Buttway Field, St Helen's Church Dig, Cliffe, Kent. Day 11

Day 11 proved to be a very wet and muddy day and all the sunshine of the past week seems like a distant memory. I could see the members were keen to carry on, but by 1pm it was obvious we would be unable to continue as we couldn't even sift the spoil coming from the trench.. Still after lunch its was all systems go on the finds station. You have to love British summers!! 

For the few hours we could dig today there are really positive signs that the deeper archaeology at the North end of the trench is undisturbed and the troweling has become much easier. I am confident with the time we have left we will expose what appear on the rsistivity survey to be clearly defined walls and dateable finds are still present within the subsoil. At the South end of the trench the demolition raft is still being cleaned back, it is a very intricate and delicate process. Both Chris and Brian have been working diligently today with this section and I appreciate that this is difficult work.

Fortunately due to lack of info on site, I did say yesterday, I would tell you what exactly it is we are looking around the church and why. So now we go from information about the dig itself to a more general historical narrative of the history of the Hoo peninsular. In particular its important Medieval history long forgotten and little understood.  I apologize before hand if today's blog proves to be a long read, but I promise it will be worth it. So the story begins with a quote from an esteemed gentlemen called T Kerslake back in 1879.

Among the most famous names of places in England, during the long aggressive reigns of Ethelbald and Offa, when, for the largest part of the eighth century, the other kingdoms were more or less threatened with the supremacy of Mercia, was that of a place called Clovesho or Clovesham. Its celebrity has been, no doubt, much enhanced by its intimate connection with the Church History of that period; but it has shared, with many of the names of the localities of the most important events of the history of those times, in a great deal of uncertainty and controversy as to the actual place.

But this Clovesho had necessarily retained its hold upon the public memory of the ages from the eighth to the sixteenth centuries, from the importance to the Church of the great acts of councils, both royal and pontifical, there held and the memory or tradition of the National Church, was, of all others, the most vivid and tenacious of any, during that long period : perhaps the only one which may be said to have bridged it, unbroken by interruptions, such as dynastic revolutions. When the tradition of the actual whereabouts of this famous place comes first into our view, we find it attached to the "Hoo" of Kent above described, and to the place called "Cliffe" there situated.”

Utilizing information from the many archives, archaeological sites, aerial mapping, finds and the increasing amount of academic reports, local inhabitants, clubs, landowners and professionals, it has been possible to build a picture not just of the physical local landscape with regards to settlement and its people, but also how this small piece of Kent has evolved throughout the medieval period and how the Hoo peninsular also fits into the local, regional and national landscape. 

When compared with other known important sites in Kent (remembering Cliffe/Hoo is one of the main 8 old foundations of the metropolitan church in Kent) very little work has been undertaken with regards to the early historic landscape of the Hoo peninsular and its settlements. 

Much of what is currently known about Anglo Saxon Kent is drawn from the few surviving documents of the time such as the Saxon charters or Bede history of England. The corpus of Saxon charters consisted mainly of land grants, made by Kings to important persons usually within the church and provides a fundamental source material for our understanding Anglo-Saxon England, complementing the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other literary sources. This has provided many important insights into the economic and political structure of the early Anglo Saxon Church. None arguably more so than the formation of the early Christian church by St Augustine’s and the introduction of early law codes and practices, such as the first synodal church councils.

It is evident from the narrative, that these councils were mixed assemblies at which not only the bishops and abbots, but the kings of Mercia and the chief men of the kingdom were present. They had thus the character not only of a church synod, but of the Witenagemot or assembly fairly representative of the Church and realm. The affairs of the Church were decided by the bishops and presided over by the archbishop. While the king, presiding over his chiefs, gave to their decisions the co-operation and acceptance of the State. While it must be remembered that at this period the country was not yet united into one kingdom, as far as we may judge from their signatures, the synods represented the see of Canterbury and the whole English Church south of the Humber.

