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The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

Saint Mary the Virgin - Dover

The Parish Church dedicated to St Mary the Virgin has shared to the full in both the spiritual and civic life of the ancient town and port of Dover. It is situated in the centre of the town in the main street (Cannon Street) and close the old Market Square, for centuries the hub of activity, and still at the centre of the town's life. The Church has been increased in size three times, and excavations under the floor near the font have shown that it is built on the site of Roman baths.

The first tiny Saxon Church of St Mary was built by the Secular Canons of Dover, twenty-four in number, who lived originally in Dover Castle in what is still known as the Canons' Gate. They were pioneers of Christianity in Dover and East Kent for nearly four centuries.

In 697AD, King Withred built them a Church and Monastery of St Martin, near the site of the present Market Square. To take services at St Marys they would walk from St Martins by way of the present main street, which thus became known as Canon Street (now spelt Cannon Street). We do not know when the Saxon Church was built, but it was destroyed by the Normans in the Fire of Dover in 1066. The present Church is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, so it must have been built before then, but the exact date is unknown.

St Marys is one of three Dover churches mentioned in the Domesday Book, the others being St James and St Peter, and the amount of the annual payment to the Canons of St Martins was 38/8d. As St Marys paid the largest part of this sum, it seems likely that it was the most important of the three.

In the 16th Century, after the Dissolution of Religious Houses, St Marys was given to the people of Dover by King Henry VIII, a frequent visitor to this town and church. The Rev John Reading, Vicar in the 17th Century, was imprisoned as a Royalist during the Civil War, and his place was taken by five succeeding ministers, who were known as the intruders. At the Restoration John Reading was reinstated, as Vicar, and it was he who, along with the Mayor and Corporation, met King Charles II and presented him with a Bible when His Majesty landed at Dover.

In 1843-44, during the incumbency of Canon Puckle, the old medieval building was rebuilt, with the exception of the tower, in the style of the time.. During this rebuilding work, the roof was raised and a clerestory added, as well as the sanctuary apse at the east end, while the south aisle was widened to match the north aisle.

During the Second World War Dover was a Naval base, and many Navy personnel worshipped regularly in St Marys. The Church suffered considerable damage owing to enemy action, but miraculously was not directly hit. On leaving Dover the Navy made a gift that there might be some mark of their having used the Church during the War. With that gift and money from the War Damage Commission, the Seafarers' Window was installed in 1958, with badges of various seafaring organisations including the Royal and Merchant Navies and the Royal Dutch Navy, and carrying the dedication 'To the Glory of God, and to commemorate all those who sailed from this Port in the Second World War, especially those who gave their lives in the service of their King and Country'.

1961 saw the first visit to the Dover Deanery of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Michael Ramsey and in 1980 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, dedicated a memorial window to the Air Sea Rescue servicemen. In 1987, the Church sprang to international prominence when it was the venue for the Memorial Service to those who died in the tragic sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise car ferry off the coast of Belgium. On the evening of 6th March, the ship had set sail for Dover and capsized shortly after leaving the port of Zeebrugge, with the loss of 193 lives. At the service, the church was packed with friends and relatives of those who died, many of whom still make an annual visit to the church, which is kept open on the anniversary of the tragedy for them to pay their respects. The Herald Memorial Window provides a focal point and a quiet area for prayer and remembrance.

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