Before the Saxons

As the history of a nation unfolds it touches even the smallest community. Its position in East Kent makes this especially true of Great Mongeham.

History was never made in our village, but much of the history of our nation unfolded around it. Therefore a history of the village cannot be written without reference to events taking place on a wider stage. The proximity of Europe, separated by not much more than twenty miles of English Channel made East Kent not only a centre of trade but also a target for invasion and an embarkation point for European campaigns. It comes as no surprise, then, that a Bronze Age boat, the earliest seagoing vessel yet discovered, should be found in Dover, just eight miles from Great Mongeham. Archaeological evidence suggests considerable activity in East Kent from the Neolithic to the Iron Age. When Julius Caesar invaded in 45 BC his ships landed at Walmer. Later he was to write “Of all the Britons the inhabitants of Cantium, an entirely maritime district, are by far the most civilised, differing but little from the Gallic manner of life. ” In 45 AD a Roman force led by Aulus Plautius landed at Richborough. Thus began nearly 400 years of Roman occupation.

Roman Brick Fragments
Roman Brick Fragments
Roman Tiles
Roman Tiles

Although settlements existed at Dover and Richborough before the arrival of the Romans, and both continued as important ports, there is little evidence of a village at Great Mongeham until the arrival of the Saxons. Neolithic and Bronze Age axe heads have been found as has a Roman cremation urn. In the 1980s there was a major excavation at Mill Hill (which had been part of the parish of Great Mongeham before 1901) which uncovered finds dating from the Neolithic age to Saxon times, the most significant find probably being the grave of an Iron Age warrior from around 200BC. An excavation in a field between Cherry Lane and St. Martin’s Church made in 1980 uncovered evidence of a Belgic farmstead from the first century AD and there are fragments of Roman bricks and tiles built into the mediaeval walls of the church. However the first documentary evidence of a settlement at Great Mongeham comes from an eighth century document in which King Eadbhert makes a grant to the community of St Peter (later St Augustine’s Abbey) of “land in the south part of the ancient village called Mundelingeham”.

The arrival of the Jutes

Mundelingeham is the place of the ‘Mundelings’ – Mundel’s people. But who was Mundel? Our only knowledge of his existence comes from an Anglo-Saxon place name written in an eighth century document. But our curiosity demands more. We not only want to know the person, but where he came from and why and how he came. With little documentary or archaeological evidence available our answers must come from a broader examination of the first Saxon incursions of this land. Our story begins in the last years of the Roman Empire.

A combination of political intrigue, plague epidemics and economic collapse meant that the empire was slowly imploding. Its borders were under constant attack, particularly from the Germanic tribes to the North. Successive waves, notably of Goths, Vandals and Visigoths swept through the continent. In 407 Constantine III took the last legion remaining in Britain to support his quest to become the Western Emperor. It was now up to the Britons alone to defend British borders from marauding Saxons and invading Picts.

A Roman Farm

In 1980, while trial-trenching around a new duck-pond, an excavation was made in a small grass field north-east of a house in Cherry Lane called Mustapha. It uncovered three sides of a ditched rectangular field-enclosure. Other ditches showed that it formed part of a more extensive complex. The ditches had been filled by a substantial amount material which had been washed down the hill where the church now stands. In the wash were substantial amounts of pot sherds dating from Roman times or earlier. A date for the farmstead of 30-100 AD was suggested. Some mediaeval pottery was also found.

By 465 the Jutish Kingdom of Cantware was established. For a long time orthodox history told us that the establishment of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain was largely by a gradual process of settlement and assimilation, with minor skirmishes with the natives.. But there is a maverick history which lends more credence to ancient texts considered unreliable by orthodoxy. It tells of a British king, Vortigern, so beset by Pictish invaders that he called on a Jute, Hengest, to help him in return for land in Kent. Hengest, with three ships, landed at Ebbsfleet. After successfully dealing with the Pictish threat there was a dispute over the grant of land, leading to a war between the Britons and Jutes. Through a combination of military prowess and treachery the Jutes were victorious and established their kingdom.

