It is suggested that the first village of Gillingham was established during the first half of the 7th century AD in the vicinity of Gillingham Green. Associated with this village would have been a church, possibly of timber construction, although no evidence of this has been located.
In 1070 Lanfranc arrived in Canterbury as Archbishop of Canterbury. Lanfranc spent a considerable amount of time in the reorganisation and rebuilding of the English Church, and it is suggested that the rebuilding of Gillingham Church was a part of this programme.
Gillingham had been, both before and after the Norman Conquest (1066), a possession of the Archbishop of Canterbury. During the second half of the 12th century it was decided to construct a Palace for the Archbishops, and recent research suggests that the precinct covered around 20 acres. It is suggested that the dormitory (sleeping quarters) had been situated west of the church, while to the south had stood the refectory (dining room). The church itself would at this time have been situated within the precinct and would have been the Palace's chapel. Of the events that took place here, mention should be made of the consecration of Walter de Merton as Bishop of Rochester in 1274.
By the 14th century Gillingham had achieved considerable importance. The church was considerably enlarged, while a fair and market were allowed to be held. The fair was held once a year, and the market weekly.
The Palace, like many other ecclesiastical establishments, was suppressed by Henry VIII in the 16th century.
Major restoration work was undertaken on the church during the 19th century. Indeed records indicate that the structure had deteriorated considerably and was in a very bad state of repair at that time.
Unfortunately, all medieval monuments have been taken out of the church. However, it is fortunate that records survive which provide an indication of what could have once been seen.
The most important and influential family of the area during the 14th and 15th centuries had been the Beaufitz. At least one member of the family had been a ship owner, while another accompanied Richard II on his expedition to Ireland. The majority of the original stained glass had been donated by this family. Members of the family were also buried in the church and it is known that of the brasses known to have been in existence the largest number had been of the Beaufitz.
The Parish Registers inform us that a number of soldiers had been buried in the churchyard during 1667 - the year of the Dutch Invasion - as well as a number of French prisoners. These prisoners had been detained on hulks moored in the Medway during the Napoleonic conflict.
St. Mary's has had a close connection with the Royal Navy and with the Chatham Royal Dockyard (much of which actually lay within Gillingham) through the centuries. For very many years our church tower was a navigational mark for ships sailing up the Medway estuary. As such, the church was required to fly a White Ensign by day and show a light on the tower by night. It was not until the Second World War, when navigational aids were much improved on the Medway, that the church was relieved of this obligation.
Finally, mention should be made of William Adams. Research has shown that we can now say with a degree of confidence where the family came from. Certain it is that he had at least one sister and one brother, both baptised in Gillingham Church. (For further information on William Adams, see below.)
This historical information is largely based on a paper produced by D.N. Barnes.
St. Mary Magdalene Church is by far the oldest building in Gillingham and, as such, is an irreplaceable part of the town's heritage.
Externally the church building has a Perpendicular-style appearance with flint clerestoried nave and aisles with battlements at both levels. The west tower is also battlemented and is of squared ragstone blocks with a south-east circular stair-turret.
Internally, the oldest surviving parts of the structure are the 12th century arches separating the chancel from the side chapels. (The north chapel is now the choir vestry, while the south chapel is dedicated as a Lady Chapel.) Much of the rest of the building dates from the 15th century, though the odd square columns in the nave may date from an earlier period. However, the sedilia (the servers' seats in the sanctuary) definitely date from the late 13th or 14th centuries.
The oldest item in the church is without doubt the Norman font which dates from the 12th century and therefore pre-dates the present building. It has a deep circular stone bowl decorated with sixteen arches on shafts with zig-zag ornamentation above and below. The font has been described by an expert as 'a national treasure'.
All the stained glass dates from the building's restoration of 1868-9 or later.
The architectural information is based on the church's entry in The Buildings of England - West Kent and the Weald by John Newman, published by Penguin, 1976 (2nd edition).
William Adams (generally known locally as Will Adams) was baptised in Gillingham Parish Church on 24th September 1564 (his actual birth date is uncertain). The Church Register recording this event is currently in the care of the Medway Archives Centre. Having lost his father John Adams at the age of 12 years, William then became apprenticed to Master Nicholas Diggins who owned a shipyard in Limehouse on the Thames. During the twelve years of his apprenticeship Adams learned shipbuilding, astronomy and navigation.
After completing his apprenticeship in 1588 he captained the Richard Driffield, a transport ship carrying food and ammunition to the fleet fighting the Armada. At the end of the war with Spain he retired from the Royal Navy and was married to Mary Hyn at St. Dunstan's, Stepney, who bore him a son and a daughter. Shortly after he married he worked as a pilot for the London Company of Barbary Merchants trading on the Barbary Coast.
In 1598 he went to Holland and was chosen as Pilot Major for a fleet of ships assembled for an expedition to the Far East. They set sail from Holland on 23rd June 1598 and took nearly ten months to reach the Straits of Magellan in April 1599. The five ships again set sail in September, but two returned to Holland after a storm and one was captured by the Spaniards. The remaining two ships, the De Liedfe and De Hoop, set sail for Japan. The De Hoop was lost during a typhoon and the surviving ship was that of Adams, the De Liedfe, which dropped anchor off Japan's southernmost island, Kyushu, on 19 April 1600.
To the Japanese, who only had small vessels, the De Liedfe seemed huge. The crew, with William Adams, were taken to the court of the military ruler of Japan, the Shogun, whose name was Iyeyasu Tokugawa. Iyeyasu was attracted by Adams' personality so much so that he gave him a house at Edo (present-day Tokyo) and Adams became a diplomatic advisor to the Shogun. Iyeyasu himself studied mathematics and geography under Adams, and forced him to teach artillery, navigation and astronomy to the leaders of his government.
In 1604, by order of Iyeyasu, Adams took the commander of the Uraga fleet and his men to Ito to construct an 80-ton sailing ship in the English style. He was further ordered to build a larger ship capable of navigating the oceans. The result was a 120-ton sailing ship.
In 1605, Iyeyasu abdicated the post of Shogun in favour of his son Hidetada. He then retired to Sumpu and the former Shogun rewarded Adams for his distinguished service with an estate at Hemi (within the boundaries of modern-day Yokosuka City). To run the estate he had 80 slaves over whom he had the power of life or death.
William Adams, being a sincere and solid person, was well aware of his responsibilities, and he made frequent requests to be allowed to return home to his wife and family. These were courteously refused because he had become too valuable, so he arranged through contact with the East India Company for regular payments to be made to his wife Mary in England.
Subsequently Adams married a Japanese girl, Oyoki, daughter of Kageyu Magome, a minor official at Edo castle. It proved to be a happy marriage which was blessed with two children, Joseph and Susanna.
On 11th June 1613 an English mission commanded by Captain John Saris representing the East India Company arrived and, after negotiations by Adams, Iyeyasu and the new Shogun Hidetada granted trading privileges to the English. Adams worked for the English factory under a two-year contract which when ended was not renewed. Adams then worked for the company on a freelance basis until his influence started to wane, and when Iyeyasu died in 1616 his successor had less regard for Adams.
On 16th May 1620, at the age of 56, William Adams died. In his will, dated the same day, he divided his considerable wealth equally between this families in Japan and England.
Further information relating to the history and architecture of St. Mary Magdalene Church can be found in THE STORY OF GILLINGHAM CHURCH, published by Gillingham Parish Church and obtainable in church for £2.50 or by post (within the UK) for £3.50.