The Castle that Never Was

James Lloyd tours two of his favourite archaeological sites in Kent and muses on their meaning and purpose.

Kent, uniquely of all English counties, is divided into districts called lathes (or possibly ‘laths’ – so obsolete have they become that even their pronunciation is disputed). Beginning in the east and working our way westwards, they are the lathe of Saint Augustine’s, the lathe of Shipway, the lathe of Scray, the lathe of Aylesford and the lathe of Sutton-at-Hone. The lathes are named after the villages (or, in the first case, abbey) where their assemblies met, though to do what is not entirely clear, as the historical record is lacunous. They were not even mapped until the sixteenth century and then the maps were inconsistent, betraying just how decorative lathes had become even by then. They ceased to meet altogether in the early nineteenth century and today very few Men of Kent are even aware of their existence.

The lathe of Scray runs from the Isle of Sheppey in the north, down to Hawkhurst and the border with Sussex in the south, though with a bite taken out of it by the lathe of Aylesford half-way down. On a map it looks rather like a backwards C. Its name is strange to modern eyes and does not become much more intelligible when one realises that it is an abbreviation of Shrewinghop, which means the hollow of the shrews. Precisely where this was no one knows but the consensus is that it was in the vicinity of Chilham, a picture-postcard village on the Great Stour, frequently invaded by the film crew of some period drama. It boasts a haunted churchyard, a Norman keep and a Neolithic long barrow, which (as readers of The Rural Voice will be tired of hearing by now) makes for a likely location for a local assembly.

The mound is called Jullieberrie’s Grave, a ridiculous tautology. The name comes from the Old English “Cillan beorg”, meaning Cilla’s Barrow (the C is pronounced ch). Since “barrow” implies a grave, the modern name ends up saying “grave” twice. Chilham itself means Cilla’s Ham (settlement) and some have speculated that the Anglo-Saxon (for it is an Anglo-Saxon name) who founded the village may lie buried under the barrow. Excavations have revealed nothing exciting and the mound is in any case too old to have been built for Cilla (though it may have been recycled on his behalf). The barrow is surrounded by farmland which forms a little vale below it and it is this coincidence (and it may well be nothing more than a coincidence) that makes the author suspect that this vale, overlooked by the barrow, was the Shrews’ Hollow where the representatives of the lathe met to go about their mysterious business.

Over time, the name has come to be amusingly misunderstood. By the sixteenth century it was imagined, courtesy of a misreading of The Gallic War and the very vague similarity of their names, that Julius Caesar, during his second invasion of Britain, encamped at “Julius’s Ham” and that the barrow was the grave of Quintus Laberius Durus, his tribune whom the Britons killed when they attacked the camp.

The most interesting, however, of all the assembly sites of Kent, as far as your lowly author is concerned, is a mysterious ring-fort in the High Weald. The Roman road to Maidstone that runs through Staplehurst passes through a negligible hamlet called Knoxbridge. One would never guess that the place boasted a castle, nor can one see it from the road. The inquisitive traveller is advised to take the public footpath westwards after the café and follow the stream. Eventually, on the north side of the stream, he will see a copse of trees, with a dark shape concealed within them.

This, as our intrepid explorer (having leapt over the stream) will discover, is the somewhat ambitiously named Knoxbridge Castle Mound, a modest horseshoe-shaped protuberance, like a miniature amphitheatre, about nine feet high and a hundred and sixty feet in diameter, with a shallow water-logged ditch around it. It is said that when the ditch was drained in the nineteenth century, stumps were found, giving rise to the hypothesis that the mound was once fortified and hence it gained the name of castle. It was thrown up, or so goes the idea, by the Normans, shortly after their invasion in 1066. Many fortifications were hastily erected of wood at that time and only upgraded to stone in later years, when the need for their continued existence had been proven. Knoxbridge Castle, it was thought, was one such fortress that never merited the promotion.

This hypothesis is, however, highly unlikely. The Mound is far too small to have been the motte of even a temporary fortification. It may have been a watchtower but to watch what? In the eleventh century, this country area was Wealden waste. Its population was small and there was nothing of strategic or military significance, except possibly the road. Indeed, the area seems to have been under negligible administration. In the Domesday Book, it was not even divided into hundreds.

“Hundreds” is a term no longer as familiar as it once was. The hundred was one of the smallest units of local government in Anglo-Saxon times. It originally referred to a group of a hundred men, in turn divided into groups of ten. Every boy upon reaching the age of twelve had to swear an oath to obey his lord and the law and thereupon became a member of a tithing and its constituent hundred. The tithings were responsible for the good behaviour of their members, whom they had to arrest, detain and bring to court should any charges, civil or criminal, be made against them. This court consisted of the full body of a hundred men. Of course, human beings are not born according to the metric system, so fairly quickly the term “tithing” ceased to mean ten actual men and came to mean a small locality where the original ten had lived. “Hundred” too passed from the group to their district and to the court that they attended.

The Weald of Kent had not yet been organized into hundreds, personally or geographically, at the time of the Norman Conquest but it had been by the thirteenth century, when records become more plentiful and one of these was the hundred of Cranbrook, in which (as it happens) your humble author finds himself domiciled. The hundred included the parishes of Cranbrook, Frittenden and Staplehurst, near the nexus of which the Mound lies.

This, then, is the germ of the alternative hypothesis for Knoxbridge Castle’s existence. Its position beside the border of three parishes was a common rationale for meeting places and, although records of the hundred of Cranbrook have it meeting at the George Inn in that town, these records do not begin until later. Perhaps, then, it was the Mound, beside the road and the parish boundary, which functioned at an earlier time for the meeting of the hundred court, or perhaps even for whatever administrative arrangements the inhabitants of the Weald were making for themselves before the imposition of central authority and organisation. Perhaps this, rather than an instrument of Norman oppression, was their earliest symbol of local democracy.

Or maybe not. It is only a guess.

Photo credit: Knoxbridge Castle Mound (James Lloyd)

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