The History of Kent after 1066

        The French-Norman Conquest/Crusade and Settlement

The landing of Duke William in 1066 was by no means the first contact between England and French-Normandy. King Edward the Confessor was in close communication with Normandy, and an affray in 1051 between the retinue his guest and brother-in-law, Count Eustace of Boulogne, and the men of Dover was a foretaste of what was to happen 15 years later. The various accounts of the squabble at Dover are conflicting, but the outlines are clear Eustace was either on his way to or from the court of Edward in London, naturally his route lay by way of the port of Dover. There Eustace’s men began demanding quarters, evidently in a high-handed fashion. High words soon place to blows, a Norman was killed and thereupon Eustace in revenge slew 20 townsmen. The men of Dover rose and drove out the Normans, killing several of them. With the survivors of his retinue Eustace escaped to London and complained to the King of the treatment which he had suffered at Dover Edward resolved that the town should be punished, and ordered Earl Godwin to deal faithfully with the town according to its deserts.

Such an order placed Godwin in a quandary. He was closely connected with Kent; he was Earl of all the shires of southern England, including this county;  the office of earl, although a royal appointment, had become almost hereditary and Godwin’s family was the most powerful in the kingdom, with the throne itself not beyond their grasp; and Godwin had reason to believe that Eustace’s men were at least as much to blame as the townsmen for the affray at Dover. He was reluctant to punish his own town and people of Dover, but to disobey the royal command was near to rebellion. He decided to take the risk, assembled an army at Tetbury in Gloucestershire and delivered what looks like a discreet ultimatum to the King. The King also assembled an army, and although a clash was prevented by a desire on both sides for compromise, the compromis a moral defeat for Godwin who went into exile on the Continent, his son Harold seeking safety in Ireland.

The departure of his over-mighty subjects Godwin and Harold gave Edward the opportunity of strengthening the French-Norman element at his court, and in 1051 or 1052 he received a visit from Duke William himself. But Godwin was not the man to submit to permanent exile, and in 1052 he returned, landing at Dungeness. He received promises of support from men in Kent, Sussex, Surrey, and after securing similar promises from a number of south coast ports and towns (promises sometimes extorted under duress) he made contact with his son Harold, returning from exile in Ireland. Collecting together a fleet from Pevensey, Romney, Hythe and Folkestone, Godwin and Harold enticed to them the seamen of Kent and Sussex. The King’s fleet lay at Sandwich, but its attempts to intercept Godwin were ineffective, and it withdrew to London. At Dover and at Sandwich Godwin landed and took ships and hostages, before following the King’s fleet up the Thames towards London. On his way he found time to plunder the Isle of Sheppey and to burn the town of Milton Regis (for it was a royal vill). At London the King’s fleet was surrounded by the more numerous ships of Godwin, but hostilities were avoided, Godwin and Harold were received back into the King’s ‘full friendship’, Edward sent away his French advisers, and Bishop Stigand, bishop of Winchester, was appointed to the archbishopric of Canterbury, which the Norman Robert was arbitrarily declared to have vacated. Norman influence in England was at the lowest ebb which it reached during Edward’s reign.

The events of the remainder of his reign do not particularly concern Kent. He died on 5 January 1066, and was succeeded by Godwin’s son Harold, but as the author of the Chronicle wrote, ‘He enjoyed little tranquillity therein the while that he wielded the kingdom’. In May Harold’s brother Tostig, crossing from beyond the sea, harried the south coast and occupied Sandwich. Harold suspected that Tostig was acting in concert with Duke William, and that the Normans would speedily make use of the bridgehead which Tostig had secured. Harold therefore collected a large force, naval and military to recover Sandwich, but Tostig, when he heard of the King’s preparations, departed northwards, taking some of the portsmen, willing or unwilling, with him; he eventually joined forces with Harold Hardrada, king of Norway, when in the late summer he invaded the north-east coast of England.

