The Defence of Tudor and Stuart Kent

The Defence of Tudor and Stuart Kent

The Reformation not only set the king at the head of the Church of England, and brought about the dissolution of the monasteries; it also nearly involved England in a war with Catholic Europe. In 1535 Henry VIII declared himself to be the Supreme Head on Earth of the Church, a declaration which was answered by the Bull of Excommunication drawn up by the Pope in August of the same year. The Pope gave authority for another Bull to be prepared, depriving Henry VIII of his kingdom, but as the two great Catholic powers, France and the Empire, were then in a state of enmity, no effective action could be taken against England and the king remained quietly in possession of his crown.

Three years later the position had changed. France and the Empire were drawing together, and at the end of 1538 the Pope ordered the Bull of Excommunication to be put into force. The danger of invasion now became serious and the government began to strengthen the coastal defences. At Gravesend, and at the adjacent town of Milton, two forts were constructed, armed with cannon; and two similar forts were built at Tilbury on the other side of the Thames. Thus were London and its river approaches protected. The urgency with which these fortifications were run up is shown by the fact that, at Gravesend, there was no time to buy the land on which the blockhouses were built, and it was not acquired by the Crown until three years later. At Queenborough the castle built by Edward III nearly two hundred years earlier was put into repair. On the Channel coast bulwarks, mounting cannon were built at Dover, but the most vulnerable point was thought to be the flat shore around Deal, the shore on which Julius Caesar landed in 55 and 54 B.C. To guard it, three castles were built; at Sandown, just to the north of Deal, at Deal itself and at Walmer. Sandown Castle has been destroyed but the other two remain, Walmer Castle being the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. Farther to the south another fort was built at Sandgate, and across the Marsh, just over the Sussex border, the last in the series of Henry Vill’s Channel castles was erected at Camber.

Camber Castle was largely demolished in the 17th century for the sake of the materials, and Sandgate Castle, altered a good deal at the time of the Napoleonic War, has been seriously damaged by the sea. Deal and Walmer are the only two that remain, and they have been considerably altered from their original form, although at Deal a well-aimed bomb during the 1939-45 war neatly removed some of the later additions. The castles were roughly circular in plan, about 300 ft. in diameter overall, and with a central tower, or keep, which mounted cannon with a wide arc of fire. Sandown Castle was guarded by a captain and 34 men, and no doubt the garrisons of the others were about the same size. The complete accounts for the building of Sandgate Castle are now at the British Museum. They show that, from start to finish, the building of the castle took 18 months and cost £2,887 14s. Work had to be suspended because of frost during the winter months, and in any case there was a three weeks’ holiday at Christmas. Bad weather caused the loss of something like three months, so the actual building time was only 15 months. The government clearly regarded it as an urgent work and the master-mason of the King’s Palace of Hampton Court was put in charge. During one month no fewer than 900 men were engaged, either directly on building operations or on carting stone and timber, and at several other times there were upwards of 500 men on the pay-roll. Much of the stone was quarried locally within a mile of the castle, but some came second-hand from the recently dismantled priories at St Radegund’s, Monks Horton and Christ Church, Canterbury.

To build castles was not enough; men, too, were needed, and in March 1539, the government ordered the forces of Kent to be mustered to resist the expected invasion. Each Hundred sent its men, but the total fell short of the county’s quota, and many of those who came were ill-equipped and poorly trained. It was fortunate that, after all, the feared invasion was not attempted.
It was a combination of religious differences and foreign affairs that gave rise to the next disturbance in Kent, Wyatt’s rebellion in January 1554. Queen Mary, who succeeded to the throne in 1553, restored the Catholic religion, and betrothed herself to Philip, the Catholic King of Spain. The betrothal was unpopular in England and there were risings in several parts of the country. Of these the most serious was that in Kent. Sir Thomas Wyatt, the son of the poet of the same name, lived at Allington Castle near Maidstone, and could perhaps best be described as a gentleman-adventurer with rather more of the adventurer than the gentleman about him. He had a direct personal interest in the preservation of the Reformation because he had acquired the property of the dissolved Friary at Aylesford. On 25 January Wyatt issued his proclamation at Maidstone, Ashford and Milton Regis, and on the 26th at Tonbridge. He set up his camp at Rochester and within a few days had collected 4,000 followers. The men of Tonbridge were put to flight in a skirmish with Lord Abergavenny’s forces at Blacksole Field, Wrotham, but they managed to join the main body at Rochester. A force of 600 Londoners which was sent to Strood to intercept Wyatt at once deserted to him. Wyatt then began to advance towards London.

On 30 January he captured Cooling Castle which was defended, not very stoutly perhaps, by Lord Cobham, and later the same day he was at Gravesend. On 31 January Wyatt reached Dartford. Unwisely he then loitered for two days at Greenwich and Deptford, and when he got to Southwark late on 3 February he found the gates closed on London Bridge and the city prepared to defend itself against him. A few days later he made his way to the city by way of Kingston, but he found no support in London and after a little fighting he surrendered. A few months later his life came to an end on the scaffold.

