A thousand years of worship
The Domesday Book of 1086 records “at Essestisford, a church and a Priest.” Although the Church referred to what may have been an early Norman structure, it is far more likely to have been of Saxon origin owing to the small amount of parochial church building undertaken by the Normans until the 12th century. However, the church was either enlarged or rebuilt by the Normans because there remain a few stones at the corner of the nave and transept which bear typical Norman tooling. After the Domesday reference the next mention of a church at Ashford is in the 12th century when, in a Charter of King Stephen, it is listed as part of the possessions of the Priory of Monks Horton “by a gift of Norman of Ashford”.
The foundation of the present church probably dates from the late 13th or 14th century, known as the Early Decorated period. The lower parts of some walls and the bases of the columns of the chancel and transepts may well however, be Early English, whilst the arcades in these parts of the church together with the eastern arcades of the nave are of the Decorated period. The oldest part of the walls still visible from the outside is the west wall of the south transept which is of quite a different appearance to the Kentish ragstone used by later builders. In this wall can also be seem the remains of an Early Decorated window which was locked up when the church was widened in the 19th century. This, together with the survival of corbels at the corners of the chancel and both north and south transepts, which date from later than Norman times, supports the theory that the Norman church was replaced in the late 13th century and enlarged and heightened in the 14th century.
The corbels indicate the height of the earlier church. This would put the date in the Later Decorated or Early Perpendicular period and it is to this period that the pillars and arcades and parts of the walls of the chancel and transepts belong. What is quite certain is that in those very early days the church was already large and of cruciform shape. The church had a low squat tower which was probably surmounted by a wooden spire. In the 15th century, between about 1470 and 1490, the church was extensively renovated and partially rebuilt by Sir John Fogge who was Lord of the Manor of Repton, about one mile from the church. He was a very influential man in the realm and was for a time Treasurer of the household of Edward IV. John Fogge removed the old steeple, encased with stone the squat tower and the four columns that supported it. On this strong base he raised the tall Perpendicular tower we see today. At the same time he raised the height of the walls and roofs of the nave, chancel and transepts and inserted new windows in the Perpendicular style. The church has been described by experts as being of Perpendicular exterior with a Decorated interior. At this time it was a near perfect cruciform church, being 120 feet long with a tower 120 feet high, and about 100 feet across the transepts.
During the English civil war this part of Kent was largely in the hands of the Puritans and the church suffered greatly from their attention. A fine collection of coloured glass was smashed, the altar pieces burned and monuments destroyed. Although many interior changes were made after this, there were no more major alterations to the structure until the 19th century.
In 1837, the width of the nave was increased by 8 feet on either side. At the same time the substantial entrance porch in the centre of the north wall of the nave was removed and the present entrance cut into the north transept. With the town steadily growing, due mainly to the arrival of the railway and the building of the railway works, the church still proved to be too small and in 1860 the nave was extended westwards by one whole bay. Thus, in a period of thirty-five years in the 19th century all the original walls of the nave, which in the main had stood for six centuries, were lost. Some of the stone work of the windows and door frames were, however, re-used. Also in the 19th century the present vestry was built on the east side of the north transept.
No further alterations were made to the main structure since that time, although as has been said considerable alterations have been made to the interior. The most important in modern times was the re-ordering of the west end in 1986 to provide a meeting room, offices and a toilet.
In 2010 and 2011 the church was closed for a year, and services were held in the Parish Hall whilst extensive re-ordering once again took place. Funding for this work came from a variety of sources, including Ashford Borough Council, which has enabled the church to be used as an Arts Centre as well. This work included a kitchen, and a suite of toilets at the west end of the church; and new heating, lighting and sound systems; a large platform and communion rails; removal of the pews; relocation of the pulpit and font; and changes to the vestry. On completion of the work the church was re-dedicated in September 2011 by Trevor Willmot, Bishop of Dover.
Ashford Museum http://www.ashfordmuseum.org.uk/index.html
Ashford Archeological and Historical Society http://ashfordarchhist.org
Kent Family History Society https://www.kfhs.org.uk/ashford