Saxon Kent

Saxon Kent

Long as was the duration of the Roman occupation, the period from the departure of the Romans to the Norman Conquest was longer still, as long as the period which divides our day from the Battle of Crecy and the Black Death. So long a span of time was bound to bring important changes, and Saxon Kent of the 11th century differed in many respects from Saxon Kent of the fifth.

The Saxons and the Franks, as we have already seen, were making raids on the south and east coasts of Britain as early as’ the end of the third century. After the Roman withdrawal a period of confusion set in. The Britons did not constitute an organised nation, united in defence against the threatened raids from across the North Sea. Internally there was dissension, with pro-Roman and anti-Roman parties, and the situation was made more confused by incursions of the Picts from Scotland. Tradition has it that in A.D. 449 Vortigern, who was king in Kent, sought the help of Hengist and Horsa, two Jutish leaders, in, protecting his kingdom against attack, promising them the Isle of Thanet as a reward for their assistance. It is likely that this was by no means. the first occasion on which a Romanised British leader had called in the aid of mercenaries from the Continent. Many of the details of the traditional Hengist and Horsa story are patently fictitious, but in outline it is probably true. What is certain is that the newcomers, having established themselves in east Kent, were followed across the sea by others belonging to the same people.

It has been customary since Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History in 731 to refer to these invaders of Kent as Jutes, distinguishing them from the Angles who settled the area we know as East Anglia, and from the Saxons, who have left a permanent memorial of themselves in the territorial names Essex (East Saxons), Sussex (South Saxons), Middlesex (Middle Saxons) and Wessex (West Saxons). But the origin of the ‘Jutes’ remains a debatable question. Probably there will always be some uncertainty about them for the fifth century was a period of large-scale folk migrations on the Continent, and it is unlikely that they were a closely-knit people or that they came from a single district of Europe.

Map showing pagan burials in Jutish Kent
Map showing pagan burials in Jutish Kent

One clue to the continental homeland of the Jutes is supplied by a comparison of the pottery and jewellery found in Kentish graves with similar objects found elsewhere in Europe. Some of the pottery, probably dating from the fifth century, is markedly similar to pottery found in Jutland and in Frisia, especially on the west coast of Jutland which provided, as it still provides, the most convenient point of embarkation for either England or Frisia. This seems to bear out the theory, precariously based on Bede’s History, that the Jutes came from Jutland. On the other hand some pottery and jewellery found in Kent resembles pottery and jewellery from the land of the middle Rhine, a district which in the fifth century was predominantly Frankish. Moreover, there were some similarities between the legal codes of the Kentish kings and certain Frankish codes and there are a number of place-name resemblances between Kent and the middle Rhine district. One possible interpretation of this evidence is that the first migrants (to call them invaders is scarcely polite if they were really responding to an invitation from Vortigern) came from Jutland and Frisia, and that later there was a separate Frankish incursion. Alternatively it may be that the Franks, making their way towards the mouth of the Rhine, encountered men from Jutland and Frisia who had also been caught up in great folk-wandering and made common cause with them in trying their fortunes across the North Sea, finally settling together in Kent. The term ‘Jutes’ seems not to have come into use for a couple of centuries after the time of Hengist. To themselves these people were the ‘Kentings’, that is the men living in Kent The fact that they had no racial name for themselves, as the Angles and Saxons had, suggests strongly that the Kentings were not a single race, all originating from a common homeland on the Continent.

The exact manner of the Jutish conquest of Kent we do not know. That it was different in character from the Roman invasion or the Norman Conquest is certain. The Jutes came, families and all, with the intention of settling here because, for reasons which today are only partly understood, they felt driven to leave their European homelands. In the earliest phases, when there was fighting to be done, it must have been an organised expedition, but after the first settlements had been made stragglers continued to cross the North Sea for many years, perhaps for two or three generations.