It was whilst Harold of England was engaged in defending his kingdom against Harold of Norway that William of Normandy landed at Pevensey in Sussex. After a few days he removed unmolested to a more secure position at Hastings, and there constructed a wooden castle. A number of ships bringing up reinforcements, through faulty information or faulty navigation, made for Romney where they were fiercely attacked by the portsmen who soon paid for their boldness. Five days after the Battle of Hastings William began to advance towards London, but recognising the strategic importance of Kent, and the necessity of securing his line of communication with Normandy, he did not advance directly north-westward through the Weald (the nature of the country would in any case have discouraged such an enterprise), but turned eastward along the coast into Kent. Romney was severely punished for having dared to resist the Normans a few days before. Dover was William’s next objective, and it surrendered on demand. He stayed there eight days, building works of fortification, and then he moved on to Canterbury, where he remained for a month. It was a cautious advance, for William was feeling his way as he went. Whilst he was at Canterbury he negotiated with other important places in southern England about their submission. Eventually he felt secure enough to resume his advance towards London, which accepted him although not until after the Normans had displayed their military strength in a great encircling movement which took them as far to the west as Wallingford in Berkshire.

A story is told of William’s march from Canterbury to London which deserves to be repeated because, although it is well known, and well known to be ficti­tious, it can be regarded as possessing symbolic truth. Whilst William was advancing westward from Rochester, over the hill at Swanscombe, he saw him­self gradually surrounded by what appeared to be a moving forest. Suddenly the forest resolved itself into an army of archers, camouflaged like Macduff’s army on its march from Birnam to Dunsinane with green boughs of trees (although it was the month of November!). At their head stood Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Egelnoth, Abbot of St Augustine’s, who demanded for the men of Kent confirmation of their ancient laws and immunities. Recovering from his astonishment and fear, William was glad to grant their request.

Thus the story runs. The truth is more probably that, as he advanced from Dover to Canterbury, William received the submission of the men of Kent, and promised recognition of their ancient liberties and customs. This supposition is in part borne out by the account given by the Conqueror’s chaplain, William of Poitiers, who wrote that the ‘men of Kent of their own accord met [Duke William] not far from Dover, swore allegiance and gave hostages’. {Yet Kent’s symbol is the ‘White Horse’ commemorating Hengest & Horsa the founders of Kent and the word ‘Invicta’ underneath meaning unconquered, the men of Kent were resolved to fight and the duke agreed to their demands). A promise to recognise the customs of Kent would be quite in keeping with the character of the Conquest, as it was envisaged by William at that time. He was anxious to assert the legality of his succession and the continuity of government; he came not as an innovator but as one who stood for tradition and he established order (conquer was later said to be a technical legal term for obtaining posses­sion of property to which a man had a lawful claim and William was con­queror, therefore, in two senses). During the first three or four years after the Battle of Hastings his policy was to govern through the great English families and to win over their support, rather than to supplant them by his Norman followers. There is therefore nothing surprising in his allowing the men of Kent to retain their old customs and laws, especially as they were of a kind which would not be likely to embarrass the king’s government, being mainly con­cerned with land-tenure.

The most distinctive of the laws or customs of Kent was Gavelkind. This was the name given to the tenure wherby most of the land in Kent was then held. Its important features were these: on a man’s death his land was divided between all his sons equally instead of going wholly to the eldest; a widow was entitled to dower in one-half of her late husband’s land, instead of one-third as elsewhere in England; a man whose wife had died was entitled to one-half of her land for life, whereas in the rest of the country he took the whole for life, provided that a child had been born of the marriage; and although elsewhere if a man was found guilty of felony his lands were forfeit to the Crown, in Kent his heirs immediately succeeded to his estate.

In 1067 William returned temporarily to Normandy, leaving as regents during his absence William FitzOsbern, his seneschal, and Odo, bishop of Bayeux, William’s half-brother, to whom he had confided the earldom of Kent. That William should have entrusted Kent to a powerful magnate like Odo shows that he was fully conscious of its importance as the link between his kingdom and his duchy of Normandy. Odo established himself at Dover a wooden-fortification that preceded the existing great stone keep), but whilst he was away dealing with a rebellion north of the Thames there was a rising in Kent and the insurgents sent an invitation to Count Eustace of Boulogne, who had quarrelled with William, to land at Dover which, he was promised, would readily submit. Eustace crossed the Channel and on landing was joined by a large number of English, but their attempt on the castle failed, and quickly withdrew to Boulogne before Odo could return to Dover. William was faced with unrest in other parts of the country, and in 1069 a fleet appeared off the Kent coast. Landings were attempted at Dover and Sandwich but were driven off, and the fleet sailed away to the north, eventually finding an anchorage in the River Humber.

