Feudal Kent

Feudal Kent

Domesday Book also gives particulars of the estates belonging to the dozen or so great landowners who between them held the major part of the county. The essence of the feudal system was that every man (except the king) held his land from an overlord in return for certain services, which might be, for example, to provide a knight, or to pay a rent, in money or in kind, or to work on his lord’s land. Generally, where land was held by a church or religious house it was free of any service. The tenants who held directly from the king (who might have tenants holding from them, and their tenants have sub-tenants, and so on) were called tenants-in-chief. According to feudal theory no man (except the king) could ‘own’ land; he ‘held’ it. The feudal system was not a foreign novelty introduced by the Normans; some of the rudiments of this method of land-holding can be traced in Saxon England. The French-Normans, with their efficient ways, made it more systematic, but the system began to crack and disintegrate almost as soon as the theory was fully worked out.

Map showing manors held at the time of the Domesday Book
Map showing manors held at the time of the Domesday Book

First amongst the great landowners in Kent was King William himself. He owned the enormous estate of Milton Regis, which was reckoned as no less than 84 sulungs and possessed extensive rights in the Weald; the smaller, but still important Faversham estate; and the two much smaller manors of Aylesford and Dartford.

The archbishop of Canterbury held the town of Sandwich, and about twenty-five manors scattered over the county. Among the larger were Otford, Wrotham, Maidstone and Charing, in each of which the remains of a medieval, though not Norman, farmhouse (usually called a ‘palace’) can still be seen. Larger manors which belonged to the archbishop were those of Wingham and A1dington The monastery of Christ Church also held extensive estates. Monkton, a large manor of about 20 sulungs assessment, records in its name its former attachment to Christ Church. Adisham, another of the monastery’s possessions, was almost as large as Monkton.

The bishop of Rochester’s lands were on a much more modest scale. They all lay west of the Medway, save Borstal and Wouldbam which are on the east bank of the river and most of them were within a dozen or fifteen miles of Rochester. The bishop held no lands within the diocese of Canterbury whereas the archbishop had several manors within the diocese of Rochester.

Vastly more powerful and wealthy than the bishop of Rochester was the bishop of Bayeux, Odo, upon whom William conferred the earldom of Kent. He was given nearly 200 Kentish manors, and he held something like 250 in other parts of the country. His Kentish estates were scattered over most of the county, the largest being those at Hoo (assessed at 33 sulungs and containing six churches) and at Folkestone (40 sulungs, with five churches). Other manors of considerable size held by Odo were those at Lessness, Swanscombe, Seal, Hadlow, Birling, Burham, Boxley, Chatham, Ospringe, Eastling, Patrixbourne, Barham and Elham.

But, extensively endowed with lands as he already was, Odo nonetheless contrived to get into his hands property to which he was not entitled. In 1076 Archbishop Lanfranc brought a lawsuit against him in the Shire Court at Penenden Heath for the recovery of the Church’s purloined property. The trial lasted for three days. The court was presided over by Geoffrey, bishop of Coutances. All doubtful points were settled according to the practice which prevailed in England before the Conquest, and the elderly AEthelric, who had recently been deposed from the bishopric of Selsey, was brought to Penenden Heath in a cart in order to advise the court because he knew the Anglo-Saxon law. Here is another illustration that King William wanted to appear as the legitimate successor to Edward the Confessor, not as an innovator whose only claim to the throne lay in the power of the sword. The result of the Penenden Heath trial was that Lanfranc recovered 25 manors of which Odo had wrongly become possessed.

Early in his reign William conferred upon Battle Abbey the great manor of Wye which in Saxon times had been a royal possession. William had founded the abbey on the site of his battle, not so much in commemoration of his victory as in penance for the men whose deaths he had caused; for the Church set a penance upon men who committed homicide, notwithstanding that the death occurred in battle. The estate which William granted to his newly-established abbey was much more extensive than the modern village (or town) of Wye. It included rights over a large area of the Weald, and it also included Dengemarsh, with the right to wrecks and whales stranded on that part of the coast.

St Augustine’s Abbey at Canterbury was another of the great landowning religious houses. It possessed some thirty manors, all but one of them (Plumstead) in east Kent. The largest were those at Minster-in-Thanet and Northbourne. The abbey’s manor of Minster and the Christ Church estates at Monkton must, between them, have occupied a great part of the Isle of Thanet.

