Before the Romans

1 Before the Romans


From the South Foreland to Cap Gris Nez is a distance of only 21 miles. On a clear day the chalk cliffs of the French coast can easily be seen from the opposing cliffs on the Kent shore of the Strait of Dover. The chalk cliffs are only one of the natural features to be found on both sides of the Channel; the countryside of East Kent and that of northern France have much in common, nor is this surprising, for until about eight thousand years ago the territory that we know as Kent formed a continuous land-mass with the continent of Europe, and our North Downs, which fall so abruptly into the sea between Dover and Folkestone, were part of a great range of chalk hills which stretched from Salisbury Plain eastwards into Flanders. Thus there was no physical obstacle to migration into these lands, which formed merely a north-western peninsula to the mainland of Europe. Moreover, men had not yet learnt the art of agriculture, so crop-growing did not root them to a particular locality. They wandered wherever game and vegetable foods were plentiful, water was easily accessible and the climate was not too rigorous. It was through Kent, which formed the neck of the peninsula, that the migrants, pressing north-westward from the heart of Europe, passed into Britain.


The slow sinking of the land in relation to the sea resulted in the isthmus gradually becoming narrower, until finally the sea broke through, the land-bridge severed, and the waters of the North Sea and the English Channel flowed together. It has been estimated that this cataclysmic change took place some-where about the year 6,000 B.C. The strait which was thus formed between Britain and Europe was not an insurmountable obstacle but it must have meant migration into Britain ceased to be the result of casual wandering and that it became an operation deliberately to be embarked upon.


The south-east corner of Britain, which later acquired the name of Kent, was in no sense a separate unit in prehistoric times. Like the rest of Britain it very sparsely populated, and its early inhabitants, in common with those Western Europe generally, achieved but a low standard of culture; they used implements made of flint, not having discovered how to work metal; they did know how to make pottery; they were not farmers, neither raising crops nor keeping livestock. Somewhere about the year 2,000 B.C. (this must be regarded very approximate date) there are signs that further migrations led to an advance of civilisation in the lowland area of Britain which was so marked that it has been called the

Neolithic Revolution. The newcomers were still ignorant of the use of metals, but they showed great skill in making flint implements, they cultivated the land and kept herds of cattle, they made pottery, rough but nevertheless serviceable, and some of them raised huge stone monuments, known as megaliths, which have never ceased to be a source of awe and wonder to subsequent generations.


The most impressive Kentish relics of the Neolithic Age are the megaliths of the Medway Valley—Kits Coty, the Countless Stones, Coldrum and the Addington Stones amongst them. They are built of local sarsen stone, but all except Kits Coty, whose three upright stones and capstone remain, have collapsed into a meaningless jumble. Originally these megaliths were associated with long barrows, earthen mounds perhaps 200 ft. long, 30 ft. wide and 15 ft. high, which were erected as communal graves, or possibly sometimes for a single distinguished chieftain. The Kits Coty stones formed a false doorway at one end of a long barrow, all trace of which has now disappeared through constant ploughing, although two hundred and fifty years ago the outlines of it could still be made out on the surface of the field, and part of it can even now be seen from the air. The purpose of the false doorway is not certainly known; perhaps it was to mislead marauders, perhaps to prevent spirits of the dead emerging from their grave to haunt the living.


The men who built the long barrows of the Medway Valley and the one in the Stour Valley at Chilham, called Juliberrie’s Grave, belonged to the same general civilisation as those who erected parts of the great monument of Stonehenge. Originating in the lands that border the north side of the Mediterranean, they made their way up the west coast of the Iberian peninsula and of France across the English Channel into the south of Britain, and by sea into Wales, Ireland, the Hebrides, and Scotland and into Scandinavia and North Germany. It was essentially a water-borne civilisation. Megalithic remains in eastern England generally are scanty, and it is significant that the Kentish megaliths all lie near a river. Probably the people who constructed them did not come directly from the Mediterranean but settled first on the east side of the North Sea, before later migrating to Britain.