If William’s original policy was to confirm the English magnates in their possessions and to govern through them, the risings and unrest during the first five years after the Conquest made him reverse this policy and strengthen the position of his Norman followers. He allotted to them the lands not only of English who had fallen at the Battle of Hastings, but also of those who had to make their submission or who had joined in the risings which troubled north and west. In Kent much of the land was held by the Church, and no attempt was made to disturb it in its possessions. So far was William prepared to avoid trouble that he even allowed Stigand to remain as archbishop of Canterbury, in spite of the facts that he had been thrust into the office to replace the Norman Robert, that Robert had never vacated the see, and that Stigand used to hold the bishopric of Winchester in plurality with the archbishopric.

In April 1070, the Pope sent a mission to England to straighten out the affairs of the Church?. (They came to replace the ‘Western Rite Orthodox Church’ with their new church of the ‘Roman Catholic Church’ instigated in 1054 and why the Conquest/Crusade of 1066 which would be later overturned by the English Reformation and a rejection of the imposed Roman Catholic Church) It is unlikely that William actually asked for the mission, but undoubtedly he approved of it. One of its first acts was to remove Stigand the offices which be held. To succeed him as archbishop, William secured Lanfrac, an Italian by birth, who was abbot of the of the monastery of St. Stephen at Caen in Normandy, and a scholar with a European reputation. He had been one of the Duke’s oldest and most intimate advisers and his appointment as archbishop strengthened William’s position. Common to them both was a respect for order and organisation, which Lanfranc introduced into the affairs of the Church as William did into the secular government of the country. Hitherto secular and ecclesiastical government had been confused; William ordained that they should be kept separate and that in the shire court the bishop should no longer sit with the earl on the bench. Secular cases were dealt with by the earl in the shire court, and spiritual matters by the bishop in his court.

That William had no objection, in principle, to an English bishop is shown fact that Siward of Rochester, who gave no trouble and seems to have if inconspicuous character, was allowed to retain his see.

A striking example of the organisation which William introduced into government was the compilation of Domesday Book. ( He had conquered the most well run country in Europe, hence why he was able to conduct a survey and as he had now introduced feudalism into England so he was now in charge of everything and wanted to extract every penny owed to him hence the Domesday Book and why we had the Conquest in the first place, he with the pope who gave him the papal banner to show his allegiance to the pope of the new Roman Catholic Church and no doubt why King Harold had to act quickly, men would not fight for him if they were to be excommunicated by fighting for him, but not knowing then the full reasons of what was really going on, and why we had the English peasants revolt and the English Civil War a rejection of the Conquest/Crusade, the French-Normans ruled as an elite group who only used the French language in government looking at the English as just peasants) After consulting his Council at Christmas, 1085, the King determined that an inquiry should be made into the ownership of every property throughout the length and breadth of the country—who had owned it in the time of King Edward the Confessor, how large it was, what its value was now, what had been its value formerly, how many men—villeins, cottagers, slaves, free men, etc.—were upon each estate, and how many cattle and swine. Within a year the vast inquiry had been completed and the returns sent in to the King. To collect the information commissioners were dispatched into each county, and to them came men from every locality who informed the commissioners, upon oath, about the owner­ship of land in their neighbourhood. From the way in which the Kent portion of Domesday Book is arranged it looks as though the commissioners began in western part of the county, moving eastward until they came to Canterbury and Dover.

Map showing the places mentioned in the Domesday Book
Map showing the places mentioned in the Domesday Book

About the great landowners of Kent we shall have more to say in the next chapter. Domesday Book tells us a good deal more about the county in the year 1086 than merely the names of the landowners. It begins with an account of Dover, which, it records, was burnt down just after King William came into England. This is doubtless a reference to the occupation of Dover by William on his way from Hastings to London. Another interesting item of information about the town is that a mill had recently been built near the entrance to the harbour (which lay inland from the present harbour) and so churned up the water that it endangered shipping.

Domesday Book then goes on to give the ‘king’s laws’ (or rights) in Kent. At this period there was no Common Law, that is a law common to all parts of the kingdom; the law varied from place to place, and the Common Law was gradually built up in the 12th and 13th centuries. Amongst the laws pertaining to Kent which Domesday Book records are these: if a man interferes or commits a breach of the peace upon the public highway he must pay a heavy fine to the king; if the men of the county are summoned to a meeting of the shire court they are to go as far as Penenden Heath (near Maidstone; the ordinary meeting place of the court) but cannot be compelled to go farther; the king has a right to one-half of the forfeited goods of a thief condemned to death, the other half going to the man’s own lord; if any man gives shelter to another who has been sentenced to exile a fine shall be paid to the king; except in the case of certain lands, which are named, the heirs of a man who dies shall pay the king a ‘relief’, a kind of death-duty which became due before the heirs could succeed to the estate; and various owners of land owe the king special services, such as providing him with a bodyguard for six days Canterbury or Sandwich.

