the wall,   while the introduction of the feature during the   construction of the blocking would be   comparatively simple.
Both buttresses in   line with the east and west walls of the   sacristy have been extensively renewed in   restoration, but the low-arched niche in the   western of the pair is a surviving medieval   feature, its floor being 1 ft. 3 in. square   while the cill was about 2 ft. 6 in. above the   old floor-level. Its purpose is problematical,   for it has no rebate for a door or traces of   hinges such as would occur if it had been an   aumbry, and to Martin’s suggestion that it was a   holy water stoup (though there is no trace of a   basin and the floor is flat) I would add the   conjecture that it may have contained a lamp to   light the foot of the steep flight of steps   leading up to the chancel.
Corbels in the   chancel wall indicate the level of the sacristy   roof, and from this it may be judged that the   internal height of the building was   approximately 10 ft.
To the west, the   foot of a grave had been cut into the wall and   footings, indicating that the uncoffined burial   took place after the demolition of the sacristy.
Discussion. There can be little doubt that the destroyed   building was intended primarily as a sacristy or   vestry as its position in relation to the   chancel is that commonly assumed by such   structures in parish churches, as at Stone   (Dartford), Crayford and elsewhere.
The occurrence of an altar would not be out of   place in such a context before the Reformation.   As for its age, I see no reason why it should   not have been contemporary with the   fourteenth-century chancel. Diagonal buttresses   were rare before that period and the   indisputable fourteenth-century Decorated   moulded jamb of the entrance from the chancel is   partly covered by the plinth of the later   Perpendicular tomb. Martin’s observation that   part of the chancel wall coinciding with the   length of the sacristy is of rubble,   contrast with the banded facing of the remainder,   does not necessarily imply that it is of a   different age. As this area would have been   enclosed within the sacristy, it was not given   the elaborate banded treatment employed on the   exposed parts of the chancel, and was no doubt   originally plastered — as were nearly all   internal wall surfaces in medieval churches.   There is no clue as to when the sacristy was   demolished, but I consider it not unlikely to   have taken place at the Reformation when the   abolition of the medieval rites would have   rendered obsolete the vestments and other   liturgical ornaments, which the building was   provided to accommodate.

[1] Martin stated that ‘a plinth has been   inserted when the door was blocked up, to match   that round the rest of the chancel’, but in fact   the top chamfer of the actual plinth is well   below the string-course and is not continued   across the blocking.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Kent   Archaeological Society.

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