A place of pilgrimage


In southern England, the idea of a monastery as a great centre of economic activity in the countryside, could well begin in Lyminge. We can be certain as a result of excavations since 2008 that Lyminge was the core of an estate, where the surrounding valley floor and slopes were ploughed, the hills were grazed by animals, wool and flax were spun into thread and woven into cloth, and iron ore was smelted and the raw metal was forged into tools, nails and other useful objects. In the Early Medieval period, (by which we mean the period c600-850 AD) estates comprised scattered parcels of land spread over a wide area to give them access to the resources necessary to be self-sufficient in basic necessities. Thus Lyminge had access to land on the seashore where salt could be made from seawater and fishing boats could land catches of sea fish like cod, to deposits of iron ore that could be smelted into iron bars to make tools, and to woodland where trees of different types and sizes of timber were grown and harvested for buildings, fencing and tool handles. In woodland pasture, cattle grazed the new-grown foliage in the early part of the year and then pigs feasted on acorns in autumn. Downland pasture was grazed by sheep. The rural economy was very sophisticated, making use of a great multitude of natural resources.


Lyminge monastery c800Conjectural reconstruction of the monastery at Lyminge c800, showing Æthelburh’s church plastered white (© Dominic Andrews – Archaeoart.co.uk)


But Early Medieval Lyminge was also connected with a growing urban economy. Pope Gregory, who had sent St Augustine’s mission to lead the conversion of England to Christianity, was clear that bishops should be based in towns, and this provided the impetus for renewed occupation in the old Roman towns like Canterbury and Rochester. These had been declining even during the period of Roman rule, and they had been largely abandoned in the course of the 5th Century. The arrival of Christianity in Britain reversed this trend, and from the 6th Century we begin to see economic resources increasingly applied to activities that were connected with more than basic subsistence. A charter of King Æthelberht II dating to 741 was quite possibly written at Lyminge, and this raises the possibility there was a scriptorium in the monastery, a place devoted to the creation of written documents, perhaps including illuminated manuscripts elaborately decorated like those we know were made at other monasteries in Kent at this time. The sumptuous manuscripts of the mid 8th Century written in gold on parchment dyed purple were, and still are, considered to be amongst the finest produced anywhere in Western Europe at this time. Almost certainly, the nuns at Lyminge would also have spent time creating fine embroideries illustrating amongst other things biblical scenes. Such embroidery would have adorned clerical vestments and other liturgical items like altar cloths. 


Charter of Aethelberht IICharter of Æthelberht II dating to 741 recording the grant of a fishery on the River Limen (the East Rother that flowed into the sea near west Hythe) to the church of St Mary at Lyminge.  This charter was possibly written in the monastery at Lyminge (© British Library) 

Many monasteries in Kent were founded by the Kentish royal family.  They were usually run by women, dowager queens like Ethelburga or princesses like Ethelburga's niece Eanswythe at Folkestone, who never married.  Monasteries were high status communities, and the nuns generally came from an aristocratic background.  Royal abbesses kept abbeys firmly under the control of the royal family, allowing them to offer accommodation to the king and his retinue as they processed around the kingdom, dispensing justice and ensuring that the king both saw what was going on and was seen by his people.  As royal and aristocratic estates, we know that monasteries consumed luxury goods too, and it seems that at Lyminge, much use was made of the port at Sandtun (modern West Hythe) where pottery, glassware and fine wine were imported from Europe. 


But the other significant, as well as unique, role of monasteries was as powerhouses of prayer. It was believed by our Early Medieval ancestors that there was a constant battle between the forces of Good and Evil. The duty of nuns and monks in the monasteries was to pray, invoking the support of God and the saints to support the king, the royal family and the kingdom as a whole. The role of the royal abbesses leading the fight in this spiritual battle was considered just as important as the role of the king and his nobles defending the kingdom on the temporal battlefield.


