Reculver Towers

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The twin towers of St Mary's Church, Reculver

The Reculver Towers are the mediæval towers of the ruined church of St Mary in Reculver in easternmost Kent; they are the village's most dominant features and a token of the former greatness of this place.

The towers stand within the walls of the ancient Roman fort of Reculver, Regulbium. The site has thus been a Roman fortress, an Anglo-Saxon monastery, a mediæval church, and today a property in the care of English Heritage.


St Mary's Church was founded in the 7th century as either a minster or a monastery on the site of a Roman fort. Reculver, which was at this time at the north-eastern extremity of mainland Kent, at the mouth of the Watsum Channel, which divided the mainland from the Isle of Thanet. In 669, the site of the fort was given for this purpose by King Ecgberht of Kent to a priest named Bassa, beginning a connection with Kentish kings that led to King Eadberht II of Kent being buried there in the 760s, and the church becoming very wealthy by the beginning of the 9th century. From the early 9th century to the 10th the church was treated as essentially a piece of property, with ownership passing between kings of Mercia and Wessex and the archbishops of Canterbury.

Viking attacks may have extinguished the church's religious community in the 9th century, although an early 11th-century record indicates that the church was then in the hands of a dean accompanied by monks.

By the time of Domesday Book, completed in 1086, St Mary's was serving as a parish church.

Reculver church intact in 1755
Reculver Church in the 19th century

The original building, which incorporated stone and tiles scavenged from the Roman fort, was a simple one consisting only of a nave and an apsidal chancel, with a small room, or porticus, built out from each of the church's northern and southern sides where the nave and chancel met. The church was much altered and expanded during the Middle Ages; the last addition, in the 15th century, was of north and south porches leading into the nave. This expansion coincided with a long period of prosperity for the settlement of Reculver, but its decline led to the church's decay and, in the face of coastal erosion, its almost complete demolition in 1809.

The church's twin towers were preserved by the intervention of Trinity House, since they had long been important as a seamark, guiding shipping. Some materials from the structure were incorporated into a replacement church, also dedicated to St Mary, built at Hillborough in the same parish. Much of the rest was used for the building of a new harbour wall at Margate, known as Margate Pier. Other remnants of the original 7th-century church apart from those on the site include fragments of a high cross of stone that stood inside the church, and two stone columns that formed part of an arch between the nave and chancel, which were still in place when the church was demolished. These are now kept in Canterbury Cathedral, and are among the features that have led to the church being described as an exemplar of Anglo-Saxon church architecture and sculpture.


King Hlothhere of Kent grants land to Abbot Berhtwald of Reculver in 679

The first church known to have existed at Reculver was founded in 669, when King Ecgberht of Kent gave land there to Bassa the priest for this purpose.[1]

The foundation WAS sited within the remains of the Roman fort of Regulbium. The building formed a nave measuring 37½ feet by 24 feet and an apsidal chancel, which was externally polygonal but internally round, and was entered from the nave through a triple arch formed by two columns made of limestone from Marquise, in northern France.[2] The arches were formed using Roman tiles, but the columns were made for the church rather than being Roman in origin.[3] Around the inside of the apse was a stone bench, and two small rooms forming rudimentary transepts were built out from the north and south sides of the church where the nave met the chancel.

Interior of the ruined church

Ten years after the foundation of the church, in 679, King Hlothhere of Kent granted lands at Sturry, about six miles south-west of Reculver, and at Sarre, in the western part of Thanet, across the Wantsum Channel to the east, to Abbot Berhtwald. Further charters show that the monastery at Reculver continued to benefit from Kentish kings in the 8th century.

Triple arch of the 7th-century church

But by 817 Reculver was in the hands of King Cenwulf of Mercia (796–821), together with the nunnery at Minster-in-Thanet and a long dispute arose between crown and church as to the control of ecclesiastical property and the vast revenues derived form them, which seems to have been resolved only after Kent fell to the Kings of the West Saxons in the ninth century.

