Discoveries in Kent

EngliscHeritage

Discoveries in Kent

 

The conquest of Kent by the Jutes, as explained in a previous chapter, was accomplished during the period between their first invasion in the year 450 A.D., or thereabouts, and the death of Hengist sometime before 490 A.D., and theneceforward for little over a century there is not much known of the history of the country beyond the names of the kings.

 

The Jutes were a civilized race, and their arts and crafts were of a higher order. They were pagans, of course, like the Angles and Saxons; and their language was that now known as Anglo-Saxon, the parent of the English tongue, though it had certain Jutish peculiarities. There is no evidence that they had entirely exterminated or expelled the original Cantii, the British tribe after whom Kent is named; and it would rather seem that they had driven out the armed forces which had opposed them, but had allowed large numbers of the British population to remain in their midst as a subordinate class. The cities, such as Canterbury, and the fortress such as Richborough, continued to be occupied; and many of the Roman-British buildings remained standing.

 

Large numbers of Jutish graves have been excavated throughout the county, but mainly in the eastern half, and in these a mass of objects has been found, including rich jewellery and beads; weapons and shields; utensils of bronze or pottery; glass; keys; dice and draughtsmen; toilet articles such as nail-cleaners, tweezers, combs, and mirrors; coins; and so forth.

 

At Faversham, eight miles/12kms west of Canterbury, the richest cemetery of this period in all England has been dug out; and the splendid contents are to be seen in the British Museum and elsewhere. There is affine collection in the museum at Maidstone; and the museums at Canterbury and other places have much to arouse our admiration of the art and the wealth of these far-off men.

 

Then, in 597 A.D., there occurred the event which changed the whole course of the history of Kent, and, indeed of all Britain, namely, the arrival from Rome of the Christian missionaries under Augustine; but going back some years to relate the incidents which led to the sending of this mission to Britain.

 

Though the Roman military domination of the western world had collapsed in the Fifth Century, the moral influence of the fallen city remained so unassailable that Rome continued to be the centre of that Christian faith which had been the state religion of the empire at the time of the disaster; and the church at Rome took on, in some sense, the work of the legions. Provinces of the empire, such as Britain, had been overrun by pagan invaders and largely lost; but in Rome there was always the hope of winning them back and incorporating them once more in some sort of world-state centred in the Eternal City, and it was obvious that the forces by which this could be accomplished was now the church and not the army.

In the case of our own country, it was felt in Italy that if only the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain could be won over to the Christian faith, and hence to a renewed allegiance to Rome, the British Christians who remained unconquered in the western side of the island, and who had long since lost touch with Rome, though they still called themselves Roman citizens, would become united with the newcomers, and the whole country would pass back into Roman power.

 

Now there was at this time in Rome a certain monk named Gregory, and one day he happened to see in the market-place three yellow-haired boys who were to be sold as slaves, having been carried off, in some piratical raid, from the coast of Deira, the new Anglian or English Kingdom corresponding to the later Yorkshire.

Gregory asked the slave-merchant to what nation they belonged, and on being told that they were Angles, replied that they ought rather to be termed Angels, so charming was their appearance. “They come from Deira,” said the merchant; and to this Gregory answered with another pun. “De ira!” he exclaimed, which in Latin means “Away from wrath”; they should indeed be plucked away from the wrath of God, and called to the mercy of Christ.”

 

He asked, further, what was the name of the King of that country, and the man replied “Aella,” (who reigned over Deira from 560 to 588 A.D.,) “Aella-lujah! Allelujah!” Gregory smiled. “The praise of God shall one day be sung in that land.”

 

The impression left on his mind by these three Yorkshire lads was lasting, and when, some years later, in the reign of the Emperor Mauritius Tiberius, he had risen to be Pope of Rome, and was full of the scheme for extending Roman power over the provinces of its lost empire, he set about the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, and chose Augustine to lead a band of 40 monks to Britain. Augustine was a very tall man of commanding appearance and stern in manner; but he was appalled by the task before him, and tried his best to be relieved of the undertaking. Gregory, however, obliged him to make the attempt; and at last, after much delay, he and his party set sail from France, and landed at Ebbsfleet on the Kentish coast, on the east side of the waterways which then separated the Isle of Thanet from the mainland. The other reason why he wanted the mission was that St. Columba of Iona had passed away in 597, a man who was as powerful as Gregory, with him now gone, he now wanted to bring over the Church of Rome, who would challenge the Celtic church in Britain, who had spread across Europe, he was in affect doing what the Roman Legions had done to the Druids destroy them in their homeland, which in time this what happened to the Celtic church.

 

He had chosen this Jutish part of Britain for his adventure, rather than the Anglian coast further north, because Aethelbert, King of Kent, had married a Christian lady named Bertha (daughter of the King of Paris) who, he knew, had been allowed to practice her religion at the Kentish court, and had with her a French bishop named Luidhard who acted as her chaplain.

On hearing of the arrival of the mission Aethelbert sent orders to Augustine to remain where he was, and, some days later, arranged a meeting with him, nervously insisting, however, that the interview should take place out of doors where there was less chance of him being bewitched or made the victim of the stranger`s magic, than there would be inside the four walls of a house.

Augustine and his party arrived at the meeting place in procession, chanting a litany, and carrying a silver cross and a painting of our Lord, all of which must have made the Kentish king feel very uncomfortable; but at length Augustine delivered such a friendly speech that Aethelbert, though confessing that he did not know what it was all about, gave him permission to come to Canterbury and to make as many converts as he was able.