Another migration into Kent took place at about the same time as that of megalith builders. These other newcomers crossed the Channel from France and the Low Countries into south and east Britain. In spite of these immigrations, ­much of the land nevertheless remained unoccupied. Parts of the region, such as the Weald, and the long northern dip-slope of the Downs, carried a dense forest on the clay, and these areas naturally were avoided, remaining unsettled or but sparsely populated until almost the end of the Middle Ages. The areas chiefly favoured by Neolithic man, as is evident from the finds of implements and pottery, were: Thanet; the Dour Valley, running inland from Dover, and the foot of the Downs behind Folkestone; and the valleys of thye Stour, Medway, Darent and Cray, especially where, as at Aylesford and Crayford, patches of gravel afforded convenient crossings and well-drained areas for settlement.


The second millennium B.C. was an era of great folk-movements in Europe, and it was with one of these, perhaps about 1,800 B.C., that the idea of metal-working was introduced into southern Britain. The people who brought this knowledge with them (sometimes called Beaker folk, from the shape of a certain type of pot which is frequently found in their graves) came in the main Holland and the Rhineland, whence they crossed to Britain, making a series of landings in the river estuaries along the east coast. They themselves were not, at the time of their migration, workers of metal, and the rather simple bronze tools which they brought with them had been acquired in the course of trade. Centuries passed before the Bronze Age people attained the technical ability to make, and had the trading connections to import, such fine bronze swords as those found at Bromley, Aylesford and Chatham, or the socketed axes which are typical of the best work of the Bronze Age. Finds of Bronze age weapons, tools, pottery and trinkets have been made at many places in Kent. The stock-in-trade of an itinerant bronze-worker found at Minster-in-Thanet ­contained no fewer than 140 items, including axes, swords, spear-heads, knives, a sickle and a hammer, and a smaller hoard was discovered on the foreshore at Birchington. That it was a period of prosperity is evidenced by the heavy gold ornaments, belonging to the Bronze Age and probably imported from Ireland, which have been found at Bexley, Faversham, Canterbury, Dover, Little Chart, Aylesford and elsewhere in the county.


Bronze, which slowly ousted the use of flint, in its turn gave way before the use of iron, a harder and more serviceable metal. Iron-working was probably introduced into Britain by people from the Continent somewhere about the year 500 B.C. but the new material did not immediately displace the use of bronze. No doubt the use of bronze and of iron went on side-by-side for generations. No doubt, too, the men of the Early Iron Age and of the Bronze Age, as Neolithic men before them, used wood, possibly hardened by fire, for making tools which modern man would fashion from iron or steel, but save in ex­ceptionally favourable conditions wood perishes, and few or no examples of such implements have survived. Pottery-sherds on the other hand are almost imperishable, and Early Iron Age pottery has been found at many places in Kent, the most remark­able discoveries being the urn-fields, or cemeteries, at Aylesford and at Swarling. Most of the other finds of pottery have been on the coast, from Reculver round to Folkestone, in the Stour Valley as far up as Wye, and in the Medway Valley. Hoards of gold coins of this period were found at Higham and Westerham, the coins in each case being inside a hollow flint, evidently used as a money-box. Towards the end of the Early Iron Age coins began to be minted in Kent, inscribed with the name of the local ruler.


But far more impressive than pottery-sherds or crudely-minted coins are the great Iron Age hill-top camps at Oldbury, near Ightham, at Keston, and at Bigbury, two miles west of Canterbury. These camps are enclosed by earth ramparts, which at Oldbury were strengthened in places with masonry work, although this reinforcement did not take place until a hundred years or so after the original construction of the camp. Oldbury is huge, the area enclosed being over 120 acres: Bigbury is about a third as large. The comparatively low ram­parts at Bigbury could never have been of much defensive value, and it is possible that they were thrown up hurriedly at the time of Julius Caesar’s incur­sions into Britain in 55 and 54 B.C. The Oldbury camp, on the other hand, was built as a stronghold, probably somewhere about the period 80-60 B.C. There are other Iron-Age camps in Kent, for example, at Nettlestead and Squerryes, Westerham, but none of them is so immense and so impressive as Oldbury.


Why did the men of West Kent undertake the enormous labour which the construction of Oldbury camp involved? The answer seems to be that soon after the opening of the first century B.C. fresh bands of invaders began to cross the North Sea, probably from the Low Countries, and to settle in East Kent and elsewhere in Britain. They belonged to the people known as the Belgae, whom Julius Caesar encountered in his Gallic War. Pressing westward from their early settlements in the eastern part of the county, or south-eastward from the territories which they occupied north of the Thames, they would come into contact, and perhaps conflict, with the people dwelling on the west side of the Medway. It seems likely that Oldbury was constructed as a defence against these invaders. However, in the end, although perhaps not until after the middle of the century and after the time of Caesar’s expeditions across the Channel, the Belgae prevailed, spreading themselves across the lowland region of Britain.