The development of place names in Jutish Kent
The development of place names in Jutish Kent

According to later tradition the Britons who inhabited Kent either fled to the west, and eventually to the mountain fastnesses of Wales, or were exterminated by the Jutes. These must have been the fates of some of them but of how many we cannot judge. Some remained as the slaves of the conquerors—Walmer, for example, means the sea-coast of the weallas, or slaves. The fact that few British place-names survive seems at first sight to support the tradition that the Britons either fled or were exterminated, but in some other parts of the country, where British survival is known from archaeological evidence, British place-names are scanty. In Saxon times the population of Kent was probably well under 50,000, so there must have been ample room for two races to dwell in the region without coming into perpetual conflict especially if, as seems not unlikely, the Britons for the most part kept to the hills, and the Jutes to the valleys. But this is conjecture, and the truth is that we really know little about the relations between Jutes and Britons.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which began to be compiled in the reign of King Alfred as a year-by-year account of events of importance and not therefore a first-hand and reliable record of affairs which happened two or three hundred years earlier) says that Æsc (or Oisc), who claimed to be a direct descendant of Hengist, reigned as king of Kent from 488 until 512. The kingdom of Kent had probably much the same boundaries as the modern county, and small though it was compared with the other English kingdoms, King Æthelberht, a great-grandson of Æsc who reigned in Kent from 560 to 616, was Bretwalda, or overlord, of all the provinces south of the Humber. In the latter part of the seventh century the throne of Kent seems to have held by intruders from Wessex, but from 695 to 725 Kent was reigned over by its lawful sovereign, King Wihtred. He was noted for his zeal and piety; in the County Archives Office at Maidstone can be seen the charter whereby in 699 he granted the churches and monasteries in Kent freedom from taxation.

Wihtred was succeeded by his son Eadbert, and he in turn was followed by his brother, another Æthelberht, whose death in 760 brought to an end the Kentish royal line that traced its descent back through a period of three hundred years to Æsc. Soon afterwards Kent came under the overlordship of Mercia. The Battle of Otford in 774 was a rising of the Kentish men against Offa, their Mercian overlord, and it is likely that as a result of the battle Kent regained its independence for a few more years. In 805 it became once more a province of Mercia, a status which it retained for only 20 years, for in 825 Egbert of Wessex defeated Beornwulf of Mercia in a decisive battle near Swindon, and Kent, submitting to Egbert, ceased to be a separate kingdom.

Of the kings of Kent the most famous is certainly the first Æthelberht, who held the throne from 560 to 616. It was in his day that St Augustine, landing near Ebbsfleet, made his way to the king’s court at Canterbury, bringing with him the Christian gospel. The Christian religion was no novelty to Æthelberht for his wife Bertha, the daughter of the Frankish king Charibert whose capital was at Paris, was herself a Christian and she continued to practise her own religion at her husband’s court. Æthelberht met Augustine in Thanet, according to tradition in the open air for the king was fearful of the magic that the missionary might be bringing with him (Æthelberht seems to have learnt little from his wife about her religion; was Christianity then thought of, perhaps, as a religion for women rather than for men?) Augustine was allowed to preach, to use St Martin’s church at Canterbury, a church which had been founded during the Roman occupation and had probably served as the chapel of Queen Bertha. Soon Æthelberht himself and many of his people underwent conversion. Augustine began to build new churches and to restore some of those dating from the time of the Roman occupation; that they still stood and had not been destroyed during the Jutish invasion argues against the view that that had been an operation accompanied by wholesale violence and devastation.

Towards the end of 597 Augustine was consecrated bishop. On Christmas day, 597, he reported, no fewer than 10,000 people were baptised—an astonishingly large number considering the then population of the kingdom; but perhaps in his report the bishop allowed enthusiasm to outrun statistical accuracy. Seven years later a second Kentish bishopric was established, at Rochester, with Justus as the first bishop. Bishoprics were created at London and elsewhere, but no other English kingdom at this period had two bishoprics. Kent was thus favoured probably because it was an unusually populous kingdom, with an unusually large proportion of Christians. Of Justus’s cathedral church we know a little. It stood slightly to the west of the present cathedral, the west porch of which covers the eastern apsidal end of the earliest building. It was quite small, about 60 ft. long by 30 ft. wide. At Canterbury the oldest church buildings are St Martin’s, which has already been referred to, the Abbey of St Augustine, and St Pancras’, a little late sixth- or early-seventh century chapel within the Abbey curtilage.