‘A story of the village of Lenham whose name comes from the Old English ‘ham’ meaning a village, homestead, an estate combined with the lord’s name; therefore, ‘Leana’s homestead village, in the Domesday Book records, Lenham as Lerham and Lertham the village gave its name to the river Len.

In the year 804, Cenulf, King of Mercia and Cudred, King of Kent, granted This Manor, afterwards distinguished by the name of West Lenham, to Wernod, abbot of St. Augustine’s, Canterbury, by the description of certain land called Lenham, containing twenty plough-land.

In 850, Aethelwulf, King of Wessex, granted Ealhhere, ealderman of Kent, a large estate of forty hides at Lenham.

The Manor of Lenham was in West Kent (just!!) and was in the hands of St. Augustine’s Abbey. See Hasted: ‘The Western part of this parish is in the lath of Aylesford, hundred of Eythorne and the western division of this county, that is all of which lies westward of a line drawn from the centre of the Chilston-house, northward to the east of the church (which is graded listed one) and thence to Warren-Street, on to the summit of the chalk hills where ‘Pilgrim’s Way’ is found traversing along the top of the hill east towards Canterbury and the Lenham Cross cut out in 1922 in commemoration of the fallen of the First World War later also the Second World War. The residue of it including that part of it called East Lenham is in the lath of Shipway, and hundred of Calehill and the eastern division of the county.

A lath (Old English) formed an administrative country subdivision  of the County of Kent from the Anglo-Saxon/Englisc period, until it fell out of general use in the early twentieth century.’

There is a revealing sentence in the Domesday Book entry the effect that three knights hold, as tenants of the abbey, land which ‘is worth nine pounds when there is peace in the country’. Thanet was a part of the realm where the peace had often been disturbed by the depredations of the Danes.

Another tenant-in-chief holding only one manor, that of Lewisham, was the  Abbey of Ghent in Flanders. The manor had been given to the abbey bay daughter or niece of King Alfred who had married an earl of Flanders and thus it had already been in the Abbey’s hands for nearly two hundred years. The grant had been confirmed by Edward the Confessor, another example of the contact which existed between his court and Flanders and Normandy

The Canons of the Church of St Martin of Dover held a good many manors in east Kent which, although each was quite small, came to the very respectable total of 24 sulungs  -probably something like 4,000 acres of arable land.

All the manors so far mentioned (except the four in the possession of the king himself) were held by men or houses of religion—for Odo was the bishop of Bayeux as well as earl of Kent. Between them they accounted for much the greater part of the county. The lay tenants-in-chief were only four in number: Hugh de Montfort, Count Eustace of Boulogne, Richard of Tonbridge and Hamo the Sheriff. The first three fought with William at Hastings; these Kentish manors were part of their reward, but only Hugh de Montfort held many lands in the county and his holdings were on nothing like the same scale as those of Odo, or of the archbishop or  St Augustine’s Abbey. For the most part his manors lay in south-east Kent with his castle at Saltwood as their centre. There can be little doubt Montfort, a military man, was established there to protect and defend this vulnerable and vitally important corner of the county.

Eustace of Boulogne held Westerham and Boughton Aluph. Richard of Tonbridge held Yalding and East Barming, but he also possessed (though this is not mentioned in Domesday Book) the ‘Lowy’ of Tonbridge, in some respects almost a miniature county in itself and, again like Hugh de Montfort’s possessions dependent upon a castle which commanded an important strategic position.

As tenant-in-chief Hamo held only four estates, but he held several more manors as sub-tenant of other tenants-in-chief. The last, and the least of the tenants-in-chief was Albert the Chaplain, who held Newington-next-Sittingbourne.

Domesday Book also refers to a number of boroughs, of which Dover, Canterbury and Rochester were in a category by themselves being ‘royal boroughs’ and acknowledging no overlord but the king. Romney, Sandwich, Hythe and Fordwich were included in the lands of one of the great lordships but they also possessed certain privileges and duties which distinguished them from the remainder of the estates of which they formed part. The ‘little borough of Seasalter was in still another category and belonged to the archbishop of Canterbury’s kitchen; presumably it was the cook’s perquisite.

The men of Dover were granted exemption from certain tolls and other impositions in return for duties which they undertook on behalf of the king.

