top of page

St Michael, Hernhill

St Michael’s Church overlooks the village green at the heart of the picturesque, rural village of Hernhill and serves the outlying hamlets within the parish of approximately 10 square kilometres. Surrounding countryside is mainly fruit- growing farmland.  The village of Hernhill ,probably, takes its name from Old English and means “The hill of the Hares”.

The church is open every day, until dusk, for private prayer or just a visit, which is greatly appreciated by locals and visitors to the village. There is a popular book exchange stall for the community in the north aisle. 


The Grade 1 listed building is principally 15th century, although there has been a church on the site since 1120.

The earliest record of a church being in Hernhill is in the Domesday Monachorum  of 1086 where it said the church at “Haranhylle”was subordinate to the mother church at Cyrringe (Charing).

The first named vicar was William de Schoreham or William Shorman as he appears on the list of incumbents on the west wall of the church. In the Lambeth Registers, Hernhill is referred to as a chapel dependent on Boughton-under-Blean and Shorman was vicar of both from 1283 to 1285. The churches at Boughton and Hernhill have been joined and separated many times in their long history.  

Parts of the earlier church remain in the south aisle where marks left by the 12th century masons are etched into the wall. Then the church was dedicated to St Stephen, the area where the organ stands has always been known as the chapel of St Stephen. Within the south wall is the piscine, where the chalice and paten were washed after communion in the chapel, and the aumbry, a closed cupboard, which would have been used for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament or the Holy Oils. This now houses the church’s communion pewter plates, dating from the 15th/ 16th century.


The 15th Century was considered to be the golden age of church building, as many fell into disrepair in the 14thcentury because of the  bubonic plaque. Lady Elizabeth Martyn, the wife of John Martyn , lord of the manor at Dargate, was responsible for  the  building of the 15th century  church in Hernhill. The legend is that when her husband and son went to France to fight with Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt (1415), Lady Elizabeth pledged to rebuild the church if they returned home safely. This may have been when the church was re-dedicated to St Michael and All Angels. It was built in the distinctively English perpendicular style of the time with the graceful, slender columns and four centred arches of Bethersden Marble separating the nave from the aisles. The windows are taller than wider and have pointed arches with elaborate tracery and strong vertical lines provided by the mullions. The east window in the north aisle and the south window in the chancel are classic examples of the perpendicular design. The church is one of the few in Kent which is still wholly in the perpendicular style.  


To celebrate the completion of their project, the Martyn Family installed a memorial window, fragments of which can still be seen in the south window of the chancel.  This 15th century glass survived the ravages of Cromwell and his men because it was hidden in a local barn. It was probably installed during the reign of Edward IV (1461-1483) as it contains the image of the sun in splendour, the heraldic badge of Edward. There are also the white roses of York. The Martyns were definitely showing their loyalty to Edward during the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487).   


The chancel was extended in 1833 and the altar was raised on a predella with three steps leading to it. This was probably due to the influence of the  Oxford Movement,  formed in the 1830’s to reinstate the old Roman  Catholic traditions and practices into worship. Lieutenant Colonel Percy Groves financed these improvements and the commemorative stone on the outside wall above the east window bears his name and the year 1833. He was a great benefactor to the church and lived in Grove Place, Boughton. (Colonel’s Lane in Boughton is named after him). The  east window is in memory of one of his daughters and the two windows either side of the altar commemorate him and his family.


The Victorians  played an important part in creating the church we see today with their major restructuring and reordering in  the 1870’s,  at a total cost of £1,400.  The box pews were removed, the wife of the vicar’s pew was used as a pig pen. The Jacobean pulpit and tester was replaced with the current Victorian one. The ten wooden panels from the Jacobean pulpit were fixed to the east and north walls of the Lady Chapel to form a dado. The musicians’ gallery at the west end of the church was dismantled.  A newspaper article at the time referred to the “Removal of the hideous gallery at the west end”. The lathe and plaster ceilings in the nave and south aisle were removed to reveal the beams and king posts supporting the roofs. The rood loft was removed and, fortunately, the 15th century oak screen remained. The original tiled floor was lifted and the medieval tiles were used to form external ground gutters around the perimeter of the church.  


The heavy oak inner door of the porch, with handmade nails, stud, staples and lock is unchanged from when it was first hung as the outer door 600 years ago, before the porch was built. The area above the door is dominated by the list of benefactors.