Augustine died within a few years of coming to Kent, and was succeeded as bishop of Canterbury by Laurentius. Elsewhere the new religion made little progress. Æthelberbt persuaded Redwald, king of the East Saxons, to adopt Christianity, but his successors drove Bishop Mellitus from London, and in his flight to Gaul Mellitus was joined by Bishop Justus of Rochester. This sudden worsening of the position of Christians in Kent followed the death of Æthelberht in 616, and the succession of his son Eadbald, who still clung to the heathen religion. Laurentius bravely stayed on at Canterbury, persuaded Eadbald to accept baptism, and within a few years Christianity in Kent, though not in other parts of England, was once more flourishing under royal protection. There was never again a danger of Kent reverting to heathenism, but it was many years before the whole of England had been converted to the new faith; the neighbouring Sussex, for example, cut off as it was from contact with Kent by the almost inpenetrable Wealden forest, remained heathen until Bishop Wilfrid, exiled from Northumbria in 680, spent some years among the South Saxons converting them to the faith which the men of Kent had professed for three generations.

Augustine not merely brought back the Christian religion to Canterbury, to Kent and to England, he also restored the contacts with the civilisation of Southern Europe which had lapsed early in the fifth century. Kent once again was on the highway from Rome to London. In 668 the learned Theodore was sent from Rome to be archbishop at Canterbury, and he was accompanied by a man no less learned than himself, Hadrian, who became Abbot of the monastery of SS Peter and Paul (the earlier dedication of St Augustine’s) at Canterbury. Theodore brought order and organisation into the life of the English Church, and it was probably in his time that the development of the parochial system began. Under his influence and that of Hadrian, Canterbury became a centre of learning, of brilliant intellectual life, which attracted scholars from afar. The reputation which the Venerable Bede gave Canterbury for classical learning makes it appear to be without rival in that field throughout northern and western Europe.

It was partly under ecclesiastical influence, partly following the practice of the Franks, that the Kentish kings began to enact series of laws. To make a law seems to us a normal act of government; to the more primitive mind it is so abnormal as to be almost impossible. Laws were thought of as being divinely inspired, and for men to attempt to alter them would be the height of impiety—it is impossible, for example, to imagine Moses tampering with the laws which he had received on Mount Sinai. The first Kentish king to issue a set of laws was Æthelberht. The date of their issue must be later than 597 when Augustine came to Canterbury, but earlier than 616 when Æthelberht died. Another series was issued by Kings Hlothhere and Eadric in 685, and a third by King Wihtred in 695.

No attempt was made in these series of laws to set out the whole of the law in the form of a code. It was only the new laws, or alterations to the old, which were published in this way. To publish the ordinary law was regarded as unnecessary, because it was already known to everyone. For this reason it is not, alas! known to us.

The legislation of the Kentish kings of the seventh century included laws protecting the Church and exempting it from taxation; forbidding heathen practices; laying down the manner in which lawsuits were to be determined; and instituting an elaborate system of money compensations for personal injuries – 6s. for a broken arm, 12s. for an ear struck off, 50s. for an eye, is. for a back tooth, and so on. This may sound barbarous, but it is really more civilised than the lex talionis, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and probably the new law reflected the influence of the Church.

The laws of Æthelberht have a special interest in that they are the earliest extant document written in the English language. Kent’s position in the van of the new learning and civilisation is demonstrated by the fact that the oldest Wessex code of laws dates only from about A.D.690—nearly a century later than the laws of Æthelberht.