They were required to supply the king with 20 ships, each manned by 21 men, for 15 days in the year. Moreover, they had to ferry the king’s messengers across the Strait at tariffs which seem modest-3d. for the passage of a horse in winter, 2d in the summer; this was for a boat manned by a steersman and one other helper. We also learn that, at the time of Domesday Book, Dover had a Guildhall.

Canterbury, judged from its stated value, was a larger town than Dover. Since the time of Edward the Confessor a number of houses had been demolished to make room for the city defences (no doubt a ditch and rampart) and the castle. This was a wooden erection to the east of the site on which the castle of stone was afterwards built.

Rochester was a much smaller town. In the time of Edward the Confessor its value was reckoned as only 100 shillings, but by 1086 this had increased to twenty pounds.

Sandwich, according to the Saxon Chronicle, was given in 1031 by Canute to Christ Church; thus the Chronicle entry runs:

As soon as he [Canute] came to England he gave to Christ’s Church in Canterbury the haven of Sandwich, and all the rights that arise therefrom, on either side of the haven; so that when the tide is highest and fullest, and there be a ship floating as near the land as possible, and there be a man standing upon the ship with a taper-axe in his hand whithersoever the large taper-axe might be thrown out of the ship, throughout all that land the ministers of Christ’s Church should enjoy their rights.

At the time of Domesday Book Sandwich belonged to the archbishop paying an annual rent of fifty pounds and forty thousand herrings for the support of the monks of Christ Church. It rendered to the king the same sort of service (that is, in ships) as Dover rendered. Sandwich contained no fewer than 383 houses, so it was a sizeable town, probably as large as Canterbury

Fordwich, a little borough with 73 houses, was also owned by the arch-bishop. Apparently in the time of King Edward it had owed ship-service as Dover and Sandwich did, but its service seems to have fallen into disuse by the reign of William the Conqueror. The information in Domesday Book about Hythe and Romney is less clear, because they were associated with other manors of the archbishop of Canterbury, but there is a reference to the sea-service which the men of Romney owed to the king. If the record were more complete we should probably find that the men of Hythe were under a similar obligation. Of that town it is recorded that 225 burgesses belonged to the manor of Saltwood, so the population of the borough is likely to have been in the neighbourhood of a thousand.

Domesday Book shows the way in which Kent was divided for administrative, judicial and taxation purposes into seven large divisions called lathes, or lests, and these in turn were sub-divided into smaller areas called hundreds. Lathes are peculiar to Kent; Sussex has its rapes, the northern counties their wapentakes, but Kent is the only county in which the major divisions are known as lathes. Their origin is certainly pre-Conquest and some historians believe that they date back to a quite early phase of the Jutish colonisation of Kent. Each was based on an important settlement or town which at some time in its history had probably been a royal township. Sutton lathe (which counted as only a half lathe) was based on Sutton-at-Hone and was the only one Wholly in west Kent. The lathe of Aylesford (itself a royal manor) stretched from Gravesend and Hoo in the north to Tudeley in the south and to Boughton Maiherbe and Frinsted in the east. The half-lathe of Milton centred on the great royal estate of Milton Regis. Wiwart lathe had Wye as its centre; Borowart lathe took its name from the borough of Canterbury (just as Burmarsh meant the marsh of the burghers, i.e. the men of Canterbury); Eastry gave its name to a lathe, and the seventh, Limowart lathe, was based on Lyminge. Wye, Eastry and Lyminge are places whose names indicate that they are settlements of great antiquity and it is not surprising therefore to find that at the time of the Conquest they had given their names to three of the major territorial divisions of the county.

For the purposes of raising taxes and of administering justice the lathes (with some boundary changes and alteration of names) remained important units for another six hundred years or so. They still exist, but now have no administrative significance.

The divisions of shires into hundreds was common to all the counties of central, southern and eastern England. According to a not very trustworthy tradition, the division was made by King Alfred. More probably it dates from the 10th century, its purpose being to enable the king to exact the payment due from the county to the royal treasury, and in time of danger to call out the fyrd—the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the 1940 Home Guard. Hundreds may have been so called because each was regarded originally as containing nominally one hundred sulungs (hides, as they were termed outside Kent) of land. The hundreds in Kent and in Sussex were much smaller than those in the midland counties; Sussex had more than fifty and Kent, when Domesday Book was compiled, over sixty, whilst Staffordshire, for example, had only five. At the time of the Conquest and for some centuries afterwards each hundred had its own court of law for less important cases, these courts often becoming the private property of great landowners.