Monastery to parish church

Reculver may have remained home to a religious community into the 10th century, despite its vulnerability to Viking attacks. A monk of Reculver named Ymar was recorded as a saint in the early 15th century by Thomas Elmham, who found the name in a martyrology, and wrote that Ymar was buried in St John’s church, Margate. The last abbot is recorded as Wenredus, though when he was abbot is unknown.[4] The church was last described as a monastery in about 1030, when it was governed by a [dean named Givehard and was home to monks, two of whom are named as Fresnot and Tancrad: these names indicate the presence of a religious community from the European continent, probably Flemings.[5] This may have been nothing more than a temporary "resurgence of communal life at Reculver, at least for a period in the earlier eleventh century. ... [Perhaps] the old minster ... was provided as a refuge for a body of foreign clerics".[6]

By 1066 the monastery had become a parish church within the endowment of the Archbishops of Canterbury.[7] Domesday Book records the archbishop's annual income from Reculver in 1086 as £42.7s.

By the 13th century Reculver parish provided an ecclesiastical benefice of "exceptional wealth",[8] which led to disputes between lay and Church interests.[9] In 1291 the Taxatio of Pope Nicholas IV put the total income due to the rector and vicar of Reculver at about £130.[10]

Enlargement and decline


Ruins of St Mary's Church from the south-east

The church building was considerably enlarged over time. The outer walls of the north and south porticus were extended to enclose the nave in the 8th century, forming a series of rooms, including chapels on both northern and southern sides, and a porch across the western side. The towers were added as part of an extension with a new west front in the late 12th century, when the internal walls of the rooms added in the 8th century were demolished, creating aisles on the north and south sides of the nave. In the 13th century the original apse was demolished and the chancel more than doubled in size, incorporating a triple east window with columns of Purbeck Marble, and in the 15th century north and south porches were added to the nave.[11] A chantry in the church was endowed in 1354 in memory of Alicia de Brouke, and two more were endowed in 1371 by Thomas Niewe, a former vicar of Reculver.[12] These chantries were suppressed in the reign of Edward VI, in 1548 or very early in 1549.

The towers were topped with spires by 1414, since they are shown in an illustrated map drawn by Thomas Elmham in or before that year, and the north tower held a ring of bells.[13] The addition of the towers, "an extraordinary investment ... for a parish church", and the extent to which the church was enlarged in the Middle Ages, suggest that "a thriving township must have developed nearby."[14] Despite all the building work, the church retained many prominent Anglo-Saxon features, and one in particular roused John Leland to "an enthusiasm which he seldom displayed" when he visited Reculver in 1540:[15]

Yn the enteryng of the quyer ys one of the fayrest and the most auncyent crosse that ever I saw, a ix footes, as I ges, yn highte. It standeth lyke a fayr columne. The base greate stone ys not wrought. The second stone being rownd hath curiously wrought and paynted the images of Christ, Peter, Paule, John and James, as I remember. Christ sayeth [I am the Alpha and the Omega]. Peter sayeth, [You are Christ, son of the living God]. The saing of the other iij when painted [was in Roman capitals] but now obliterated. The second stone is of the Passion. The third conteineth the xii Apostles. The iiii hath the image of Christ hanging and fastened with iiii nayles and [a support beneath the feet]. the hiest part of the pyller hath the figure of a crosse.

John Leland, "Itinerary", 1540

The high cross Leland is describing had been removed from the church by 1784.[16] Archaeologists examined what was believed to be the base of a 7th-century cross in 1878 and the 1920s, and it has been suggested that the monastery at Reculver was originally built around it.[17] The Reculver cross has been compared with the Anglo-Saxon Ruthwell Cross – an open-air preaching cross in Dumfriesshire, and traces of paint on fragments of the Reculver cross show that its details were once multicoloured. Later, stylistic assessments indicate that the cross, carved from a re-used Roman column, probably dates from the 8th century or the 9th, and that the stone believed to have been the base may have been the foundation for the original, 7th-century altar.

Leland also reported a wall painting of an unidentified bishop, on the north side of the church under an arch.[18] Another Anglo-Saxon item Leland found in the church was a gospel book: this was

'a very auncient boke of the Evangelyes [in Roman capital letters] and in the bordes thereof ys a christal stone thus inscribid: CLAUDIA . ATEPICCUS'. A gospel book written in 'Roman majuscules' is unlikely to have been later than the early ninth century: perhaps it was an Italian import, such as the celebrated sixth-century manuscript known as the 'Gospels of St Augustine' (CCCC 286), but it could also have been a native product, of the seventh to ninth century, written in uncial or half-uncial, such as the 'Royal Gospels' from St Augustine's (BL Royal I E VI). It appears to have had a lavish binding decorated with a Roman cameo.

