Tag Archives: Kent

A theory on Kent I would have taken further

When I wrote the bulk of this post in September 2012, I had lately read an article I should have looked at long previously, by Charlotte Behr, called “The Origins of Kingship in Early Medieval Kent”.1 It’s is a rather odd piece of writing: it’s thoroughly academic and erudite but it still reads somewhat as if the author had left notes in the margins of things they had meant to mention later and a scribal error had then incorporated them into the main text in the wrong places; it digresses a lot. I read it after a solid week of copy-editing the final version of Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic, so I itched to do a major hack job on this article, but this is not much good with something in print for twelve years already and it has made me think, so it’s obviously not bad. I just, would maybe have pushed it a bit further.

A seventh-century gold bracteate pendant from a cemetery at Faversham in kent, now in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, object no. 1909-194.

A seventh-century gold bracteate pendant from a cemetery at Faversham in kent, now in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, object no. 1909-194.

What Dr Behr argues is that even though Bede tells us the men of Kent (as opposed to the Kentish men) were Jutes from Jutland, Scandinavian material culture only shows up there with any strength from the mid-sixth century onwards, after we presume any migration to have happened. (Yes, I’m not sure about the assumed links there either, but let’s roll with it for now.) Even once visible, that Scandinavian signal is swamped in Frankish-style goods both imported and locally-made, but it is there. Furthermore, Dr Behr argues that: (a) it is especially to be identified in gold bracteates, which in Kent are almost entirely found in wealthy female graves (though this is not their usual Scandinavian context), (b) these bracteates are related in iconography (and occasionally even in runic text) to the cult of Woden, and (c) that that, as far as place-names can tell us, was confined to one small area of Kent which is also busy with major élite sites, the chief of which are the cemetery of Finglesham, where a ‘founder’ warrior grave became the focus for three centuries of interments, Eastry, where a later villa regalis (royal vill) is well-attested and burial also occurred from early on, and Woodnesborough (‘Woden’s barrow’), presumably the religious site, to which could be added the coastal site of Sandwich as the fourth part of a rather nice little royal development complex linked to Dover and Canterbury by Roman roads.2 Moreover, the bracteates found here and more thinly elsewhere in Kent are all of one specific type, with an identifiably single prototype, suggesting that they were locally-made on demand for a single group who were pushing themselves as Scandinavians in some respect or other.

A gold buckle from the cemetery at Finglesham, supposedly depicting Woden

A gold buckle from the cemetery at Finglesham, supposedly depicting Woden, though a figure in headgear with two things on shafts is perhaps not native to Scandinavia

Now there are bits of this that aren’t logically present in the article but need to be to connect these things up, I think. The conclusion seems perfectly plausible, it’s the sort of thing we’re encouraged to see as behind the goods in the Sutton Hoo ship burial as well, and it lines up with a lot of work going on at the time Dr Behr was writing that encouraged us to see southern Scandinavia as a kind of alternate locus of power and importance which gets its brief spotlight period in the aftermath of the fall of Rome.3 However, the bracteates aren’t die-linked, so there’s not a lot to say that those showing up outside this little core zone aren’t good imitations. That would also work in terms of showing it was an attractive way to represent oneself, I suppose. The fact that it’s almost always women is also interesting, too; should we imagine this ideology being something men can join in with by marriage? Have we then got a successful (and potentially actually Jutish, I feel it should be said, if that term means anything beyond `from Denmark’) warrior family having established themselves at Eastry and area, with their portus at Sandwich, then making links with other élites in sites like Dover and across the water in Francia too that got cemented by marriage, and shortly becoming the number one power in sixth-century Kent?

