Kent - a county of two halves. A brief history.
The name Kent derives from the ancient Celtic tribe who inhabited South East England from the Thames to the south coast. Their lands included modern Kent plus parts of Surrey, Sussex and Greater London. The Roman's called the people the Cantii or Cantiaci and the county Cantium. Julius Caesar wrote in his account of his military campaigns in northern Europe, Gallic Wars, that the people of Cantium were the most civilized of the Celtic tribes.
Julius Caesar visited Britain twice. The first occasion in 55 BC he landed at Deal and his fleet was defeated by the high tidal range which swamped their ships. In 54 BC Caesar returned with cavalry and won a significant skirmish at Canterbury; reputedly near to Bigbury Iron Age hill fort. After a short campaign in England Julius Caesar left our shores. In 43AD under Emperor Claudius the Roman's returned and stayed for almost four centuries.
The Ancient Britons did not have a written history so we have little knowledge of what they may have called Canterbury. Although it may have been a version of Durovernum, the name the Roman's used. This has linguistic roots to the Iron-Age tribes who lived on the British Isles before the Roman invasion. Duro roughly translates to fortified enclosure; vernum to marshy crossing with Alders. The first documentation of a name for Canterbury was in a 2nd century geography the Antoine Itinerary. In that the Roman named it Durovernum Cantiacorum. Cantiacorum meaning that the city was a Civitas Capital, that is a town where tribal leaders were trusted to rule their own people with the addition of Roman advisors. Canterbury was the principle tribal capital of Cantium (Kent) with a second area of administration at Rochester which the Roman's named: Durobrivae Cantiacorum. Durobrivae meaning fortified crossing with a bridge.
Man or Maid of Kent v Kentish Man or Maid
Kent's largest river is the Medway which divides the county vaguely east and west. Its source is in the High Weald Sussex. Its mouth flows in to the Thames estuary. Hasted wrote in his encyclopaedic work The Historical & Topographical Survey of Kent that the ancient Britons called the Medway Vaga (travel) to which the Saxons prefixed Med (middle). If you are born on the east side of the Medway you may call yourself a Man of Kent. If you were born to the west a Kentish Man. The female equivalent being Maids of Kent or Kentish Maids. When the Men and Maids terms first came in to use is uncertain. Some say its from the invasion of Angles, Saxons and Jutes who called Canterbury Cantawarburgh. The Anglo Saxons occupied West Kent whilst the Jutes, settled East of the Medway.
Others, as in this ode Men of Kent & Kentish Men*, suggest that it dates from the Norman invasion when the Men of Kent refused to let the Conqueror pass through East Kent unless they were allowed to keep certain rights and privileges. This tale may have some truth behind it in that Kent was the only English county to keep the inheritance laws of Gavelkind after the conquest.
Men of Kent or Kentish Men?
The Point so often mooted
Men of Kent and Kentish Men?
Should you chance to hear disputed
As, no doubt, you will again.
Where the Medway’s stream divideth
and by it’s North Eastern shore.
Where the Kentish man abideth
William, unopposed, passed o’er.
But the lands South East the River
knew not what submission meant.
May Invicta stand for ever
word and boast of Men of Kent.
Norman and later
After the Battle of Hastings the Normans started a program of building works with castles and cathedrals appearing throughout their newly conquered lands. Canterbury had the first Norman Cathedral and Castle, with Rochester a close second. Although, many castles were built in Britain in this period each county had just one cathedral... except Kent, which is the only county in Britain to have had two cathedrals splitting the county into two dioceses.
During the medieval period Canterbury became by charter a county corporate. i.e. a town with rights to act like a county. The City and Borough of Canterbury which covered some surrounding villages was administered independently of the county of Kent between 1471 and 1972. Hence there were two county assizes at Canterbury and Maidstone and each has a County Court in use today.
There are several versions of this legend. The following was written in a thirteenth century chronicle by Thomas Sprot a monk of St. Augustine’s Abbey Canterbury. Sprot describes the gathering at Swanscombe of the Men of East Kent with their Saxon Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury. They were awaiting King William I, the Conqueror, who was taking his first journey through Kent; after the Battle of Hastings and his coronation in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066.
On his way to Dover to take ship to his lands in Normandy he was prevented from passing into the lands of East Kent by a deputation of the Men of Kent. They held a branch [treaty] or a sword [war] and told William to choose. The legend suggests that he chose the branch and in doing so agreed that the people of both East and West Kent could keep certain rights and customs if in return they would accept him as their King. Reputedly this is why the custom of Gavelkind continued in Kent centuries after vanishing from other parts of England.
Gavelkind (in a nutshell) was a system whereby a deceased person's land and assets were shared amongst their heirs. It did not entirely preclude women unlike primogeniture; where assets usually went to the eldest son or nearest male relative. In many cases primogeniture effectively debarred even a closely related female from inheriting whilst a male relative could be found; notwithstanding the remoteness of his claim and the closeness of hers! Even so, there are a few cases of women inheriting titles, lands and wealth. Joan the Fair Maid of Kent (wife of the Black Prince) was Countess of Kent suo jure (in her own right). As her brother had no male relatives when he died Joan inherited everything.
Gavelkind was not abolished until The Law of Property Act 1925.
Invicta - Kent's white horse
The emblem of Kent and also of Kent Family History Society, traditionally it is shown on a red background. In 2017, as part of a rebranding exercise, Kent FHS reverted to this traditional style. The horse is affectionately named after his Latin motto Invicta meaning unconquered. A reminder that Kent was not conquered at Hastings on 14 October 1066.
After the 1972 reorganisation of English counties Canterbury came under County administration. Kent County Council then administered almost the entire county. However, the united county was to last less than thirty years as in 1998 the Unitary Authority of Medway was formed from Rochester, Chatham, Gillingham and Strood and the county was once again split in two.
Family historians should be aware that not all Kent archives are held in the county archives and its best to check which archive when booking a visit. Depending on the subject and era they could be held at; Canterbury, Maidstone, Bexley, Bromley, Strood, or the London Metropolitan Archives at Clerkenwell.
*Poem attributed to both: Mrs Thomas of Hollingbourne circa 19th century (in Winnifrith, Albert. ‘Men of Kent and Kentish Men’ pp. 9 – 10) and Benjamin Franklin circa 18th century (in personal correspondence no longer traceable).