Susan Kelly, "Reculver Minster and its early charters", 2008[19]

In its final form, the church consisted of a nave 67 fee long by 24 feet wide, with north and south aisles of the same length and 11 feet wide, and a chancel 46 feet long by 23 feet wide. Including the spires, the towers were 106 feet high, the surviving towers alone reaching 63 feet. The towers measure 12 feet square internally, and are connected internally by a gallery which was about 25 feet above the floor of the nave. The overall length of the church was 120 feet, and the breadth of the west front, which also survives, is 64 feet.


The decaying west front of St Mary's Church in 1781

When Leland visited Reculver in 1540, he noted that the coastline to the north had receded to within little more than a quarter of a mile of the "Towne [which] at this tyme [was] but Village lyke".[20] Soon after, in 1576, William Lambarde described Reculver as "poore and simple".[21] In 1588 there were 165 communicants – people in Reculver parish taking part in services of holy communion at the church – and in 1640 there were 169,[22] but a map of about 1630 shows that the church then stood only about 500 feet from the shore.

In January 1658 the local justices of the peace were petitioned concerning "encroachments of the sea ... [which had] since Michaelmas last [29 September 1657] encroached on the land near six rods [99 feet], and will doubtless do more harm".[23]

The village's failure to support two "beer shops" in the 1660s points clearly to a declining population,[24] and the village was mostly abandoned around the end of the 18th century, its residents moving to Hillborough, about a mile and a quarter south-west of Reculver but within the parish.[25]

The decline of the settlement led to the decline of the church. In 1776 Thomas Philipot described it as "full of solitude, and languished into decay".[26] In 1787 John Pridden noticed that the roofline of the nave must have been lowered at some time, judging by the tops of the east and west walls, and the fact that the tops of the two windows over the west door were at that time filled in with brick; he also noted that the roof had been repaired in 1775 by A. Sayer, churchwarden, these details appearing embossed on replacement lead.[27] But he described the church as "a weather-beaten building ... mouldering away by the fury of the elements",[28] and a letter to The Gentleman's Magazine in 1809 said that it was then somewhat dilapidated, with "trifling ... repairs such as have only tended to obliterate its once-harmonizing beauties."[29]


In the autumn of 1807 a northerly storm combined with a high tide to bring erosion of the cliff on which the church stood to within the churchyard, destroying "ten yards [9.1 m] of the wall around the churchyard, not ten yards from the foundation of the church".[30] Sea defences had been in place since at least 1783, but although they had been costly to build their design had led to further undermining of the cliff.[31] Two further schemes were devised by Sir Thomas Page and John Rennie the Elder to preserve the cliff by means of new sea defences, Rennie's being estimated to cost £8,277. Instead, at a vestry meeting on 12 January 1808, and at the instigation of the vicar, Christopher Naylor, it was decided that the church should be demolished. Naylor applied to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Manners-Sutton, for permission to demolish, arguing that "in all human probability the parishionsers [would] shortly be deprived of a place for the interment of their dead."[32] The archbishop commissioned neighbouring clergy and landowners to assess the situation, and they reported in March 1809 that the church should be demolished "to save the materials for the erection of another church."[33]

Demolition was begun in September 1809 using gunpowder, in what has been described as "an act of vandalism for which there can be few parallels even in the blackest records of the nineteenth century":[34]

Demolition of the church in progress
the young clergyman of the parish, urged on by his Philistine mother, rashly besought his parishioners to demolish this shrine of early Christendom. This they duly did and all save the western towers, which still act as a landmark for shipping, was razed to the ground.

