Boxley History


Boxley, Detling and Thurnham churches are in a straight line. It is thought that they are standing on the old Roman road which came from Rochester. The pathway that leads to the churchyard may indicate where the Roman road was sited.
There is no evidence of a church existing at Boxley in Saxon times or before 1100 A.D. During restoration work on the church in 1857, an urn was found, thought to be Romano-British, which was considered to be thirteenth century, same date as parts of the main building.

Boxley Abbey

Boxley is most widely known for its Abbey, founded in 1146, but the remains of which have now all but disappeared. It came to have, in the Abbey Church, the ‘miraculous’ Holy Rood of Grace’. This was a figure of Christ upon the Cross, which tradition says was so cleverly made by an English carpenter, whilst a prisoner in France, that it could nod and wink and move its limbs and frown and smile. The monks encouraged the many pilgrims, who called at the Abbey, to lay down gifts and see, in these movements, signs that they, the pilgrims, might be leading good enough lives to lead them to Heaven. Sadly, it was the monks hiding ‘behind the scenes’ who were pulling strings to achieve the appropriate nods and winks from the figure of Christ and the most favourable signs were given to those pilgrims who had donated the largest gifts.

There was a similar ‘miracle’ in the form of a stone figure of a saint, which only the pure of heart could lift. But, of course, for the right gift a hidden monk would press a lever to assist the figure to rise.

As a result of all this trickery, the gifts from thousands of pilgrims made the Abbey extremely rich. The Cistercian monks, who were supposed to lead simple and holy lives, became wealthy and corrupt. When Henry VIII dissolved all the English Abbeys and Monasteries in the 1530’s the trickery at Boxley was exposed and helped to justify Henry’s actions.

Boxley Parish

The ecclesiastical parish of Boxley is widespread. It stretches up and over the Downs, almost into Bredhurst and Walderslade, westward through Sandling towards Aylesford, and south easterly to Weavering and the new development at Grove Green bordering on the Ashford road. It is reputed to be the largest parish (in area) within the diocese of Canterbury.


Boxley, Detling and Thurnham churches are in a straight line. It is thought that they are standing on the old Roman road which came from Rochester. The pathway that leads to the churchyard may indicate where the Roman road was sited. It is known that in post-Roman Britain use was made of old Roman foundations on which to erect buildings. The present lane from Boxley to Detling diverges slightly so as to circumvent Boxley church but then at the end of a nearby cherry orchard continues in a straight line towards Detling.
There is no evidence of a church existing at Boxley in Saxon times or before 1100 A.D. During restoration work on the church in 1857, an urn was found which was thought to be Romano-British, but the curator of Maidstone museum considered it to be thirteenth century – the same date as parts of the main building.

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The Narthex

This is the area you pass through on entering the church. In the north wall can be seen two pillars and arches. An example of “dog tooth” decoration found on the exposed capital at the top of one of the pillars confirms

that they belong to the Norman period. Originally the narthex formed the central aisle of a small Norman church; the chancel being where the bell tower now stands. In the north wall can be seen a small doorway opening onto a stairway. The stairs could have led to a rood screen. There may also have been an upper chamber where the curate lived. The narthex became the property of the Vinters Estate - it is not known when or why – and was used as a burial chamber. There are memorials to the Whatmans (of Whatman paper) and to the Trousdells who handed the building back to the church after the Second World War. Under the bell tower, look at the Bequest to the Poor of the parish, beside the door to the tower. Upper room on mezzanine and kitchen/loo below.

The Body of the Church

On entering the main body of the church, one is impressed by the spacious and well proportioned building. It is divided into two sections – the nave containing the pews for the congregation and the chancel where the choir stalls and the Holy Table stand.

The Nave

The earliest part of the nave was built in the thirteenth century. Originally it simply consisted of the central aisle and the graceful Early English pillars. It had the appearance of what we now call an assembly hall. Indeed, part of its purpose was just that – a place where the local inhabitants could assemble for a variety of activities quite apart from worship. Within the following hundred years the north and south aisles were added as well as the chancel. Because of the present pews the form of the pillars and the space they provide cannot be fully appreciated. These pews replaced the old box pews in 1857. They are so designed that only with difficulty is it possible to kneel, obliging the worshipper to adopt the “protestant crouch”. Being uncomfortable, they do not encourage sleep during the sermon!
Two incidental features are worth noting. First, the pillars lean outwards resembling the vertical trusses of the hull of a boat. In medieval Europe the church building was looked upon as being the “Ark of God” – a place which could be entered so as to ride the storms of life. Secondly, the door at the west end could be barred and so could that of the south porch. Look for the holes.