The fact that the king now had his own French-Norman tenants holding great estates, in return for which they owed him military service, did not make the fyrd unnecessary. Indeed, within a generation of the Conquest, a French-Norman king was relying upon his English levee en masse to put down his rebellious Norman tenants. The rebellion was the work of Odo, a man of great energy and great ambition, but with little loyalty and less gratitude to his half-brother, the king.

About the year 1082 Odo apparently determined to seek the papacy for himself and began to recruit in England an army of knights to accompany him on an expedition to Italy. He was arrested, and tried, not as bishop of Bayeux (as such he would have been outside the secular jurisdiction) but as earl of Kent. Condemned by the court, Odo was imprisoned in Normandy, but with a number of other important prisoners he was released in 1087 by William on his death-bed. William Rufus restored Odo to his earldom of Kent, but be soon began to cause fresh trouble and many of the French-Norman barons joined him in rising against the new king. William Rufus took Tonbridge  astle, which was held by Gilbert de Clare, one of Odo’s faction, after only two days’ siege, but Pevensey Castle, whither Odo had taken himself, held out for six weeks. When that castle and Odo were finally captured he was taken under escort to Rochester where he was to arrange for the surrender of the castle to the king. However, arriving at Rochester, he managed to give his escort the slip and to join the garrison who were defending the castle there. The king called upon his English subjects for aid in reducing Rochester Castle and it is said that thirty thousand men rallied to him. In the end it was not military force, but the ravages of disease that brought about the capitulation of the castle. Odo was banished from England for ever and his great earldom of Kent came to an end.

The French-Norman castles of this period were not the buildings that we know today. They were wooden fortresses built on top of an artificial mound called a motte. A fine example of a motte is the one at Tonbridge, 40 or 50 ft. high, alongside the stone-built castle which was erected in the 13th century. But a timber fortress is unsatisfactory, incapable of withstanding the assault of battering rams and vulnerable to fire. So, in the 12th century, the timber fortresses began to be replaced by larger structures built of stone. They were too large and too heavy to be sited on the artificial mounds of earth which had supported the earlier wooden castles. Rochester Castle and the keep of Dover Castle, with its walls 20 ft. thick, are amongst the finest examples in the country of French-Norman castles belonging to the second period. Canterbury Castle is much smaller and more ruinous than the keeps at Dover and Rochester. All three castles, Dover, Canterbury and Rochester, were built during the 12th century for the same obvious purpose, namely to protect the main line of communication between London and the Continent. Each was probably intended also to serve as a reminder to the townsfolk of the royal power, and as a discouragement to rebellion. Tonbridge Castle, which is somewhat later, was built to keep in order the half-settled Wealden district where communications were still bad—a district :h had something in common with the wild marcher lands of the borders of England and Wales where numerous castles were built to enforce law and order. The castles of Dover, Rochester and Tonbridge all figured in the contest between Stephen and Matilda in the years between 1138 and 1142, and in the struggle between John and his barons during the last four years of his life each side sought, by force or by guile, to secure possession of them. Such was their importance to those who aimed to get the royal power into their hands.

The French-Norman castles at Chilham, Leeds and West Mailing (St Leonard’s Tower, a beautiful example of a 12th-century keep) were built as strongholds by great landowners. They have not the same strategic significance as Dover, Canterbury, Rochester and Tonbridge, but rather were fortified private residences.

The French-Normans not only introduced the use of stone in the construction of castles, but also began to build stone churches on a far bigger scale than this country had previously known. The massiveness of French-Norman church building is perhaps most impressively seen in the great pillars in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral which carry the weight of the immense structure above; its magnificence in the richly-decorated west doorway of Rochester Cathedral. Many parish churches are French-Norman, at least in part, and the small church of Barfreston, with its elaborate carving, is as pure an example of late French-Norman architecture as any county can show. Much of the stone for church-building came from the Caen district of Normandy; its transport is an indication of the French-Norman gift for efficient organisation. It is an indication also of the prosperity of the county and of the supreme importance which was attached to religion. ‘To the men of the twelfth century religion meant a very great deal … it was not merely for the love of adventure that men in their thousands embarked on the hazardous pilgrimage to the Holy Land; nor was it mere love of splendour that made them build the most magnificent churches that architects of any age could conceive. It was because religion to them was fundamentally the most important, the most real thing. It was the vital force in their lives.’*

* A. L. Poole, From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, p.230.