Do you Wantsum? The remarkable archaeology of the Isle of Thanet (part 2)

This article continues from part 1.

The Romans arrive

Julius Caesar and the Romans are said to have landed on the southern shores of the Isle of Thanet in 54 and 55 BC. This arrival at Ebbsfleet has received much publicity recently, through the archaeological work undertaken by the University of Leicester – more on that here. Nearly a century later, the Emperor Claudius undertook a proper invasion of Britain in AD 43. The location of this landing is still the subject of debate, but it could have been at Richborough just across the Wantsum Channel from Thanet. Britain subsequently became part of the Roman Empire, until their eventual withdrawal around AD 410. On the Isle of Thanet, the remains of this occupation include a substantial villa site at Abbey Farm, Minster, including two chambered malt kilns.

NE Kent in Roman period

More arrivals

The legendary brothers Hengist and Horsa are said to have led the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in their invasion of Britain in the 5th century. Hengist and Horsa, meaning ‘stallion’ and ‘horse’ respectively, were themselves Jutes from Denmark. They arrived as mercenaries at the behest of British leader Vortigorn, and after winning a battle against the Picts, they were supposedly given the Isle of Thanet to live on. According to the ‘Virtual Museum’, the main evidence of the Anglo-Saxon period in Thanet (450-1066 AD) is “the large number of extensive and early period cemeteries that are found all over the Island”. Seven such cemeteries have been explored. Given that there is more funerary evidence and less of actual settlement, this adds to the intrigue (along with all the Bronze Age round barrows) of Thanet as an “Isle of the Dead”.

Hengist_and_Horsa A replica Anglo-Saxon longship at Pegwell Bay (photo by Peter Lelliott)

St. Augustine and Christianity

The Ebbsfleet peninsular on Thanet’s southern shore is also traditionally the landing place of St. Augustine, who came from Rome in AD 597 to convert the Britons to Christianity. The Venerable Bede recounts that Augustine landed with forty men, and the presumed location of their landing is now marked by a cross. St. Augustine, who was a Catholic Benedictine Monk, wasted no time in becoming the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Sometime later, in AD 670, the community of Minster-in-Thanet was founded as a monastic settlement. Mildreth, the daughter of a British king from the Midlands, became its first abbess. She was declared a saint after her death, when her remains were removed to nearby Canterbury.

Augustine cross, Mildred, MinsterAbove: The 19th century cross commemorating St. Augustine (photo by Philip Halling), Saint Mildreth of Minster-in-Thanet, and ruins of the Saxon tower at Minster Abbey (photo by Pam Fray)

The Danes

Given its location, it is not surprising that the Danish Vikings paid Thanet a visit. From around AD 830, they began to attack coastal areas of Britain., with summer raiding seasons turning into year-long campaigns. In 850, their “heathen army” over-wintered on Thanet, at a time when the there were apparently 600 families already living there. Three years on, they fought a bloody battle against the men of Kent and Surrey, and later that century they fought King Alfred at Stourmouth in the Wantsum Channel. There is no corroborating archaeological evidence of all of this. However, records show that their raids continued in the 10th century, and in the early 11th century a Dane called Turkill landed and burnt the town of Stonar (located on the shingle spit south of Ebbsleet). By the year 1016, the Danish prince Cnut had become king of all England.

Danes and Cnut 2Above: The Danes invading England, and King Cnut

An island no more

We now fast-forward past William the Conqueror and through several hundred years of medieval history. During this time, the Wantsum Channel was gradually silting up, aided and abetted by human hands – including local monks who built walls and reclaimed land. In the year 1672, the last ship sailed through the Wantsum Channel. Today, Thanet is joined by land to the rest of the county of Kent, with the rivers Stour and Wantsum (the latter little more than a drainage ditch) being the remnants of the former sea channel. However, there is no guarantee that Thanet will remain as part of mainland Britain. Over the next few hundred years, with climate change and sea level rise on the agenda, the former Wantsum Channel may one day flood again. If you’ll excuse the pun, it may well be a case of… “Isle be back”.

Thanet aerial view from north - Wikipedia from geograph_5434042Above: A recent aerial shot of Thanet from the north (photo by Lewis Clarke)

This article published on ASLAN Hub should not to be copied, republished or extensively quoted without permission.

Main References

Moody, G., “The Isle of Thanet – From prehistory to the Norman Conquest”, The History Press, 2008

Perkins, D., “A Gateway Island – An exploration of evidence for the existence of a cultural focus in the form of a ‘gateway community’ in the Isle of Thanet during the Bronze Age and Early and Middle Iron Ages” (PhD thesis)

The Virtual Museum of Thanet’s Archaeology (maintained by the Trust for Thanet Archaeology)

Thanet, Tanit and the Phoenicians: Place-Names, archaeology and Pre-Roman TRading Settlements in Eastern Kent? By Dr Caitlin Green

Thanet and the Wantsum article

Isle of Thanet once an island article

Around Pegwell Bay A Special Area (Isle of Thanet Archaeological Society)

Thanet, Kent and other entries at Vision of Britain

Wikipedia entries for: Isle of Thanet, Ebbsfleet, Minster-in-Thanet, etc


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