 

This meeting appears to have taken place at Richborough Castle, or did the king sail to the Isle of Thanet to meet Augustine under a tree? Whatever, the old Roman fortress near Sandwich, and there archaeologists discovered a memorial chapel dedicated to St. Augustine. The party then moved off to Canterbury, where they found that the Christian Queen Bertha was in the habit of performing her devotions at the small church of St. Martin which had been built during the Roman occupation, say about the year 350 A.D., or so, and which had evidently suffered no damage when the pagan Jutes took possession of the city.

 

This church still stands and is still in use, with its vast age of nearly sixteen centuries makes it the oldest church in England, and one of the oldest buildings in actual use on the world.

Here Augustine and his companions held their services, and here on Whit-Sunday, 2nd June, 597 A.D., had the baptizing Aethelbert himself. After that all was easy, and on Christmas Day of the same year no less than 10,000 persons were baptized in the Swale, at the mouth of the Medway, not many miles/kms from Chatham.

Not far from St. Martin`s at Canterbury there was another church built in Roman times, and this had been converted into a pagan temple; but Aethelbert handed it over to Augustine, who dedicated it to St. Pancras, and there performed his devotions while he was building the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul near by. Meanwhile on the site of the present cathedral he re-consecrated a third church of Roman date, and named it Christ Church.

 

Having thus established himself at Canterbury, Augustine turned his attention to the British Christians who lived unconquered in the west of Britain; and he made the long cross-country journey to the river Severn in order to meet their bishops and to unite them once more with Rome. Here, however, he received a rebuff, for the old British clergy were offended by his arrogant manner – exemplified in his refusal to rise from his chair to salute them – and declined to join forces with him, preferring to maintain their independence as a separate Church of Britain; and the conference, which was held at Aust in Gloucestershire, was a failure.

 

The British Church, indeed, held views very different from the Orthodoxy of Rome. Particularly they observed the festival of Easter on a date arrived at by a calculation then obsolete in Rome, and the clergy tonsured their hair in a manner not in vogue in the Eternal City. Moreover, they were Pelagians, that is to say they held the doctrine preached by Pelagius, a Briton, who nearly 200 years earlier had made himself a figure of world-wide importance by denying the doctrine of Original Sin, for which he had been banished from the Roman world by a decree of Honorius and Theodosius. Pelagius, being a man of common-sense, declared that an infant was not born in sin, and hence was not condemned to damnation if it had the misfortune to die before being baptized. No sacramental rite of the church, he said, could of itself bring a human being into the fold of the elect of God: only his own innocence or his own good works could do that; and therein he struck a blow at the dictational power of the church, and its hold upon the magic-loving minds of the people, which was furiously resented by the priests.

The text of much correspondence which passed between the Pope Gregory and Augustine is still extant, and in one of these letters we find the Pope gently urging his missionary not to be puffed up by his successes in Kent, which suggests that the British estimate of his character had some justification; but in spite of many shortcomings Augustine remains in our mind as a great figure, and he had as much right as many others to be canonized as a saint when, on 26th May, 605 A.D., he died.

 

The Abbey which he was building was not yet finished at his death, and he was buried in what was to be the north porch of the church. He was succeeded as Archbishop of Canterbury in turn by Laurentius. Mellitus, and Justus, all three of whom had served under him, and these men were buried within this same building.

Today if you happen to visit Canterbury and make your way to St. Augustine`s College, the great missionary school of the Church of England, you may see the grounds at the back the recently excavated ruins of this Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul; and there before your eyes lie the empty tombs of these first four Archbishops, whose bodies were afterwards removed elsewhere in Norman times. Here also you will see the tombs of King Eadbald of Kent, who died in 640 A.D., King Lothere, who died in 685 A.D., king Wihtraed, 725 A.D., and King Mul of Wessex, who died in 687 A.D.

 

King Mul met his doom in Kent with 12 of his chief nobles, all being burnt to death in a house where they were defending themselves against a hostile faction; and in his tomb the excavators, in 1924, found his charred bones and ashes.

The excavators have not yet been successful in uncovering the tombs of King Aethelbert and Queen Bertha, who are known to have been buried somewhere hereabouts; but it is hoped that the work will be continued and that it will ultimately be crowned with success. Meanwhile, this is one ancient site in Britain so well worth a visit as this wide area wherein the spade has already revealed so much that is of intense interest to those who have the story of our early history at heart.

With the site of the ruin Abbey, to the east of it lies the little church of St. Pancras where Augustine worshipped at the stone altar of which the base is still to be seen, and where Aethelbert, before his conversion, made his oblations to the pagan gods. Here, the excavations have revealed the whole ground-plan of the building, and the fact that it was originally a church of Roman date is clear.

 

But for those interested in this remote period the church of St. Martin, which is still in use, provides the chief show-place of Canterbury, and, indeed, of all England. Here stand the Roman walls just as they stood when Queen Bertha knelt in worship in this little building before the coming of Augustine, just as they stood, too, in the Fourth Century when officers and soldiers of the Legions, and toga-clad Roman-British citizens, came here to pray to the new Christian God of the Roman Empire.

Here you may see the font, of which part, at any rate, belongs to Augustine`s age, and which maybe that very font, as tradition says, whereat Aethelbert was baptized. The Roman doorways and the windows are still to be seen, built up with later masonry; and beneath the present roof the line of the flat ceiling of Augustine`s time is clearly marked.

St. Martin`s stands on a low mound on the eastern outskirts of the city; and from the doorway you may see the towers of the cathedral rising in the distance above the yews of the beautiful little churchyard. But in the Cathedral itself, whereon visitors generally concentrate their attention, hardly a trace of the work of the Anglo-Saxon period remains; and thus it comes about that they usually miss seeing the remains of the more recent age which they would find here in this little church and in the grounds of St. Augustine`s College. It would be advisable for them, to visit first this latter church, they will come to understand those roots of English life from which the great Cathedral buildings and all they stand for have grown.