So long as Mary and her Spanish husband were on the throne there was no danger of foreign invasion but the danger revived when Protestant Elizabeth succeeded Catholic Mary in 1558. In 1559 war with France was expected, and although the peace was preserved for that year, the threat seemed merely postponed, not removed. Defensive measures were set on foot, especially in the mouth of the Medway. From 1547 onwards the reach of the river off Gillingham was increasingly important as an anchorage for the navy, and storehouses were rented on the Chatham bank of the river. To protect both ships and storehouses a castle was built on the opposite bank of the river, at Upnor, in 1560-2. A few years later the river was further defended by a great chain of iron which could be stretched across from the castle to the opposite bank and thus prevent the passage of hostile ships.

As the danger from France receded, so the danger of a Spanish invasion increased. The queen’s government was constantly issuing orders for the train­ing of the county militia. A certificate of 1580 gives the number of footmen who ought to turn out. Excluding the cities of Canterbury and Rochester, for which no figures were given, the total number was 14,217, consisting of pikemen, gunners, archers, billmen, pioneers, carpenters, smiths, masons and wheelwrights. The separate figures for the Cinque Ports, which are included in the total of 14,217, are worth quoting because they roughly indicate the relative sizes of the ports at that time: Dover, 352; Sandwich, 409; Folkestone, 135; New Romney, 128; Lydd, 239; Tenterden, 248; Faversham, 20; St John’s (Margate), St Peter’s (Broadstairs) and Birchington, 374. There were, in addition, a much smaller number of horsemen. It is unlikely that more than perhaps half of the total number of men ever turned out at the same muster.

One serious problem which faced the government was how, in an emergency, to get the news of a threatened landing to London quickly, and then to issue orders for the militia to be called out. The first problem was met by putting into working order the system of warning-beacons which was already at least two centuries old. Watchers were placed at high points along the coast, and if they saw a hostile fleet approaching, they set fire to their warning beacon. The watchers inland gave the warning to others on the route to London. Thus, in a few hours, news of the enemy’s approach would reach the government.

William Lambarde's map showing the beacon system in Kent
William Lambarde’s map showing the beacon system in Kent

The beacons were originally, simply bonfires on the ground. Later iron baskets were erected on poles, and the fire was made of pitch, so that it would blaze up quickly. Frequently instructions were sent down to Kent that the beacons were to be manned. Then each beacon had to be attended day and night without break by two men, watching for the distant light that betokened the enemy, and ready at a moment to relay the warning by setting fire to their own beacon. The men worked in shifts, but it must have been a tense, yet boring, job, to stand there hour after hour whilst nothing happened. For stand they were supposed to, lest if they sat they fell asleep. Sometimes the Hundred would put up a little shed to protect the watchers from the worst of the weather, but it had to be so small that they could not sit down in it.

Lambarde, who wrote a history of Kent in 1570, the first history of any county ever written, published a map showing the beacon system in Kent (page 106). He was attacked for publishing it because it was said that he was giving useful information to the enemy, but Lambarde defended himself by arguing that the publication of the map would enable the watchers to operate the system more efficiently.

As a system, it suffered from two obvious handicaps. The first was that map showing the beacon unless the weather was clear the beacons could not be seen over long distances – the beacon at Fairlight, near Hastings (Fayre leegh on Lambarde’s map), for example, was about 18-20 miles away from Westwell. However, an invasion was unlikely to be attempted except during the summer, so the chances of mist or continuous rain were fairly remote. The other handicap was that, through mischievousness or nervousness, a false alarm might be given. That happened on a few occasions, and the Kentishmen who mustered and prepared to resist the invasion later made it very plain to Her Majesty’s Council that they were not amused.

The great attempt to invade finally came in 1588, when the Armada sailed from Spain, and came within sight of England on 15 July. It was expected that a landing would be attempted in Kent or in Essex, since it was known that the Spaniards sailing up the Channel intended to join up with their fellow-countrymen crossing from the Netherlands, then in Spanish hands. A bridge of boats was intended to be built across the Thames at Gravesend, so that men could be moved hurriedly north or south of the river as the need might demand, but whether the bridge was actually finished in time is doubtful: Hakluyt’s cryptic phrase is ‘there were certain ships brought to make a bridge, though it were very late first’. The beacons presumably blazed out their warning, and the forces of the county prepared to resist the invaders. They assembled on 29 July and remained under arms until 19 August. Sir Thomas Scott, of Smeeth, was in charge of the 3,513 footmen and Sir James Hales was general of the horse, who numbered only 336—lancers 65, light horsemen 85 and carabineers 186. The wages which they received during their 22 days of service ranged from Sir Thomas Scott’s and Sir James Hales’ 13s. 4d. a day to the ordinary footman’s 8d. a day. The number which assembled was much smaller than the number which Her Majesty’s Privy Council had ordered to be levied. The Council’s order spoke of 6,000 soldiers, 600 pioneers and all the companies of horse in the county. Probably the government always demanded a larger number than they knew to be possible.

