An estate of Kings

The people who lived in the farmstead near New Lyminge Surgery may not have stayed there very long after the Romans arrived in Britain. For the next 400 years, relatively few people lived on the North Downs, and perhaps the downland was exploited principally for grazing sheep and cattle. Throughout this period, it is quite likely that the pre-Roman native aristocracy in Kent remained in place as land owners, accepting Roman rule and adopting Roman lifestyles, but little of this was seen on the Downs and there may have been no one living in or around Lyminge except the occasional shepherd or cowherd.   The population in Roman Kent was concentrated around the coast. But all this changed around the end of the 5th Century. 

The first evidence for Early Medieval (or Anglo-Saxon) settlement in Lyminge was found in 1885 when the railway was being built.  Work on the cutting near Greenbanks revealed a number of burials with grave goods dating to the 6th Century AD.  More burials have been found in another cemetery off Canterbury Road in excavations from the 1950s up to the present day, many with weapons revealing that this was a warrior society. Then in 2010, further excavations by the University of Reading at the end of Rectory Lane found where the people buried in these cemeteries were living. Dr Gabor Thomas who led this excavation has placed this occupation from as early as about 480 AD, less than 100 years after Britain ceased to be ruled directly by Rome.

 

Roman fort at Lympne

Roman fort of Portus Lemanis at modern-day Lympne (© Rob Baldwin)

 

Records show that the people who settled in Lyminge at this time soon came to call themselves the Limenwara, and Lyminge itself means ‘The central place of the Limen folk’. This perhaps gives a clue as to who they were and where they came from. The Limen is the river later known as the East Rother. Today it flows along the line of the Royal Military Canal built on Romney Marsh in the early 19th Century. In the 5th Century, the Limen was a river that flowed into a lagoon at West Hythe. This lagoon was protected from the sea by a shingle bank that still underlies the sea defences of Romney Marsh. It was almost land-locked but not quite, and there was access to the open sea roughly where the Hythe Army Ranges now stand. At the mouth of the Limen lay the Roman fort of Portus Lemanis, the remains of which can still be seen on the slope below Lympne Castle. The name of the River Limen (or Leman) still survives to this day in the name of Lympne, the village close by, and also in the name of Lyminge which is thus clearly connected with Lympne.

 

Axe head from Canterbury Road cemetery

Axe head from a grave in the Canterbury Road cemetery, 6th Century AD, found in the excavations of 1954-56 (© John Piddock)

 

We know that Germanic troops were stationed at Portus Lemanis late in the Roman period. Under Roman rule, people paid their taxes to Rome, and in return troops were stationed in the province to protect them. We believe that people stopped paying taxes to Rome in the early years of the 5th Century, and no doubt the troops ceased to be paid by the Roman state at this time too. But later records suggest that the local aristocracy may have simply taken over the role of employing troops to protect their estates and little may have changed in practice. Troops may have stayed in the fort at Lympne into the later 5th Century, living there with their families. Over time, this army unit may have morphed into something that appeared to be more like a warrior band, drawing recruits from Continental Europe just as the Romans had done, and even from as far afield as Scandinavia, but all the time becoming less uniform in appearance and forging their own identity.  We know that around this time, the fort started to collapse as a result of land-slip. It is a plausible hypothesis that the warrior band stationed at Lympne, looking for a new and safer base, relocated with their families some 4 miles inland to Lyminge. The archaeological evidence currently suggests that the site of Lyminge was otherwise unoccupied at this time. Some of the metal brooches found also suggest that the first settlers had links that stretched as far as Scandinavia.  Some of these new inhabitants of Lyminge, though perhaps not all, were probably new arrivals, first generation immigrants whose origins lay outside Britain in the area we now call The Netherlands, northern Germany and Scandinavia.

 

Spear head from Canterbury Rd cemeterySpearhead from a grave in the Canterbury Road cemetery 6th Century AD(© John Piddock)

Gilt bronze brooch from Tayne Field, probably a stylised representation of the kind of helmet discovered in the 7th Century ship burial at Sutton Hoo (©University of Reading)

 

Replica of Sutton Hoo helmetReplica of the Sutton Hoo helmet, early 7th Century, probably the kind of helmet modelled on the brooch in the previous picture (©Wikimedia Commons)

Claw beaker from Canterbury Road cemetery

Glass claw beaker from a grave in the Canterbury Road cemetery, 6th Century, probably imported from the Rhineland (© John Piddock)

 

Brooch from the Canterbury Road cmetery

Square-headed brooch from a grave in the Canterbury Road cemetery, 6th Century  (© John Piddock)

 

The people who settled at Lyminge seem to have brought their identity from Lympne, and over the following decades, it became the centre of an administrative district. At the same time, throughout Kent as a whole, there was clearly much continuity from the Roman period. The area known to the Romans as Cantium gradually developed over the course of the 6th Century into the Kingdom of Kent, suggesting political evolution and continuity underpinned by inter-marriage rather than violent take-over, destruction of the local population and a break with the past. Within a hundred years of the first arrivals in Lyminge, we see the beginning of a great hall complex on Tayne Field. 

 

 Reconstruction of royal halls on Tayne Field

Conjectural reconstruction of the royal hall complex on Tayne Field c650 AD (© University of Reading) 

At the centre of this complex were large timber-framed structures over 20m long, almost certainly great feasting halls. Later in the 7th Century, we know that Lyminge was one of the estates of the King of Kent, and there is good reason to think that these halls of the 6th Century were royal halls also. At least one hall had a concrete floor made using crushed re-used Roman brick, demonstrating contact with France where such building methods were still known. The great rubbish pit excavated close by has revealed one of the largest collections of vessel glass fragments from this period anywhere in the country. The Kings of Kent clearly enjoyed drinking out of fine glassware, and no doubt were importing fine wines from the Rhineland, just as the Kentish aristocracy had done for hundreds of years previously, since before the arrival of the Romans.

 

 

 

During the 6th Century, the estate at Lyminge developed as an economic centre. We know the fields were ploughed with a type of heavy plough, because a plough coulter has been excavated. The coulter of a plough is the knife that cuts the ground before it is turned by the ploughshare. This discovery was exciting as previously such ploughs were thought to have first arrived in Britain hundreds of years later. This kind of plough allowed the people of the time to farm much more difficult ground and thus to settle more widely than was previously thought. The excavations have revealed evidence for metalworking, and possibly glass and jewellery were made here too. There is every reason to think that under King Æthelberht I (who ruled Kent at the end of the 6th Century and into the 7th Century, dying probably in 616), Lyminge was a hive of activity. The king may have visited annually, staying at his hall on Tayne Field, delivering justice locally while he was here, and living off the produce of his estate for perhaps a month each year before moving on to the next estate to repeat the process there. 

 

You can read more about almost a decade of archaeological excavations led by Dr Gabor Thomas of the University of Reading to uncover the remains of early Lyminge and its royal feasting halls at Lyminge Archaeology.  

 

 

This page is managed by Lyminge Parish Council Historic Environment Working Group