Hengest is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning stallion. From Saxon times Kent’s emblem has been a white horse. Whether the emblem derives from the name of that first Jutish king, or the king adopted a tribal totem for his name or whether the whole story is an allegory for the heroic establishment of the Jutish kingdom we may never know. Orthodoxy doubted the existence of three separate Germanic peoples, the Angles, Jutes and Saxons, but the assembly of fifth and sixth century artefacts uncovered in Kent in the past few decades is distinct from artefacts of a similar age found elsewhere in the country, and show affinity with artefacts found on the Jutland peninsula. Evidence for this history comes from early Saxon and Welsh texts. Shades of opinion exist ranging from denial of the reliability of any of the texts to the complete acceptance of all. The romantic in me tends towards the latter point of view.

I like to believe that Mundel was one of Hengest’s warriors who, fresh from success against Picts and Britons, enriched by the booty of war, returned to Jutland to load family and possessions onto a ship and sail back to Kent. Sometimes, when walking up the hill from the Brooks to the church, I turn and look back towards the plain that was the Wantsum Channel. My mind’s eye sees Mundel’s ship sailing into the inlet leading towards the village. The coastline was different then. Thanet was an island separated from the Kentish mainland by the Wantsum Channel. It is likely that the settlers sailed or rowed up the wide inlet which later became the North Stream. The map below shows many of the historic sites mentioned in the text, It also shows the route that Mundel might have taken to reach Mongeham. The ship is beached. Mundel’s party disembark and move up the hill. Mundel, his brothers and sons, each with his own household would set up their homesteads. Mundel’s would be towards the top of the hill, providing a good vantage point looking towards the sea. The other men would take advantage of the rich alluvial soils when choosing positions for their own homesteads. These deep soils, accumulated in the dips and valleys between the downs, had been cultivated for centuries. My mind’s eye fills in detail which is even more conjectural. So much for my imagination, but this image derives from known patterns of Saxon settlement.

King Eadbhert

Eadbhert was king of West Kent between 725 and 762. It appears that there were two kings of Kent at the time, Aethelbert II being king of East Kent. Eadbhert mentions Aethelbert in the same document. He gives as a reason for making the gift of land. ‘I ought to be of some use to the above-named church, for the eternal redemption of our souls – that is, mine and that of the most merciful king Aethelbert’. Just three years after the death of Eadbhert the Mercians gained control of Kent. By 825 it had become part of the kingdom of the West Saxons.

How certain can we be?

Some of our answers to questions raised at the beginning are more tentative than others. It is uncertain when Mundel arrived with his people but most likely it was in the second half of the fifth or early sixth century. The suffix ‘ingham’ indicates a great age for the settlement. According to King Eadbhert, Mongeham was already an ancient village by 762. It is likely that Mundel was a nobleman. Eadbhert could have gained his Mongeham lands through inheritance or marriage. According to his charter it was “possessed by kings of Cantia in former times and by us until the present”.

The map shows various features of the landscape with their current names. The arrangement of buildings at Mongeham Farm, Oak Cottage and the old bakery all display the pattern of ancient farmsteads and could possibly be the sites of Saxon farms. However more evidence would have to be found before any convincing case could be made.

Eadbhert Charter

In this piece of the charter we can see the earliest record of the village, Mundelingehā. The bar above the ‘a’ indicates an abbreviation.

The Saxon Settlement

In the absence of conclusive archaeology the site of the first settlement must be pure conjecture. The Cherry Lane excavation suggests that it may have been on the site of a Romano British settlement. Excavations in a field opposite the church have uncovered the probable site of a thirteenth century village. Mundel might well have established his settlement there. We can be a little more definite in answering why and how. A population explosion of Germanic peoples in the third and fourth centuries saw wave after wave of migrants leaving their native heartlands. On reaching the coast some became accomplished sailors, raiding the shores of the Roman Empire. Many became foederati (mercenary groups) in the Roman Army. The Jutes, natives of the Jutland peninsula of Denmark, were under such pressure. Colonisation of Kent was a logical next step. That they were invited by the British as foederatiis also quite plausible. As with Mongeham (see map on previous page) the earliest Jutish settlements grew up at inlets along the Kent coast, so arrival by sea is again highly probable.