The Chancel

The chancel is built at an angle to the nave. This is not unknown. One explanation is that it speaks of Christ’s death – his head leaning to one side. In 1848 the floor of the chancel was raised giving the congregation a better view of the Holy Table. In 1876 a great deal of refurbishment took place. An ornate marble reredos was erected alongside the east wall. It remains today, sometimes hidden by the orange/red curtain. The choir pews were installed as well as the organ. Before this the choir with instrumentalists gathered in the musicians’ gallery that projected from out of the wall at the west end of the nave. The present altar was given in memory of Colonel Alexander Trousdell, the late owner of the Vinters Estate, who died in 1965. It was designed by Lawrence King, and with the curtains behind, adds richness to the whole building.
The former silver cross, candlesticks and processional cross were stolen – the thief breaking in through the north window by the altar. Whilst in the chancel, turn and look down the nave to the west wall. Notice the two squints (little windows) on the right hand side. This is where a bell ringer would look out for the moment when the priest raised the Holy Bread at the Mass. He would ring the bell to inform the local inhabitants that the service had arrived at its most important point.

The Organ

This was originally installed in 1860 with a single manual. A second manual was added by Messrs. Bevington of Soho. An electric blower was added in 1949 with the oak veneer panelling. There is a very rare stop on the swell called a Bell Diapason. In 2006 the organ was refurbished.

The Memorials and Windows

On the north wall of the chancel is found the imposing memorial to the Wiat family, who were Lancastrians during the Wars of the Roses. After the Reformation they were given Boxley Abbey as their residence. The plaque shows that it was a distinguished family whose members underwent many adventures. Sir Henry Wiat spent some time locked up in the Tower of London, where a cat brought him food each day which kept him from starvation … mice, perhaps? Hawt Wiat was a vicar of the parish, while Francis was Governor of Virginia from 1621 – 1626, and again in 1638. He married Margaret, daughter of Sir Samuel Sandys, whose younger brother, George, lived his latter days at Boxley Abbey. George was a respected traveller and poet and a gentleman of the Privy Chamber. He is considered by some to be Boxley Abbey’s most famous son, the greatest poet of his time and certainly the most saintly. A tablet and window dedicated to his honour are situated in the North Aisle.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, often stayed with his sister at Park House, Sandling. He attended her wedding to a member of the Lushington family. His name appears on his sister’s memorial in the South Aisle.
The only window of note is that in the South Aisle. It was executed by John Hayward in 1982. It depicts the Madonna and Child, being based on Revelation chapter 12: “A woman robed with the sun, beneath her feet the moon and on her head a crown of twelve stars – Her Child was born”. (To do with Michael Cooper?)
There are two brasses: ribbings can be seen in the narthex. They rest on the grave of a certain William Snell. Why was he buried in the centre of the nave, one wonders!
The mosaics in the chancel are in memory of Frederick Richards, vicar from 1853 to 1896. The memorial by the font is in memory of William Cadman, vicar from 1896 to 1907.
In the churchyard further memorials can be found. These are worth a visit. The churchyard is kept as unspoilt as possible and is a peaceful haven not only for the departed but also for many wild flowers, butterflies and insects.

The North Aisle

The chapel dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament was restored in 1964. Above it is a stained glass window depicting the Transfiguration of Christ. An interesting detail is Elijah on the right hand side with a raven by his shoulder. On the left hand side of the chapel is a small door. It opens onto a stairway which led to a great screen stretching right across the entrance of the chancel. On it there stood a crucifix with St Mary and St John as well as statues of St James, St Lawrence, St Christopher and Pope Gregory. The priest used to mount this screen during Mass to read the Gospel and lead the intercessions. It was destroyed during the Reformation. Close to this door is an intercessions board and a candelabra. They are a focus of prayer for the needs of people today.