Nigel & Mary Kerr, A Guide to Anglo-Saxon Sites, 1982[35]

Trinity House bought what was left of the structure from the parish for £100, to ensure that the towers were preserved as a navigational aid, and built the first groynes, designed to protect the cliff on which the ruins stand. The spires had both been destroyed by storms by 1819, when Trinity House replaced them with similarly shaped, open structures, topped by wind vanes. These structures remained until they were removed some time after 1928.[36]

The ruins of the church, and the site of the Roman fort within which it was built, are now in the care of English Heritage,[37] and the sea defences protecting the church continue to be maintained by Trinity House.[38]


A byname for the towers is the "Twin Sisters", and an account of how this first arose was current about a hundred years after its supposed happening in the late 15th century, but in its usual form, for example in a 19th-century travel guide,[39] it is mostly an invention created around "pseudo-historical detail".[40] The Ingoldsby Legends includes a re-invention of the story in which two brothers, Robert and Richard de Birchington, are substituted for the two sisters.[41]

Outside links


  1. Garmonsway 1972, pp. 34–5; Fletcher 1965, pp. 16–31; Page 1926, pp. 141–2; Kelly 2008, pp. 71–2
  2. Fletcher 1965, p. 24; Harris 2001, p. 34.
  3. Haverfield & Mortimer Wheeler 1932, p. 21; Roach Smith 1850, p. 197.
  4. Duncombe 1784, p. 87(note); Dodsworth & Dugdale 1655, p. 26.
  5. Blair 2005, p. 361; Kelly 2008, p. 82; "S 1390". King's College London. 2015. Retrieved 20 May 2015. 
  6. Kelly 2008, p. 82.
  7. Kelly 2008, pp. 74, 82; Brooks 1984, pp. 203–5; Gough 1992.
  8. Graham 1944, p. 1.
  9. Graham 1944, pp. 1–12.
  10. Denton, J. (2014). "Benefice of Reculver (CA.CA.WE.05)". HRI Online. Retrieved 19 May 2015. 
  11. Peers 1927; Jessup 1936, pp. 180–3; Wilmott 2012, p. 26.
  12. Duncombe 1784, p. 157; Hussey 1917, p. 85.
  13. Rollason 1979, p. 7; Rollason 1982, p. 10; Duncombe 1784, p. 127; Torr, V.J. (2008). "Some Monumental Inscriptions of St Mary's Church, Reculver, Noted by Rev Bryan Faussett: Noted 1758". Kent Archaeological Society. Retrieved 22 May 2015. .
  14. Gough 2014; Wilmott 2012, p. 26.
  15. Graham 1944, p. 3.
  16. Duncombe 1784, p. 72.
  17. Dowker 1878, pp. 259–60; Peers 1927, pp. 241–56; Exploring Kent's Past (n.d.). "Anglo-Saxon Minster and the ruins of St Mary's Church". Kent County Council. Retrieved 20 May 2015. 
  18. Hearne 1711, p. 137.
  19. Kelly 2008, p. 69.
  20. Hearne 1711, p. 137; Jessup 1936, p. 187.
  21. Lambarde 1596, p. 207.
  22. Hasted 1800, pp. 109–25.
  23. Gough 2002, p. 204.
  24. Gough 2014.
  25. Kelly 2008, p. 67; Harris 2001, p. 36.
  26. Philipot 1776, p. 278.
  27. Pridden 1787, p. 165 & Plate IX.
  28. Pridden 1787, p. 164.
  29. Mot 1809, pp. 801–2.
  30. Gough 2014; Anon. 1808, col. 1310.
  31. Duncombe 1784, pp. 77, 90(note).
  32. Gough 1995, pp. 9–10.
  33. Gough 1995, p. 10.
  34. Campbell 1982, p. 107, Figs. 99 & 100, quoting Taylor, H.M & J. (1965), Anglo-Saxon Architecture 2, Cambridge, p. 503; Cozens 1809, p. 906; Anon. 1856, p. 315; Canterbury Cathedral Archives (2012). "Reculver, St Mary Parish Records". Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral. Retrieved 20 May 2015;  Harris 2001, p. 36.
  35. Kerr 1982, p. 194.
  36. Jessup 1936, Plate I.
  37. Reculver Towers and Roman Fort
  38. Wilmott 2012, p. 26.
  39. Anon. 1865, p. 103.
  40. Jessup 1936, pp. 179–80; Anon. 1791, pp. 97–104.
  41. Ingoldsby 1840, pp. 455–65.