History of Kent
A brief look at Kent's fascinating role in the development of England and the UK. Being so close to Europe, Kent has witnessed at first hand various invasions and attempted invasions. Find out how its geography has played a part too in shaping the history of Britain.
To view a map of Kent, please click here: KENT MAP
Kent is a county in southeast England. It borders East Sussex, Surrey and Greater London and has a defined boundary with Essex in the middle of the River Thames estuary. The ceremonial county boundaries of Kent include the shire county of Kent and the unitary borough of Medway. Kent has a nominal border with France halfway through the Channel Tunnel. Maidstone is its county town and historically Rochester and Canterbury have been accorded city status though only the latter still holds it.
Kent is the most south eastern county in England. It is bordered on the north by the River Thames and the North Sea, and on the south by the Straits of Dover and the English Channel. The continent of Europe is only 21 miles across the Strait.
The major geographical features of the county are determined by a series of ridges running from west to east across the county. These ridges are the remains of the Wealden dome, which was the result of uplifting caused by the Alpine movements between 10 and 20 million years ago. Erosion has resulted in these ridges and the valleys between. From the north they are: the marshlands along the Thames/Medway estuaries and along the North Kent coast; the chalk North Downs reaching heights of around 600ft; the sandstone and clay valley containing the River Medway and its tributaries; the Greensand ridge; the Wealden clay valley and finally the sandstone High Weald.
The highest point of the county is Betsom's Hill north of Westerham at 251m/823ft.
Sevenoaks, Maidstone, Ashford, and Folkestone are built on greensand, while Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells are built on red sandstone. Dartford, Gravesend, the Medway towns, Sittingbourne, Faversham, Canterbury, Deal, and Dover are built on chalk. The easterly division of the Wealden dome has been worn away by the sea, and cliffs such as the white cliffs of Dover are present where a chalk ridge known as the North Downs meets the coast. Spanning Dover and Westerham is the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The Wealden dome is a Mesozoic structure lying on a Palaeozoic foundation, which usually creates the right conditions for coal formation. This is found in East Kent roughly between Deal, Canterbury, and Dover. The coal measures within the Westphalian Sandstone are deep (below 244m–396m) and subject to flooding. They occur in two major troughs, which extend under the English Channel where comparable coalfields are located.
Seismic activity has occasionally been recorded in Kent, though the epicentres were offshore. In 1382 and 1580 there were two earthquakes more than 6.0 on the Richter Scale. In 1776, 1950, and on 28 April 2007 there were earthquakes of around 4.3. The 2007 earthquake caused physical damage in Folkestone.
The coastline of Kent is continuously changing, due to tectonic uplift and tidal erosion. Until about 960, the Isle of Thanet was an island, formed around a deposit of chalk; over time, the channels silted up with alluvium. Likewise Romney Marsh and Dungeness have been created by a build up of alluvium.
The Weald derives its ancient name from the Germanic word wald meaning simply woodland. Much of the area remains today densely wooded; where there are also heavy clays the tracks through are nearly impassable for much of the year.
Kent's principal river, the River Medway, rises near Edenbridge and flows some 25 miles (40km) eastwards to a point near Maidstone when it turns north. Here it breaks through the North Downs at Rochester before joining the River Thames as its final tributary near Sheerness. The river is tidal as far as Allington lock, but in earlier times cargo-carrying vessels reached as far upstream as Tonbridge. The Medway has captured the head waters of other rivers such as the River Darent. Other rivers of Kent include the River Stour in the east.
Among the evidence for this area of Britain being occupied in these early times are the Medway megaliths or Medway tombs which are a group of Neolithic chambered long barrows and other megaliths located in the lower valley of the River Medway. They are the only group of megaliths in eastern England and the only significant megalithic use of sarsen stone outside the prehistoric structures of Salisbury Plain and its surrounding downland.
They mainly consist of: The Coldrum Stones or Coldrum Longbarrow; Addington long barrow; Chestnuts long barrow; Kit's Coty House; The Countless Stones or Little Kit's Coty House; The Coffin Stone which is the name given to a megalith at the foot of Blue Bell Hill near Aylesford.
The area has been occupied since the Lower Palaeolithic as finds from the quarries at Swanscombe prove. During the Neolithic the Medway megaliths were built and there is a rich sequence of Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman occupation shown by finds and features such as the Ringlemere gold cup and the Roman villas of the Darent valley.
When Julius Caesar invaded Kent in 55 and 54BC he found it the most civilised part of Britain, colonised by the Belgae from Northern France. When the Romans again invaded in 43AD, this time to settle permanently, they colonised Kent along the Portus Lamanus from Richborough, quickly establishing important centres throughout the area. The remains of one of these at Lullingstone included an early Christian chapel.
There was little opposition to Roman rule in Kent so Roman influence and culture spread swiftly. Settlements grew up alongside new roads, especially the busy Watling Street between the ports and London. Under Roman rule towns in Kent were centres of prosperity and activity, creating a municipal life unlike anything that had been seen before.
The province of 'Cantium', Kent, became an affluent part of the empire. Large country houses, known as villas, were built for wealthy and powerful people during the later second century and third century. Many of these villa sites have been identified in Kent.
The Roman legions abandoned Britain in the early fifth century to defend their empire nearer home. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Vortigern, the British ruler in Kent, invited the mercenaries Hengist and Horsa to defend his land from outside attack. They are said to have landed at Ebbsfleet near Ramsgate in 448 or 449AD. By the end of the fifth century the Saxon kingdom of Kent had been firmly established. Under its king, Ethelbert (560-616), Kent became one of the most advanced Saxon kingdoms in England.