Reverse of a gold D-type bracteate found at Denton, Kent, and now in Canterbury Museum

Reverse of a gold D-type bracteate found at Denton, Kent, and now in Canterbury Museum, image licensed from the Portable Antiquities Service under Creative Commons BY-SA

Dr Behr, perhaps because she was going into print in a respected journal and because she knows how to be careful better than I do (I have not met her), did not go so far in this piece. But this is only a blog, so I can, and I can go further, because it would all fit quite nicely. It marries up a lot of things that Anglo-Saxonists used to believe because the sources tell us them (warrior settlement by small numbers of migrants with ancestral connections overseas establishing themselves in new lands) with more realistic, socially-based work about control of luxury goods, manipulation of genealogy and expression of desired identity via material culture and burial etc. But if we also fit it into the time-frame then it helps explain a disjunction in what Bede tells us about the early Kentish kings. He repeats Gildas about the settlement of the Saxons in Kent, basically, that they arrived as mercenary warriors then rebelled and took over, but Bede puts names on them. Those names are interesting: the first two leaders are the legendary Hengest and a son or colleague Horsa (two names meaning ‘stallion’ and ‘mare’, always an unlikely occurrence), but the subsequent kings take their family name from a third generation in the person of one Oisc. How these three are related varies between the few sources, though all the genealogies ultimately go back to Woden.4 (Dr Behr covers all this, but she doesn’t, perhaps sensibly, go where I’m about to go with it. She does, however, point out what I’d never noticed, that the Kentish kings are the only ones whose Wodenic ancestry Bede also records.5) To this we can also add Ian Wood’s stress on the early kingdom’s Frankish connections; even if we don’t go so far as to claim that Kent was actually subject to Frankish overlordship, the first Christian king of Kent, Æthelberht, had a Frankish wife and a father with a Frankish name, and there is all this Frankish bling in the graves of Kent, as said.6

A fragment of a Frankish copper-alloy buckle found at Hollingbourne, Kent

A fragment of a Frankish copper-alloy buckle found at Hollingbourne, Kent, image licensed from the Portable Antiquities Service under Creative Commons license BY-SA

So, okay, a hypothetical way to reconcile all this: in the mid-fifth century a proto-kingship was built up in the Eastry-Finglesham complex identified by Dr Behr which was demonstratively (rather than demonstrably, though maybe that too) Scandinavian, and let’s say Jutish, even if I’m not really sure those two things should be assumed to be overlapping sets, and it rapidly acquired dominating links to other power centres like Dover. It may even have been the power that managed to grab Western Kent into the same hegemony. It stressed this Scandinavian identity because there was opposition that identified more clearly as Frankish, which is why we have Frankish kings reporting themselves as rulers of Britain in Procopius’s recollection (however good that may be). And by the end of the sixth century, that opposition won out in the form of King Æthelberht. But the combined kingdom’s identity remained Jutish at some level, not least maybe because Æthelberht himself seems to have wanted to avoid ties too close to the Franks anyway (else why not accept Christianity from them?) so perhaps liked to be able to get a grip on local feeling like this. (Was his father Irminric’s wife one of these women with bracteates on her dress, do you suppose?)

Reverse of a Frankish tremissis loosely aiming to be one of the Byzantine Emperor Justin II, found near Sevenoaks

I couldn’t get through this post without using a coin somewhere, come on. This is the reverse of a Frankish tremissis loosely aiming to be one of the Byzantine Emperor Justin II, found near Sevenoaks, image license from the Portable Antiquities Service under Creative Commons license BY-SA

