Kingdom of Kent
Its origins are completely obscure, since by its geographical position it received some of the first waves of the invasion by the Germanic tribes, at a time from which almost no historical information has survived. The name "Kent" predates the Jutish invaders, and relates to the much earlier Celtic Cantiaci tribe whose homeland it was. Caesar referred to Cingetorix, Carvilius, Taximagulus and Segovax as kings of the four regions of Kent. Later kings are known from their coins, including Dubnovellaunus, Vosenos, Eppillus, and Amminus.
There is evidence to suggest that Kent and its boundaries relate to this British canton because it was handed over in entirety to King Hengist by treaty during the middle of the 5th century. According to Nennius, Gwrangon was King of Kent in the time of Vortigern, until Vortigern took away the kingdom and gave it to Hengist; but Nennius is regarded as an untrustworthy source, and “Gwrangon seems to have been transported by the story-teller into Kent from Gwent” and “is turned into an imaginary King of Kent, secretly disposed of his realm in favour of Hengist, whose daughter Vortigern wished to marry” (Wade-Evans 1938). The first securely datable event in the kingdom is the arrival of Augustine with 40 monks in 597.
Kent was the first kingdom in England to be established by the Germanic invaders, and its early emergence allowed it to become relatively powerful in the early Anglo-Saxon period. Kent seems to have had its greatest power under Æthelbert at the beginning of the 7th century: Ethelbert was recognized as Bretwalda until his death in 616, and was the first Anglo-Saxon king to accept Christianity, as well as the first to introduce a written code of laws. After his reign, however, the power of Kent began to decline: by the middle of the century, it seems to have been dominated by more powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
In 686, Kent was conquered by Caedwalla of Wessex; within a year, Caedwalla's brother Mul was killed in a Kentish revolt, and Caedwalla returned to devastate the kingdom again. After this, Kent fell into a state of disorder. The Mercians backed a client king named Oswine, but he seems to have reigned for only about two years, after which Wihtred became king. Wihtred did a great deal to restore the kingdom after the devastation and tumult of the preceding years, and in 694 he made peace with the West Saxons by paying compensation for the killing of Mul.
The history of Kent following the death of Wihtred in 725 is one of fragmentation and increasing obscurity. For the 40 years that followed, two or even three kings typically ruled simultaneously. It may have been this sort of division that made Kent the first target of the rising power of Offa of Mercia: in 764, he gained supremacy over Kent and began to rule it through client kings. By the early 770s, it appears Offa was attempting to rule Kent directly, and a rebellion followed. A battle was fought at Otford in 776, and although the outcome was not recorded, the circumstances of the years that followed suggest that the rebels of Kent prevailed: Egbert II and later Ealhmund seem to have ruled independently of Offa for nearly a decade thereafter. This did not last, however, as Offa firmly established his authority over Kent in 785.
From 785 until 796, Kent was ruled directly by Mercia. In the latter year, however, Offa died, and in this moment of Mercian weakness a Kentish rebellion under Eadbert Praen temporarily succeeded. Offa's eventual successor, Coenwulf, reconquered Kent in 798, however, and installed his brother Cuthred as king. After Cuthred's death in 807, Coenwulf ruled Kent directly. Mercian authority was replaced by that of Wessex in 825, following the latter's victory at the Battle of Ellandun, and the Mercian client king Baldred was expelled.
In 892, when all southern England was united under Alfred the Great, Kent was on the brink of disaster. A hundred years earlier pagan Vikings had begun their raids on these shores—they first attacked Lindisfarne on the coast of Northumbria killing the monks and devastating the Abbey. They then made successive raids further south until in the year 878 the formidable Alfred defeated them, later drawing up a treaty allowing them to settle in East Anglia and the North East. However, countrymen from their Danish homeland were still on the move and by the late 880s Haesten, a highly experienced warrior-leader, had mustered huge forces in northern France having besieged Paris and taken Brittany.
Up to 350 Viking ships sailed from Boulogne to the south coast of Kent in 892. A massive army of between five and ten thousand men with their women, children and horses came up the now long-lost Limen estuary (the east-west route of the Royal Military Canal in reclaimed Romney Marsh) and attacked a Saxon fort near lonely St Rumwold's church, Bonnington, killing all inside. They then moved on and over the next year built their own giant fortress at Appledore. On hearing of this, resident Danes in East Anglia and elsewhere broke their promises to Alfred and rose up to join in. At first they made lightning raids out of Appledore (one razing a large settlement, Seleberhtes Cert, to the ground - now present day Great Chart near Ashford) later the whole army moved further inland engaged in numerous battles with the English, but after four years they gave up. Some retreated to East Anglia and others went back to northern France. There they were the forebears of the Normans who returned in triumph less than two centuries later.
Wade-Evans, A. W. 1938. Nennius’s History of the Britions.
- K. P. Witney, The Kingdom of Kent (1982)
- D. P. Kirby, The Earliest English Kings (London: Unwin Hyman, 1991), chap. 2
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