After this recital of the ‘king’s laws’ in Kent, Domesday Book records other information which was collected by the commissioners in answer to their inquiries. The following (in translation) is typical of the entries which it contains:

In the Lathe of AYLESFORD


Hamo holds MEREWORTh himself. Norman held it from King Edward. Then now it answered for 2 sulungs. Land for 9 ploughs. In lordship 2.

28 villagers with 15 smallholders have 10 ploughs. A church; 10 slaves; 2 mill at lOs; 2 fisheries at 2s. Meadow, 20 acres; as much woodland as produces 60 pig: pasturage.

Value before 1066 £12; later £10; now £19.

The general meaning of an entry like this is clear. In the year 1086 Hamo the sheriff of Kent, held the estate of Mereworth from the king. The owner in King Edward’s time had been a man named Norman. For purposes of taxation it was reckoned as two sulungs, a sulung being nominally about 160 acres. There was enough arable land to keep nine ploughs employed, and on the which Hamo himself farmed there were two ploughs, and on the land farmed by his tenants (villeins and bordars) there were 10 ploughs, making 12 in all, so there were rather more ploughs and plough-teams than the size of the holding really required. Like almost all towns and villages on a river or stream Mereworth had a mill or two, probably quite small since the profits from them were estimated at only 10 shillings a year. The fisheries may have been of eels they were in the adjacent parish of Yalding. At the time of King Edward the estate was considered to be worth £12 a year, but afterwards the value fell to £10, perhaps because in the uncertain years following immediately upon the Conquest the property was allowed to deteriorate. Evidently it had been improved by Hamo for its annual value by 1086 was regarded as £19.

Map showing the estimated population of Kent at the time of the Domesday Book
Map showing the estimated population of Kent at the time of the Domesday Book

Mereworth, in common with most villages in Kent, had a church at the time of Domesday Book, doubtless a wooden structure, of which no trace has survived. It also had a few slaves, or serfs. There was a later tradition that serfdom never existed in Kent, but Domesday Book shows that quite a considerable number of the inhabitants of the county were reckoned in this class; however, conditions were so far from being uniform that this does not necessarily mean that they had the same rights and duties as serfs in other parts of the country. The exact status of the various categories of men who are – referred to—villeins, bordars, cottagers, serfs, sokemen—is a difficult and technical subject, which the most learned scholars have not yet explained to each others’ satisfaction.

One other point to be noticed in the Mereworth entry is the reference to woodland which was used as swine pasture. The swine were fed on the acorns of the oak woodland of the Weald. The woodland belonging to Mereworth must have been extensive, as Mereworth Woods still are, for the rent for ‘pannage’, that is the right to depasture swine in the woodland, was no less than 60 swine in a year.

Information of this kind is given for the whole of Kent with the significant exception of the Weald. As already explained, this was the last part of the county to be colonised by the Saxons. Many of the upland towns and villages possessed the right to pasture their swine in certain areas of the Wealden forest. Thus, to give two examples: Tenterden means the swine-pasture belonging to the men of Thanet; and hundreds of years after the time of Domesday Book the manor of Chilham was one of those which had rights in the Weald—in this case in Frittenden, Headcorn, Smarden, Egerton and Goudhurst. The attachment of ‘dens’ in the Weald to upland properties resulted in their not being separately recorded in Domesday Book, and undoubtedly at this time the Weald was only thinly populated.

Salt-pans are referred to at several places near the Channel coast and the Thames estuary, e.g. at Milton Regis, Faversham, Oare, Ospringe, Graveney, Boughton-under-Blean, Reculver, Chislet (with no fewer than 47 salt-pans),. Monkton, Minster-in-Thanet, Eastry, Folkestone, Romney Marsh, Eastbridge and Bilsington.

From Domesday Book it is possible to hazard a guess about the population of Kent in the reign of William the Conqueror. The total of the landowners; tenants, villeins, cottagers, burgesses and serfs mentioned under the various towns and villages amounts to between 12,000 and 13,000. This suggests that, including women and children, the population of the county was somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000. Compared with most other counties Kent was fairly thickly peopled, though less so than East Anglia. The total population of England at the time of Domesday Book is estimated to have been very approximately, 1¼ million, so that Kent represented about one-thirtieth of the total—curiously enough very much the same proportion that it represents today.