On the very day that the militia assembled the English and the Spanish fleets were fighting in the Strait of Dover, the only general engagement of the campaign. Better seamanship and more easily handled ships gave the English the victory, but the Spanish fleet was far from being destroyed. It sailed away into the North Sea, but the weather proved its greatest enemy. Storms arose and drove many of the Spanish ships on to the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, and the crippled Armada tried to make its way home again by circumnavigating the British Isles. Of the 30,000 sailors and soldiers who had sailed away from Spain in the Invincible Armada, fewer than half ever returned to their own country.

We now know, but the Elizabethans were not to know, that the failure of the Armada brought to an end the danger of invasion. War with Spain continued, and from time to time Kent was called upon to supply small contingents of men, as far as possible chosen from those willing to be employed for service overseas. The defences of the county were constantly being looked to, and several of the larger towns were ordered to lay in stocks of gunpowder. In May 1591, the Spanish fleet was again in the English Channel and the Privy Council ordered the beacons in Kent to be carefully watched and guarded. In September 1592, there was another similar alarm and again precautions were taken.

Three years later a landing in Kent and Essex was feared, and Kent was commanded to raise 6,000 foot soldiers, the number for the adjoining counties being: Sussex, Surrey and Essex 4,000 each, and London 3,000. Training went on during the winter, but was much hampered by the excessively wet weather. In April 1596, the Spaniards attacked Calais and Kent was ordered to send 2,000 men to Dover immediately to cross to the French coast; but Calais was lost before our men could come’. In June 1596, Drake with a combined English and Dutch fleet sacked Cadiz, and the government expected that the King of Spain would seek his revenge. Once again Kent was ordered to raise 6,000 men, all the inhabitants of the county having horses were to keep them ready in their stables, all spreaders of false rumours were to be committed to gaol, and the militia was to be ready instantly to go to Upnor Castle. Once more the danger did not materialise. Yet again in November 1596, a Spanish fleet was at sea and the militia was put into a state of readiness to resist an attack. However, it did not come. In August 1599, for the last time, the militia was called out, but by now Philip of Spain was dead and the danger of an invasion of England had receded into the background. The invasion alarm of 1599 was, in fact, quite baseless, and the government allowed the defensive preparations quietly to fade away.

The peace-at-any price policy of the earlier Stuarts, the decline of Spain and the involvement of the continental powers in the Thirty Years War gave England half a century of respite from anxiety about defence against foreign invasion. Cromwell’s vigorous foreign policy was based on the superiority of the English navy over its rivals, and it was not until Charles II’s Dutch Wars that home defence again became an urgent question. In 1667 Pepys wrote in his diary: ‘Everybody nowadays reflect upon Oliver and commend him: what brave things he did, and made all the neighbour princes fear him.’ The occasion which prompted this comment was the raid which the Dutch fleet made on the Thames and the Medway in June 1667. Commissioner Pett, who was in charge of the Dockyard at Chatham, was ‘in a very fearful stink,’ wrote Pepys, ‘for fear of the Dutch’, and well be might be, for the defence preparations were hopelessly inadequate. Fire-ships were fitted out to attack the Dutch, but they were ineffectual. The uncompleted fort at Sheerness was destroyed by a Dutch landing party of 800 men; of the fort’s 16 guns only seven were serviceable, and most of the garrison hurriedly decamped leaving one man dead and seven to be taken prisoner. Slowly the Dutch fleet made its way up the Medway, arriving at Chatham two days after taking Sheerness fort. At Chatham all was in confusion,] the men at the Dockyard being much more concerned to get their personal possessions than the King’s ships out of harm’s way. The chain stretched across the river failed to prevent the advance of the Dutch ships. Of the 22 English: warships lying in the river or drawn up on the bank, one of the largest, the Royal Charles, was carried off and several others were set on fire and destroyed. The Dutch behaved in a leisurely fashion, sailing about in the mouth of the Medway and in the Thames estuary for a week or two, and on one occasion; landing a party on the Isle of Sheppey to collect sheep and other necessaries. Belatedly the English prepared defensive positions and a fortnight after the Dutch withdrawal 60 or 70 guns had been mounted at Chatham, and ships had been sunk in the Thames above Gravesend to obstruct the channel lest the enemy should try to attack London From Pepys’ account, these seem to have been panic measures, carried out in great confusion: ‘among them that are sunk they have gone and sunk without consideration the Franakin one of the King’s ships, with stores to a very considerable value …; and the new ship at Bristol, and much wanted there’. It was not surprising that for 20 miles around the Medway towns people fled from their homes, and the news that a peace had been arranged towards the end of July must have been joyfully received by the county of Kent.