This account of the Kentish royal house, of the Church, with Canterbury at its centre, and of the issue of legal codes may suggest a greater degree of organisation, stability and uniformity than Kent at that time enjoyed. The Jutish settlement and colonisation of Kent was a long-drawn out process, and parts of the county, indeed, remained unoccupied until shortly before the Norman Conquest. From archaeological discoveries, and from place-names, it is possible to determine in which parts of Kent settlement first took place and which parts were the last to be colonised. Cemeteries in which, along with the dead, are buried objects for their use in a future life, belong to the heathen period. Such

cemeteries have been found at many places—e.g. Sane, Patrixbourne, Crundale, Kingston, Faversham, Milton Regis, Northfleet, Horton Kirby and since then at Lyminge and Broadstairs. Many of the graves have yielded specimens of Kentish jewellery (examples can be seen at Maidstone Museum and elsewhere) of such magnificence as to testify to the wealth at least of the upper classes. These pagan cemeteries are shown on the map on page 29, and indicate settlements that must have been established by about the end of the sixth century.

Shown on the next map are certain place-names which are known to be of an early type. These include heathen names like Woodnesborough, Woden’s Hill, and Wye, the place of the idols; names originally ending in -ingas, which meant a group of people—Hawkinge, e.g. was the people of Hawk, Malling the people of Mealla; names like Eastry, Sturry, Lyminge; and names whose original termination was ham, a homestead or settlement.

As the maps show, the archaeological and the place-name evidence largely coincide in indicating those parts of the county which were the earliest to be settled by the Jutes. They were the valleys of the Lesser Stour, the Great Stour, the Medway and the Darent; Thanet (though the paucity of early place-names here is surprising); the fertile country on either side of the line of Watling Street and the foot of the Downs in East Kent. These areas were the first to be occupied, partly because they were easy of access, but still more because of the favourable conditions that they offered—a kindly soil, availability of water, and little to be done in the way of tree-clearing. It was otherwise in the Weald and on the dip slope of the North Downs, where not only did the soil consist of heavy clay that was hard to work, but also the whole area was covered with dense forest. In time it was found that the Wealden forest had its value, for it could be used for feeding swine and many of the upland villages had their swine-pastures, or ‘dens’, in the Weald. Den and ley are still common terminations of place-names in the Weald; probably these offshoots of earlier upland settlements, some of which are shown on the map on page 29, came into existence in the eighth or ninth century although some are as late as the eleventh.

One other part of the county that was unattractive to the early settlers was the north-west with its hungry, sandy soil, marked today by the Commons of Bromley, Hayes, Keston and Chislehurst. It was natural that such ‘less eligible  sites should be shunned by the first comers who had plenty of more desirable places to choose from.

The gradual colonisation of Kent did not proceed in peace. As, in the fifth century the Jutes crossed the sea to invade south-eastern Britain, so now they were followed in the ninth century by the Danes. The story of the Danish raids can be reconstructed from the entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. They first appear in 832, when ‘heathen men overran the Isle of Sheppey’. Nine years later Rochester and Canterbury suffered severely at their hands, and in 851 the Danes for the first time made their winter-quarters in England, in the Isle of Thanet. Three years later they wintered in Sheppey. In 865 they broke a treaty of peace made with the men of Kent, and overran the eastern part of the county. Twenty years later Rochester was besieged, but Alfred was now on the throne and the defences of England were being taken in hand. He relieved the town, the Danes departed, and the newly-formed English fleet defeated a small Danish fleet at Stourmouth (which at this time stood on the arm of the sea which separated Thanet from the mainland). The most serious threat of all was the incursion of 893. One Danish army, which had been harrying France, crossed the Channel from Boulogne and with 250 ships entered the mouth of the Limen, or Rother, which then probably flowed out into the sea near Hythe. They towed their ships four miles up river and built a fort at Appledore. Meanwhile another Danish army under Hasten with 80 ships sailed into the Thames estuary and constructed a fort on the Swale marshes near Milton Regis. Earthworks which may be the sites of these forts still exist. From these two camps in the following year the Danes broke out and plundered southern England, from time to time clashing with the armies of King Alfred; but this campaign belongs to the general history of England, not to the particular history of Kent. Throughout the 10th century there was intermittent raiding in Kent, but the Danes never were able to make any permanent lodgment here, as they did in the midlands and the north, and Kent never came under Danish influence, much less under Danish domination. This accounts for the complete absence of Danish place-names in Kent.

