The Unconquered County

James Lloyd recounts the tale of how one English shire defied the Duke of Normandy and remains to this day legally the only unconquered county.

On the fourteenth of October 1066, the King of the English looked up. If he had looked up just a few seconds before or a few seconds later the history of his country would have been completely different and infinitely happier. Alas, he did not look up a few seconds earlier or a few seconds later. He looked up at that very moment, just as the sun was setting and the battle was nearly won. He looked up and an arrow that just happened to be flying in that particular direction at that particular moment blinded him. A group of Norman knights fought their way to him and cut him down. The English army scattered and the English people were doomed to three hundred years of servitude to a foreign-born ruling caste. Still, that is the lot of a conquered country.

Yet not all of the country was conquered. During his coronation ceremony in Westminster on Christmas Day, Duke William the Bastard was seen to tremble like a leaf when, mistaking the shouts of acclamation for a riot, his guards outside set fire to the building. His rule over the country was not yet guaranteed. Although Edgar, the rightful heir to the throne, was his captive, he had been briefly acknowledged as king, before the Normans had arrived in London. William might have had an army but they were still grossly outnumbered by the English, who, if they coordinated their resistance, might yet dethrone him and restore the true English Royal House of Cerdic. William’s work in securing his conquest was not yet complete and now he turned his attention to the key to the kingdom: Dover Castle.

In early 1067, the Normans began to march through Kent, meaning to capture the castle. News of their march came to the ears of the Archbishop of Canterbury Stigand. Stigand was not a popular man in the church. He was a pluralist, who had (for a while) held the Bishopric of Winchester in addition to that of Canterbury, on which grounds the Pope had refused to grant him the pallium, the woollen scarf that, at that time, was considered necessary to consummate the appointment of a bishop. Stigand had resorted to receiving a pallium from an anti-Pope and some refused to recognize him as Archbishop for that reason.

“For nearly a thousand years Kent’s common law has been significantly different from that of the rest of England”

The enmity between Stigand and William, however, went deeper than the niceties of ecclesiastical law. Stigand had started his career as a chaplain to Earl Godwine, father of the late King Harold and his loyalties lay with the old regime. He had even been snubbed at the coronation ceremony, which had been performed instead by the Archbishop of York. Upon learning that the Normans were marching through Kent, Stigand consulted the Abbot of Saint Augustine’s Abbey, Æthelsige. The two men had no love for the Normans but they doubted that they could hold out against them for long. The militia of Kent had been present at the Battle of Senlac, so the troops at their disposal were no longer as full as they might once have been. William was a savage and, if the shire fought against him and lost, he would be utterly merciless. So, the two churchmen, having assumed the command of Kent and summoned what army they could, hatched an alternative plan.

As the Normans approached Swanscombe, east of Dartford, they saw a most peculiar sight. Feeling something of what Macbeth had felt at the fall of Dunsinane, they saw what appeared to be a wood marching towards them. The astonished Bastard called a halt, uncertain what to do and allowed the wood to surround the Norman army. Suddenly, the wood dissolved, as the Men of Kent threw their boughs aside and, with a roar, waved their battle-axes.

William, still shaken by the subterfuge, agreed to negotiate with Archbishop Stigand and Abbot Æthelsige. Kent, they told him, was willing to accept him as King and to hand over the keys to Dover Castle. There was, however, a condition.

Kent is not like the rest of England. It was settled by Jutes, collaterals of the Angles and Saxons who had conquered the rest of lowland Britain six hundred years before. As a result, the laws and customs of Kent were distinct from those observed in the rest of England. Though Kent had ceased to be an independent kingdom in the eighth century, its previous rulers had respected its independent law. If William would do the same, then the Men of Kent would lay down their arms and acknowledge him as King.

“And if I don’t?” the Bastard demanded.

“Then war,” the Archbishop replied, “and that most deadly!”

The legend of the Battle of Swanscombe is first recorded in the thirteenth century, two hundred years after the Norman Conquest. Indeed, it is recorded by a monk of Saint Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, no doubt proud of the role played by his patriotic Abbot in saving the dignity and independence of Kent. No contemporary source describes the event, which is undoubtedly fiction.

“the average Man of Kent enjoyed an appreciably higher degree of personal freedom than other Englishmen”

Yet it is true that for nearly a thousand years Kent’s common law has been significantly different from that of the rest of England. The most important distinction is that in Kent the Norman custom of male preference primogeniture did not apply. Instead, if a man died intestate, his property had to be evenly divided amongst his sons and then (once the sons were supplied) his daughters. This custom, known as “gavelkind”, remained the rule right up until 1925 and this form of tenure brought with it numerous other privileges.

No man whose father had been born in Kent could be reduced to villeinage (though no one seems to have told the writer of the Domesday Book that). A Man of Kent did not have to impound stray animals found on his land but might drive them onto the King’s highway to become someone else’s problem. He did not need his lord’s permission to give and sell his land. If (Heaven forbid) he were executed for felony, the King could seize his goods but not his land, which went, as usual, to his sons.

Over time, as the feudal system broke down and English common law in general became more liberal, these and Kent’s other privileges became less important. They were also deliberately eroded. Landlords who wanted to keep their land from becoming divided by gavelkind could apply to have it “disgavelled” (which sounds painful) by private Act of Parliament, whereupon it would become subject to English common law and the peculiar Kentish customs would cease to apply to it. By 1925, when Parliament abolished gavelkind outright, so much land had been disgavelled already that it was doubted if there was any gavelkind land left in Kent at all.

Yet back in feudal times, when the rest of England laboured in bondage to the Norman aristocracy, Kent’s privileged status was genuinely important and the average Man of Kent enjoyed an appreciably higher degree of personal freedom than other Englishmen. Quite why William the Bastard (only in the rest of England may he be referred to as “the Conqueror”) really granted Kent this concession is unknown. It was probably owed to nothing more complicated than Realpolitik: William needed to secure his powerbase and the less time he wasted fighting the Kentish the better. If all he had to do to duck the problem was to make a technical concession the import of which he doubtless did not comprehend, then so much the better.

The truth, however, is boring. The legend of a tiny Kentish army tricking the conquering Norman into allowing them their traditional freedoms while he enslaved the rest of England is a much more fitting source of county pride, one that is advertised to this day in the self-designation that Kent uses as its motto:

“Invicta” – the Unconquered.

Photo credit: Invicta Monument, Swanscombe (Robin Webster) / CC BY-SA 2.0


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