Catholic Christian belief still views saints as intermediaries between people and God. The idea is essentially that you pray to a saint hoping to get their help to obtain the ear of God, so God will then listen to, and hopefully grant, your request. Exactly what a saint was, and how this was thought to work, developed and changed from the Late Roman through to the Early Medieval period, and it came to be accepted that saints were not just holy people who had done good works in their lifetimes. Saints were expected to demonstrate their power by performing miracles, and it was believed that a saint could only have such power if their body was moved (translated) from the original place of burial and raised up above ground (elevated) in a shrine specially made for the purpose. It was commonly thought that a saint would demonstrate their approval of a translation by performing miracles, and this was then confirmation both that the translation had been a good idea and that the saint actually was an effective saint. The natural consequence of miracles being recorded was that people would want to come to the shrine and benefit from a miracle themselves. This was the basis of every saint’s cult and the reason why shrines became places of pilgrimage, some becoming extremely popular. 


It is conceivable that Queen Ethelburga, buried in her tomb at Lyminge, would have been venerated by local people as a good and holy person, and possibly her help was sought by some. But it is also the case that as she seems to have remained in her original tomb, by the end of the 8th Century she would not have been seen as the most effective kind of saint. This may explain why, in a charter dating to 804, it is recorded that Lyminge by then had a new saint: St Eadburg. Eadburg had been abbess at Minster-in-Thanet and had died in 751. She had helped develop at Minster the cult of St Mildrith, who remained one of the most popular saints in southern England right up to the time when Thomas Becket was martyred in 1170. But because Minster had such a popular saint, it seems possible that the abbess of Minster at the end of the 8th Century, Selethryth, felt that Eadburg was surplus to requirements, and her holy remains could be put to better use elsewhere. Selethryth seems also to have been abbess at Lyminge, for that was the name of the abbess at Lyminge at this time and it was an unusual name. If this Selethryth was abbess in both places, this could be the context for the translation of St Eadburg to Lyminge, where we can be confident her remains were elevated into a new shrine that was made to celebrate the new saint.


The charter is the only evidence for when the translation of St Eadburg may have happened. We have not located any archaeological remains of her shrine, and although some masonry was found in 2019 west of Ethelburga’s church, scientific testing suggests it dates to much later than 800, so this is unlikely to be part of a separate church housing her shrine . What we can say is that around 1000, a new book was written celebrating the life and miracles of St Eadburg of Lyminge. This seems to come from the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggesting that the Archbishop was at that time promoting the cult of St Eadburg. Fragments of wall, including a freestanding tower, found in the 19th Century in and around the area of the current Memorial Garden, may relate to renewed promotion of St Eadburg’s cult in the 11th Century. But these remains are fragmentary and it is very difficult to draw firm conclusions.


We can’t say very much about what was happening in Lyminge beyond the middle of the 9th Century. The charter of 804 records that a refuge in Canterbury had been granted to the community of Lyminge, suggesting that this part of Kent was becoming dangerous. This is often attributed to Viking raiding, which is known to have begun in this period. There are various attacks recorded at sites across the whole of Kent and elsewhere in England, although there is no evidence for any raid specifically on Lyminge. From the middle of the 9th Century for about a century, records have failed to survive, so it is possible the monastic community relocated to Canterbury at this time. In 2019, a silver penny minted by Archbishop Ceolnoth around 863 was found in the churchyard. Coins generally did not remain in circulation very long, so we can conclude there was someone in Lyminge at about this time in a position to drop this small amount of wealth, but whether the monastic community was still present is just unknown. 


Obverse of Ceolnoth coin

Silver penny of Archbishop Ceolnoth found in the churchyard in 2019 (© University of Reading)


By around 1000, the estate of Lyminge seems to have passed into the control of the Archbishop of Canterbury, or possibly to the monastic community at the Cathedral. The efforts to promote, or perhaps to revive the cult of St Eadburg after it had fallen into neglect, nevertheless suggest that enough had survived to make this a viable proposition. In this very shadowy period, we can be reasonably certain that Lyminge was no longer functioning as a monastery. By the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086, the shrine of St Eadburg seems to have been in the care of a college of priests who were based at Lyminge, ministering to a group of ten local churches. Most of these churches can still be identified, such as Stelling, Horton, Stanford and Acrise, so we know the area covered. The tiny church of St Oswald’s, Paddlesworth was also part of this group of churches and it remains a chapel of Lyminge to this day.  It is well worth a visit.


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