Handmaid of God

We can glean information about what was being produced on a Mongeham farm at that time from a document surviving from about 850. Ceolnoth, Archbishop of Canterbury, had persuaded Lufu, “handmaid of God” to grant a valuable food-rent on her property at “Mundlingham” to Christ Church, Canterbury.

She may have been a widow who had taken religious vows for the “good of her soul” or a survivor of one of the Kentish ‘double minsters’ that had been dispersed by the Viking raids. Minster-in-Thanet was destroyed by a Viking attack in 853. In the document Lufu desired “to give annually to the community at Christ Church, from the inheritance which God has given me, and my friends have helped me [to secure], sixty ambers’ of malt, one hundred and fifty loaves, fifty white loaves, one hundred and twenty ‘alms-loaves’, a bullock, a pig, four sheep, and two weys of lard and cheese.

The Saxon village.

One of the joys of living in a village as old as Great Mongeham is that the imprint of its history can still be seen. Saxon roads were cut into the slopes of the downs to provide more gentle gradients for their carts. All the roads shown on the map (page 4) have such cuttings. Almost certainly they were present in Saxon times. The roads linked Saxon homesteads. Perhaps they linked the homesteads of Mundel’s first settlement. Perhaps some of our oldest farms date from this time. Perhaps this is one conjecture too far.

Saxon Brooch

Brooch dating from the late sixth or early seventh century found in Great Mongeham. It is a Frankish import

Nevertheless let us stand for a moment at the junction of Northbourne and Mongeham Roads. We close our eyes and let our minds dispel the tarmac and bricks and mortar of modern life. We open our eyes in the ninth century. In front of us is a landscape which has changed little in the past two hundred years and will remain much the same for the next millennium. We see a patchwork of fields of wheat and barley and possibly beans or peas. Sheep are grazing on top of the Downs where the soil is too thin for crops. Cattle are in the water meadows by the stream where the water table is too high to permit ploughing. It is August and men are wielding sickles in the fields while their families are gathering the wheat or barley into stooks to dry. Later the stooks will be gathered for threshing. A hundred yards up the road is a farmstead, a small cluster of buildings around a large hall. Inside a woman grinds corn in a rotary quern. The flour will make bread. Possibly yeast left over from brewing will be used to make it rise. In one of the outhouses grain is spread outon the floor. It has been dampened to make it start germinating, a process known as malting. The malt will be used to brew beer. In an age before tea and coffee, potatoes, pasta and rice, the basis of their diet is provided by bread and beer. Honey collected from hives set in the fields around provide their only sweetener. Chickens are running around the yard and a young girl is bringing home a flock of geese. There is a row of conical beehives under the hedgerow.

A walk up the hill takes us to the main village. Because of the increasing frequency of Viking raids more people are building their homes closer to the church. The church is also a consequence of Viking raids. Since Augustine landed at Ebbsfleet in 597 priests were trained and based at minsters such as Minster in Thanet. They would then go out to the villages to minister the needs of their flock. Wealthy minsters were prime targets for the Vikings, so parish churches were being built to disperse the clergy. There is a mill in the village but not like the mills we are familiar with today, driven by water or wind. There was no suitable water nearby and windmills would not be seen in this country for a few more centuries. This mill consisted of two large millstones, the upper one of which was turned by an animal, probably a bullock, harnessed to it.

The entry for Mongeham in the Domesday Book

William wanted to know the full extent anda value of the lands in his newly acquired kingdom, principally for taxation purposes. He sent out his men to compile a detailed statement of lands held by the king and by his subjects and of the resources that went with those lands. The document records which manors rightfully belonged to which estates and so it provided a definitive record of ownership. It was completed in 1087. Within a hundred years it became known as the Domesday book because like the Biblical Day of Judgement there was no appeal.

The presence of mill and church are recorded in the Domesday book. Sadly it does not tell us when they were built. It has been suggested that there has been a church in the village since 470, but it seems unlikely that a church in Kent predates the arrival of St. Augustine. A mid ninth century date seems most likely. The entry also notes that there is a woodland for four pigs. The animals would forage for beech mast, acorns and the like. No doubt the use of the woodland belonged to the abbey’s farm. Others would keep their pigs in pens near their homes and feed them on scraps.