The earliest known reference to a church in the town is found in the contemporary Doomesday Monarchum. Some writers believe that the north transept, now called St Edmund's Chapel, may have then incorporated a Saxon place of worship; a Saxon-style arch is still plainly visible.
In medieval times St Leonard's was described as "Hethe Chapel" despite possessing a magnificence which other Kentish folk would have envied.
Successive Archbishops of Canterbury held a large estate at Saltwood near Hythe and are believed to have been responsible for the enlargement of the church in c.1120, probably using some of the craftsmen who built the cathedral in Canterbury. Aisles and transepts were added and a new, more elaborate choir with small apse was fashioned. Entry was through a west door where the interior tower wall still stands. Many Norman features can still be seen; the arches in the south aisle and in the choir vestry, as well as the remains of two windows above the north aisle.
By c.1220 fashions in architectural style had changed. With a growing number of pilgrims visiting the church, further enlargements were carried out. Perhaps in an attempt to build a mini-Canterbury Cathedral, and certainly with that inspiration, the civic pride of the townsfolk gave birth to the present church.
The ambitious project was launched when Hythe was at the height of its prosperity, and the magnificent chancel and ambulatory beneath ( now incorrectly known as the crypt ) are the result. The only reason we can still see the remains of the previous churches is that the town's prosperity later waned and the plan could not be fully carried out.
Some improvements were made in the 14th Century, notably the building of the tower and the porch with a room above to house the parish priest, but these were on a less lavish scale than before.
During the Reformation the rich decoration which filled the church was stripped away. Wall paintings, rood screen and statues were destroyed, alters removed and pews added for the first time. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries the interior would have appeared remarkably plain. Only the iron "Armada" chest which used to contain the parish registers survives as a tangible reminder of the period.
The west tower of the medieval church collapsed in 1739; possibly it had finally succumbed to weakness created by a severe earthquake of 1580. The ferocity of the tremors was reported to have made the church bells ring and caused dangerous cracks in nearby Saltwood Castle. A newspaper reported: "We learn from Hythe that on Thursday morning last, about eleven o'clock, the steeple of their church fell down, and that they have been busy digging out the bells, being six in number. About ten persons were present when it fell, waiting for keys in the church porch to go up the steeple for a view. But some delay being made in bringing them, they all happily saved their lives, and no other damage than being terribly frightened."
The tower was subsequently reconstructed in 1750, using the old materials, with the south transept being rebuilt the following year, largely through the generosity of the Deedes family, many of whose ancestors are buried there. There was a clock in the tower before 1413, although the present instrument dates from 1901.
A peal of at least five bells is recorded before the 1480s. Subsequently there were normally eight, two bells being added in 1993 to make the full peal of ten.
In the 18th century the nave was surrounded by galleries to provide enough seating for the town's growing population. Poorer people sat up there while the best pews below were ' rented out ' to wealthier worshippers. In 1751 the Deedes family rented one such pew for themselves and four more for their servants. The mayor and the town corporation had their own pews at the front. Present councillors still sit at the front, in the pews with carved poppy-heads.
Burial vaults were made outside the church in the later 18th and early 19th centuries.
In 1875 and 1887 restorations to the church were carried out at a cost of £10,000. Two of the finest Victorian architects, George Street and John Pearson, were employed. Street designed the Law Courts in the Strand.
At St Leonard's the two men successfully completed many of the features which the original medieval craftsmen had intended to incorporate before the funds dried up. The vaulting to the chancel and aisle roofs was completed in 1887, albeit five centuries overdue. The present barrel-shaped roof in the nave dates from 1875. The pulpit with its fine Venetian mosaic work, composed of 20,000 pieces, is of the same date.
Many of the fittings introduced at that time were in keeping with the medieval devotional life of the church. Amongst these is an especially fine marble reredos which originally stood behind the alter, but is now situated in the south choir aisle. This is a masterpiece of artistic work, given by a former curate in memory of his wife. There is a Pre-Raphaelite touch in the depiction of the angels, and its deep swirling lines give it an almost sultry appearance. It was carved from a single piece of carrera marble in 1881 by Henry Armstead to the designs of George Street. It was moved to its present position in 1938.
Two features in the church bring the visitor abruptly into the 20th century. In the south aisle a remarkable stained-glass window commemorates 2nd Lieutenant Robert Hildyard who was killed, with over a million others, on the Somme in 1916. The window has a dreamy, surreal effect, and is a fine example of the art nouveau style.
The present fine organ built in 1936 by Harrison & Harrison, is the latest in a long line dating back to the 15th century.
ST LEONARD'S TODAY
Most visitors are impressed by the main east window which shows Christ, surrounded by angels, ascending to heaven. The Victorian glass which once occupied the space was destroyed in 1940 when a german bomb struck the ground at the east end of the church causing extensive damage. The present east window was dedicated in 1951 and reflects the long-term role played by the town of Hythe in the front line of England's defence. A Cinque Port ship can be seen in the panel at the bottom left, and an anti-aircraft gun and searchlights in the right-hand panel.
The only structural alteration to the church in the 20th century was the building of the choir vestry on the north side in 1959, enclosing the fine Norman arch of the second church.
St Leonard's maintains a strong musical heritage with concerts and recitals being held regularly in the church. The worship continues to be enriched by a strong choral tradition which stretches back several centuries. The church building is continuously being developed and restored through the fundraising efforts of the parishioners.
St Leonard's church remains passionately committed to discovering God wherever he might be encountered in the word, in sacraments, in the beauty of this place and in the love shared between its parishioners.
New approaches and styles of worship, as well as the traditional forms of service, all seek to deepen further the spiritual health and maturity of the faithful, who keep returning, time and time again, to seek God in a holy place.
The Parish of St Leonard, Hythe