The alms box on a low pillar in the north aisle is a relic from the days when every parish was responsible for its paupers and this was the receptacle for donations to help that cause. Today, it is used to collect donations from visitors to help with the cost of maintaining this beautiful and historic building.


At the end of the north aisle is the Lady Chapel, which is also known as the Dawes Memorial Chapel. The Dawes family have played a significant role in church and village life since they moved to Mount Ephraim over 300 years ago. The chapel in memory of Sir Edwyn Sandys Dawes was dedicated by Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1915.  There are memorials to many of the family, including the large brass plaque over the entrance to the chancel which lists the names of those who were buried in the chancel, as their original tablets over the family vault were removed when the chancel was extended. The east window in the chapel is by the famous Pre-Raphaelite artist Harry Holiday, and is in memory of Henrietta Mary Dawes, the mother of Sir Edwyn. The other window is in memory of Sir Edwyn Dawes who was knighted for his services to shipping.

There is another piscine on the left of the arch leading to the chancel.  On the chancel side of this arch there are carvings of an acorn and oak leaf – the personal trade mark of the mason. The choir stalls were installed at the start of the 20th century to commemorate the end of the Boer War.


The reredos is in memory of Charles Warton who lived at Kemsdale and was the engineer responsible for building the railway line from Faversham to Thanet in 1860. The beautiful window showing the Deposition and Ascension of Christ at the west end of the south aisle is also in memory of him.  He served as deputy Lord Lieutenant, a JP  and churchwarden. His initials (CW) appear on the tower’s 1854 weather vane, along with EC ( Edward Curling )  his fellow churchwarden. 

The organ  has been awarded a Grade 1 certificate by the British Institute of Organ Studies and is listed in the institute’s register of historic pipe organs as “being an instrument of importance to the national heritage and one deserving careful preservation for the benefit of future generations.”  It was made by Bevington and Sons of Soho     and was transported from London by train. Attached to the interior of one of the wooden panels is a delivery note reading “ Bevington and Sons, Mr Dawes Faversham Station. To be called for. Carriage paid in London 21st July 1882”. Mr Dawes would have arranged for it to be safely delivered to Hernhill. Once in the church the organ was built by Bevington and located at the eastern end of the north aisle. It was moved to the south side of the chancel in 1903 and in 2011 relocated to its current position.  Until 1948 it was hand blown, which it still can be if there is a power cut. The pump handle on the side is surrounded by graffiti, mainly the initials and names of the many that had the job of pumping it during the service. A brass plaque on the organ commemorates the marvellous achievements of Blanche Foreman who was organist for 71 years  from 1896 to 1967.      


The top lights in the three windows in the south aisle show scenes from the Old and New Testaments. They are believed to be late Georgian and possibly painted by amateur artists. However, it is a mystery how and when they were installed.  The lower painted panels tell the story of Joseph and were painted in 1836 by Cassandra Handley, the wife of Reverend Charles Handley who was vicar of Hernhill from 1815 to 1866.  A portrait of him as a young man, painted in 1811, hangs on the west wall above the door to the tower.  Their joint memorial is on the south wall above Mrs. Handley’s paintings.

In 1236 Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Rich, decreed that “Fonts are to be kept under lock and key because of witch craft” This was to protect the Holy Water which was kept in the font. There would have been an ornate tall cover over the font with a hoist to lift the heavy structure. The bracket that held the pulley can still be seen in the arch above the font. During Cromwell’s time, instructions were given to destroy fonts, which may have been  when the ornate cover disappeared,  but perhaps the full removal of the font was too much of a job, so it survived.


The large brass chandelier in the nave is early 19th century and was candle-lit until 1928, when gas was installed. It was converted to electricity in 1948.


In the 16th century there were only three bells in the belfry. In 1785 they were re-cast and an additional two were purchased.  In 1886, three new bells were cast and installed: thus creating the peal of eight bells still in use today.  A set of carillon chimes was also fitted, which can be operated from the ground floor.  A major restoration of the bells took place in 1997. 


High up on the west wall, almost hidden by the roof timbers is the hagioscope or squint which was discovered during the reordering of the church in the 1870’s. It provides a bird’s eye view of the altar from the ringing chamber and was used to ensure the Sanctus Bell was struck at the correct time during the Eucharist.


