(« back to home page)

English Church Architecture -



DOVER, St. Mary-in-Castro (TR 326 417)       (September 2009)

(Bedrock: Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)


    "The sea is calm tonight.
    The tide is full, the moon lies fair
    Upon the straits; - on the French coast the light
    Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
    Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
    Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
    Only, from a long line of spray   
    Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,
    Listen! you hear the grating roar
    Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
    At their return, up the high strand,
    Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
    With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
    The eternal note of sadness in."


It seems a far cry from the view out to sea across the ramparts of Dover castle on a sunny September afternoon, to Matthew Arnold’s mournful description of Dover beach one night in 1851, but the metaphor he conjured up in this poem to portray the ebbing away of the old religious certainties in the face of developing scientific knowledge, finds another parallel today in the great castle stranded on the hill, surrounded by the hullabaloo of the modern town below, with its bustling harbour and congested ring road.


St. Mary’s-in-Castro (shown right from the southeast, and at the top of the page, looking across the castle from the north) was built on the highest part of the hill c. 1000 and so had stood here already for three-quarters of a century before William the Conqueror commenced the building around it of what would, in the course of the next one hundred and fifty years, become one of the greatest castles in England.  The church was not the first building on this site, however, for immediately beside it, and still standing today, is a most remarkable Roman lighthouse or “pharos”, which was probably erected  in the second century A.D. and which, in the opinion of Guy de la Bédoyère (The Buildings of Roman Britain, pub. Batsford, 1991), may have then risen to approximately eighty feet (25 m.) in as many as eighteen stepped octagonal stages.  Of this, the lower forty-three feet (13 m.) remain, devoid of their outer facing, and the nineteen feet (5.8 m.) above are now a fifteenth century addition, superimposed during a period when the lighthouse was serving as a bell-tower for the church to which it may then have been connected.  (See the thumbnail, left, viewed from the northwest.)


The church was described by John Newman (in the Kent volume of The Buildings of England, 3rd edition, pub. Penguin, 1983) as “the outstanding Late Saxon building in the county”, which it certainly is, if only through lack of competition, but it is important not to make too extravagant a claim for it, for a photograph taken in 1862 shows it standing “roofless and eyeless” in Walter de la Mare’s phrase, showing almost everything above a line about halfway up the windows in the nave and chancel, and above the nave roof in the tower, to be the work of the restorers.  These were men of repute, however, even if neither did his best work here, namely Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-78) in the case of the nave, chancel and transepts, and William Butterfield (1814 - 1900) in the case of the upper parts of the tower and much of the internal decoration.  The following notes will describe the surviving Saxon work first, then the early thirteenth century work from a remodelling of the E. end and crossing c. 1200-20, and finally the work of Scott in 1862 and Butterfield in 1888.


The most important surviving feature of the original Saxon building is probably its plan, which is cruciform with a central tower of stone, which was one of the very few erected in this period.  The Saxon masonry throughout consists largely of flint rubble, with blocks of Kentish ragstone and re-used Roman brick employed as quoins and dressings around doors and windows.  (See the northeast angle of the nave, illustrated right.)  Specific elements of the building to notice include the blocked arch in the W. wall with a Gothic doorway set off-centre within it, the round-arched doorway above (sic - what was this for?), the blocked doorway in the nave S. wall, and the round sound holes (if such they are) in the walls of the tower, two to the east and three each to the north and south, while inside, there are the impressive round crossing arches to east and west, preserved to their full height and capably turned in Roman brick.  (The photograph on the left shows the W. crossing arch in poor lighting conditions, looking towards the nave.)


The early thirteenth century work includes the chancel windows to north and south, which, although externally renewed, retain their original side shafts within, the pointed N. and S. crossing arches with nook shafts at the angles, and the corner shafts to the vaults above the chancel and crossing, each formed of a single bay.  (The photograph, right, shows the corner shaft in the northeast angle of the chancel.)  Newman also considered the vaults themselves to be contemporary, but the photograph of 1862, though not entirely conclusive, suggests this is unlikely. Thus the form of the compound ribs, which are composed of two rolls sandwiching a line of dog-tooth, like the ribs to the vault above St. Thomas Becket’s chapel inside the castle keep, instead of suggesting the same mason was responsible for both, may simply show the source of Scott’s design, and if that is the case, this uncoupling of the early Gothic work on the church from the construction of the castle keep c. 1180-90, might then also allow for the more specifically Early English idiom of the former, as opposed to the Transitional style of the latter.   


However, whether Scott was responsible for the vaults in the church or not, his work here does certainly show a real and not entirely typical concern, to harmonize with its surroundings.  Thus his nave windows, for example, are round-arched and turned in brick, in similar fashion to the blocked Saxon S. doorway (seen in an internal view on the left), and his N. doorway is a thirteenth century piece in every particular except date(!), and while it is not easy to tell how much mediaeval work remained to guide Scott in 1862, pre-existing work by no means always restrained the nineteenth century church builder who thought he had something better to offer.  As for the height of the restored nave, Scott certainly had the line of weathering in the tower W. wall to inform him of this, for it is clearly visible in the photograph taken just before work commenced.  It stands just a little taller than the chancel which, in turn, rises only a little above the transepts.  The roofs to all of these parts of the building are presumably also Scott's.


Butterfield finished the short broad tower in bricks of comparable thickness and colour to the Roman material, about a quarter of a century later, but his sympathy for the ancient building did not extend much further.  The tower’s stepped parapet is inoffensive enough, albeit not really appropriate, and the corbel table supporting it is no worse than uninspired, but except in the reredos (right), which is fair, his interior decoration falls some way short even of this.  Butterfield was seventy-four in 1888 and the fires of his creativity were burning less brightly, but that this was not a project that reawakened his genius, is evident at once in the repetitive rectangular-patterned mosaic work that seems to have spread almost everywhere.  Butterfield’s church interiors are almost never dull but this is an exception.


The visitor who emerges less impressed than he or she expected on entering, might wish to pause, therefore, to take in again the sweeping view over the sea to east, south and west, with the cliffs of France clearly visible just twenty-four miles away.  It is one of the most spectacular panoramas in southern England, yet Matthew Arnold, writing, incredibly, on his honeymoon, when he might reasonably have been expected to be in a positive frame of mind, did not seem to have been very happy....


    “The Sea of Faith
    Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
    Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
    But now I only hear
    Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
    Retreating, to the breath
    Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
    And naked shingles of the world.
    “Ah, love, let us be true
    To one another! for the world, which seems
    To lie before us like a land of dreams,
    So various, so beautiful, so new,
    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
    Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
    And we are here as on a darkling plain
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
    Where ignorant armies clash by night.”