Earthquakes, Plague and the First Settlers of America – The History of St Peter’s Church in Sandwich

(Musical intro) Welcome to The History Project. My name
is Pete and this is George. In this week’s episode we’re going to be delving
into a gloomy 13th century crypt and climbing to the top of a church’s tower
to grab a view of the medieval Cinque Port town of Sandwich from all 360
degrees! Right, See you shortly Pete. St Peters has an amazing past. It was built
on the ruins of a previous church that was destroyed in battle. It provided
shelter for protestant refugees when Sandwich was hit by plague in 1564 and
it had its foundations shaken to the core when its original
church tower collapsed. The oldest part of this beautiful structure is over here.
Some of these stones were laid shortly after the Norman conquest and were part of
the original church that was built here. Unfortunately during a conflict between
the Cinque Ports and the French in 1216 the church was destroyed. This church was built in its place. It’s believed to be the handiwork of White friars who came
here from France in the 13th century. During the 14th century the town of
Sandwich prospered as a port and funds were made available to improve this
church. Chapels were built and new windows were added. The port of Sandwich flourished for many
years ferrying countless cargoes to far-off
lands and employing most of the town’s folk, but by the middle of the 16th century
the port began to silt up and so did the money. In 1560 Queen Elizabeth 1st
granted a license allowing around twenty-five Flemish families who were fleeing
religious persecution on the continent to live right here in Sandwich. They
were talented weavers and quickly established looms working with English
wool, creating a prosperous business that would provide Sandwich with the support
it needed. A few years later though in the year 1564 for the prosperity of the town
would take a grave turn for the worse when Sandwich was dealt a severe dose of
the plague. To discourage the spread of infection amongst the townsfolk St Peter’s Church was given to the protestant weavers. It’s really hard to imagine the
fear they would have felt as they huddled in this building deep in prayer.
Thankfully plague finally left the town of Sandwich, but not before it had taken the lives
of many of its people. So where did they store the bodies? come with us and we’ll find out. this is the first time I’ve been inside a church
crypt and they really are as spooky as they say. This part of the church dates all
the way back to the 13th century. It’s where they used to store bodies,
possibly when the graveyard became full. Can you imagine what this would have
looked like full of corpses? What really strikes me is this arched ceiling, it’s
really quite beautiful. The Cinque Port town of Sandwich thrived
going from strength to strength as the years went past, but from time to
time it did have its fair share of the troubles. No more so than in the year
1661 when the town was hit by an earthquake which shook the ground and
brought the original church tower at St Peters crashing down. It landed on top
of the church’s south aisle completely destroying it and creating a garden in
its place. Very recently a project began to excavate the ground here and the
Canterbury Archaeological Trust and Dover’s Archaeological Group began a dig
to learn more about this amazing building’s past. Over the course of
several weekends they managed to determine what actually lay below the
ground here and in the process they discovered clay pipes, oyster shells,
shards of glass and even old coins, but the most amazing artifact they found was
a segment of pottery believed to date from the early 8th century, hundreds of
years before the church was ever built. Of course they found many fragments of
bone which were very carefully collected and put aside to be reburied with the
respect they deserve, and whilst we’re talking of bodies. Do you think you could
guess how many have been put in the ground here at St Peters over the years?
believe it or not nearly 12,000! One of the most extraordinary parts of this
church’s history though is the fact that it has a link to the original settlers
of America. After leaving the Thames Estuary an argument broke out
amongst the Pilgrim Fathers. Anchoring at Sandwich they came to this very Church
to pray before raising anchor and setting sail to Plymouth to take stock
for their journey to the New World. St Peters remained a parish church
until 1948 which was when Sandwich’s three parishes merged
and St Clements became its church. In 1952 this church was offered to Sir Roger Manwood’s School for use as their chapel, but sadly as the years wore on the
repair work needed to the tower and roof mounted up and it was beyond the
resources of both the school and the parish. Thankfully in October 1974
because of its architectural importance St Peter’s Church was given to the
redundant church’s fund, which is now the Church’s Conservation Trust. The
essential repair work was carried out to this beautiful grade one listed
building securing it for future generations to enjoy and they didn’t
stop there. During the summer of 2015 the trust asked the Friends of St Peters if they had
any ideas on how they could improve the visitor experience here at St Peters.
The idea the friends came up with was brilliantly ambitious. They suggested
building a brand new staircase all the way to the top of the tower, offering visitors unparalleled views of the most complete medieval town in the whole of
England! let’s go and climb all 114 steps! (Music) Wow! The views from up here are incredible, you can see right across this part of Kent. You can even see Sandwich Bay in
the distance. It’s lovely to see how many rooftops still have the original Kent
peg tiles and the curvy ridge lines that can be seen across the town are
testament to their age. So there we have St Clement’s Church. Nowadays that is the parish church. We hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s show. We would like to say a huge thank you to all the wonderful people at the Churches
Conservation Trust for all of the great work they do and a huge thanks to all
the people here at St Peter’s Church. Remember folks the next time you’re over
in Sandwich remember to pop in and climb the tower
for yourselves. We’ll see you all next week.

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