I like this because it would allow so many things to be true at once: it could accommodate a genuine migrant warrior group moving into a fragmented power vacuum in eastern Kent and a small family quickly becoming powerful by genius of location and resources and by skilful manipulation of a politically-useful identity for which one could hand out almost literal badges of membership and that other people apparently wanted to join. (I do wonder what the men in this group wore, but whatever it was apparently we haven’t found it as such.) It was such a good appeal to legend that by the time they were remembered in the eighth century Bede knew, or his informant knew, that the founder had been a legendary warrior and Hengest was the name they knew best for the time. And his story would then actually be relevant, explanatory and important! These pseudo-Hengests would have pulled together a small but wealthy kingdom in the space of a couple of generations, substantially just by having a good starting position and an obvious Frankish problem for which they could advertise themselves as the solution. (“No more tribute to the sons of the sea-monster! Choose Jutes for Woden!”7) And then one of the family that must have set up in Canterbury somewhen (and let’s call their founder Oisc) got in on the act and, as luck and skill with a blade and a retinue would have it, completely cleared the floor over most of the south of England, sending the political axis skidding backwards and forwards between Francia and Scandinavia until some well-timed missionaries arrived to offer a third way (unbeknownst to them) and the whole game changed scale. This is, of course, completely unprovable (though one could wish for DNA testing of the female skeletons with the bracteates) but it fits very much with how I have long tended to see the Anglo-Saxon settlement: not many people but a few clever and lucky ones in just the right place and at just the right time to make something that became history.


1. C. Behr, “The Origins of Kingship in Early Medieval Kent” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 9 (Oxford 2000), pp. 25-52, DOI: 10.1111/1468-0254.00058.

2. Most of what i know about Finglesham comes from the short but good picture essay, Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, “Finglesham: a cemetery in East Kent” in James Campbell, Eric John & Patrick Wormald (edd.), The Anglo-Saxons (London 1982), pp. 24-25, but there is much fuller publication, Sonia Chadwick Hawkes & Guy Grainger, The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Finglesham, Kent (Oxford 2006); on the other sites mentioned, see most recently Keith Parfitt, “Further Investigation of Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Eastry” in Archaeologia Cantiana Vol. 129 (Canterbury 2009), pp. 313-332; Parfitt, “Excavations at Ringlemere Farm, Woodnesborough, 2002- 2006”, ibid. Vol. 127 (2007), pp. 39-73; and Helen Clarke, Sandwich: the “completest medieval town in England”. A study of the town and port from its origins to 1600 (Oxford 2010), all of which citations, I should stress, I have pulled out of databases just now rather than actually read

3. Best exemplified by several papers in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms: papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999), in which many but not all of the contributors were in fact from Scandinavia; there was also John Hines, however, whose book The Scandinavian character of Anglian England in the pre-Viking period , British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 124 (Oxford 1984) is the starting point for this trend on my side of the North Sea. Hines’s contribution to the Sachsensymposium was, admittedly, not about Scandinavian power foci; as to what it was about, that would be a future post

4. All this is best covered by none other than the late lamented Nicholas Brooks, in his “The Creation and Early Structure of the Early Kingdom of Kent” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 55-74.

5. Behr, “Origins of Kingship”, p. 28.

6. Ian Wood, The Merovingian North Sea (Ålingsas 1987), put more lightly but also more easily obtainable in his “The Fall of the Western Empire and the End of Roman Britain” in Britannia Vol. 18 (London 1987), pp. 253-262.

7. I thought of that just because it jingles nicely but IS IT A COINCIDENCE THAT the bracteate type used in this Kentish group is the one whose iconography is actually a monster, defeated and bound, presumably by Woden who is elsewhere depicted in such a combat (Behr, “Origins of Kingship”, p. 37 with illustrations on p. 38)? Or can these things actually be anti-Merovingian campaign badges? OK: if I hadn’t gone too far before, I have now, it’s nice to be sure…

Seminary XLVII: building Kent out of hundreds

Running behind with this as with much else, it would seem: on 29th April the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research renewed for this term with a paper by Andrew Reynolds, of the UCL Institute of Archaeology, entitled, “Assembly Sites and the Emergence of Supra-local Communities in Early Kent”, and I was there. I know of Dr Reynolds mainly as a convenor of the Institute of Archaeology’s own seminars, to which I wish I could make it more often, but his own work is also really interesting and he has a new book out entitled Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs which looks to be full of interesting stuff especially if you’ve shared my own passing interest in that sort of thing. Here, however, he was trying to look at how the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England might have come to be, by looking for local unities in the archæological record (defined broadly and including place-names, field names and so on) and trying to distinguish differences and development.

