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History of St Mary's Church in Eastwell, Ashford, including links to King Richard III

As heavy rain and floods have brought havoc to many areas in recent weeks, similar weather led to the collapse of a 14th century Ashford church, as Robin Britcher discovers.

It had been raining for weeks when a workman heard rumblings and loud noises “like a bomb” coming from St Mary’s Church, Eastwell, in February 1951.

A very rare view illustrating the church of St Mary’s Eastwell in 1947 - nearly four years before the nave collapse. Picture: Steve Salter
A very rare view illustrating the church of St Mary’s Eastwell in 1947 - nearly four years before the nave collapse. Picture: Steve Salter

He went to investigate and as he peered through a side window, the roof collapsed, bringing down three central pillars and the western arch.

It was a tragic end for the 14th century church, renowned for its lovely setting, its rich carvings, stained glass windows and magnificent monuments.

Over the years, St Mary’s had been visited by royalty and many local couples married there.

Unfortunately, it was constructed almost entirely of chalk blocks which soaked up huge amounts of water after the valley was flooded in 1841 to form a lake.

It is said Queen Victoria liked to be pushed on a sledge chair over the frozen lake when she visited her son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who lived at Eastwell from 1874 to 1893.

The 19th century gravestone for Richard Plantagenet
The 19th century gravestone for Richard Plantagenet

The church received a royal visitor when Edward VII attended a service during a visit to Lord and Lady Gerard at Eastwell in July 1904.

But it was already in a fairly unstable state when the army took over Eastwell Park in the Second World War for tank training exercises.

Soon shockwaves from nearby explosions caused plaster to fall and doors to burst open.

Repairs were not carried out and notices warned: 'KEEP OUT, YOU MAY BE KILLED'.

After the war, Captain George Brodrick, who managed the estate, wanted to preserve the church.

Ice queen: Thought to be Queen Victoria on the lake at Eastwell; the man with the stick behind the sledge chair is probably her personal attendant John Brown
Ice queen: Thought to be Queen Victoria on the lake at Eastwell; the man with the stick behind the sledge chair is probably her personal attendant John Brown

But he had already spent a fortune restoring the churned-up grounds left by the army and vandals had destroyed much of the interior.

On July 22 1950, the six bells were rung for the last time and sold for scrap.

The remaining shell of the church was demolished in 1956, leaving only the footings, the 15th century tower, and the 19th century chapel.

Marble monuments from the church are in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The Friends of Friendless Churches have cared for the ruins since 1980 and, with help from English Heritage, made the tower safe.

Inscription on the tomb: “Reputed to be the tomb of Richard Plantagenet 22 December 1550"
Inscription on the tomb: “Reputed to be the tomb of Richard Plantagenet 22 December 1550"

The site still attracts visitors as a tomb in the churchyard is reputed to hold the remains of King Richard III’s illegitimate son, Richard Plantagenet, who died in 1550.

The tale is that Richard was brought up without knowing his parents but was boarded with a schoolmaster who taught him Latin, a sign of someone being educated according to his status.

One day he was taken to the battlefield at Bosworth where the king embraced him and told him he was his son.

After the king was killed in battle, his son fled and ended up at Eastwell, working as a gardener and bricklayer for Sir Thomas Moyle, the lord of the manor.

It is thought he lived an inconspicuous life because people claiming to be descendants of the royal family were executed during the reign of the Tudors.

The Eastwell lake
The Eastwell lake

Following the discovery of King Richard’s skeleton under a car park in Leicester in 2013, Winston Michael, Ashford borough councillor for Goat Lees, hoped DNA profiling could also be used to establish if the king’s son is buried at Eastwell.

He said: “I met the DNA specialist at Leicester University who put aside a sample of DNA.

"The problem was pinpointing an area where he might be buried because it was not recorded in the parish register.”

The churchyard contains about 2,000 bodies and the commemoration stone on the tomb dates from the 19th century.

Councillor Michael (Ashford Independent) added: “Given the vagueness of everything there was no value in committing resources to the project.

What remains of Eastwell Church
What remains of Eastwell Church

"Residents of Boughton Lees were opposed to disturbing the graves and I think there was a fear that the project could dispel the myth.”

George Brodrick, who hoped to restore the church, was the grandson of an American railway magnate once believed to be the world's richest man.

He went to Eton, then Trinity College, Cambridge, where he arrived in a chauffeur-driven Bentley.

He paid a hard-up student to attend lectures and provide him with a set of notes three weeks before his finals, which he sailed through.

After a distinguished war career with the Irish Guards, Mr Brodrick settled at Eastwell.

George Brodrick
George Brodrick

He was said to combine a naughty, irreverent sense of humour with great humanity; his farm workers were devoted to him, and his cowman was with him for 54 years.

Mr Brodrick died in 2003 aged 88.

Robin Britcher’s book, Kennington At War 1939-1945, is on sale at Bella’s (Savers Newsagent), Faversham Road, priced at £5.

Read more: All the latest news from Ashford


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