The church of St. John the Baptist in Halling is one of Kent’s oldest foundations; and Kent has several of England’s oldest churches. There is a charter, dated 765 AD, from King Egbert of Kent giving land at Halling to the Bishop of Rochester. It is fairly certain that the first church would have been built very soon thereafter. Not very long afterwards the whole area was taken by Danish forces and the church was probably destroyed. By 1042, however, a new church had been constructed and was back in the possession of the Bishop of Rochester.
The church remained wood until after the Norman Conquest. Bishop Gundulf was responsible for the first stone construction during his time as bishop (1077-1108). Gundulf was also responsible for building the Bishop’s Palace whose scant remains (pictured front of the picture) stand between the church and the River Medway.
For the next four hundred years or so the church at Halling was enlarged, allowed to become ruinous, restored, enlarged, neglected again and then rebuilt several times whilst always remaining a property of the Bishops of Rochester. In 1184 the Bishop of the time, Gilbert de Glanville, entertained Richard, Archbishop of Canterbury (who had arranged for the shrine at Canterbury to be built for Thomas Becket and succeeded him as Archbishop) at the Palace. Richard died whilst here and it is thought he may have been poisoned.
The last Bishop to live at the Palace was John Fisher who was executed by Henry VIII in 1535 alongside Thomas More. The clergy at the Church in Halling also seem to have fallen foul of 16th Century religious politics. There were four new vicars appointed between 1515 and 1534 and in 1553 when Mary I returned the country to Catholicism the vicar Thomas Bedlowe was removed from his post – only to be restored once again when Elizabeth I ascended to the throne. By the time of the late Tudor period the Bishop’s Palace was being leased to the family of William Lambarde – writer of Perambulations of Kent and a favourite of Queen Bess. It later became a workhouse, a farmhouse, a ruin and today a small bit of wall.
The church seemed to survive the latter parts of the medieval period and into the Reformation and beyond with little or no consequences. It was only when the Victorians arrived here and Halling began to grow in size that enlargement work began from around 1886-1888. During this period the fragmentary remains of wall paintings were discovered inside the church and have now been fully restored.
The area around the Church and Palace – particularly towards the River – have been turned into a rather attractive little public park thanks to a Millennium Project and today it is a little off the beaten track gem in a largely forgotten part of Kent.
Photo - Andrew J. Müller
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