In their earlier raids the Danes were prompted by hopes of plunder, not of permanent settlement. The towns, such as Rochester and Canterbury, were prosperous, the monasteries were wealthy, and towns and monasteries both held out good prospect of booty. The oldest of the Kent monastic houses, those

at Canterbury and Rochester, were founded by King Æthelberht at the time c of Augustine’s mission, and several others, including those at Dover, Folkestone, Lyminge, Reculver, Minster-in-Sheppey and Minster-in-Thanet, were established before the end of the seventh century. Their position, incidentally, is additional evidence as to the parts of the county which were the first to be settled and developed by the Jutes. It was these same areas which attracted the unwelcome attention of the Danes, and all of the monasteries suffered severely. Several of them ceased to exist, the buildings being utterly destroyed (although the nunnery at Folkestone may have been ruined by the encroachment of the sea rather than by the Danes), and they remained in abeyance until their revival in the more law-abiding years of the 11th century.

In spite of the raids of the ‘heathen men’ from across the North Sea, learning survived in the monasteries. At Canterbury, in particular, illuminated manuscripts were being produced in the 10th and 11th centuries which show a vivid mastery of the art of line-drawing. Late Saxon sculpture also achieved an astonishingly high standard, although Kent unfortunately possesses little of it, the cross from Reculver being almost the only example. Few buildings of Saxon date have survived. This is understandable enough, for even the houses of the great, and important buildings like churches, were constructed very generally of timber, whilst the poor lived in hovels the life of which cannot have been much longer that of a modern hen-run. Where churches were built of stone, as at Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey and Rochester Cathedral, the early structures were afterwards demolished to make way for larger buildings. Several parish churches, including St Mary in Dover Castle, Lyminge, Cheriton, Lydd, Paddlesworth (near Folkestone) and Whitfield, contain more or less extensive remnants of Saxon work. But Kent has nothing to compare with, for example, the Saxon church of Earl’s Barton in Northamptonshire.

Saxon Kent of the 11th century, like the rest of England, was mainly a land of country-dwellers, although Canterbury, Rochester, Dover, Sandwich, Hythe, Romney and Fordwich were reckoned as boroughs and were market and trading towns of some significance. Generally they were not closely built-up like the centre of a modern town, but at Canterbury the houses must have been close together because the customary law of the place required a space of at least two feet to be left between adjacent houses to serve as an eaves-drip’. Of industry as we know it there was none, although there were saltpans in several parts of county and water-mills wherever streams existed to drive them. The majority the people lived, directly or indirectly, by agriculture.

The farming tool which was distinctive of Kent was the turn-wrest plough. It could plough along one furrow and down the next, whereas with the midland plough it was necessary to plough in furlongs. This gave the Kentish fields a different appearance and perhaps a different shape from those in other parts of the country, and to some extent these differences are still observable. But for the ordinary farm-worker one part of England must have been very much like another, and Ælfric’s Colloquies (written about the year 1000) tells us with vivid directness the kind of life which ordinary people lived in the Middle Ages. For many centuries this was their manner of life, after as well as before the  Norman Conquest. The immediate effects of the Conquest can easily be exaggerated. The Normans undoubtedly imported an element of efficiency into English life, particularly in the building of castles, the building of churches and in the organisation of secular and ecclesiastical government. But it would be wrong to think of pre-Conquest Kent or pre-Conquest England as being a backward and barbaric province, to be awakened from its sloth only by the civilising embrace of Normandy.