The Great Kent Churches: How Did They Survive Their Exposure to

TO find out how the great Kent churches managed to withstand the Viking attacks of the ninth century, it is first necessary to establish where the main churches were actually situated during the Danish invasions. In ninth-century England, the cathedral towns of Canterbury and Rochester represented the two official Church sees of Kent. Two hundred and fifty years earlier, St. Augustine had given Canterbury its status because of important “political considerations”[1], and Rochester was added soon afterwards in 604, becoming the second most prominent town in Kent simply for possessing “only the second cathedral in England.”[2] Beneath these ecclesiastical sees, there were eight royal minsters based at Reculver, Minster-in-Thanet, St. Augustine’s (Canterbury), Hoo (near Rochester), Minster-in-Sheppey, Lyminge, Folkestone and Dover. For the Church, these Kentish minsters functioned as important cultural and financial centres and represented “obvious targets for treasure-seeking Viking armies.”[3]

The main centre of religious activity in Kent during the ninth century was Canterbury, which, in the late seventh century had started as a wic or “open (undefended) trading settlement”[4] before developing into a fortified burgh two centuries later “as a result of the Viking invasions.”[5] Canterbury’s Christ Church had been built within the old Roman walls of the city, but St. Augustine’s – an important monastic community which had been “built primarily to serve as a royal and episcopal mausoleum”[6] – was actually “attached to an episcopal centre outside the wall”[7] itself.

That St. Augustine’s was vulnerable to Viking attack is an understatement, but even within the city most of the dwellings were little more than “rough timber buildings”[8]. In 851, the Viking army – shortly after occupying the Thames with “three hundred and fifty ships”[9] – literally “stormed Canterbury”[10] in a formidable display of Danish power and although very little is known about the actual damage caused to its churches, “early books and treasures”[11] from the Christ Church altar have not survived. However, it is still possible to get some idea of how the Danes affected both the revenue and food supply in the Canterbury area by using the example of Ealhburg, a benefactor of St. Augustine’s who was forced to suspend the contributions drawn from her estate “for three successive years”[12] due to the ravages of “the heathen army.”[13] Another indication is the fact that after 851 the mint at Canterbury also fell into decline. Canterbury was threatened again between 892-3, as the Vikings – after sailing from Boulogne with “an armada of 250 ships”[14] – arrived at Milton and Appledore[15]. On this occasion, however, Christ Church and St. Augustine’s were saved by the famous intervention of King Alfred of Wessex, who forced the invaders to retreat. R. H. Hodgkin is of the opinion that, if the Vikings had succeeded, “the whole of the east coast of England from the Channel to the Tees would have been in the hands of the Northmen. The metropolitan city of the English Church would have been lost, and the main road of communication between England and the Continent would have been cut.”[16] Indeed, whilst it is possible to speculate about the survival of Canterbury’s churches in the event of a Viking attack, it is also true that – without the intervention of Alfred – the city’s religious houses may have been completely devastated.

Rochester was another important site for ninth-century Catholicism, and its old Roman walls were in a fairly good state of repair[17] during this period. In fact Rochester’s impenetrable defences were to save its inhabitants from the Danish forces in 885, when the citizens were caught in a siege and “defended the city until King Alfred came to their relief”[18]. Once again, the great Wessex King had arrived at the very last moment to liberate the people of Kent and prevent a repeat of the 842 “slaughter”[19]. In addition, however, it remains absolutely incontestable that Rochester Cathedral itself was saved by the strong defences which had been built by the Romans centuries earlier. As far as nearby Hoo is concerned, there is very little evidence remaining apart from a solitary seventh-century reference in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle[20]. Given the location of Hoo, it seems likely that its inhabitants would have fled to Rochester when the Vikings approached in 885.

Two particularly vulnerable Kentish monasteries which suffered early attacks due to their highly “exposed”[21] island locations, were Thanet and Sheppey. The latter, in particular, was “of tremendous strategic value.”[22] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that Sheppey was “devastated”[23] in 835, and Asser mentions the Viking occupations of 851[24] and 855[25]. Thanet also suffered at the hands of the “heathen host”[26] in 853. Several years later, in 865, the men of Thanet made peace with the Vikings using “the promise of money”[27], although the Danes eventually broke the treaty and “went secretly inland by night and devastated all the eastern part of Kent.”[28] In retrospect, it seems clear that by paying tribute to their enemies the local authorities were seeking to appease them. But this effort failed. On the other hand, one factor which contributed to the actual survival of the two island minsters, is that whilst they could not physically prevent their opponents from ultimately destroying both themselves and their treasured possessions, given sufficient warning the resident Christian populations were able to seek refuge within the walls of Canterbury. Nicholas Brooks believes it is possible that Canterbury’s St. Mildred’s may have begun as “a refuge from the community of Minster-in-Thanet.”[29] The community of nuns at Thanet were also recorded as having fled “with their relics to Lyminge”[30], itself a minster which – in 804 – had been “given some land in Canterbury to serve as a refuge in case of need.”[31] It is difficult to ascertain, however, whether Sheppey and Thanet can really be considered to have survived the Viking attacks. As Brooks explains, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle “was not concerned to record the fortunes of churches and monasteries”[32], and both Sheppey and Thanet experienced a sudden “disappearance from the record”[33] in the second half of the ninth century.