Rectors and Vicars

It is not known when the Christian faith came to Boxley. Justus was appointed Bishop of Rochester in 604, and no doubt missionaries came to Boxley via the Roman road from Rochester. According to the Revd. J Cave-Brown’s “Boxley Parish” the first recorded rector of the parish is Ansfridus. He was followed by Galfridus Rufus who was a chaplain to Henry I and his High Chancellor in 1107. Recors often had extra tasks to perform other than being an incumbent of a parish. Frequently they would appoint a curate to live in the parish to perform the parochial duties. In 1337, Archbishop Sudbury tried to enforce residence of the clergy in parishes. By this time the patronage of the parish had been passed from the Crown to the Prior of St Andrew’s priory at Rochester. He had the responsibility of providing a priest for Boxley. From then on the priest was known as a vicar and not a rector and all the tithes of the parish went to the priory.
This continued right up to the Reformation, although occasionally, it appears, the Bishop of Rochester did have a hand in some of the appointments. After the Reformation, the Dean and Chapter of Rochester were the patrons until the patronage came into the hands of the Archbishop of Canterbury some time around 1912, during the incumbency of “Parson Hale”, as he was known – the last Vicar to have a vicarage full of servants and his sons at Eton. (For a brief spell, John Woolton of Smarden was patron: why, nobody knows!) Certainly one and maybe two rectors and three vicars of Boxley have later become Bishops. Galfridus Rufus may have been the Bishop of Durham in 1133; he has the same name. Thomas de Cobham became the Bishop of Worcester in 1317. He was the first local man to be a priest of Boxley. William Markham became Bishop of Chester in 1771 and was transferred to York in 1777. Brownlow North, the brother of Lord North, the Prime Minister, became Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry in 1771, and later of Worcester in 1774. Is a little nepotism to be seen here? Samuel Goodenough was appointed to Carlisle in 1808. Since that date no vicar has risen above the rank of Archdeacon, but all have been faithful priests.

Boxley Abbey

This lies a mile south-west across the fields and can be approached by a footpath starting behind the “King’s Arms”. Now a private residence, its principal remains are the extensive perimeter walls enclosing seventeen acres, the site of the nave of the Abbey Church (now a beautiful garden) and a great 14th Century guest house, now a barn. The Abbey was founded by William of Ipres, Earl of Kent in 1146 and was a Cistercian foundation. In 1381 we know that eighteen monks were in residence. The Abbey was dissolved in 1538, when the Abbot and nine monks received pensions.
Boxley Abbey became famous for its two miraculous images. Archbishop Warham wrote to Wolsey about Boxley as “so holy a place where so many miracles might be showed”. Contemporary accounts of these images are available, but in reading them we can become aware of the fierce prejudices of the writers who, in some cases, owed their eminence and rise in fortune to their support of Henry VIII’s actions.
The Statue of St Romauld could only be lifted by those of clean lives. “Such who paid the priest well might easily remove it, which others might try it to no purpose … chaste virgins and wives went away with blushing faces, while others came off with more

because with more coin, though with less chastity.” (So wrote a contemporary, Lambarde.)
The Rood of Grace was an ingenious Crucifix with a head that bowed, mouth that opened, eyes that rolled. Here indeed was a miracle! Hundreds of pilgrims came to Boxley. The Abbot was concerned about this situation and wrote to Archbishop Warham about it.
However, after the sacking of the Monastery by Henry VIII’s Commissioners, they found the Rood to be made of “certain ingynes of olde wyer, with olde roton stykkes in the backe”, and its fame had arisen from its “sotell handelynge”. Here was magnificent propaganda material against the Pope! It was seized by the Commissioners, exhibited in Maidstone market and taken to London. Here John Hilsey, an ex-Dominican friar lately made Bishop of Rochester, who was one of Thomas Cromwell’s most unscrupulous agents, preached an inflammatory sermon in St Paul’s Churchyard, after which the image was publicly burned in 1539.
The Abbey like other monasteries was destroyed, for very mixed motives. No great moral corruption was discovered here, the monks seeming to be rather too fond of gillyflower and roses. So a great religious house disappeared, though in modern times religious houses have been reopened nearby at Aylesford (Carmelite Friars, RC) and at West Malling (Benedictine Nuns, Anglican).

The “Pilgrim’s Way

It is a pity to have to destroy a popular illusion. This trackway, like similar routes at the foot of the South Downs, the Chiltern Hills and other ranges of the south of England, is very ancient indeed, dating back well before the Iron Age. Its “pilgrim” name was attached by an over-zealous Ordnance Survey

Officer in the 1860’s. The patient work of the Kent and Surrey Archaeological Societies has revealed little or no support for it before the nineteenth century. Lambarde, Hasted, Camden, Aubrey – none of these great historians of Kent mention it. (And, after all, Chaucer’s pilgrims used the A2!)
It remains, however, an attractive walking way for the energetic who may look down at Boxley and its string of Saxon sister villages. The visitor should particularly look for the White Horse Stone and for Kit’s Coty, remains of burial chambers of Neolithic times, present long before the coming of Romans or Christianity … silent witnesses to the immense past of the country in which they stand.