Rochester Diocese: History and Description

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The diocese of Rochester originated in the seventh century when Augustine consecrated Justus bishop of Rochester. For much of its existence it had a close and dependent relationship with the see of Canterbury, the bishop of Rochester acting as provincial chaplain to the metropolitan. The Valor ecclesiasticus valued the see at £369 18s. 10½d. per annum, and in 1711 ecto1711 adjudged it worth £358 4s. 9½d. By 1835 the value of the see had risen to some £2,180 net.

The territory of the diocese

In the 1830s the diocese covered some 384 square miles, as it had done since Henrician times, with a population of some 197,000. It was bounded to the north by the Thames estuary, its territory extending from the parish of Deptford in the west to the Isle of Grain (though Grain itself was in a peculiar jurisdiction). It extended across the Medway to take in Gillingham (also in a peculiar) before the boundary turned south-south-west and inland to reach the diocese’s southernmost point at Horsmonden. The boundary then turned west along the southern border of the parish of Lamberhurst until it reached the parish of Cowden to the west. Here it turned north once more, veering slightly to the west to meet the Thames again at Deptford. After the end of the period covered by the CCEd, in 1846, the diocese was substantially altered and enlarged, the first of several significant transformations before it attained its modern identity.

The diocese thus took in much of the western part of the county of Kent, and did not extend beyond the county borders save for distant peculiar jurisdictions. It contained some contrasting environments, although almost all felt the economic and social pull of the adjacent metropolis. In the north-west were parishes eventually absorbed into the London conurbation such as Deptford, Eltham, Greenwich, Lewisham and Woolwich. There were the significant naval and maritime settlements of the north coast of Kent, such as Chatham, Gravesend and Woolwich. Save where chalk hills met the estuary shore, much of the north coast was marshy and with the remote feel Dickens would exploit in the opening pages of David Copperfield, when Magwich accosts the child in a churchyard based on that at Cooling on the Hoo peninsula. On the Medway itself stood Rochester, the cathedral town, of which Daniel Defoe remarked ‘there’s little remarkable’ save for monuments including ‘an antient but not extraordinary’ cathedral. The county town of Maidstone lay just outside the eastern boundary of the diocese. In the south, however, the diocese did take in Tunbridge Wells, already a place of resort in Defoe’s day. The rolling countryside of the North Downs was one of the most distinctive features of the inland portion of the diocese.

The parishes and structure of the diocese

Once the effects of peculiar jurisdictions were taken into account, the bishop exercised authority over fewer than 100 benefices, making Rochester easily the smallest of the mainland dioceses. There was a solitary archdeacon, the archdeacon of Rochester. The diocese was divided into five deaneries: Dartford, Malling, Rochester and Shoreham in Kent, and the deanery of Fordham in the counties of Cambridge and Suffolk.

For all its compactness, however, the geographical unity of the diocese was severely compromised by the existence of a substantial archiepiscopal peculiar jurisdiction, the deanery of Shoreham, which itself consisted of a number of disconnected portions, some of one or two parishes (scattered across the diocese), the largest – stretching from Hever and Penhurst in the south to Orpington and Farningham in the north – almost detaching a single row of parishes from Cowden to West Wickham in the south-west of the diocese from the remainder.

When the Ecclesiastical Commissioners offered their returns relating to the diocese of Rochester in 1835, based on a survey covering the years 1829–31, they produced some interesting findings. The ninety-four benefices they considered (two had failed to make returns) had the highest average gross and net income per parish of any diocese in England and Wales: £474 and £414 per annum respectively; the average figures were £303 and £285. They recorded sixty curates with an average annual stipend of £109, again the highest figure returned by any diocese, the next highest being the figure for Winchester of £98.

The patronage of these livings in 1831 was as follows: ten were in the gift of the crown; fifteen were in the hands of bishops or archbishops; seventeen were controlled by ecclesiastical corporations aggregate, eight by single dignitaries or incumbents; four were the property of universities or hospitals; and forty-four were in the hands of private patrons.

The bishop of Rochester himself presented to a number of Rochester livings: Bromley, Chislehurst, Cuxton, Dartford, Frindsbury, Longfield, Milton (one turn in three), St Nicholas Rochester, Snodland, Southfleet, Stone, Trottescliffe and Woolwich. He could also appoint the vicar of Henley and the rector of Mixbury in the diocese of Oxford, the rector of Ibstock in the diocese of Lincoln, the vicar of Tannington with Brundish in the diocese of Norwich, and the rectors of Norton and Stourmouth in Canterbury. He was also the patron of one parish in his peculiar: Isleham.

peculiar jurisdictions within the diocese

The deanery of Shoreham was a peculiar of the archbishop of Canterbury, who exercised ordinary jurisdiction over the parishes it contained. The rector of Cliffe also exercised a peculiar jurisdiction, in effect subject to the archbishop: hence records for this living, like most of those for the Shoreham peculiar, do not appear in the records of the Rochester diocese, and will appear in the Database along with those for the diocese of Canterbury.

Extra-diocesan peculiars of the Bishop of Rochester

The bishop exercised ordinary jurisdiction over parishes in the deanery of Fordham situated in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk in the territory of the diocese of Ely.

Treatment and coverage of the diocese of Rochester in the CCED

In view of the small size of the diocese and the fact that there was only a single archdeaconry, in this instance the jurisdictional division of the diocese and the geographical one are nigh coterminous, save for the addition of isolated peculiar parishes to the latter. Most of the records which will shed light on appointments in the large peculiar of Shoreham will not be entered into the Database until the records of the Canterbury diocese are uploaded, although odd records have made their way into the Rochester archives. The same is true for the peculiar of Cliffe.

See also Rochester Cathedral.