Behind the wooden screen across the central arch is the kitchenette and toilet, which were installed in 2011. Prior to this, the area was used as the vestry. There is no internal access to the west door of the church, it hasn’t been used since the beginning of the 20th century.   The old musicians’ gallery was situated above where the screen is. High up on the right hand side of the arch is some 17th/18th century graffiti,  the image of a fairly large matchstick man etched into the stone, probably drawn  by a bored musician or chorister during the very long sermons of that time. 


The Royal Coat of Arms dates from the reign of George III and may have been painted to replace an earlier version in order to show the arms of England, Scotland and Ireland , following the Act of Union with Ireland in 1801. In the centre, the Hanoverian escutcheon was added after 1810 by painting it on a separate piece of wood to cover the original, which would not have shown a crown because Hanover did not become a kingdom until 1814. At the time the vicar was Dr. Charles Burney (1811-1814) who was also chaplain to King George III.  His sister, Frances or Fanny, was keeper of the robes for Queen Charlotte and a celebrated satirical novelist, diarist and playwright.  Dr Burney was a respected Greek scholar and a member of the Royal Society. On his death his large collection of rare books and manuscripts were purchased for the nation and are now housed in the British Library.  


The old church wardens’ chest behind the back pew is inscribed with a date of 1691 and “Churchwardens”, although it is, probably, much older as there were church records dating back to 1557 in it, which are now in the archives at Canterbury Cathedral.  It is a hollowed piece of oak with a solid slab of oak for the lid and would have been used for the storage of church records, which had to be kept in a locked chest.  It has three locks and the vicar and church wardens would have a key for each lock so the chest could only be open if all three were present.   


There are two mysteries regarding the building which, as yet, no definitive answers have been found. What is the purpose of the long timber board on the north wall?  Was it the back of the Jacobean Pulpit? In Jacobean times the  emphasis  was on  long sermons and sometimes the large pulpits  were placed on the long north wall of churches in order  to face as many members of the congregation as possible. The Jacobean panels from the old pulpit are almost 5.5 metres in length if placed side by side. Would they have formed the front of the pulpit? The second mystery is the ancient hand-made nails, embedded at the feet and head of all the nave columns.    


Outside, ‘God’s little acre’ overlooks the orchards and hills of the surrounding countryside and, unlike many in the county, the churchyard is still open for burials. Few of the stone memorials date further than 300 years ago. The oldest graves are on the south and west side of the church.


On the north side of the church is believed to be the resting place of a Cornishman, born John Nichols Tom, who styled himself Sir William Percy Honeywood  Courtenay, Knight of Malta. He was a very imposing and flamboyant character who had been involved in many exploits prior to his arrival in Hernhill in August 1837, after being released from the asylum at Barming.  Following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, unscrupulous farmers keeping wages low and with the additional burden of paying tithes to the church, there was already smouldering unrest amongst the poor before Courtenay arrived.


Claiming to be the Second Coming of the Messiah, Courtenay used his good knowledge of the Bible to portray his message of a better life for the agricultural workers if they followed him, and some of the desperate, gullible ones did.  After marching around the local countryside trying to get new recruits, on 31st May, 1838  Courtenay and his followers end up in Bossenden Wood, Dunkirk.


The local constable sent to serve the warrant for Courtenay’s arrest was callously killed by him, resulting in the reading of the Riot Act and the mobilising of 100 soldiers from Canterbury Barracks to quell the rioters. The battle of Bossenden Wood, which only lasted for a few minutes, was the last battle on English soil. Courtenay and eight of his followers were killed. The  wooden plaque, east of the path leading to the church, records the names of the seven local men and John Tom who lost their lives and are buried in the churchyard .


There is no official record of where they are interred. It is thought Tom is in the un-consecrated ground on the north side of the church. The vicar, Reverend Handley, was overruled in wanting them all buried in a mass grave next to their leader, instead they were buried either close to or in the graves of their deceased relatives. The battle and the aftermath had a devastating effect on the village, with five more widows, and eight wives and forty nine children facing an uncertain future with the bread winners either dead, imprisoned or transported.


The turret clock was presented to the church by Alfred Foreman in memory of his wife Ann, who died in 1866. The clock was made by JW Benson of Ludgate Hill, clockmaker to Queen Victoria. It has two faces, on the north and west side of the tower.


On the right of the west door, low down on the wall is the Ordinance Survey Bench Mark (50708), recording the height above sea level as 38.68 metres.


St Michael’s has been witness to the worship of God for generations past nd continues to this day with the hope, faith and belief it will do so for centuries to come.  

bottom of page