Gold, silver and garnet composite disc brooch, probably early seventh century, found in grave at Saltwood, Kent

Gold, silver and garnet composite disc brooch, probably early seventh century, found in grave at Saltwood, Kent

In particular, he was trying to look for assembly sites, not so much the big royal ones but the steps down from there, and most especially the old English territorial units known as hundred. These are well-recorded in Domesday Book, but of course that leaves one wondering how much older than Domesday Book they are. In fact, very few even of those that can be located have been dug, but the recent building of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link through Kent has laid bare a completely arbitrary trench of archæological potential through one of the key areas for the development of royalty in England, whereas we normally get to investigate only dispersed sites known to be of interest for some reason. Of course, that trench might have passed through nothing of moment, but in fact, and in particular, at a place called Saltwood it went through a complex of cemeteries, which Dr Reynolds believed represented four different communities, three of whom were burying with various levels of deliberate layout around Late Bronze Age barrows and one who apparently got there too late to have a barrow and had to have the fourth quarter. The site is at what appears to be a crossroads of old trackways (one of which was on the line of digging and produced fill with ceramics of this early date in it). The point of all this for the thesis is that the local hundred meeting site was at Heane Wood, all very close by, and the apparent focus of multiple communities burying here is very suggestive when linked to that later focus here of the whole region. Need more of a link? The cemetery sites are full of short-term cooking pits of the late seventh through to twelfth centuries, pretty much when the burial sequence stops onwards. These pits were not in long-term use and there’s no evidence for structures, so it looks as if people were coming here, eating and then going away again.

This is obviously a bit complex. There are shades here (no pun intended) of the meals with the dead ruled against in church canons from the Continent studied by Nancy Caciola, and it’s hard to say whether the fact that the cemeteries were apparently remembered linked to the fact of the nearby meeting place with any certainty. I would wonder (and asked) whether it wasn’t equally possible that they weren’t remembered as burial sites of these people’s ancestors, but just as sites with obviously visible barrows, which might have had a much older significance more or less reinvented by those gathering. But if one removes the burial link then obviously you need another reason why people gather here, and the hundred provides an obvious one. Then you have to ask if the burial comes first (because of the crossroads?) and the hundred sets up here because there are already gatherings there, or if the burial is put here because even in the sixth century this is where four communities territories meet? The causation is really all up for grabs. But it’s interesting, isn’t it?

The `ancient division of Kent

The `ancient' division of Kent

Then in the last part of the paper, Dr Reynolds observed that in East Kent (whence come as we know the Men of Kent) the hundreds are much smaller and messier than in West Kent (whence come the Kentish Men), where moreover they often tend to centre on places with royal associations. He suggested that this shows something about the antiquity of and responsibility for the system in each area, such as that for example kingship may have arisen in the East and then hundreded the West, although I had to suggest that if two different communities had arisen at the same time in each area, and just done things differently, it might also look like this. Again, causation, especially since we have good reason to believe that the Franks were involved in early state formation in Kent. But which side? and so on. A lot of useful discussion arose, in any case, and I plugged Morn Capper’s work (which was actually relevant to a point about execution cemeteries on borders) and we came up with useful formulations such as “power by controlled violence” (which is like Weber you can actually use, isn’t it?) and in general it was what these gatherings are supposed to be. Thought you might like to know.


Reference is made here to, firstly, Nancy Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture” in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 3-45, online here so you’ve no excuse for not reading this fascinating paper; for the Frankish involvement in Kent, most obviously Ian N. Wood, The Merovingian North Sea (Alingsås 1990); and lastly Morn Capper, “Contesting loyalties: regional and national identities in the midland kingdoms of England, c. 700-c. 1050″, unpublished Ph. D. thesis, University of Sheffield, 2008.