Caesar’s expeditions, or reconnaissances, were not an attempt to conquer Britain, but an extension of his war of conquest and pacification in Gaul. He himself says that he undertook the expeditions to punish the Britons who had been aiding the Gauls in their resistance against the might of Rome. This was no more, in all probability, than a colourful excuse to justify an undertaking to which he was prompted by natural curiosity and by desire of further glory. The crossing in 55 B.C. was made from the French coast near to where the town of Boulogne now stands, with two legions. Their landing in the haven of the River Dour was opposed by the Britons who, says Caesar, lined the cliffs in warlike array, so the Romans sailed along the coast until they could force a landing on the flatter shore at Deal. The Britons soon sued for peace, and although, when Caesar was embarrassed by a high tide which damaged his fleet, they took the opportunity to reopen hostilities, the Roman military power again quickly showed its superiority and for a second time the Britons submitted. After a campaign lasting only a few days, Caesar withdrew to Gaul before the autumn set in, requiring the Britons to send hostages to him and determin­ing to return in the following year.


In 54 B.C. the invading army was a much more formidable force, consisting as it did of five legions and 2,000 Gallic horse, ferried across the Channel in 600 transports. They landed in the same place as before and quickly marched away inland after having established a base camp near the coast. Twelve miles Wand the Romans found their crossing of the Stour opposed by the Britons, who probably were occupying the camp on the hill-top at Bigbury, overlooking the river. Again the Britons gave way before the organised and skilfully-led legions, and again, as in the previous year, Caesar was obliged to return to his base camp near the Deal shore because his ships had been damaged in a great storm. Having spent 10 days, which be could ill afford, in re-establishing his base, he resumed the advance into the interior of the country, crossing the Medway, forcing the passage of the Thames (probably somewhere near Brentford) and destroying the capital of Cassivellaunus, the king of the British tribes north of the Thames. Thus Caesar’s second expedition drew to an end, not having achieved all that he had hoped of it, but with more positive results than he had achieved the year before.


Caesar wrote the seven books of his Gallic Wars not to help 20th-century historians, nor even to torment 20th-century schoolboys, but to justify his conduct of the campaigns in Gaul and the neighbouring territories, and to record his skill as a soldier. In a word, they were propaganda in the Caesarean cause, and we cannot expect from them any full or objective account of the British tribes with whom he came into contact. Nevertheless, he gives a certain amount of information about them and in particular says that of all the Britons (a statement obviously based upon hearsay, since his first‑ hand acquaintance with Britain was limited to the south-east corner) ‘by far the most civilised are those who inhabit Cantium, which is an entirely maritime region, nor do they differ from the Gallic custom’. In the course of trade, the men of Kent were indeed in frequent contact with Gaul and the north-west pail of the continent. Their coinage, their stylish pottery, their ability to construct great camps like Oldbury and Bigbury and the degree of political organisation which their construction implies, their use of war-chariots, and the advances which they made in agriculture, show that they were anything but a race of naked, woad-dyed, savages. Some of them had but recently migrated from the Belgic territories on the Continent, bringing with them a mixture of Celtic and Teutonic cultures. The migration was not halted by Caesar’s expeditions, and probably continued for another fifty years or so.


About the languages of these early men of Kent and Kentish men it is impossible to say much with certainty. It is generally thought that they used different forms of the Celtic languages, ancestral to Welsh, but Caesar’s comments about the Belgae seem to suggest that their tongue may have been related to those of the Germanic family of languages. They have left us no books and no written records from which we can judge. All that remain of their language, or languages, are a few place-names, such as the name Kent itself the names of the rivers Thames, Medway, Darent, Dour, Stour and Cray; and the names Thanet, Lympne and Reculver. In themselves they give no clue to the character and manner of life of the men whom Caesar encountered, an recorded to posterity as the most civilised of all the Britons, but the fact that names which are still in use go back to the old British language or language underlines the continuity of Kentish history for over two thousand years.