The Synod of Hertford began on 24 September 673 AD and can be regarded as the beginning of the Church of England as a structural entity. Theodore of Canterbury called a Synod of bishops and learned men of the Church. The Synod included all the Bishops, except Wilfrid of Northumbria who sent representatives in his stead. At this stage, there was no political entity of England and so it can be fairly said, that the Church of England pre-dated the creation of the English nation by about 150 years. The Synod brought greater uniformity to the English churches and led to the consecration of more Bishops. In the decade following the Synod the number increased from 6 to 14. Although it should be remembered that Bishops then had a very different role, much more like a Rector or Incumbent of a large parish today with a roving ministry. Ten Canons were agreed largely to ensure greater co-operation. In furtherance of this, it was decreed “That a synod be held twice a year.” In view of various obstacles, however, it was unanimously agreed that we should meet once a year on the first of August at Clofeshoch. Although the acts of these important councils are not in question, the physical locations however have been the cause of much controversy and debate through the centuries. The first synod of Hertford gave rise to a series of councils in diverse locations. Generally considered to be in proximity to the Thames, London and Canterbury that spanned the Mercian domination of Kent for almost 200 years. This lead to what might be considered the first parliament in England that dealt with matters of administration, law, church and state. Of the diverse records and locations and acts, that survive for these councils, there is no doubt Clovesho was the primary and most important.

Clovesho/ Clofeshoch or as its actually written “Clofes Hoas” the literal translation meaning “Cliffs Hoo”. Cliffe at Hoo and the wider area, has long been argued by many as being the place so famous in the infancy of the English Church. Indeed pre reformation the most learn and respected men of Canterbury accept Cliffe as the location of the early synods of Church, seemingly as given fact. Added to that that, many other recorded council locations (almost all) would seem to be on the Hoo peninsular. The body of evidence is already strong. Although it cannot be accepted that Cliffe or Indeed the wider Hoo peninsular was the actual location, based upon name evidence alone and having been the subject to much debate. It is surprising to learn, that little actual research has been conducted with regards to the Churches and Saxon landscape of the peninsular, or even the vast amount of archive materials held by the church and other archives.

The area of the Hoo peninsular in particular is well documented within the Anglo-Saxon charters even from a time where such records are rare. It is clear that the land in this part of North West Kent was valuable to the early Saxon elites with no less than 22 charters each containing unique information regarding dates, place names, settlements, landownership, size.  The charters also give much information about the elites and society in the area. Later medieval records of the peninsular, reflect this value to the church in particular the parishes of St Werburg Hoo and Cliffe.

The Hoo Peninsula is situated in a commanding position on the North Kent coast, surrounded almost entirely by the historic Thames and Medway rivers. The peninsular itself consists of an extensive elevated chalk premonitory, enclosing clay and sand hills, fertile arable land mixed with woodland along it spine. The peninsular is surrounded by the broad alluvial expanse of the North Kent marshes. Previous investigations of early Saxon sites in the north east of the county, tell us the early jutish settlers favored the more fertile soils of the coastal plains and river valleys. The historic record of the peninsular proves that these early settlers were attracted to this resource rich peninsula.  Many past and more recent archaeological excavations show wholesale settlement by the Saxon was taking place from the very earliest period in the migration. The Hoo peninsular is perfectly suited for settlement, with the surrounding with rivers providing key transport and trade links directly opposite there continental homelands in Europe. The proximity of Rochester, Canterbury and London via Roman road Watling Street and the Roman crossing into Essex at the Thames. This places Cliffe and the Hoo peninsular in the very center of a politically turbulent and important period in British history.

This information only reflects one part of the our research as a whole, but I would argue, for a period of time the national focus would have been on this area and the acts of these early parliaments.  It begs the question, what sort of a building/church estate could house all the Kings and Bishops of England as well as there entourage once a year?? Given comparative studies on similar sites, the ecclesiastical foundation and medieval character of Cliffe, the buildings in question must be within the church monastic footprint (Cannon Law). That is what all the recent digs and years of surveys and study concerning this area in the village have been about. Essentially we are looking for evidence of the early Anglo-Saxon/later Collegiate Medieval monastic estate and I know we are very lucky to have an "interesting" site to explore as all the clues are well recorded.  Who knows whats under this village on the naturally defended mouth of the Thames, in the coming years we may have some answers...

If you want to know more about any of the local history, St Helens church or the dig itself we are onsite 10am/5pm...