The church is mentioned in Domesday Book (1086), and it is probable that the nave of the present church, without its aisles, is Norman. The only evidence for this, however, is one tufa block on the south-west corner of the nave, and some detached (?reused) tufa blocks in the west face of the south-west buttress to the south aisle.
In the early 14th century first one aisle, then the other, was rebuilt with finely-tooled octagonal arcade piers of Kentish Ragstone. Above them are moulded capitals (slightly different south and north) with pointed arches over with double hollow chamfers. There are four bays of arcading, but the arches are not exactly regularly spaced, and the centre pier on the north is more elongated east-west, with an indication that there might have been a narrow partition on its north and south sides. There is also a slight scar opposite in the north wall. The south side has a separate gabled roof (of plain rafters, collars, braces and unmoulded tie-beams), and this is also perhaps 14th century. The aisle wall has three buttresses on the south, and at its east end (possibly the chapel of St. James) is a double trefoiled window. There is another in the south wall at the east end, with piscina just east of it. All the other windows in the south aisle are single trefoiled lights. The south doorway is also contemporary and has a hoodmould over its 2-centred arch. The door and hinges may also be original. Outside the door was a porch, but this was removed in the mid-19th century.
The north aisle outer wall has a more complicated history. At its east end, which may have been the Lady Chapel, two 2-light 15th century windows (on the north and east) seem to have been inserted into the 14th century fabric. There is also a high lancet over the east window, and a small blocked doorway (visible outside) in the north-east corner. A long thin pilaster buttress on the outside of the north wall, which slopes back into the wall, may have related to a later 15th century Rood stair. The west end of the aisle, which has an external plinth seems certainly to have been rebuilt in the late 15th or early 16th century, though the 2-light north window here appears to be a reset 14th century one. The north doorway has pyramid stops, and an early 14th century single-light trefoil-headed window above. It now leads into a 19th century vestry. There is also perhaps an original door here. The roof over the aisle has moulded beams and wall-plates, and a partitioned off vestry at its west end. Also the ground level in this aisle appears to have been lowered.
The west tower is a fine early 15th century ‘Kentish’ tower with a crenellated parapet and pyramid roof. It contains 8 bells (three of 1631) set in a new (1987) iron frame. It has also had many of its find Kentish ragstone dressings restored (also in 1986-7) with many new stones. This has been an over-zealous restoration. On the south-east side of the tower is a semi-octagonal stair-turret, which rises above the tower-top, and has its own tiled octagonal roof. The tower has diagonal western buttresses, and a square-headed western doorway with pyramid stops (all the dressings of this doorway, and the tracery of the Perpendicular windows above have recently – 1987 – been restored). Under the tower arch was a gallery until 1866.
As has already been seen, the west end of the north aisle was probably rebuilt in the later 15th century (there are a few red-bricks in the walls), and at the east end of this aisle a north and a south window seems to have been inserted, as well as possibly a Rood-stair. There is also a 15th century Ragstone font (with 1853 cover).
There is no chancel arch, and a large wide early 16th century chancel. This chancel must have been completely rebuilt in the 1520s by the Nevill family after they had acquired the patronage of the church from Bermondsey Abbey. On the south side are four square-headed early Tudor 2-light windows, and only the western one has Perpendicular tracery. The wall is in quasi-checker work, and has a hollow-chamfered plinth, which also goes round a diagonal (south-east) buttress and along the east wall. Here there is a large six-light window (also without tracery and perhaps with original ferromenta) that Hasted says contained glass with the arms of Sir George Nevill, Lord Bergavenney, ‘within the garter’ (He was a knight of the garter from 1514, and was buried here in 1535). There is also a small round-headed window in the east gable, with red bricks around it, but the wall and window had to be repaired after 1942 bomb damage. The very plain north wall of the chancel contains large Rag and ironstone blocks in quasi-checker pattern. It has no plinth and only one window (at the extreme western end), but also a north doorway from it into a 19th century vestry. Was there an earlier larger vestry?
The chancel has a moulded flat ceiling (painted in 1963), and the earlier steep-pitched roof was replaced in c.1828 with a low-pitched slate covered roof. At about the same time the Nevill family burial vault was rebuilt under the eastern third of the chancel. It has a cast-iron cover to the entry steps, and there are two early 19th century niches on either side of the sanctuary, with air-vents to the vault beneath. The family pews in the chancel, and the other fittings and memorials were put there in the mid-19th century. (Two fire helms from the chancel are now in ‘safekeeping’).
BUILDING MATERIALS: c.):
The principle rubble materials are local Ragstone and ironstone, with Ragstone dressings. A few perhaps reused tufa blocks from the early church are in the west wall, and some red brick is used in the early 16th century work.
Some Caenstone (?for restoration) and cement repairs.
EXCEPTIONAL MONUMENTS IN CHURCH: –
Various 19th century Nevill monuments in the church, especially in the chancel (with early 19th century burial vault below it). Royal Arms of 1700 above south doorway.
CHURCHYARD AND ENVIRONS:
Size & Shape: Large irregular area around the church with a steep drop to the north, west and south. It has been much extended to the north- east. There is a very good plan of the whole churchyard (with all known graves surveyed on it) hanging in the Church. Enlarged in the 19th century from small graveyard around the church. Very steep slope on the east side, down to the road (Horn Street)
Boundary walls: Ragstone walls retaining sunken lanes on north and west
Building in churchyard or on boundary: 1987 Lychgate to the south-west.
Exceptional monuments: Some good headstones.
Ecological potential: Yes.
HISTORICAL RECORD (where known):
Earliest ref. to church: Domesday Book.
Late med. status: Vicarage.
Patron: Given by the Lord of Birling manor to Bermondsey Abbey in 1168. It was appropriated soon afterwards. After the Dissolution (by c.1530) to Lord Abergavenny (Nevill formerly) till 1959.
Other documentary sources: Hasted IV (1798), 485 – 8.
Testamenta Cantiana (W.Kent, 1906), 5, mentions: Repair to one window on the south side of the church (1501). Also altars of ‘Our Lady in the chapel’ (1516) and ‘To be buried by side of Chaunsell of Birlyng at the hede of Saynt James aulter’ 1523).
Reused materials: A few reused Roman bricks, and tufa blocks in S.W. corner of south aisle.
SURVIVAL OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL DEPOSITS:
Inside present church: ? Good, though there is a large vault under the chancel, and the floor level of the north aisle appears to have been lowered.
Outside present church: ? Good.
To structure: The tower was very heavily restored with many new dressings, and a new iron bellframe on a reinforced concrete ringbeam in 1986-7.
ARCHAEOLOGICAL AND HISTORICAL ASSESSMENT:
The church and churchyard: A few tufa blocks perhaps from the Norman nave west quoins, but otherwise the earliest visible fabric are the 14th century nave aisles and arcades. Early 15th century west tower. West end of north aisle rebuilt in c. 1500, and possibly a Rood stair made on the north side. Chancel completely rebuilt in the 1520s by the Nevill family.
The wider context: One of a small group with a rebuilt (by an important patron) early 16th century chancel.