St. Peter's Church, History
One of three church buildings in Sandwich of Norman origin, St Peter’s has had a long and eventful history.
The Domesday book makes no mention of a church in Sandwich but there must have been at least one and it is more than likely that of the three present church sites one was occupied. The Normans may have rebuilt the churches that they found in Sandwich. The earliest stones in St Peter’s (at the west end of the nave) probably date from shortly after the Norman conquest. This early Norman church was probably destroyed in the fighting of 1216 when Sandwich was attacked and severely damaged by the French – part of an ongoing period of unrest between the Cinque Ports and France.
Subsequently rebuilt, a large amount of 13th century work is still visible in the church today. This is traditionally held to have been the work of the Carmelite “White Friars” from France. This church had a wider nave, a tower and a chancel and two aisles on either side, narrower and lower than the present north aisle. The interior windows above the arches at the west end of the nave originally looked out over the roof.
In the 14th century Sandwich prospered and so did St Peter’s. The north aisle was rebuilt to its present width and height, bringing the windows inside the church. Although the south aisle remained unchanged the chancel was given new windows. A chantry chapel was built for Thomas Elys at the east end of the south aisle. Chantries were provided for and funded by legacies where prayers were said for the souls of the deceased and their families. The north porch was also added at this time.
In 1560 Elizabeth I granted a licence for about twenty-five Flemish families to live in Sandwich. These “Strangers” were Protestants fleeing religious persecution in the Spanish Netherlands. They brought skills and expertise with them and their looms and market gardens brought much needed new opportunities to the town at a time when the haven (or port) was silting up. The weavers were able to develop a thriving business with English wool. In Sandwich St Peter’s became their church because in 1564 there was a severe plague. St Peter’s was given to the Strangers for their use to discourage the spread of infection. It is possible that the Dutch gable on top of the south vestry was built at this time and the undercroft refurbished.
In 1661 the tower collapsed due to lack of maintenance. No-one was hurt but the south aisle was buried. The Flemish community rebuilt the tower (visible in the existing fabric) but they left the ruined south aisle and filled in the southern part of the nave arcade to make a new exterior wall. They also left their mark by capping the new tower with a distinctive cupola.
By 1792 the east window of the north aisle had been blocked up and also the north chancel window although its original stonework and tracery remain. In the same year William Boys noted the importance of the tomb of John Grove beneath its arched recess in the ruined south aisle and as a result it was moved to a better position in the north aisle. In 1779 a ring of eight bells was cast and a clock installed in the tower. The interior was by now full of wooden boxed pews and the pulpit was set against the north wall about halfway along the north aisle.
By 1800 St Peter’s was one of the few churches to possess an organ. During the 19th century many changes and repairs were made to the church. In the 1860s the west end was restored after storm damage and the roof retiled. The organ was repaired and the choir stalls rearranged. The box pews were replaced by bench seating and the pulpit removed to the south east corner of the nave.
St Peter’s continued as a parish church, along with the other two parishes of St Mary’s and St Clement’s, until 1948 when all three were united. St Clement’s became the parish church and St Peter’s was closed for regular worship. In 1952 it was offered to Sir Roger Manwood’s School for use as their chapel. In 1973 it became clear that the repair work now needed to the tower and roof was beyond the resources of school and parish. In October 1974, because of its architectural importance, St Peter’s was vested in the Redundant Churches Fund, now The Churches Conservation Trust.
In the 1990s, under the aegis of the Sandwich Development Trust, a garden was developed in what were the ruins of the south aisle and the church began to be used for community events.
Discovering the Crypt at St Peter's
Few visitors to St Peter's realise that the 13th-century crypt was probably once used as a charnel house, presumably when the churchyard began to run out of burial plots. Surviving wills state that the deceased wished to be buried next to the charnel house at the southeast end of the church. This small undercroft sits beneath the high altar and is accessible via a twisting set of stone steps. Two gothic arched windows at ground level provide natural light. Normally kept locked for reasons of safety, this hidden treasure may be viewed by arrangement with the keyholders (Mr and Mrs Evans, tel. 01304-621554).
Photograph - Georgina Maddox
American roots in St Peter's
What a lot of people don't know about St Peter's is that it has a direct link with some of the first settlers of America. Current research has uncovered the story that during their voyage from East Anglia to the New World, an argument broke out among the Pilgrim Fathers. They stopped off at the port of Sandwich and went to St Peter's church. Here, they prayed for a resolution of their differences before re-embarking and setting sail for their new and far distant home across the Atlantic ocean.
By 1800 St Peter’s was one of the few churches to possess an organ.
In 2002 an appeal was launched to fund the installation of a set of glass doors at the west end of the nave. These were officially opened in January 2005 by Sandwich architect, Leonard Barlow, who had the original idea of installing them.
In the same month, the Friends of St Peter’s was established to carry forward the work of the Sandwich Development Trust in caring for the church on a day to day basis.