Similarly, there is very little evidence surrounding the fortunes of the vulnerable coastal monasteries of Reculver, Folkestone and Dover. But Reculver was already a strategic target for the Vikings in their quest  to control the mouth of the Thames, and later monastic sources mention “the sack of Folkestone”[34]. Meanwhile, although Dover had made good use of the Roman walls which surrounded the churches of St. Martin, St. Peter and St. Mary, it was also extremely vulnerable. In fact

“it is difficult to believe that any of the coastal monasteries could have continued to support communities of nuns and clergy in the face of repeated Viking raids.” [35]

Indeed, as far as Dover or Folkestone are concerned the latest surviving document relating to the existence of male communities in local residence is a document from 884[36].

So the question of whether the great churches of Kent survived the Danish invasions is open to question. Many religious communities were completely wiped out by the Viking armies and, whilst they were able to seek refuge elsewhere in times of trouble, their monastic activities were severely affected. On the other hand, a series of practical and intelligent preparations were made to try and finally put an end to such repeated and sustained bouts of disruption. Asser tells us that King Alfred was responsible for moving the masonry of the royal residences away from their original positions in order for them to be “splendidly reconstructed at more appropriate places by his royal command”[37], a policy of “constructing fortresses and other things of great advantage to the whole kingdom.”[38] This was very significant for the Church, for when Plegmund was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 890[39], he “worked closely with King Alfred”[40] to ensure that the “provision of burghal defences, and of secure houses, streets and markets”[41] was of mutual benefit. In simple terms, “if their churches were to be secure from Viking assaults in the future, the bishops had every reason to assist Alfred as best they could in creating effective burghal defences.”[42] According to Simon Keynes, “King Alfred the Great was quick to exploit the considerable resources of the Church in the south-east and elsewhere, and by all accounts he was ruthless in his imposition of the burdens deemed necessary for national defence.”[43]

On a final note, whilst the Kent churches suffered great losses at the hands of the Viking menace they did not fully survive in either a communal or structural sense. With the implementation of Alfred’s reforms concerning the defence of both Church and State, however, they were still able to enter the tenth century with an increasing sense of optimism.


1. Tim Tatton-Brown; The Anglo-Saxon Towns of Kent in Anglo-Saxon Settlements [Ed. Della Hooke], (Basil Blackwell, 1988), p. 214.

2. Ibid., p. 222.

3. Nicholas Brooks; The Early History of the Church of Canterbury (Leicester University Press, 1984), p. 202.

4. Tim Tatton-Brown, op. cit., p. 213.

5. Ibid.

6. John Godfrey; The Church in Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge University Press, 1962), p. 90.

7. Rosemary J. Cramp; Monastic Sites in The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England [Ed. David M. Wilson], (Methuen, 1976), p. 248.

8. Tim Tatton-Brown, op. cit., p. 214.

9. Trans. L. C. Jane; Asser’s Life of King Alfred (Chatto & Windus, 1908), p. 4.

10. Trans. G. M. Garmonsway; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Everyman’s Library, 1986), p. 65.

11. Nicholas Brooks, op. cit., p. 151.

12. Ibid., pp. 150-1.

13. Nicholas Brooks; England in the Ninth Century: The Crucible of Defeat in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (Series 5/29, 1979), p. 12.

14. R. H. Hodgkin; A History of the Anglo-Saxons: Volume II (Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 653.

15. Trans. G. M. Garmonsway, op. cit., p. 85.

16. R. H. Hodgkin, op. cit., p. 657.

17. Tim Tatton-Brown, op. cit., p. 222.

18. Trans. G. M. Garmonsway, op. cit., p. 79.

19. Ibid., p. 64.

20. Ibid., p. 39.

21. Nicholas Brooks, England in the Ninth Century: The Crucible of Defeat in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, op. cit., p. 12.

22. Robin Fleming; Monastic Lands and England’s Defence in the Viking Age in The English Historical Review, No. CCCXCV (April, 1985), p. 26.

23. Trans. G. M. Garmonsway, op. cit., p. 63.

24. Trans. L. C. Jane, op. cit., p. 4.

25. Ibid., p. 7.

26. Trans. G. M. Garmonsway, op. cit., p. 67.

27. Ibid., p. 69.

28. Ibid.

29. Nicholas Brooks, The Early History of the Church of Canterbury, op. cit., p. 201.

30. Ibid.

31. John Godfrey, op. cit., p. 272.

32. Nicholas Brooks, England in the Ninth Century: The Crucible of Defeat in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, op. cit., p. 12.

33. Ibid.

34. Nicholas Brooks, The Early History of the Church of Canterbury, op. cit., p. 202.

35. Ibid., pp. 202-3.

36. Ibid., p. 202.

37. Simon Keynes & Michael Lapidge; Asser’s Life of King Alfred in Alfred the Great (Penguin, 1985), p. 101.

38. Ibid., p. 102.

39. Nicholas Brooks, The Early History of the Church of Canterbury, op. cit., p. 153.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid., p. 154.

42. Ibid.

43.Simon Keynes; ‘The Control of Kent in the Ninth Century’ in Early Medieval Europe, No. 2 (1993).

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