In the sixth century Pope Gregory sent his missionaries to Kent under Augustine to begin their preaching of Christianity to the English people. Augustine and his 40 companions landed at Ebbsfleet in 597AD. They received a friendly welcome and instead of moving on to London as they had originally planned, they established their first cathedral at Canterbury in Kent. Seven years later another was built at Rochester. Augustine was the first archbishop, and since then the Archbishop of Canterbury has been the senior bishop of all England.
Kent and the Dissolution of the Monasteries
Saint Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury was partly demolished in 1538. The remainder was rebuilt as a residence for royal visitors and the grounds were turned into a deer park.
The Franciscan Friary became a cloth factory and relic worship and pilgrimage were forbidden. At the cathedral, the shrine of Saint Thomas was taken apart, filling two massive chests with gold, silver and jewels which were carted away to London.
This period saw martyrs on both sides of the religious divide. Sir Thomas More, the Chancellor, refused to accept the changes to the church under Henry VIII and was executed in 1534. His daughter, Margaret Roper, brought his head back to Canterbury to be buried in the family vault at St. Dunstan's Church.
Queen Mary's fervent attempts to restore the Catholic Church in England led to many people losing their lives. Seventy people in Kent held to their faith and were burnt at the stake, at Canterbury, Maidstone, Rochester, Wye and Ashford.
Changing Kent during the Tudors
At this time Kent became famous for orchards of apples, pears and plums and gardens of cherries. Refugees from the Netherlands introduced market gardening around Sandwich, specialising in flax, the plant that linen is made from, celery, carrots and cabbages.
Wheat was grown mainly between Gillingham and Faversham with barley cultivated in East Kent and Thanet. Much of the barley was grown to make malt for beer. Hop growing was introduced at the beginning of the sixteenth century, using the most fertile soils, firstly around Maidstone and then around Canterbury. Later in 1689 the Shepherd Neame brewery was founded, the oldest surviving brewery in Britain.
Large flocks of sheep were fattened on the Romney Marsh in the summer and herds of cattle were reared in the Weald. The sheep were folded further inland on the Downs during the winter. Kentish cattle and poultry were thought to be of good quality although Kentish wool was considered poor. Horses gradually began to replace the oxen used for ploughing.
Kent in danger
Kent's position as the nearest point of England to the continent of Europe has always made it vulnerable to invasion. The Hythe military canal was built for use to deter Napoleon in 1792 and garrisons were increased in many Kent towns. The Martello towers were also constructed to repel French incursions. Bicycle units were set up in the 1st and 2nd World Wars to carry messages from special control centres built underground. Many soldiers returning from Dunkirk landed on the Kent coast. The so-called Baedecker reprisal raids and other German bombing raids changed Canterbury and Dover forever; and Kent was the chief victim of the V1 and V2 rocket attacks launched from Germany and Calais in 1943 and 1944 against Biggin Hill aerodrome and parts of London.
Kent’s wealth at sea and on land
Easy access by water to London developed Chatham and Sheerness as dockyard towns, and allowed Margate and Ramsgate to become seaside resorts. All the towns along the eastern coast of Kent were important either as commercial ports or in the defence of the county and the country. Dover, Hythe, New Romney and Sandwich were four of the original five 'Cinque Ports'. The privileges of the Cinque Ports were amalgamated under a general charter in 1278. In addition there were the two 'Antient Towns', Rye and Winchelsea. In an attempt to establish some control over their activities, the King appointed a Lord Warden, who was also appointed as Constable of Dover Castle.
The power of the Cinque Ports was at its height during the thirteenth century. It waned as their harbours silted up and became too small and shallow for the larger ships of the Tudor navy. The ports of London and Southampton took their place. Even so, the Cinque Ports retained some of their privileges, including the right to hold their own courts, which, with reduced powers, still meet today.
The Cinque Ports depended mainly upon fishing for their regular income. Sandwich was a possession of Christchurch, Canterbury and paid £40 rent with 40,000 herrings each year. On average the Cinque Ports had to supply the King with 57 ships for 15 days a year. If their services were needed for longer, the King had to pay a fee per person per day. When, as frequently happened, the King was not able to pay the fee in cash, the shrewd portsmen negotiated additional privileges in place of the unpaid debts. This is how the ports became so powerful.
Further inland important cloth and iron industries developed in Kent from the fifteenth century. Many paper mills were set up in the seventeenth century where adequate water was available. Tunbridge Wells became a fashionable spa town in the 1670s. Elsewhere in the county the main occupation was agriculture and the growing of hops for brewing. The hop, iron and cloth industries have provided the Kent landscape with two of its most prominent landmarks, the oast houses used for drying hops and the wealden hall houses of the Kent iron owners and cloth manufacturers.
From the 1750s those parts of Kent nearest to London began to develop as suburbs of the capital. The county’s boundary was adjusted in 1889 when the present boroughs of Greenwich and Lewisham became part of London. To these were added, in 1965, the present boroughs of Bromley and Bexley. Further parts of Kent lying between the A21 and the M25 became, in 1974, London Boroughs but remain part of historic Kent.
Much of West Kent is now London commuter territory and towns like Maidstone, Sevenoaks and Tonbridge have expanded rapidly in size and population. Today Kent’s population stands at approximately 1,500,000.
Disclaimer: The information in this Tourist Guide has been researched from a variety of sources including books, articles and online information. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information the reader should check any specific facts for themselves before making any decisions based upon the said information.
Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015